Jerusalem & Babylon / The True Meaning of Hasbara

On Wednesday I did my part for the national effort and gave a quick briefing to a small group from Boston who had come for a 24-hour solidarity visit to Sderot. Not that I had much to add to them, since I had arrived in the country only a day before them and they had already visited for an hour with a silver-haired reservist from the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson's Office, but they were very eager for any information.

They were very pleased with themselves, the first American-Jewish delegation to make it here since the launch of Operation Cast Lead; a larger one is due at the weekend. As you would expect from people who took what amounts to three days out of their busy schedules and rushed off to a war-zone, there is little doubt here in Israel's righteousness.

The questions I was asked were studded with "we" and "us," and as far as they are concerned, Sderot could be on the Charles River. I wondered how they would have reacted if they heard Revital Cohen the previous afternoon.

Israel and the Jewish world spend millions annually on pro-Israel media advocacy and public relations, but the money would be better spent it seems if other Jewish tycoons simply set up their own TV networks, like exile oligarch Vladimir Gusinksy. At Sheba Medical Center,a camera-crew from the international Russian-language RTVi channel accompanied a group of Knesset candidates from Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party who were visiting soldiers who had been wounded in Gaza.

They filmed MK Sofa Landver delivering a decorated bag of sweets to a young Golani officer, Sagi Cohen, and since the IDF Spokesperson forbids any interviews, the reporter asked his mother instead, "would you say that your son was wounded, defending not only Israel but the entire free world?"

The excited mother could hardly have been expected to deny. And then he invited her to deliver a message to the world and the good lady decided to speak to the Jews of the Diaspora.

"You think it is dangerous here," she said in basic English, "but we have here soldiers like Sagi who defend us, and in the end they will try and kill you too so you should come here and live here as soon as possible."

Landver and her cohort beamed, the flushed lieutenant then said that he also has three Russian-born soldiers in his company and made their day.

One of the words that Zionist Jews, no matter what the level of their Hebrew, all know is hasbara, as in the question "why is Israel's hasbara so damn awful?"

Why is this term never translated into English? Because it literally doesn't mean public relations or media-management but "explaining." Hasbara is a prime product of what David Grossman called, "the word laundry."

PR, spin, presentation, they all smack of falsehood and hiding the truth. Hasbara instead is simply explaining the truth to those who have been exposed to biased and hostile sources: Just give us fair hearing and we will explain all.

But ultimately hasbara is self-defeating. Since the beginning of Operation Cast Lead, we have been hearing how Israel is doing a lot better in hasbara this time. As part of the lessons from the Second Lebanon War, a national information directorate has been set up in the Prime Minister's office and there is a coordinated media strategy between all government agencies, the IDF, Israel's diplomatic missions, the Jewish Agency and private pro-Israel organizations.

It's all true, ministers for once are behaving themselves and for a large part only giving authorized interviews with foreign media and sticking firmly to the government's message; veteran spokespeople in a variety of languages have been brought in; and there is no shortage of written and visual information.

At the same time,though, the IDF has clamped down on the combat zone, using military police to enforce a closed-zone policy, not allowing the Israeli and international media corps access to the soldiers going in and out of Gaza in anything resembling the free-for-all that characterized the Second Lebanon War.

But two weeks into the operation, the results are no better than they were two-and-a -half years earlier. The international networks simply rely on footage filmed by local Palestinian camera crews, which naturally show just the carnage the IDF is wreaking there, and the foreign newspapers, which were caught without any reporters inside Gaza and have been prevented until now from sending them in, are also using only local sources and stringers.

Israel's case is indeed being put forward in a much more efficient and professional manner, but that doesn't mean that skeptical observers are going to accept it any more than before. Those who believe in Israel's fundamental justification to defend itself by force are going to continue supporting it, others less inclined won't be convinced by a more polished media operation.

"As much as we try and improve, there is only so much you can do," says a former government media advisor, now making a killing in the private sector and for obvious reasons insisting on anonymity. "It doesn't matter if you think you can justify an operation in which civilians are killed, it will always look bad and trying to be a nice guy with hasbara is pointless, nice guys lose. We have to be devious and make up convincing stories or buy them out. War is dirty and so is the media war."

Or in even blunter terms, you can't polish a turd and if you try, you will only end up with dirty hands.