Experts Weigh In: Why Is Israel Losing The PR War And How Can We Save Ourselves?

Intro

It doesn’t take a genius to know that Israeli PR has much to be desired, that slowly but surely the world is being won over by Hamas and Fatah and their smear campaign.

It is not a particularly brilliant smear campaign. Anyone with a third grade education could see through the smoke and mirrors and understand their strategy to lie their way into the hearts and minds of the influencers of the younger generation.

It is almost as if people want to believe the smears. It is almost as if it makes them feel good to see Jews as perpetrators of oppression, in the same way that when Jews were powerless and their ancestors were in power, they perpetrated violence against Jews.

I was talking to my friend Virag Gulyas, a Hungarian non-Jewish Hasbara powerhouse, and we were griping yet again about what a disaster Israeli PR is, how sometimes it seems they feed right into the hand of the enemy.

The reason for that may be that Israel haters come from all kinds of people – the right, the left, the uber religious, the uber secular. Like classic antisemitism, to the communist we are capitalists and to the capitalists we are communists, to the left we are right and to the right we are left, to the poor we are rich and greedy and to the rich we are nouveau-riche in all the worst, tackiest ways. To white people, we are people of color, and to people of color we are white colonizers. As a result we cannot have a one-size fits all message, and what works for one group will often alienate another.

It dawned on me that Israeli PR caters to the lowest common denominator. It tries to cater to everybody to such an extent that it dilutes its message and turns out superficial and flimsy. It also completely avoids the more difficult issues, causing them to appear as if they have something to hide.

I realized that we can complain about Israeli PR all we want, that won’t fix it. Offering solutions will.

I decided to go on a hunt for solutions, to ask all kinds of experts – politicians, authors, thought leaders, marketing executives, journalists, and more – across the political spectrum, encompassing Jews, non-Jews, not only what they think is dafka wrong with our PR (if anything) but how they feel we can best fix it. Some said things similar to me, others were a direct contradiction. Could all of us be right, or none of us, or is the truth somewhere in the middle?

Richard Landes


Richard Landes, Professor, writer, and inventor of the term “Pallywood”

“The question is loaded, and many, only a couple of weeks ago, would have argued things are much better: Israel is more prepared, journalists more responsible, and the public not so hysterical. We’ve made progress from the bad days of al Durah and the Jenin Massacre. Hell, Pallywood is a widespread meme.

Until the April “Great March of Return.” Then Israeli Hasbarah was on vacation and badly prepared, journalists regressed immediately to reporting Hamas propaganda as news, and the pundits leapt in to condemn Israel’s disproportionate force in killing peaceful demonstrators.

So, let’s look at the three levels of answer.

The Deck is stacked against us

  • The visuals all favor the “weak” from the beginning of the intifada (Chirac to Barak), most immediate images all reinforce Palestinian-David, Israeli-Goliath frame.
  • The journalists are all either avid consumers of, or certainly suppliers of Moral Schadenfreudeto audiences in the West he have an insatiable appetite for news of Jews behaving badly. Their learning curve is close to nill, despite the fact that they’re engaged not just in lethal journalism targeting Israel, but own-goal journalism, lethal to Western democracies.
  • There’s a whole array of Israelis and Jews, much attached to a cosmopolitan ethics, eager to criticize Israel for its moral failures, reluctant to mention the behavior of her enemies, and constantly, often dishonestly, and with great passion and skill, practitioners of own-goal journalism.
  • On some level, Israelis who try and fight this and defend the state are talking to the wall. They’re already branded propagandists for the oppressor. Only to the degree that the West comes to realize that they face the same enemy Israel does –Jihadis who cannot tolerate autonomous infidels – they will continue to feed at the trough, and the journalists will refill it every time there’s some violence.

We’re tongue-tied

  • The first problem we face as Jews trying to defend ourselves in the eyes of the nations is a double handicap. On the one hand, we are as bad at advocating for ourselves as we are good at advocating for others. The Talmud actually has passages (Sanhedrin) where the Jews advocate for their oppressors (Greece, Rome) before God on Judgment Day.
  • On the other, we have immense difficulty speaking badly of others, even our enemies: As the meditation after the standing prayer, recited thrice daily by serious Jews, “And to those who slander me, let my soul be silent.” This is especially of liberal Jews in the diaspora (e.g. Hillels): let’s not be negative.
  • This is particularly problematic because we’re in a cognitive war with merciless enemies who exploit our unwillingness to denounce them, indeed pose as champions of all good things in our silence. This is a war, and being kind does not work. Does this mean we have to be vicious? No. But it’s striking that so few spokespeople in these events have been willing to point out that the government of Gaza is in a state of declared war against us, much less that it’s a war of extermination.

From Freier (sucker) to Maven and back

  • The combination of the military (as long as we win on the battlefield, who cares what the media say?) and the post-Zionist (as long as we’re true to progressive values we don’t need hasbarah) made Israel an aggressive freier in the early aughts, marching in the wake of the icon of hatred Al Durah, afraid that if they fought back they’d just make things worse. “No!” said an IDF spokesperson to me shortly after Lebanon 2006, “I don’t want to know if the footage I’m responding to is staged or not!!”
  • When they finally woke up to its importance, they became instant mavens, who would rapidly figure this all out without much need to consult those who had, in their obstructive absence, been in the trenches. If the “Great March of Return” is any measure, there’s about as much of a learning curve among Israeli hasbarah circles, as there is in Western newsmedia ones.
  •   There’s a radical split between military intelligence and hasbarah. The two circles rarely meet despite how deeply interwoven they became at the turn of the millennium (Gatekeepers). Only when we think this through as 4GW (Fourth Generation Warfare, cognitive warfare) against an enemy which is composed not merely of Palestinians but global Caliphaters, will we begin to understand the framework for a strategy.”

Elder of Ziyon


Elder of Ziyon, blogger, Elder of Ziyon Blog

“The main problem with hasbara is that it is not personal. We defend Israel with facts and figures, but what sways opinions is stories, with people that they can relate to. We of course must back up what we say with facts, but we need to emphasize the human aspect of Israel’s story, and how much Israelis have in common with (say) Americans or Europeans. The other side is doing this very well.”

Hen Mazzig


Hen Mazzig, former Campus Coordinator for StandWithUs and current social media strategist and speaker.

“There are so many hasbarah (in Hebrew: “explaining”) Jewish groups on college campuses, all working to promote a positive image of Israel. They bring banners, flyers, events, falafel stands and “fun” festivals to campuses – but is that what we need in order to combat hatred? How come we fail to address and take on the Jew-hatred emanating from the anti-Israel boycott groups? Why is it that with all these organizations, things seem to be getting worse? The time has come to stop hiding in the shadows, to stop “playing it safe,” because this approach will only lead to defeat. Repeating the same actions and hoping to get a different result is not the way to combat hate. Only with strategy and properly trained students that are willing to fight back will we prevail. Falafel stands won’t help us. It’s too late for that. The time has come for offense, and the sooner the Jewish community understands this, the better. I ask you to join me today. I will take the hate, I will take the name calling, the online shaming, the protests and attacks against me. All I ask for is that you speak up and support me and the brave Jewish students that are under attack. There are young Jewish students who are sick and tired of the abuse, the attacks, and want to fight back, but are told by Jewish professionals that they should not. We must remember that it didn’t start with violence, it started with intolerance and hate speech; when people stop caring, they become desensitized and turned a blind eye.”

Michael Harris

Michael Harris, Author, How to Win a Debate with an Israel Hater

“Hillel was reputed to have summarized all of Jewish teaching while standing on one foot: “Do not do unto your neighbor what is hateful to yourself. The rest is commentary.”

In the Israel advocacy community we spend too much time advocating for solutions that are unnecessarily specific. As Golda Meir famously said, “Israel is a country with 3 million prime ministers”. But to be most effective in presenting Israel’s case is that we need to cast the widest net possible, and promote positions that unite rather than divide our side. So our advocacy to the wider community, whose support we want to maintain, should be relentlessly focused through the lens of supporting existence of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, with secure and defensible borders, at peace with any neighbor that offers genuine peace in return. All else is commentary.*

*For those who have read my book, you may be asking how I reconcile that with my advice to promote the long-term vision of 2 states for 2 peoples. Keep in mind that we know this is completely rejected by not only the Palestinian leadership, but by their supporters in the West. So it serves as a way of unmasking their true goal–elimination of Israel. If they ever accept defeat in their jihad and genuinely endorse such a peace, then it will be up to the citizens of Israel to decide how to respond. But I’m not losing sleep over that possibility in the near future.”

Arsen Ostrovsky


Arsen Ostrovsky, international human rights lawyer, leading pro-Israel advocate and digital diplomacy expert.

”There is a reflexive tendency by many pundits to blame Israel’s PR (or public diplomacy) too easily. I do not believe that to be a fair, or accurate assessment.

Israel’s public diplomacy has improved tremendously in recent years.

We have articulate spokespeople, who not only convey persuasive messages in English, but importantly, in other languages too, especially Arabic and the European languages. They are increasingly media-trained, respond to crises in real-time, and despite challenges in domestic Israeli politics, are increasingly ‘on message’.

Moreover, the State of Israel is truly a leader today in the field of Digital Diplomacy, and you see our representatives making the case for Israel across numerous platforms, both in the mainstream media and digital sphere. Furthermore, no longer does Israel wait for a crisis to arise, but is increasingly taking the initiative in conveying our narrative.

It goes without saying that given the numbers and magnitude of the challenge, we will not win every battle. However, we can certainly be proud of the case for Israel our spokespeople are making on the international stage.”

Laura Ben David

Laura Ben David, Award-winning photographer, author, and pro-Israel activist.

“There’s much said about Israel’s poor and ineffective ‘hasbara.’ Yet despite this being hardly a new problem, and with all of our ‘Israeli ingenuity’ it often seems we can hardly make a dent in Israel’s image abroad.

I believe we should stop blaming ourselves. We know we have an uphill battle with world opinion. Do we think the UN obsesses over Israel because of our PR shortcomings? Or that the decades of hostilities by Arab/Muslim peoples toward Jews and Israelis is because our hasbara is ineffective? Such hostilities pre-date the State of Israel by many years, and having a will have minimal effect on those who despise Zionism and all it stands for.

It’s absurd to say that Israel’s negative image is because we don’t know how to tell our story. But our story is complicated. And there are other players in the region who have no problem outright fabricating their own story, to the point that they will literally create false footage and images.

We won’t sink to their level.

The best thing we can do for PR is to always hold our heads high and be proud of our country, flaws and all. We can admit mistakes but we should never apologize for existing, for thriving.”

Alexandra Markus

Alexandra Markus, writer, video producer, and author

“The biggest problem with Israeli PR is that we focus too much on our yearning for peace and not enough on our embodiment of justice.”

Orit Arfa


Orit Arfa, Author, singer, and journalist

“The bad thing about Israeli PR is that we think we need PR. The whole industry of hasbara makes it appear as if Israel has something to cover up, instead we should stop paying lip service to the Palestinian “cause” as if it isn’t a huge lie. In doing so, we grant it legitimacy. For starters we could stop entertaining their arguments as if they are actually arguments.”

Ryan Bellerose

Ryan Bellerose, Metis activist, blogger

“First, the elephant in the room is that people are predisposed to believe the worst of Jews and by extension Israel, so we are not starting from a position of equality but in fact are starting from behind.

That said, there is no excuse for Israeli PR to be so bad. I coined the term “cherry tomato advocacy” because the tone-deaf way in which Israelis did PR was almost laughable if the stakes were not so high. When someone makes a statement , even a false one, you need to understand that statement and its impact before making a response. Hence, someone holding up a picture of a dead child should never be responded to by saying “but we invented the cherry tomato” or ” we are good at science.”

Jews in general place a high value on honesty, but they must learn that positioning, timing and salemanship must be used with honesty or that honesty will be used as a weapon against you and your people.

There is no quid pro quo, the other side has no compunction about using falsehoods, twisting a grain of truth into something unrecognisable and other methods to delegitimise Jews and Israel. Their narrative (which is a narrative not a history) relies entirely on emotional manipulation because if examined on a fact basis it falls apart.

We cannot rely on the truth alone, we must get better at story telling, at debunking nonsense, and even mockery as those tools are what is needed when dealing with these situations.

  • expose how ridiculous some of these things are, do not hold back.
  • pay attention to timing and positioning, do not blindly rush in.
  • understand how arguments work and have a plan both long and short term.
  • never , ever give credibility to false arguments because then you lose

Understand that honesty is key but it must be used wisely or it will be turned against you. The other side does not hear ” I am willing to sacrifice land for peace” they hear “I am not strong enough in my convictions to suffer for them so I will give up”  it really is that simple

Virag Gulyas


Virag Gulyas, Branding Strategist, non-Jewish Pro-Israel Voice, and blogger.

“Why Israel’s PR sucks is a complex question. From one hand, it does not suck at all and many would argue this by proving that there is no other country with such enormous funds and organizations and so many pro-Israel voices out there than Israel. And that holds true. But the fact that we do need all these just proves the opposite as well that something is missing. If we still need all these organizations and voices, then surely, there is something wrong with what we are doing.

As a non-Jew I find the following issues when I encounter with pro-Israel PR intentions:

– When your message starts with “3000 years ago…”, you simply lost me. Not because I deny history, but simply because today, in 2018, I simply cannot be emotionally moved by what happened 3000 years ago. Why does BDS succeed? Because they talk about today, they talk about tomorrow. We talk about yesterday.

– The pro-Israel voices are too scattered. And this is a difficult one. While BDS has one mission packaged in different marketing and PR tools, pro-Israel voices often compete with each other as if they aiming to turn it into a career to be the most lovable, favored and an influencer. When two pro-Israel voices openly go against each other, you lost your credibility. BDS guys, regardless of their true feelings, stick together no matter what, especially, in public.

– Most Israeli PR assumes that people know what’s going on. Coming from a total ignorance, I tell you, they don’t. People do not know the details, and most of them don’t care or have no time to deal with them either. But what they see is BDS’s images of kids dying. You are competing with that, not with historical facts. Thus, the tools need to match that.

– Most of the pro-Israel voices reach the exact same audience. After 5 years of working on social media strategies in this niche, I see exactly who are the people who like, share and engage. The circle is easily definable. Most of the times, Jews talk to Jews. The messages shared evoke emotions only in Jews, whereas BDS’s PR talks globally and their messages can touch and influence anyone regardless of religion, national background etc. As an example: you can’t run a lecture on anti-Semitism and not having no Jews in your audience. What’s the point really? Jews know what antisemitism is, your target audience should not be those, who already know what you will say and clap either way. Broaden the message.

-Finally, Israel keeps on being on the defense. Why? Is there anything to prove or justify? This type of PR weakness the position of Israel as it comes across as a non-confident person would, someone who doesn’t believe what he’s saying. Of course, this is heavily impacted by the various political affiliations and pull and push effects within Israel, but when you are facing an aggressive PR on the other side, you cannot afford to act like a teenager who needs approval from the world. Oftentimes, pro-Israel voices use cynicism as a tool. While it can be useful, once again, it will only resonate with those who fully understand the affairs in question. If I know nothing about what’s going on and I read the clear message from BDS and then I read a cynical post from the Israel sides, I’ll go with BDS, simply because that hits me better.

– Also, Israel needs to find a way to overcome the accusation that if a Jew stands up for Israel, it loses credibility as the person is Jewish. It has to be clear, that a Jew standing with Israel is nothing less accurate than a Hungarian being a patriotic Hungarian. Once again, all these accusations work because BDS is one step ahead. All the time! They created all the narratives and jargons, they planted the seeds in this PR, and Israel is trying to come up with answers instead of taking the control and come up with the jargon and narratives herself.”

Aussie Dave

Aussie Dave (you seriously have to ask?)

As Mark Twain quipped: “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Similarly, rumors of Israel’s terrible PR are greatly exaggerated.

At end of day, we are always at a severe disadvantage because antisemitism is real and there is a predisposition on the part of so many people to find fault with the Jews.

Having said that, we can improve. Two Jews, three opinions is also a real thing, and it hurts our messaging. We need to be more consistent (yet at the same time emphasizes different things to different demographics). We need to appeal more to emotions. We need to be more on the offensive and not merely reactive. We need to focus more on being smart than being right. And of course there’s the KISS principle: Keep it Simple, Stupid.

Conclusion

So what can we conclude from all this? There appear to be a few common threads:

  1. Be pro-active instead of reactive.
  2. We should put on a united front against the haters and curb the infighting.
  3. We need to stop apologizing being polite and start exposing the BS that is in BDS and stop giving their narrative any legitimacy.
  4. Go beyond the Jewish tent and seek out non-Jewish audiences.
  5. Be strong in your convictions, and confident instead of apologetic, even if you do feel bad about the innocent Palestinians in the middle of all this.
  6. Don’t sink to their level.
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Lex

Lex is a trained comedy actor who is Montreal's second-favourite export aside from poutine.