Monday, April 24, 2006
Hasbara Talk: The importance of facts
One thing I stress to any group that I am talking about Hasbara (Israel Advocacy) to, is know some facts. One does not have to be armed with an intimate and photgraphic knowledge of every UN Resolution, peace agreement and every fact pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, one has to be armed with a few facts that will turn the average person's argument on its head. Many people will blurt out statements like "Why doesn't Israel just abide by UN resolutions to get out of Palestine?" The trick is to ask them which UN resolutions they are referring to at which point they probably won't know. If they do know the exact resolution they will probably misunderstand the meaning of the resolution. Just by reading the important parts of the resolution will mean you have more in your Hasbara armour than assumptions.
To even explain to someone that there never was an independent entity in the history of man called Palestine will raise a few eyebrows. That is a simple fact which can not possibly be disproved, but how many 'average Joe's' know that?
Even in the US where support for Israel is higher and sympathy for the Palestinians is lower than most of the world, there is still general ignorance of the facts. James D. Besser writes an interesting article in the Baltimore Jewish Times called "A disturbing peek at the private conversations liberal Americans have about Israel and American Jews" which is about America's middle classes and their knowledge and assumptions about Israel.
"At a recent dinner party, I found myself with a group of middle-class, middle-of-the-road liberals — all non-Jews. They dislike President Bush and believe the Iraq war is a disaster. They think Israel is a big problem, although that did not translate into admiration for the Palestinians. They were well-informed about world affairs, but their perspective on Israel had giant holes.
These were all college-educated professionals who regularly read The Washington Post and The New York Times, and yet their views of Israel and the Middle East were highly impressionistic — a jumble of facts and images, catalyzed by their inherent belief that every conflict can be resolved through reason and that every conflict had a good guy and a villain. And in their view, the villain was almost always the one with the power.
This is hardly a representative sample. Still, our dinner conversation reflected biases and a surprising ignorance characteristic of a political segment that remains the Jewish community's most reliable partner on domestic issues.
Here are some of the points revealed in a politely heated discussion.
Information about Israel was paltry. Few knew anything about the Israeli political system, which they believed was entirely dominated by far-right settler groups. Told that a majority support Palestinian statehood, most were skeptical.
"Israel doesn't have a free press," one insisted, ignorant of the robust diversity of views in Israeli media.
Their view of the Palestinian Authority was hardly any more detailed or more positive. Pro-Israel groups focus much of their hasbarah efforts on educating Americans that the Palestinian leadership has sanctioned horrific terrorism; these Christians all knew that already.
Some had heard Palestinian Christians speak at their churches and found their stories about the Israeli occupation compelling. Most, however, said that their only exposure to Palestinian lives was through news reports that they said did not leave them particularly sympathetic.
They accepted that Palestinian leaders have led their people to disaster, but their sympathy was still with a people they saw as weak victims of an all-powerful Israel.
In the end, pro-Israel outreach officials are right in thinking that liberal Americans badly need more information about an Israel that is much more textured and complex than common stereotypes hold. But they're wrong if they think heavy-handed, Israel-is-always-right propaganda will work with a faction that is smart, politically sophisticated but suspicious of power and often woefully uninformed."
This last point is important. I always stress to groups that it is not a weakness in Hasbara to criticise Israel, but always explain what lead to a certain action in the first place. We can all agree that curfews, checkpoints and detentions do not serve the aim of peace and arouse anger. What we have to explain is that they may be necessary and these measures were not always there. There was a time before these measures where Palestinians had almost complete freedom of movement (noone, even in the most liberal democracy has total freedom of movement) and that all had to change when the Palestinians launched their Intifada, which by definition means the Palestinians began the violence.