Home > Hasbara > Israeli journalists: Pretending we’re normal is futile

Israeli journalists: Pretending we’re normal is futile

Lisa Goldman is a freelance journalist and blogger. Her articles have been published in Time Out Tel Aviv, Ynet, the Forward, Haaretz, the Jewish Quarterly, Corriere Della Sera, the Guardian and the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the author of City Guide: Tel Aviv and lives in the city.

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Over the past week, two prominent Israeli political analysts have written columns that pull no punches in portraying the current government as a collection of embarrassing buffoons at best; and dangerously paranoid at worst. Neither Haaretz’s Aluf Benn nor Maariv’s Ofer Shelah is a novice critic of the Netanyahu government. This round of criticism, however, goes beyond the normal gibes directed by cynical journalists at even-more-cynical politicians.

Their articles reveal a sense of deep disquiet over the state of the state, and how the actions of the current government will affect Israel’s future in the long term. For both, there is something deeply disturbing about a government that goes to such extreme measures to pretend that everything is fine, that Israel is a perfectly normal country, when everything is so obviously not fine.

Using the Purim holiday as a metaphor, Benn writes in the February 27 2010 edition of Haaretz that

It’s hard to imagine a more fitting ending to the first year of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s second term than the affair over the disguised assassins of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai…This was the year of the disguise for the entire country…The quiet on the borders and on the terror front, the economic growth, the stability in employment, and the lack of real political upheaval – all have isolated Israelis from the storm raging all around…There was little diplomatic activity and even the rockets drizzling in from Gaza now and then did not arouse much interest […]

Not only did the national reality disguise itself as something else – so did its protagonists, who doffed their familiar image and dressed themselves in new threads. This process began with Benjamin Netanyahu, who came back into power with the promise that he had changed. Since then he has been wearing two get-ups. When he wanted to scare people about the Iranian threat and a second Holocaust, he as much as donned Winston Churchill’s bald pate and his cigar. And when he adopted the slogans of the left, “two states for two peoples” and “enough with the settlements,” he pasted on Uri Avnery’s beard. The public and the international community were not impressed […]

Netanyahu’s main partner and rival, Avigdor Lieberman, disguised himself as President Shimon Peres when he asked for the foreign minister’s portfolio. At first it was expected that Lieberman would change, would assume the proper airs of a statesman and would suddenly come across as a “moderate.” But Lieberman’s costume didn’t fit him and it tore, when it turned out he is seen as a racist and a bully abroad. He threw away the mask, took off the makeup and went back to cursing and threatening as before.

In the February 24 2010 edition of Maariv, Shelah also alluded to the alternative reality Israel’s leadership seems intent on creating for the Israeli public. Using the Foreign Ministry’s latest ‘hasbaracampaign — an initiative to  ‘recruit’ ordinary Israelis traveling abroad as volunteer ambassadors by arming them with talking points —  as a jumping off point, he writes (full text after the jump):

The new PR campaign may be intended to improve our image around the world, but in practice, its main effect is on us. It is intended to convey to us that our life is indeed normal, we are indeed justified and our sole problem is to explain our position. It strengthens the feeling, which many believe has been weakened among the Israelis, that what is happening is indeed what should happen.

Any abnormality, the campaign says, is in the eyes of the observer. It stems from his/her ignorance and moral weakness. If we would all just rally to the cause, we loyal citizens who ask no questions, and push away all doubts, all our problems will be solved.

Shelah has not been the only one to pour scorn on the new campaign. Its promotional videos (see example here), giving  the impression that foreigners are spectacularly ignorant about Israel, mistaking Independence Day fireworks for a war and believing that the camel is the most popular mode of local transportation, have drawn heaps of ridicule, domestic and international. This article in the Telegraph is one prominent example of the latter and includes a sample video.

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It’s the world that’s crazy

Op-ed, Ofer Shelah, Maariv, February 24 2010 [Hebrew original here]

You have surely seen the PR clips urging you to become PR representatives on behalf of the State of Israel. One of them particularly caught my eye: It shows a French television correspondent, describing with excitement the voices of war arising from Israel’s streets—when in practice, as any Israeli can tell from the images, this is an Independence Day celebration. The IDF parade, fireworks and IAF air show become signs of war to the non-understanding stranger. And we, says the authorized narrator, if we only surf to the right web site and learn there how to explain Israel’s position, we will be able to rectify the error and bring redemption to Israel.

True, it is only a clip, which conveys a message and is not committed to accuracy. But this is the world that it tries to depict for us: In this world, Israel is normal (not to say justified), and it is only the world that doesn’t understand it. In this world, as every Israeli learns to think, it is all a question of PR—and therefore there is always someone to blame, i.e. those who did not explain our justness properly.

But give a moment of thought to the way the real Israel is reflected in the eyes of a stranger: Yes, it has a lot of soldiers in uniform on the streets. It has a prominent and permanent presence of military characteristics: There are not many democratic states in which a visit to an Air Force squadron is newsworthy on an ordinary day; there are not many countries in which a junior military appointment, a brigade commander, is a front-page headline or a double spread in the news pages. And of course, there are not many free countries in which the chief of staff is in the front pages even if he did not do or say anything worthy of publication, just because he is the chief of staff.

This is required by the country’s situation, you say? There are also not many democratic countries that face the danger we face? True, but this is the reality, not its reflection in foreign eyes. And if we delve one layer deeper, it is also the psychological reality in which we live without noticing, to the point that we have already become accustomed to thinking that any objective interpretation of it attests to hostility.

The same view also stood out in the Israeli response to the international anger that was unleashed at us following the use of forged passports in the assassination in Dubai. Don’t preach to us, is the Israeli reaction to the natural anger of the states whose sovereignty has been violated, because you do not stand where we stand. The foreign minister, who has turned condescending superiority into a new global policy, replied to his counterparts mockingly that “you have apparently seen too many James Bond movies.” There is no doubt that this will calm the upset feelings of leaders who feel that Israel has trod on them crudely without so much as an apology.

The new PR campaign may be intended to improve our image around the world, but in practice, its main effect is on us. It is intended to convey to us that our life is indeed normal, we are indeed justified and our sole problem is to explain our position. It strengthens the feeling, which many believe has been weakened among the Israelis, that what is happening is indeed what should happen.

Any abnormality, the campaign says, is in the eyes of the observer. It stems from his/her ignorance and moral weakness. If we would all just rally to the cause, we loyal citizens who ask no questions, and push away all doubts, all our problems will be solved.

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Categories: Hasbara
  1. March 8, 2010 at 05:51

    I found you through Bernard Avishai’s blog, and since I relate to his voice – so inteligent and sympathetic, I found my way to you, and realized here was a new voice that spoke to me, and it spoke the truth.I wish that more of American Jews had the inclination to become curious about all the scorn you (and like-minded Americans) face, day after day, and begin to try to find out how come that they do not see the world you live in, and will finally discover that what they believe in devoutly is the pretty dream the hard-working PR people manufacture for the faithful as an alternate world, a world dangerous and a threat to Israel, far greater than what the dissidents say in the wisdom of their youth and its hope for a for a nation not led by buffoons and racists and wild-eyed settlers with Bible and guns.

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