A number of years ago, I joined a group of well-meaning, motivated and relatively intelligent Israeli “Anglos” who had a brilliant idea. Since the Israeli government does such a poor job in “Hasbara”, why don’t we take a jab at advocacy and become “unofficial spokespersons” for Israel?
We would write letters to the editor, op-eds, appear on television and radio and even hold talks overseas for all those who are taken in by the evil and biased media.
Despite our best intentions and some success, we soon learned that not everyone is built for the job, something that the “masbirim” website people will soon undoubtedly discover.
One of our ideas involved promoting “speakers” from the ranks of “ordinary Israelis” who, while on trips overseas, would address local communities. Some of these talks were arranged through friends, others through contacts with various Jewish organizations and yet others through informal contacts with liked-minded people overseas.
What we found was a cadre of Israelis who spoke English well, but unlike Arab spokespersons who know what they want and say it loud and clear, we still do not have a clear message. So, when we started getting feedback on talks given by our “speakers”, we heard about some who sounded like a cross between Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan and others who seemed ready to have Arabs move back to Tel Aviv.
Then we had the “moderate” who spoke to a group of Jews in the New York area who felt that “both sides” need to make concessions and “both sides” had their extremists and that people on “both sides” want peace, but the leaders of “both sides” are simply screwing it up for everyone. In the end, the crowd knew little about the issues that are perpetuating Israel’s tarnished image in the world, but they did hear why Israel’s leaders and people are really no different from the Arabs they are fighting.
Now that the Israeli government has decided to use citizen “masbirim,” they should soon learn what we already know are some of the other problems using citizen advocates. Israelis have a wide range of views that do not always mirror government policy. Is it “occupation” or is it “disputed territory”? Are settlements wise or not? Should we have withdrawn from Gaza or not? When it comes to policy, there is no uniform message.
But all that really is beside the point. The language of the media and delegitimization of Israel in the public’s eye is based largely on emotions. You cannot counter the impact of videos showing Arab families and their destroyed homes or photos of Palestinian children carried in the arms of grieving parents by telling people that Israel has nice beaches and invented the cell phone. Germany had Beethoven and Brahms, the VW Beetle and impeccable taste. So what?
Part of the reason that Israel’s image is hard to counter is because the problems are real and the dilemmas faced are complex and multi-layered. It is naïve at best to expect the country’s teachers, dentists and bus drivers to succeed where seasoned, educated professionals have not.
Israel’s problem in the public sphere is less about policy and more about perceptions. Despite all the “facts” that citizens can be armed with and all the rationale for why the Fourth Geneva Convention does not apply to settlements or how much we can stress that Arabs have the right to vote, the real issue is not the “facts” but rather the impression people have of the conflict.
As we all know, Israel was once the darling of the word, the spunky underdog fighting the neighborhood bully. But times have changed and we are now faced with a generation where many view the Holocaust more as a universal tragedy than one of the Jewish people alone. Israel is perceived as morally illegitimate, and until the message of Israel’s basic decency and justice resonates, “masbirim” will manage to convince only the converted.
The issue is not settlements, not the Golan, not Gaza and not even Jerusalem. The real issue and the only one that means anything is Israel’s right to exist as an independent Jewish state, a nation state where its people, the Jewish people, exercise self-determination. That is the message, and that is what our citizens and the world need to understand.
All the rest is commentary.
Irwin J. (Yitzchak) Mansdorf, PhD is an Israeli psychologist who writes on the political psychology of the Israel-Arab conflict. He also directs the SWU leadership program in Israel-Arab studies at Midreshet Lindenbaum in Jerusalem