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PR & “Hasbara”

Hasbara,” from the Hebrew verb meaning “to explain,” is what Israelis call their efforts at media relations and public diplomacy.  Israel has often been criticized for its “bad PR,” though there’s also some debate on whether the problem lies in the messages, the strategies and tactics used to communicate these messages, or the underlying policies that Israeli spokespeople and pro-Israel advocates try to explain, defend, or promote.

Broadly speaking, there are at least four different approaches to Israeli and pro-Israel public diplomacy.  The first, exemplified by Mitchell Bard (“Myths and Facts“) and Alan Dershowitz (“The Case for Israel“), attempts to set the record straight regarding common misperceptions about Israel, the Palestinians, and the Middle East.  It responds to, rebuts, and corrects factual errors in the anti-Israel narrative: That the 1948 Palestinian refugees were a result not of the establishment of the state of Israel, for example, but by the war initiated by the neighboring Arab states to destroy the nascent state, or that the “security barrier” on the West Bank is intended to prevent terrorism and save lives, not to annex land to Israel.  While unfounded accusations and historical inaccuracy must not go unchallenged, the problem with this approach is that it keeps activists on the defensive, always responding to accusations rather than shaping the debate.

A second approach focuses on Israel as the victim in the conflict, the “David” to the Arab “Goliath.”  In this narrative, there are 22 Arab states, and only one tiny and embattled Jewish one.  Israel has had to defend its very existence since it was first founded.  Every military action Israel takes, from the battles of the War of Independence (which the Palestinians call the “naqba,” or catastrophe) to the 2010 raid on the Gaza-bound “humanitarian aid” flotilla, is justified as self-defense.  In contrast, every action taken by Palestinians, and Arabs in general, is unprovoked at best, terrorism at worst.  While this version has some support in the historical record, it is simply not credible to most Western audiences, who view Israel as having the strongest military in the Middle East and as the occupier of “Palestinian land,” hence the aggressor.

A new approach favored by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls for “rebranding” Israel and focusing “beyond the conflict.”  One of the organizations leading this initiative is Israel 21c, which publishes and promotes success stories from Israeli companies, innovations in science and technology, tourism and wines, medical breakthroughs and clean energy.  Another great resource along these same lines is the book “Start-Up Nation” by Dan Senor and Saul Singer which examines the cultural and policy enablers of Israel’s meteoric rise in the global economy.  The purpose of this focus is not to replace a discussion about the politics or the conflict, but to provide a more favorable backdrop against which to have that discussion.

Finally, many pro-Israel advocates suggest a proactive strategy that corrects factual errors, uses the backdrop of innovation positive messages, and acknowledges Israel’s faults while exposing the hypocracy and double standard often applied to criticism of Israel.  Israel isn’t an apartheid state, one sample argument goes, because it gives full political rights and legal protections to its non-Jewish majority; if critics want to battle contemporary apartheid, they should look to gender discrimination in Saudi Arabia, how Russia treats its Chechen minority or Turkey its Kurds, or the plight of Palestinians in Lebanon, who are denied not only citizenship but also most education and professional opportunities.

For additional views, analyses and critiques of Israeli public diplomacy, please click the button below.