“Hasba-Robots:” Avoiding Israel Advocacy’s Most Common Mistakes
The State of Israel and its dedicated advocates, at home and abroad, are mostly scoring “own goals” in the campaign to defend its right to exist. Many of these mistakes are the result of language misuse and the unconscious adoption of countervailing messages. Below are a few suggestions for smarter and more effective advocacy. Rule number one: Stop using a certain three-letter acronym
Editor’s Note: This essay was developed from a presentation the author shared with university students participating in an “Israel Advocacy” program, a non-partisan but nationally oriented project expressly geared toward improving Israel’s global image. It is published here as a case study to provide universal “best practices” for public diplomacy
This past June, I stood in front of a group of students from the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel, and made the following statement:
About a two-hour drive from the IDC, in Gaza, 90% of the drinking water is contaminated. It is not safe or healthy to drink. The average family in Gaza lives in deep poverty and spends roughly 25% of its income on buying clean water. As a result, about half a million children there are in danger of contamination and disease.
The students were participants in a two-day Diplomatic Communications workshop held by American pollster and PR guru Frank Luntz. I repeated the above statement slowly and clearly, and then asked the group to craft an effective response as if they were representing the State of Israel. I got some very good ones, with many of the students expressing empathy toward Gaza’s residents.
One thing I noticed, though, was that every response stated in one way or another that there was no reason Israel should be blamed for the water crisis in Gaza. Virtually all of them sought to blame Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, for directing funds and resources to terrorism instead of promoting the welfare of its people.
The only problem with ALL the responses was that my statement hadn’t blamed Israel, didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and was merely stating a fact about a health, safety, and humanitarian concern.
There are many reasons why the Gaza Strip lacks access to clean drinking water, including overpopulation and outdated aquafers. I wondered why the students unnecessarily linked Israel to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and actually assumed a level of guilt that was not mentioned or even remotely inferred.
The response I was looking for could have been simply: “That’s terrible. Every person, especially children, should have clean drinking water.” I was hoping someone would have said: “Children in Gaza, Tel Aviv, New York, and London all deserve clean drinking water.”
The reason for the IDC students’ near-uniform responses is that while everyone in the room heard my statement, few actually listened. The participants were intelligent, committed, and well-trained. That was the problem—they were well-trained in Israeli Public Diplomacy, known as “hasbara,” and programmed to respond according to scripts and soundbites they had memorized.
I was talking to a roomful of “hasba-robots.”
The State of Israel, and its hyper-motivated legions of dedicated and well-funded advocates, are mostly scoring self-goals in the campaign to defend the country’s right to exist. Over the years I have come to believe that Israel will eventually lose global public opinion unless policies, strategies, and especially language are adjusted. And unlike many of the other threats facing the nation, for this, Israelis like me only have ourselves to blame.
Here, “ourselves” means the government, private non-profit initiatives, and independent members of the public doing “hasbara” through social media and other communications exchanges. In this essay I seek to point out common errors that we advocates make in messaging, and how we can overcome our near-reflexive tendency to think and speak like “hasba-robots.”
Hasbarah is Not a Zero-Sum Game
Israel advocates’ current public diplomacy approach is capture to an inherent and unnecessary tension. By its nature, diplomacy is about building bridges and working together with others. Public diplomacy is an extension of that practice and a tool for promoting one’s country internationally in order to build bridges and support directly with a target audience.
In Israel, however, public diplomacy is a winner-takes-all effort. Israel advocates act as if they must win every public opinion battle to win “the War of Legitimacy.” In every debate or exchange there is a winner and loser—but never a discussion. As a result, Israel advocates never admit failure because they believe that if they do even once, they will lose the war. But Israel advocacy will never be successful if public diplomacy is approached as a zero-sum game—because it is not.
For example, one mistake that trickles down to the many well-intentioned organizations and individuals that stand alongside Israel is the Israeli government’s practice of treating attacks on the state’s legitimacy as a battle that must be won. The tragic irony is that the efforts to fight such attacks actually draw more attention to them. By taking the time to explain Israel’s detractors’ accusations, Israeli advocates in fact expose non-resident, neutral audiences to those arguments—essentially doing their critics’ job for them.
One good alternative approach would be to refrain from labeling delegitimization activities as a “strategic threat” to the State of Israel. When President Reuven Rivlin, PM Benjamin Netanyahu, and various ministers repeatedly define these efforts as a real strategic threat, they give Israel’s detractors the gift of relevancy. If you oppose Israel or its policies, an organization the Israeli government “greatly fears” is probably effective, successful, and something of which you would like to be part.
A group of Israel’s detractors choose to call itself the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement,” or “BDS Movement”. Surprisingly, so does Israel. Why?
It is a similar misstep when Israel’s elected leaders, government officials, diplomats, and advocates follow Israel’s detractors’ lead to make Israeli sports, music, and culture about politics. For example, this past May, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Sports and Cultural Minister Miri Regev thought they could score a quick win for both Israeli public diplomacy and for themselves personally by moving a friendly soccer match between Israel and Argentina from Haifa to Jerusalem. It was so important for them to show the world that superstar Lionel Messi was playing in Israel’s capital that the Israeli tax-payers were going to pay an additional NIS 2.7 million (approx. US $750,000) to compensate the organizers of the exhibition game for moving it to Jerusalem.
When the Argentinians, faced with immense pressure from their own people and from pro-Palestinian activists, decided to cancel the game altogether, no Israeli leader took responsibility. Instead, the minions of Israel advocacy took to social media to blame it on terrorist threats.
I was hoping that at least one Hasbara-related organization—and there are so many—would release a statement criticizing the prime minister and his sports minister for using sports to further political ends. By insisting the game be held in Jerusalem, they fell into a public diplomacy trap: they painted the game political and invited the other side to make it a diplomatic flashpoint. It provided ammunition to Israel’s detractors, who ultimately handed it a major public diplomacy defeat. By creating controversy where none previously existed, in this match Israel scored a spectacular own goal (yes, pun intended).
Like a regular soccer match, sportsmanship is a very important part of the game. Worse than an own goal is being a sore loser. Unfortunately, both Sports and Culture Minister Regev and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman provided commentary during the World Cup matches that suggested that Argentina’s poor performance was divine retribution for cancelling its match in Israel. Their reactions made Israel look worse, not better.
On the Opponent's Own Terms
One of the main problems dogging Israel’s efforts to counter attacks on its legitimacy is the messaging and language used by Israel’s leaders and advocates. This is an area where mechanical, reflexive thinking is most evident: leaders, diplomats, and the advocacy community have made what I believe is a monumental linguistic error, and which is probably too late to correct.
For some reason, Israel followed the lead of its opponents and actually adopted their language, which is self-defeating for Israel. A group of Israel’s detractors wisely choose to call itself the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement,” or “BDS Movement” for short. Surprisingly, so does Israel.
Why is this a mistake? Israel lends these activists credence by calling them a “movement.” A “movement” sounds important, influential, and historic—especially when we think of other social movements like the Civil Rights Movement, Women’s Rights Movements, Anti-Slavery Movement, Voting Rights Movement, Abortion Rights Movement, Gay Rights Movement, the Anti-War Movement, and the Zionist Movement.
This mistake starts at the very top: Prime Minister Netanyahu himself repeatedly demonizes the “BDS movement” in his public appearances. Some advocates sometimes actually grant these activists even more publicity by spelling out the acronym. Israel has thus defined the teams in this fight, in terms that serve its rival: it is the “BDS Movement” vs. “Israel Advocates.” To me, Israel advocates should least want to refer to their own efforts as the “Israeli Advocacy Movement.”
Netanyahu speaks of the "BDS Movement" in the 2014 AIPAC Summit (source: Youtube)
I see many Israel advocates posting the hashtag #BDSFAIL when the Israeli government defeats initiatives by its opponents. This is a mistake. Pointing out a failed effort means that you believe it had a chance of success. It suggests that you believe there was a chance for a #BDSWIN. Such delegitimization efforts should always fail, thus it should not be a surprise or celebration when they do. #BDSFAIL has become a way for Israel advocates to “spike the football” in the face of their opponents, engaging and further motivating them. Winning with grace is a more diplomatic—and ultimately more effective—approach.
Regretfully, Israel has a long history of adopting language and messaging that does not help its cause. Think back to the early days of the PLO: Israeli leaders often stated that Israel would not negotiate or recognize the “Palestine Liberation Organization.” By doing so, Israel unwittingly promoted the messaging and goals of the PLO “to liberate Palestine,” while it simultaneously tried to convince people that “Palestine” did not and should not exist.
In a related example, the years 1987–1991 and 2000–2004 saw an organized increase in terrorist attacks targeting Israeli citizens in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, and in Israel by Palestinian and Israeli-Arab terrorists. The Arabic word for a “legitimate uprising against oppression” is “intifada.” Israeli leaders referred to those periods as the “First and Second Intifada.” They also constantly warn of the consequences of a “Third Intifada” or “Mini-Intifada.” Stopping those “intifadas” required a “hudna”—another Arabic term that seems to mean a “temporary cease-fire to prepare for the next round.”
Should Israeli leaders have adopted that term, or did it lend the terrorist uprising credence? Adopting the other side’s language is rarely wise and is usually done reflexively. Instead of doing so, I would have advised Israeli government representatives to use the term “terror intifada,” such that “intifada” never stands alone.
Advocates can take solace in the fact that Israel is not alone in reflexive political communication. Two year ago, the world witnessed one of the most spectacular communications blunders in modern political history when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. The term “BREXIT” never appeared on the ballot. That term was adopted somewhere along the way by the media and proponents of the UK’s exit from the EU. Conservatives who were campaigning hard to “remain,” including PM David Cameron, adopted the term BREXIT as well. They should have refused to use the term and demanded the same of the media. It would have been wiser to come up with a replacement term that reflected their own policy goals, like “BREMAIN” or “BREUNION.”
They’re Not a Movement. So Why Are You Making Them Into One?
In order to effectively counter delegitimization efforts, start by never calling delegitimization efforts a “movement.” Even using the term “campaign” gives too much credit. Instead, I recommend calling coordinated delegitimization activities an “effort” or even a “lobby.” Americans, in particular, don’t think highly of lobbyists, especially nowadays. Labeling a group a “lobby” also insinuates that its members are being paid for their efforts, whereas a “movement” suggests a romantic grass-roots effort by ordinary people—volunteers who believe in something and want to make a difference.
Next, look at how a primary group of Israel delegitimization activists define their efforts: “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.” “Boycotts” are about regular citizens refraining from purchasing products; “divestment” is about investments in Israeli companies and ones that have a business presence in the country; and “sanctions” are imposed by governments on other governments, usually for very serious and justified reasons.
Investing in language testing and development is a critical component of Israel’s public diplomacy effort, and one that has been neglected in its fight for legitimacy
The weak link in this title is “divestments,” for several reasons—including that Israeli companies are great investments, that many leading tech companies have significant research projects here, and that this kind of lobbying is directed toward large institutional investors and hedge funds, which rarely use a moral compass when deciding where to invest. Calling these activists the “divestment lobby” or even the “boycott lobby” already takes away some of their supposed success and authority.
Finally, instead of referring to Israel’s opponents with their preferred language, Israel’s advocates should address them using their own. Words are among the most powerful weapons mankind possesses. They can start wars and effect peace. More importantly (for our purposes, anyway), they can change minds and influence opinion. Investing in language testing and development is a critical component of Israel’s public diplomacy effort, and one I find has been neglected in its fight for legitimacy. Boycotts and sanctions, anywhere in the world, usually punish innocent people and not policy makers. When Soda Stream felt forced to relocate their factory from Mishor Adumim, many Palestinian workers lost their jobs. They were the innocent economic victims of these efforts.
I therefore suggest testing terms like “economic terror,” “consumer terror,” “commercial terror,” and even “retail bombing” to describe self-anointed “BDS” efforts. One of those terms might work better to convince people of what the group’s real aims are, and what the Israeli government is up against. Personally, I would much rather call someone an “economic terrorist” or a “retail bomber” than a “BDS supporter.” But what really matters is what people think is a better term. The only way to find that out is to poll them and invite them to focus groups.
The Fallacy of “Delegitimizing the Delegitimizers”
Successful public diplomacy is also about credibility, which involves respecting others and their claims. Regretfully, “delegitimizing the delegitimizers” has become a standard tool in the Israel hasbara toolbox. Other individuals or organizations can—and often do—serve as an enemy of the state. By playing a “zero-sum game,” some advocates fail to consider nuance—and turn on anyone with whom they disagree. Former Israeli politicians and security experts have been demonized. The New Israel Fund (NIF) has become the favored punching bag of the Prime Minister and the Israeli establishment, alongside Holocaust survivor and mega-philanthropist George Soros. I have often heard leftist activists referred to as “self-hating Jews,” and the US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, even called them “worse than kapos” before his appointment.
The damage this does to Israel’s public image, not to mention its internal political discourse, is massive. Even though Israel advocates may greatly disagree with some of Israel’s critics, and think they actually do damage, many are simply pursuing their vision of Israel. People who in the past have demonstrated that they care for Israel, including some who have invested time and money in it, do not become supporters of terrorist organizations overnight simply because they criticize the government, and should not be treated as enemies. If they did support terrorist organizations, complaints could be filed with Israeli and US authorities, who could choose to prosecute them or impose sanctions. If the Israel advocacy community has evidence that the NIF and/or others are supporting terrorism, it should share it with the proper authorities in the United States and Israel to ensure that they act immediately. Otherwise, they should refrain from hurling such accusations.
Ironically again, critical organizations experience a surge in donations every time they are attacked by the Israeli prime minister or other senior officials. Their donor lists are full of liberal American Jews who care deeply about Israel and want to effect positive change there. Their intentions are good, though many believe the results of their efforts may be damaging.
“Delegitimizing the delegitimizers” has become a standard tool in the Israel hasbara toolbox. The damage this does to Israel’s public image is massive
History should serve as a lesson here. For decades, Israeli leaders and citizens had a habit of denigrating Israelis who moved abroad as “yordim” (essentially, “deserters”). Many Israelis—including myself—looked down on these expatriates and acted as if they had betrayed the State of Israel. More recently, local Israelis have come to realize that there are hundreds of thousands of Israelis abroad, including children and grandchildren of Israeli descent. We now understand that they are a strategic asset: many of their offspring move to Israel, and those that don’t often serve as advocates and defenders in their workplaces and universities.
But Israel’s favorite ethnic group to delegitimize is the Palestinians. Israel whines when people delegitimize Israelis or Jews, yet many are quick to do so to others. I have heard many advocates say things like “there is no such thing as the Palestinian people.” One needs to look no further than the words and actions of Israel’s de-facto highest-ranking diplomat, Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. She stood at the Knesset podium in July 2017 and told Arab MKs present that day: “You are thieves of history. Your history books are empty, and you are trying to co-opt Jewish history and Islamicize it.” Discrediting and insulting Israel’s over 1.5 million citizens of Palestinian descent, and another several million Palestinian neighbors, is more than just bad public diplomacy—it is irresponsible, disrespectful, and inciteful. If Israelis do not want other nations to delegitimize it, then they should refrain from delegitimizing anyone else.
I ended my presentation to the students that day at the IDC by giving them several suggestions to improve their Israel advocacy communications strategy. They include:
1. Respect: it is important to respect the other side. If we as Israel advocates don’t respect their counter-advocates as people, or understand what they are claiming, they cannot be effective communicators.
2. Proportion: Israel is often in conflict with our Palestinian neighbors. It’s not necessarily even teams. Israel is a country with an army and borders, Palestine is not. Some Israeli national aspirations have denied Palestinians’ theirs.
Lately, Hamas has been using flying incendiary devices to damage nature reserves, agriculture plots, and structures, though to date there have luckily been no casualties. Declaring this a national emergency is the wrong response because Israel shows its anger and fear of Hamas’ success. This increases its resolve and will lead it to increase its activities. Having the IDF call on PETA to condemn the use of birds for terror attacks is also sheer folly, since it diverts attention from the fact that Hamas uses human shields and women and children as cannon fodder. It also gives Hamas the opportunity to agree and say it will not use animals, but will continue with balloons and kites—leaving Israel in the same position it was before.
3. Restraint: Sometimes silence is golden. When we allow ourselves to be drawn into every public debate and respond to every allegation, we waste valuable resources—the most important of which is public opinion. We seem on the defensive all the time, and that impression gets absorbed by the world public.
4. Perspective: “Be slow to anger” – Israelis need to see their critics’ efforts through a long-term lens both historically and vis-à-vis the future. Some criticisms of Israel are just the latest incarnation of anti-Semitism. But the Jewish people survived past instances of anti-Semitism and will survive these ones as well. Israelis should continue to defend themselves vigorously, but the “war for public opinion” is not an apocalyptic situation or existential threat, nor will it ever be.
5. Intelligence: The Jewish people have survived for centuries because they value education, intellectual capability, and thinking. Israel advocates need to use those same traits here. They must move away from being “Hasba-Robots,” to use their human intelligence.
Finally, Proverbs 18:21 says it very clearly: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”
"מָוֶת וְחַיִּים בְּיַד לָשׁוֹן וְאֹהֲבֶיהָ יֹאכַל פִּרְיָהּ" (משלי י"ח: כ"א)
Israel has made a lot of mistakes in the public diplomacy arena. The most important weapon we have are our words. Israeli advocates need to choose theirs wisely and avoid becoming “Hasba-Robots.”
Mitchell Barak is an American-Israeli pollster and communications professional based in Jerusalem. He served as an international media advisor to President Shimon Peres, a speech writer to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and as an aide to then-Deputy Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the tenure of Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. He is CEO of KEEVOON Global Research and has polled 6,276,382 million mobile phone users in 135 countries in the past 4 years.
(Photo: Eliyahu Yanai courtesy of the author)