Throughout its 62-years of independent existence, Israel has had to defend itself from attacks by the Arab states and in more recent decades from Palestinian-Arab terrorism and the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah. Yet, despite its existential struggle against the genocidal intentions of the Arab world and the Palestinians, Israel failed to establish an Information Ministry that would contextually present a Middle East reality: A Jewish democratic state struggling against dictatorial regimes who deny democratic rights to their people, religious freedom to minorities, and who chose to impede the lot of their people while using Israel as the scapegoat.
In the early days of the State, the horrors of the Holocaust loomed large in the minds of Europeans and Americans and the bravery of a band of Jews who defended themselves and ultimately defeated five Arab armies (at a high cost in lives -1% of Israeli Jews were killed in the 1948-49 War of Independence), elicited the admiration of the political-Left (who identified with Israel’s Socialist ruling elites and Israel’s egalitarian society) as well as segments of the political-Right. Israel was portrayed as the proverbial “David” fighting the Arab “Goliath.” Although the role of U.S. administrations was largely neutral regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, especially during the Eisenhower years, the general public in America and the West admired the gutsy Jews.
Israel’s stunning victory in the 1967 Six Day War changed the perception of Israel. No longer the perennial “victim” in the eyes of the political-Left, it was now seen by many in academia and the media as a tool of “American Imperialism.” The Left resented Israel’s strong pro-American tilt in the latter’s Cold War with the Soviet Union and, in short order, found a new “victim” to support – the Palestinian-Arabs. Little attention was given by the Left to the foundational underpinnings of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.) or to the fact that it was created by Egypt’s dictator Abdul Nasser to harass the Jewish State. Moreover, they ignored the fact that the P.L.O. was formed in 1964, long before the Six Day War, and that it’s Charter called for the liquidation of the Zionist-Jewish State.” In other words, the true “struggle” of the Palestinians was not to create a viable Palestinian State in the West Bank and Gaza but rather to replace the Jewish State of Israel.
Israel’s policy-makers were and have been dismissive of allocating resources for a Ministry of Information or to a central agency that would articulate Israel’s side of the story. In the minds of Israeli leaders “Israel was morally right and did not need to explain itself.” This was perhaps true until 1967, when foreign correspondents wrote admiringly about Israel’s heroic efforts to absorb millions of Jewish refugees from Displaced Persons camps in Germany, and the Arab World (where Jews had lived for over two millennia, preceding the onset of Islam and the Arabs). In the aftermath of the Six Day War and with billions of petro-dollars in the hands of Gulf Arab sheikhs and Libya, the Arabs were able to enlist the services of the best European and American P.R. firms and lobbyists. They created a powerful narrative: Israel as “the occupier” and “victimizer,” the Palestinians as “victims,” and the urgency of “liberation.” The Left, historically attracted to “liberation,” whether in theological or political terms, quickly embraced the narrative and the cause. This, despite the fact, that the Palestinians oppressed women, minorities, and murdered political opponents and, failed to create a civil society with the rule-of-law.
The 1977 surprise victory of the Likud party over the establishment Labor party (in power since the founding of the State in 1948), presented an immediate need to create an Information Ministry. Menachem Begin, the newly elected Israeli Prime Minister was vilified by the U.S. media, with Time Magazine calling him “Fagan” and a “terrorist.” Begin asked a trusted colleague and friend, political commentator Shmuel Katz (a native of South Africa ) to head the new ministry. Begin, (the former leader of the Irgun underground that had fought the British mandatory forces in Palestine to secure the right of Jews to find refuge from Nazi occupied Europe in their ancestral home) had slated Moshe Dayan – the symbol of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, as Foreign Minister. Dayan gave Begin an ultimatum, either Information stays as a section in the Foreign Ministry or Begin should look for another Foreign Minister. Begin relented.
In an August 16, 2001 Jerusalem Post piece, Shmuel Katz wrote: “To the aid of the Arabs have come a host of allies. Classic anti-Semitism- of course- now posing as ‘legitimate’ political anti-Zionism, but also a battery of the leading media in the world. Examples: The Times of London, Le Monde, the BBC, CNN, etc. In all of them there are regular distortions or suppression of news – so as to make the Arabs look good and the Jews look bad…Israel’s reply is exemplified by the opinions expressed by two foreign ministers, each in his time responsible for hasbara: Moshe Dayan, who said ‘We don’t need hasbara. It is important what we do, not what we say,’ and Shimon Peres who believed that we shouldn’t trouble our heads with history.”
Katz pointed out that during the war Prime Minister Winston Churchill immediately tackled the problem of war information by appointing a Minister of Information over the protest of his Foreign Minister Anthony Eden. According to Katz, Eden (like Dayan and Peres) did not realize that the Foreign Ministry is not specialized or equipped for the very inordinate task of war information. “No country at war in our time,” according to Katz “can do without a separate department for information abroad – and Israel least of all.”
Katz saw the role of Israeli hasbara (Hebrew term for public relations and information) as one of not just “occasional sudden sallies,” but as a separate and permanent department in the government headed by a minister dedicated to this specific mission. “He can have no other business, and in the debates at the cabinet table he must inject an appreciation of the impact of information. His senior staff must maintain a 24-hour-a-day service, must be experts on all the subjects, which have a bearing on the dispute with the Arabs: Jewish history in Eretz Israel, Zionist history and the British Mandate, the history of Arab claims…”
As a result of the failures of Israeli hasbara, concomitant media coverage has resulted in negative perceptions of Israel resulting in, among other actions, calls for boycotts in Europe, especially in Britain and even in the U.S.
Israel’s hasbara has been scattered and ineffective. Israel needs to recognize that there are military wars and communications wars. Israel needs a war room in every major country which will move into in an immediate response mode when necessary. Experts from the world of marketing, PR firms, business, and academia must work together to forge a campaign that is not propagandist but educational and one which puts a face on Israel. Competent individuals in the local languages rather than Israeli officers in military uniforms should serve as spokespeople. And most of all Israel needs an effective and centralized Ministry of Information.