The Israeli Ministry of Hasbara and Diaspora Affairs has started a new project to recruit Israelis traveling abroad to the cause of ‘explaining’ the kinder, gentler side of Israel. The Hebrew website (http://www.masbirim.gov.il) is called ‘masbirim,’ which literally means ‘we explain.’ The word comes from the same Hebrew root as Hasbara (explanation). For some reason, Israel translates Hasbara as ‘public diplomacy,’ but there is no diplomacy involved at all.
Hasbara (explanation) follows the misguided notion that if Israel could only ‘explain’ itself, people would understand the context for the images they see on TV and the reports they read in the press about the horrors of the attacks on Gaza and the ongoing Israeli occupation. Under this philosophy, Israel need not change its behavior one bit, just spend more resources hoping the world will finally get it.
The new ads, targeted to the Israeli public, present three theoretical myths that people are said to have about Israel. The Globe and Mail explains,
The commercials, part of an initiative called Making the Case for Israel, were first seen this past weekend, and are aimed at the large number of Israelis who travel abroad each year. One ad says people around the world think camels are a common form of transportation in Israel, another alludes to the belief that the Israeli diet consists of kabobs grilled over a primitive barbecue, while a third notes that Independence Day fireworks are often mistaken for military action.
Yuli Edelstein, Israel’s Minister of Hasbara and Diaspora Affairs explains,
“We decided to give Israelis who go abroad tools and tips to help them deal with the attacks on Israel in their conversations with people, media appearances and lectures before wide audiences. I hope we succeed together in changing the picture and proving to the world that there is a different Israel.”
Mr. Edelstein has called the Israeli tourists recruited to this campaign ‘the Israeli Public Diplomacy Forces,’ a clear reference to the Israel Defense Forces, the country’s military.
Each one of the three commercials contains a sad irony that cannot be easily explained with more Hasbara.
A special prejudice appropriation prize goes to the fake-BBC commercial, where a fake-reporter shares with you a supposed myth about Israel: “This is the camel. The camel is a typical Israeli animal used by the Israelis to travel from place to place in the desert where the live. It is the means of transport for water, merchandise, and ammunition. It is even used by the Israeli cavalry.”
Whoever heard of a myth of Israelis riding camels?
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) on the other hand points to the “the tired stereotype of the Arab world as a place of deserts and camels, of arbitrary cruelty and barbarism,” and its consequences:
Dr. Shaheen remembers being taught in his Lebanese American home to be proud of his family’s Arab heritage. But at school, he remembers teasing, taunts and epithets: “camel jockeys,” “desert niggers,” “greasy Lebs.”
Oh, but for purposes of Hasbara, these appropriations of prejudice do not matter.
The remaining two fake commercials cannot help but remind me of Gaza.
Here’s the fake French-language newscaster: With a background of Israeli airforce planes flying above a city and leaving behind a white streak and of a multitude of fireworks noisily lighting the evening sky, the newscaster says, “We have just learned that at this moment war noises have been heard in several Israeli cities. Our special correspondents report shootings and strong explosions which can be heard throughout the whole country.”
The strong explosions being heard throughout the land bring to mind this January 10/09 witness account from Israel’s war on Gaza (Sleep hard to come by in bombarded Gaza):
At 12:15pm I’d noted and photographed the white stream of chemical clouds billowing over large expanses of eastern Gaza…
And later at 3:20 am:
In the hospital room where I tried to sleep between an ambulance shift and morning obligations, the tank shelling and firing is in the room, landing on my pillow.
It’s the shells, which crack and blast. The staccato gunfire. The drones’ whine, in menacing pitches. The fighter plane’s sudden, thundering presence.
The drone ramps up the decibels, a train wreck of disharmony.
And the inevitable whoosh before the explosion, an F-16 launch which erupts a crater where someone’s house, or a market, or a mosque once stood. The blast an hour ago was a market, another nurse tells me. “It was a beautiful market, sold everything, everything we need,” she says.
I have saved the Spanish-language fake commercial to the end because it tops the cake, so to speak. Here’s the fake Spanish-language newscaster: ‘In Israel in the majority of the homes there is neither electricity nor gas, so that Israelis continue using primitive cooking methods such as bbq.”
You gotta be kidding me! This looks like a bad joke, when you compare to the Palestinian reality, not the Israeli myth. From last year’s The Atlantic’s In Gaza, Eating Under Siege:
And then there’s the question of fuel for cooking. The borders sometimes allow cooking gas to enter, sometimes not. As the power facilities have been bombed several times, electricity is very sporadic. Many families have small generators, but most of the gasoline for these must also be piped in through the tunnels, which is very expensive. Faced with the frequent impossibility of finding any kind of fuel for cooking, many families have recurred to their grandmother’s memories, fashioning traditional adobe ovens on the roofs and balconies of their modern apartment buildings.
Lest you think that these were Gaza’s temporary troubles in 2009, I give you 2008:
Umm Jamal Al Baba, a 60-year-old from Rafah camp, stands visibly tired in a queue of hundreds for bread. “I can no longer make bread in my house – there is no gas for cooking, no electricity.”
Now that rice had disappeared under the siege, or priced out of the reach of most people, bread means survival for Palestinians in Gaza Strip.
In Gaza, It’s Darkness at Noon, IPS, Jan 23, 2008
and yes, 2010:
Cooking gas rationing continues…
(UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, Occupied Palestinian Territory, February 2010 report)
If the commercials are bad, imagine the talking points for the Israeli traveler. Peace Now secretary-general Yariv Openheimer complained that the new Israeli government website were these videos are housed contains information that would move Jewish Israeli public opinion towards an uncompromising right. According to the JPost,
He noted that the site does not encourage advocating the two-state solution, it talks about the need to keep Judea, Samaria and the Golan Heights, and it suggests that evacuating settlers would harm their human rights.
Let’s see how these ideas are developed by the Israeli tourists who choose to join the “Israeli Public Diplomacy Forces.”
– Sydney Levy