Hasbara, chaltura and the (re)branding of Israel

What do Tzipi Livni, Simon Anholt, Bill O’Reilly, Terry O’ Reilly, Barack Obama and  Anshel Pfeffer, have in common?

Hint:  In order to answer the question, please disregard Bill O’Reilly as I often confuse the bloviated gasbag “O’Reilly Factor” Bill with the bloviated smart-alecky “Age of Persuasion” Terry.

Did I just give it away?  The answer is ADVERTISING.

For a limited time only!

In the chapter on Disaffection (the third of four diabolical “D”s) in End Of The Jews, I wrote about a 2008 effort by Amir Gissin, Israel’s Consul General, to spearhead a (Re-) “Brand Israel” campaign in Toronto.  The original idea came from Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni who, in 2006, argued that hasbara (lit. “explanation”) was not enough to improve Israel’s standing in the realm of public opinion. (The emphasis is mine.  You will see why later…) Israel had to create an alternative image for itself, one more positive and “normal” for Western consumption.

Branding guru Simon Anholt, founder of the Anholt Nations Brands Index, agreed. Israel received the most negative numbers ever measured by the NBI in 2006, with the lowest rankings in almost every area.  So Anholt was heartened by the Israeli government’s awareness of its “brand problem”.  However, he cautioned that:

as regular readers of the NBI and my other work will know, I find it inconceivable that any country can change the way the world views it as a whole purely through marketing communications and forms of deliberate propaganda.

(You can read the full report here.)

Terry O’Reilly, advertising guru and CBC resident smart-aleck has also made this point in numerous podcasts, blogposts and even a book!  President Obama made a similar declaration in the 2008 campaign when he dismissed John McCain’s “change” mantra: “You can put lipstick on a pig.  It’s still a pig.”

And before I get hate mail from Gerald Steinberg, or a cease and desist letters from AIPAC, or the Emergency Committee for Israel takes out a full-page ad accusing me of calling Israel a pig, I want to be clear: I am not calling Israel a pig or any other four legged animal whose appearance would not be improved by some blush and/or lipstick.

What I bring to your attention, dear NextJew blog readers, is what Simon Anholt, Terry O’Reilly, Barack Obama (with whom I share a birthday and Kenyan birthplace) and now what Anshel Pfeffer wrote about today in HaAretz – but Pfeffer is even more strident in his critique.

If you hearken back to the “emphasis mine” portion above, you will note that even Tzipi Livni understood way back in 2006 that hasbara would not be enough to make Israel’s case.   And yet, six years on, Pfeffer points out, that is the Israeli government’s grand strategy –  pure, unadulterated hasbara:

The believers of hasbara are certain that if only Israel could find the proper way to frame their explanations and Israelis were brave enough to explain their case to the world, then surely fair-minded journalists, politicians and ordinary civilians – those not tainted by anti-Semitism, of course – would have to agree that the Jewish State is a shining beacon among the nations. Israel and its supporters must sally forth to the TV studios, the news rooms, on the blogosphere and in twitterverse, spreading the good word, attacking those who spread poison, rebutting and rooting out inaccuracies and calumnies.

The only problem is that for all the money spent by the State of Israel and Jewish philanthropists on the hasbara industry with its array of professional spokespeople, public affairs ministers, delegations of amateur masbiranim let loose on campuses, websites and blogs, and all the Israel projects, campaigns for accuracy and communications and research centers – none of it has ever worked.

As Pfeffer concludes, hasbara is nothing more than a chaltura, “an amateurish diversion, a poor excuse for a real job.”  What Israel needs, he writes, is “statesmanship”.


Are you disturbed? This might help…

Hearing harsh words from people who are disaffected from Israel can make you feel sad, helpless and uninterested in your favorite activities.  Steven M. Cohen’s piece at the Shalom Hartman Institute blog is an approved article designed to treat these feelings with social science!

Your results may vary.

Steven M. Cohen wants you to know that though it may seem that everywhere you turn, you hear Israel talked about as “occupying someone else’s land, perhaps for good historical reasons, but with little contemporary justification” or as a place where “religious extremists [are] going further and further off the deep end.”  Or you hear that Israel rejects “the validity of Conservative/Masorti and Reform Judaism”. Or you might receive links to Israeli columnists and editorialists who decry “anti-democratic legislation; and some writers go so far as to wonder if Israel is veering toward fascism and/or practicing a form of apartheid in the West Bank.” Or, you read in The New York Times, about the “abuses of women that seem to go beyond even the ‘standard’ measure of sexism and gender disparity they see in their own societies.”   … DO NOT BE CONCERNED!

If you have one or more of these symptoms, it’s time for you to read “Disturbed or Distant? They’re Not the Same” and begin to feel better.

First, take comfort in numbers.  All those harsh voices that get you down are:

actually a small minority of North American Jews, to say the least (or the most). People with these progressive identities and a disposition toward disturbance may be culturally significant, but, truth be told, they are far from demographically dominant, even among American Jews (and no one has “accused” Canadian Jewry of excessive progressivism for quite awhile).

So, remember, all those harsh voices that you hear are really perhaps a harsh voice or two.  After a second dose reading, you might even find that all those awful things you hear from disaffected Jews about Israel might just be statistically insignificant.

Second, after reading the article, you will realize that of all of those harsh words do not come from individuals who are distant-from or anti-Israel but from folks who are simply disturbed by Israel.  And someone who is disturbed by Israel is actually someone “whom we love most dearly” precisely because they “disturb us most readily. In our personal lives, distress is a sign of engagement, not a sign of distancing.”  In fact, “[r]ather, the distressed and disturbed, North American Jews who are critical of Israeli leader and policies are actually very close to Israel.”

So, Steven M. Cohen concludes:

the next time you talk with someone who is distressed and/or disturbed by Israel, assume they’re actually very engaged with Israel. Just assume that they’re distressed and disturbed because, well, Israel can be very distressing and disturbing – especially to those who love the Jewish State most dearly.

Feel better now?  Good.

Ariel Beery is pretty optimistic

Yes, indeed!  He writes that:

[n]ext Monday, February 27th, the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors will begin a conversation in its Unity of the Jewish People Committee about the challenges facing the Jewish State due to the politicization of Judaism. It is this committee that deals with issues of tolerance and religious pluralism in Israel, and especially the challenges surrounding conversion and its implications for Jewish unity around the world.

Some have told me it is silly to imagine that this committee will be able to work with the Government of Israel to update the current religious status-quo. I would beg to differ, particularly because as the Jewish Agency has strengthened its focus on enhancing the identity of Jews around the world, recognizing that without identity Jews will not come or feel connected to Israel. And if the Jewish Agency would like to successfully complete its mission, it cannot ignore the fact that many Jews around the world are comfortable with their identity as (Reform, Conservative, Modern Orthodox) Jews, but are growing increasingly hostile towards the State of Israel due to the State’s official stance on pluralism and women’s issues.

Yessiree, Beery is pretty optimistic.   First, he assumes that an organization that has been around for 80 years that has done little to substantively change what it does (focusing now on aliyah-by-choice (a blockbuster trend indeed!) instead of aliyah-under-duress) will suddenly shift its agenda to addressing the issue of “identity” – a mercurial and amorphous goal and thing if there ever was.  Sure, a new direction has been bandied about by Natan Sharansky since February 2011, but as President Obama will tell you – big ships take a long time to turn.  So much time that some folks might not even feel the course change.  So much time that one might wonder whether a course change has been applied at all… but I digress…

Second, he assumes that the Jewish Agency will suddenly become relevant to North American Jews when many local federations are struggling to articulate their relevance as well.   Who in North America could say what the Jewish Agency is and what it does?   Do they do the blue boxes or the trees or the billboards up and down Bathurst Street?  As Beery pointed out, every philanthropic dollar could be drained from their coffers and they would still command a handsome budget from property-earnings… but just because JAFI can survive, should it?

And lastly, to hang North American Jewish hostility toward the State of Israel solely on the hook of Israel’s “official stance on pluralism and women’s issues” is, to say it bluntly, missing the point altogether.

But let us not ruin this moment of looking ahead to a brighter future, to better days ahead.  I wish Ariel (and the Jewish Agency) all the best and b’sha’ah tovah.

Disaffection – continued…

Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin

Communication breakdown, it's always the same...

Another piece in the mainstream press, this time from TIME, about why younger (disaffected) Jews do not share the views of their parents on … drum roll please… ISRAEL.

Choice quote:

“This is so emotional,” she says as we cautiously discuss our difference of opinion. “It makes me feel absolutely terrible when you stridently voice criticisms of Israel.”

Here, as they say in Hebrew, is where the dog is buried.

If you recall Alison Benedikt’s impassioned broadside about the Zionist summer camp she attended yet would never send her kids to, she, too, spoke about this phenomenon:

John buys every book about Israel that’s ever been published, and then reads them all so he can win any argument with my family. What he doesn’t realize is that my parents don’t do facts on this issue. They do feelings. Israel is who they are. Gradually, and then also all of a sudden, it’s no longer who I am—and I am angry.

Now you can say that Dana Goldstein far too esconced in the mainstream (her perspective on critique extends as far left as J Street… the folks further to the left do not even merit a name…)  or you can call Benedikt naive (she is intermarried after all! a shonde!) but the instances about which they report (and probably thousands of others) testify that that the generations will have little success communicating about this issue because they are not even speaking the same language.  Parents parlay in emotions, deep-seated feelings that are often ineffable and irrational.  Their kids are immersed in facts and values.  Hence, the communication breakdown (and the Zeppelin reference) …

But I wonder… do these (i.e., ineffable feelings, “facts on the ground”) necessarily have to clash?   Is the gap between the affective and the cognitive insurmountable?  Generally no.


I have some thoughts but I will hold back… These days, even talking about talking about Israel is radioactive… and I do not want to glow too brightly this early in the year.

Perhaps by mid-Cheshvan, after I have done my penance and asked the requisite forgivenesses, I might venture forth…


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If a tent gets taken down in the forest, will it get its own hashtag?

Ron Kampeas wondered about a month ago why North American Jews did not have anything really substantive to contribute to #j14… when, according to a Forward editorial, it could have easily been an inspiration to a generation of increasingly disaffected young folk.  But before N.American Jews could get rightfully excited over the events in tents across Israel, the rally of 450,000 in Tel Aviv on Saturday night marked the official disbanding of #j14 tent protest movement.  

What will be its legacy?   The Trajtenberg committee report or social justice?  Will the rising up of 450,000 “little citizens” change the way Israelis govern themselves?  (And, as an afterthought, can it change the way N.American Jews think of Israel?)

Tel Aviv’s Kikar HaMedina did not end up being Israel’s Tahrir Square in that it did not bring Bibi or his government down.

But #j14 might become something else… a resurgence of a voice seemingly long forgotten, the call of the prophets seeking justice for the workers, the strivers, the poor and the vulnerable.  Perhaps a new hashtag is in the offing… #tzedekhevrati anyone?