Strenger Than Fiction / How (Not) to Defend Israel

Never lower yourself to the level of Israel’s worst detractors. Don’t ever lie, and don’t twist the facts. Don’t use hollow propaganda phrases; you’ll lose your credibility the moment you do so.

We should be happy. After more than half a year of stalling, Israel’s ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs has finally set up the English version of its Masbirim website, which aims to provide those who want to counter Israel’s detractors and enemies with materials to defend Israel. Isn’t that a wonderful idea! Finally we will have the ammunition that will allow us, once and for all, to counter all of Israel’s critics.

So let’s look at the website’s content. It begins with the assumption that ignorant people in the world think that Israel is a backward country, in which people ride on camels, and it proudly explains that Israel has plenty of cars, that Israelis don’t cook on primitive barbecues, and that we don’t just eat falafel.

The section that purports to dismantle myths about Israel gives plenty of "information." We are told the Green Line is being hyped out of proportion, and that the settlements are in no way an impediment to peace. The real problem is that Arabs don’t accept Israel at all. The problem, so the website seems to insinuate, is Tel Aviv no less than Elon Moreh, because Arabs just don’t accept Israel’s existence. Furthermore, so we are told, Israel had nothing to do with the onset of the Palestinian refugee problem.

The whole Masbirim project is based on the faulty premise that defending everything Israel does is a useful way of representing Israel’s interests and concerns. Minister  Edelstein could have known that this doesn’t work just by looking at excellent data collected for the Foreign Ministry’s Branding Israel project. One of the most important results is that the moment Israeli spokespeople take a self-righteous attitude they lose their audience immediately.

Gabriela Shalev at UN, January 2009 (AP)

So here are some tips to people who want to evoke empathy for Israel that won’t cost Israeli taxpayers a dime, because they are based on solid data that are already paid for. The Branding Israel project has shown that the young global elite is the most important constituency that need to be addressed.

Don’t think that they are ill-informed, and don’t think they are stupid. They have none of the grotesque misconception that the Ministry of Public Diplomacy imputes to them. They have one simple, overriding concern: they think that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories and settlement building is indefensible; that the harassment of Palestinians in the West Bank and the blockade on Gaza is immoral; and that Israel is often using disproportionate force, as in Operation Cast Lead. They are really not concerned that we are using more camels than automobiles.

My suggestion is, don’t try to bullshit them. Never lower yourself to the level of Israel’s worst detractors. Don’t ever lie, and don’t twist the facts. Don’t use hollow propaganda phrases; you’ll lose your credibility the moment you do so.

Instead, try to make Israel humanly intelligible. Point out that most Israelis want the two-state solution, but that the series of events from the second intifada to the shelling of Southern Israel after Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip has profoundly disillusioned Israelis; that they have quite justified fears that a withdrawal from the West Bank might lead to the shelling of Israel’s central region; and that they are very reluctant to take risks for peace after these traumas.

Talk about Israel’s fears and mistakes; about the paralysis of the political system; about the fact that Israelis have trouble electing a prime minister who doesn’t exude tough machismo, because they are afraid of the many real dangers that surround them. Tell them that Israelis often can no longer keep apart the very real dangers of Hezbollah and Hamas on the one hand, and Fatah and other moderate Arabs on the other hand, because living in Israel can be fairly traumatic.

You will find that people are willing to listen to you. I have this experience time and again. I often write in The Guardian, a paper that is not exactly pro-Israel. Most of the talkbacks are thoughtful (even though you’ll always get a few rude ones). They may not always accept my argument, but are mostly appreciative of attempts to provide a balanced, non-ideological analysis.

My experience with other European media is similar: journalists tell me that they are completely put off by Israel’s official spokespeople; they feel that they are fed empty propaganda, and don’t believe a word of what they hear. They become immediately interested, when they are being told how difficult Israel’s situation is in human terms. They are willing to hear explanations for some of the inacceptable things Israel does, if you share the experience of living here rather than talking in propagandistic slogans worthy of totalitarian regimes.

Tell them that you are worried because of the rise of hatred against Israel; tell them that you are critical of many of Israel’s policies, but that you feel that many of Israel’s detractors simply don’t realize that the shadow of death hangs over Israel all the time, and that many of Israel’s fears are, unfortunately, quite real.

If you want people to understand Israel, read Amos Oz and David Grossman. They are much better ambassadors for Israel. And finally: if you feel pain about Israel’s mistakes, don’t be afraid to share it. Most of your dialogue partners prefer flawed humanity to pompous self-righteousness.