Jewish PR and its Discontents – Introduction and Historical Backg
Israel’s information campaign, or the lack thereof, has long been a focal point of Jewish debate. This is because there is an implicit recognition that Israel’s war for survival is Grand Strategic and involves the entire Jewish People. Grand Strategy refers to the economic, political, social and public relations resources available to identified world Jewry in addition to the military assets of Israel.
Part of the problem is that the Hebrew word for information – Hasbara – literally means explanation and not information. Explanation is to information what sales are to marketing. Nothing has been more counterproductive than Israeli “experts” in communications appearing on television and “explaining” the value of their Israeli ‘product’ and the essential weaknesses of the Arab ‘competition’ when Israel had not been ‘marketed’ properly for decades.
We must move away from the concept that smooth well groomed spokespeople with a high level of English can ‘sell’ Israel when they have not been backed up by a sophisticated marketing campaign. Indeed, with good marketing the product often sells itself: witness the genius marketing of Steve Jobs and how his products sold themselves.
This last sentence merits a vital caveat: the product must be of high quality – crap does not sell no matter how good the marketing. In other words Israel cannot sell stupid policy no matter how sophisticated the information campaign. Israel policy must be reasonable to informed western opinion in the 21st century. It can never justify nastiness by referring to the historic nastiness of its critics. “After America’s treatment of the American Indians how can they dare criticize our so-called mistreatment of the Palestinians”, or “After Europe’s treatment of the Jews…etc. etc.” are typical reactions of ‘patriotic’ Israelis and Diaspora Jews.
Despite the utter stupidity of these kinds of self-justifications (identifying our policy in peoples’ minds with the atrocities perpetrated against the Indians or against us, thus doing the Arabs’ work for them) it is completely ineffective in trying to put critics back on their heels. Because the implied answer of the 21st century American or European is: “Yes, we did those things; we are ashamed of them; we don’t do them anymore; and if you want to be part of our club (the democratic West) you won’t do them either”. Given many of the recent policies of western countries this response is certainly duplicitous, but since political and economic power will always trump morality argument and our critics are bigger and more powerful than we are, we have no choice but to play the game of international realpolitik according to these flawed rules.
Before the 6 Day War Israel enjoyed a tremendous Hasbara advantage for positive and negative reasons. The post-Holocaust “phoenix rising from the ashes” metaphor of a nation crushed like no other nation had ever been crushed taking hold of its destiny and building a progressive modern country in a barren land in the face of constant hostility against overwhelming odds excited the imagination of Europe and America, as well as large segments of the Third World.
The social experiments of kibbutz, moshav, and large scale cooperatives excited the imagination of Europe’s democratic Left and gave this tiny country a special status in the Socialist International. Golda Meir’s standing in the International was comparable to that of Willy Brandt and Harold Wilson. Israel’s comprehensive Trade Unionism (90% of the working population during its early years) gave Israel a disproportionate weight in international Trade Unionism when unions were much more powerful in industrialized democratic countries than they are now. All this attracted the sympathies of “progressive” public opinion.
Israel’s achievements also provided Diaspora Jewry with a source of pride and earned Gentile admiration. Israel was easy to sell. Sympathetic Jews and Gentile anti anti-Semites dominated the campuses and media. The best selling book Exodus and movies such as Exodus and Cast a Giant Shadow were public relations boons that could not be bought for billions of dollars today.
The competition was easy to disparage. King Saud’s gold plated Cadillac and dozens of wives were objects of parody and ridicule in popular culture, from stand up comedians to James Bond movies. Nasser and others came across as pro-Soviet dupes or thugs. The price of oil was low and dependence on Middle East oil was still marginal. Few Arab or Muslim students and fewer Muslim faculty members were on western campuses.
However, following the 6 Day War, the Arabs began to engage in marketing on a major scale. They cleverly focused on the centers of future public opinion making – the university campuses. This was a turning point in the Arab-Israeli conflict. This was the first and perhaps only time in their struggle with Zionism that the Arabs adopted a future-oriented strategy that would bear fruit after several decades.
Zionism had been the ultimate future-oriented political movement up until the 6 Day War. Following the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897, Herzl had written that he had created the Jewish State, perhaps not in a year or in ten years but certainly in 50 years. In 1947, 50 years after Herzl’s futurist vision the United Nations accepted the Partition Plan. Herzl’s The Jewish State was a futurist tract and his book Old New Land was a futurist scenario.
Ben Gurion was the embodiment of a Jewish futurist (often saying that the next 1,000 years of Jewish history are more important than the last 1,000 years). His call that Israel strive to become a Light unto the Nations was recognition that unless Israel became a light unto the nations it would not be a light unto the Jews. Without a transcendent future vision, the Zionist project would ultimately fail. In other words, the product had to be of excellent, market-differentiated quality; it could not be a cheap imitation of Sparta or Prussia.
Labor Zionism, in its many manifestations, was preoccupied with creating the future Jewish utopia. The writings of Labor Zionism’s great opponent, Jabotinsky, were also characterized by a stress on the future. His historical works were educational analogies intended to inspire future action. What separated modern religious Zionists from the ultra-Orthodox was their affiliation with Labor Zionism and its stress on the future. Chaim Weizmann predicted the future negative effects of oil on world politics and Jewish wellbeing in 1948 (before the creation of the state) and called on the future Jewish state to make finding an alternative to oil its primary scientific preoccupation.
This future orientation gave Israel a tremendous cultural and political advantage over the Arabs who have been and still are preoccupied with past glories and past victimizations. In the entire history of Arab nationalism one finds no equivalent to Herzl, Weizmann, Ben-Gurion or Jabotinsky in terms of envisioning alternative futures for the Arab People.
All this changed after the 6 Day War. “Practical” native born Israelis became a dominant force in Israeli politics. They disdained grand visions of the future and preoccupied themselves with the immediate. Their nickname in popular jargon was the ‘implementers’ – bitzuistim. Moshe Dayan was the foremost exemplar of this generation. In fact, following the Yom Kippur War, the barrenness and ultimate inefficiency of a vision-free Zionism was strongly felt and this vacuum was then filled by visions of the past, not the future.
The settlement project of Gush Emunim in the occupied territories co-opted both the idealism and the instruments of the early Zionist pioneers. They claimed they were continuers of the early pioneers and the true representatives of Zionism. Unfortunately, many in Israel and in the West believed them. They replaced the Kibbutz as the face of Israel in the world. If this was “authentic Zionism” then perhaps Zionism itself was wrong. The seeds of post-Zionism in Israel and resurgent anti-Zionism in the West were planted. If Gush Emunim was the poster child of Zionism (and they did provide the best photo opportunities for a planet now ruled by visual media) then how could “explainers” sell our message to a West dominated by post-colonial guilt?
The difference between Gush Emunim and the early pioneers was self evident. Gush Emunim wished to reconstruct the past at the expense of the future whilst the early pioneers had used the past as an inspiration to build a better future. But Labor and Liberal Zionist parties had become ideologically bankrupt and had no real response to Gush Emunim. They had no updated future-oriented Zionist vision to offer. All they could do was fall back on their past achievements – much like the Arabs. This facilitated the message of Gush Emunim which acknowledged and praised past Labor achievements but portrayed itself as the natural continuation of that pioneering legacy.
For Israeli Hasbara to really succeed there must be a revival of future Zionist visions capable of rejuvenating Jewish idealism and Gentile admiration. Israeli Hasbara must once again have a marketable product if it is to have any chance of success.
Part II focuses on Islamification of the West
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