In the spring of 1975, towards the end of a nine-month stay in Israel, I attended a two-day seminar on hasbarah. The seminar brought together 20 North Americans who had completed high school and were attending year-long programs in the Holy Land. Hasbarah was a new term to me, but when I discovered what it was about, I wanted to learn more. I came away with a collection of literature, pamphlets and posters designed to help make Israel’s case to the world.
From a very early age, I understood that Israel was often defamed and needed to be defended. In the spring of 1967, when Egypt blockaded the Straits of Tiran, the newspapers were full of articles arguing about whether this was an act of aggression. My 11-year-old self imagined writing the definitive exposition on the subject that would show beyond a doubt that Israel was a victim of aggression and had the right to strike Egypt in self-defence.
In the aftermath of the Six-Day War, some left-wing commentators argued that it was really Israel that had been the aggressor. Having closely followed the war, I knew this to be untrue, but I struggled to find the best way of refuting the tide of propaganda that claimed otherwise.
In Hebrew, the literal meaning of hasbarah is “explanation.” Over the intervening decades, I have often found myself explaining why Israel’s actions were justified. Doing this required a knowledge of history and an awareness of the strategy, rhetoric and past behaviour of both Israel and its neighbours, including the armed guerrilla groups that kept the conflict going.
I knew that every time there was a guerrilla attack against Israel, there would be columns in the opinion pages explaining why the latest massacre was justified, or diverting the attention of the readership to alleged Israeli crimes and unaddressed Arab grievances. Therefore, the need for hasbarah seemed obvious.
In recent years, I have been surprised and disappointed to see the term hasbarah used as a negative epithet, even by some Jews. Many seem to take it as a given that, rather than an explanation of the truth, hasbarah refers to misleading propaganda. Supporting this narrative, a new generation of Israeli historians began questioning the account of Israel’s War of Independence that I had grown up with. Importantly, the question of the origin of the Palestinian refugees was cited as an example where hasbarah promoted a false narrative.
It is true that there were sometimes over-simplifications that glossed over difficult events in Israel’s history. These cases are eagerly cited by Israel’s enemies, as though they prove that the whole history we have learned of Israel’s struggle and birth was false. For this reason, it is important for Israel’s defenders to have a good knowledge of the events surrounding Israel’s birth, including incidents in which fighters for the young state acted badly. These events do not change the fact that Israel’s defenders acted lawfully, and often heroically, in most circumstances.
Today, Israel faces hostile voices in the media, on university campuses and from certain artists and influential figures in popular culture. The story of Israeli aggression that appeared in the left-wing media in the 1960s and ’70s is now promoted by tenured academics at universities all over the world. For that reason, it’s important today, as it was in 1975, that young Jews have access to training in hasbarah, to prepare them for what they will encounter when they arrive at university.
Organizations like Stand With Us make it their mission to provide young people with information about Israel that they can use when they encounter highly negative messages at university. Hasbarah Fellowships sends select groups of young people to Israel every year for training. In an era in which the demonization of Israel is entrenched in the media, academia and the arts, hasbarah – truthful, thoughtful explanations of the merits of Israel’s cause – is more important than ever.