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The problem with hasbarah


North Korea. Pakistan. Iran. Not exactly shining exemplars of human rights.

Few would quibble that these are the three most negatively viewed countries on the planet, in that order, as found by a 2012 poll for BBC World Service that surveyed some 25,000 people in 24 nations.

One dismaying result of that poll was the fourth country on the list: Israel.

It doesn’t take a seasoned spin master to see from this and other appraisals – whether they gauge people in the street, media, universities or governments – that Israel’s public relations and marketing efforts aren’t working as hoped.

While support for Israel remains solid in the United States – a 2015 Gallup poll showed that seven in 10 Americans are favourable to the Jewish state, a number that has not wavered – the real heavy lifting when it comes to burnishing Israel’s image lies pretty much everywhere else.

That’s true even in Canada, where a 2014 Forum Research survey found that only 17 per cent of respondents sided with Israel in the Middle East conflict, while 16 per cent favoured the Palestinians. Fully 64 per cent said they lean toward neither side, and three per cent said they did not know.

The 2014 findings even represented a decrease in those leaning to Israel from two years earlier, when Canada voted against recognizing Palestine at the United Nations. In 2012, 22 per cent of those polled favoured Israel.


Other studies have suggested that nearly half of Canadians would prefer the federal government be neutral in the Middle East conflict, even in the face of the fervidly pro-Israel statements of the previous Conservative government.

 Part of the problem, one PR expert suggests, is that Israel's message is too splintered.
Part of the problem, one PR expert suggests, is that Israel’s message is too splintered.

Part of Israel’s difficulty in getting its message across is that the message’s delivery is splintered along many lines, according to David Eisenstadt, a senior public relations practitioner in Toronto.

“You have different entities under the Israel umbrella – the Prime Minister’s Office, the government press office, the Foreign Ministry, the Defence Ministry, the army, the security ministry, the police… you’ve got all these interests with their own agendas,” Eisenstadt told The CJN. “It is any wonder there’s no cohesion? They’re all dancing to their own drummer.”

It’s not that the too-many-cooks problem is advancing competing agendas, Eisenstadt noted. “They’re trying to say the same things, but [do so] differently.”

It’s important, he stressed, for Israel to speak in “singular messages – everyone dragging the wagon together, putting the interests of Israel as a whole [above] individual interests.”

Israel’s PR efforts are known as hasbarah, which literally translates as information or explanation. As far as Jewish educator and consultant Neil Lazarus, author of The Five Rules of Effective Israel Advocacy, is concerned, “it is clear that classic hasbarah doesn’t work. What is less apparent is that hasbarah cannot work, as it is inherently reactive,” he wrote in the Times of Israel a few years ago.

In the war of public opinion, “classic hasbarah needs to be replaced with a radically new model of PR,” he stated, suggesting that for Israel to be more effective in its messaging, “it will have to stop explaining its policy and start creating messages which are short, simple, emotive and easy to remember.” They need to be “consistent and repeated.”

Shifting public perceptions away from grinding conflict and the “David vs. Goliath” narrative was the goal of Brand Israel, a $1-million campaign launched in 2008. With Toronto as one of eight testing grounds worldwide, the idea was to reach the vast middle ground that proclaims neutrality and showcase how the world has benefited from Israel’s many high-tech and medical innovations. As Amir Gissin, Israel’s consul-general in Toronto at the time, noted, “we have a great product. We just have lousy marketing.”

Israel’s subsequent incursions into Gaza in 2008 and 2014 doubtless set back that and other efforts. Like clockwork, cities around the world filled with anti-Israel protests and foreign governments clicked their tongues.

Some, like Lazarus, believe that Israel fails to advocate its position effectively because many people dismiss hasbarah as being propaganda, not educational, and no better than what the other side does.

Israel’s public relations activity has always been “a hot potato,” said Toronto’s Linda Shapiro, a writer and president of Linda Shapiro Public Relations Inc. “The country has done little to promote an enviable image, and for justifiable reasons,” she told The CJN in an email.

“When you’re fighting for your life, what the far-off man on the street thinks about you is a non-event, because his opinion doesn’t put food on the table or ensure protection from the enemy,” Shapiro said.

It’s impossible, she argued, to change the hearts and minds of non-Jews and those Jews who oppose Israel, its right to defend itself or even exist. “Imagine the countless words and heartfelt emotions that Israel has expended at the United Nations, that body of presumed experts, and all to no avail.

“To maintain a costly global campaign that spreads the standard narrative of religion, history and security is largely a waste of time and resources,” she said. “Public relations come with no guarantees.

“Moreover, the media hate us and will always gravitate to dishonesty and self-interest.”

But does that mean Israel should give up trying to win over world opinion?

Hasbarah needs to adapt to the visual age and social media a PR expert suggests.
Hasbarah needs to adapt to the visual age and social media a PR expert suggests.

“Of course not, but it should shift emphasis to create constructive public relations campaigns that boost tourism and trade. It’s important to go fishing where the fish are,” Shapiro said. “Israel is stellar in those areas. International enterprises are booming.”

Martin Sampson, director of communications for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), feels Israel should “continue what it’s doing, taking its case assertively to the world and building relationships” in places such as India and China, establishing its expertise in high tech and agricultural advances, to get these and other countries to view the Jewish state “beyond the conflict.”

Sampson conceded that is made difficult because the media too often cast Israel in the role of aggressor. He believes Canadian media “generally are biased against Israel.”

And anti-Semitism doubtless also plays a role in shaping opinions about Israel. Sampson pointed to an “emerging and troubling trend of anti-Semitism cloaked as anti-Zionism.”


Undeniably, part of the general public’s perception, fuelled by media reports, is that Israel is the aggressor in its relations with Palestinians, who are seen as victims. “Palestinian spokespeople have no problem with their self-image as victim, speaking freely in terms of victimhood,” according to Lazarus. “Consequently, the only victims of terror in the conflict seem to be Palestinians.”

Eisenstadt agrees that Palestinians “have mastered the photo op. They transmit a truckload of visuals, always [of] the downtrodden, the kids, a woman who just had her door knocked down by the butt-end of an IDF rifle.”

Perhaps classic hasbarah has not caught up to the visual age, with its click-bait and social media, which have compressed the written word to bite-sized pieces, or even replaced it. If the medium is the message, Israel should invest in the power of still photography “that would transcend all the political interests,” Eisenstadt said.

There’s no questioning the impact of a lone picture. Witness the one of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, the Syrian child washed up on a Turkish beach, or the image of a bleeding and soot-covered Syrian boy rescued from the rubble after a devastating airstrike in Aleppo. Both went viral and altered public opinion.

“Instead of wasting time with tons of words, we need better use of the visual medium to flood the world media with pictures that depict Israel in the most positive way,” Eisenstadt said.

These would not be stock photos of orange groves or smiling Sabras, but perhaps of Israeli emergency teams playing front-line roles in rescue operations overseas, he suggested. Eisenstadt cited a mantra in the business: “PR is doing good and getting credit for it, and I don’t think Israel gets enough credit for the good.”

The battle for hearts and minds has raged perhaps most dramatically in Canada on university campuses. Hasbara Fellowships Canada, which provides pro-Israel advocacy training to students, works “very closely” with the Israeli government, said Robert Walker, the group’s national director.

Each year, about 30 Canadian student leaders travel to Israel in a 17-day program, followed by a minimum of one year involvement in a campus leadership role. There have been nearly 700 Canadian Hasbara fellows since 2001.


“Whether students go to Iron Dome batteries or sensitive military sites or to the Gaza border, this is proof positive that the Israeli government sees the need and is willing to step up to make sure that pro-Israel student leaders receive the calibre of training they need,” Walker said. “The Israeli government is very much a partner in fighting this scourge of hate on campus.”

Walker points to York University – what he calls “the crown jewel of anti-Israel activity in Canada” – as a place where Hasbara Fellows have made a difference over the last 15 years.

Pro-Israel student leaders at York are now involved in “every” facet of student life and have forged coalitions with non-Jewish clubs. “We are playing a better game than ever, we are pushing back more than we ever have, and are providing more and better training to students,” Walker said. “That’s where we’ve seen concrete results.”

Sampson agrees that the one area in which Israel has successfully positioned itself is in tourism, especially among evangelical Christians who visit regardless of the tensions, but also in niche areas, such as among food and wine aficionados.

Beyond just generating tourism dollars, visits by prominent foreigners can adjust expectations and attitudes.

“One of the reasons we bring Canadians of influence to Israel is because there’s just nothing like breathing the air in the country,” Sampson said. Personal contact with Israel can and does make a difference, he added.

For some, Israel’s reputation is inexorably tied to the plight of Palestinians. “The Israeli public should demand their government spend all its energy on such fundamental affairs of state rather than worry about how many foreigners know that Maccabi Tel Aviv won the Euroleague in 1977,” sniffed the Guardian newspaper not long ago. “Hasbarah is no substitute for adherence to justice and basic human rights.”

Instead of hasbarah, Lazarus has coined a neologism he thinks will succeed: “havashook,” which combines the Hebrew words havanah (understanding) and shivook (marketing).

“If Israel is to be successful at PR, it does not need to explain every policy, but it does need to proactively create an understanding of Israel’s security situation,” he wrote.

The idea is to market Israel “as a product, and not an apology.”

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