I met a missionary last Shabbat. He was sitting on a bench near my home in Jerusalem, politely accosting passersby and handing out leaflets explaining why a Jewish carpenter born over 2000 years ago in Nazareth is our savior today.
He had a gentle smile and spoke, almost apologetically, in halting Hebrew tinged with American and Russian accents. He himself had emigrated from the former Soviet Union to the U.S. in his teens, and lost and bewildered in a new land, was taken in by friendly evangelicals who convinced him he could find comfort in Christ, while apparently remaining Jewish.
I won’t say his name as I don’t want to make him a possible target for vigilante groups. They don't need to worry though: he just doesn't have the charisma and burning zeal to actually convert anyone. I tried and failed to explain him that since I find all religions, bar none, fundamentalist and bigoted dogma, I’ll just remain a lapsed member of my own. He tried and failed to explain why he couldn’t be content just worshipping Jesus himself, but needed to convince others to do the same.
The need to be a missionary, for any religion, fascinates me. Six months ago, John Allen Chau, a 26 year-old American missionary, went knowingly to his death on North Sentinel Island in the Andaman Sea, in an attempt "to declare Jesus" to a small uncontacted indigenous tribe living there, known to violently reject visitors from the outside world. I hope my new friend in Jerusalem doesn’t go to such lengths.
But I wonder what it was like back in the days when Jews were also actively proselytizing, before the Middle Ages, when both Christian and Muslim authorities prohibited it on pain of death.
Orthodox rabbis have for over 1000 years invented an entire ideology, making it a virtue to treat prospective converts dismissively, even cruelly, to dissuade them from joining.
But of course Judaism was originally an aggressively proselytizing faith, just like any other religion. Practically the first time we meet Avraham, the Tanakh tells us he "made souls" in Haran. Jews had to stop being missionaries in order to survive in a hostile exile. It wasn’t a choice. It was a necessity born out of genocidal threat and unlike some Christian groups, Judaism deemed staying alive more precious than dying to convert others.
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But perhaps the proselytizing urge has never fully been suppressed. How else do you explain hasbara?
Is there anything more ridiculous than Israel's obsession with hasbara? The constant harping on why isn’t hasbara better and if only it was better at explaining and justifying government policies, then the whole world would love us?
How exactly could hasbara be any better? Israel has a prime minister who is the hasbarist-in-chief, government departments, an entire IDF division, embassies, well-financed NGOs, websites, books, television channels and countless thousands of volunteers all equipped with a multitude of arguments and devoted to putting what they see as Israel’s case to the world. What more do they want?
And even if somehow there was a better hasbara operation to be had, what do they actually think it would achieve? Would Israel’s trade surplus grow any larger, or the BDS campaign become more of a dismal failure than it already is?
I sometimes ask hasbarists, both of the professional and amateur types, what exactly they are hoping to achieve. Their first reaction is usually a blank stare. How can you even question the necessity of hasbara? Then you get some burbling about delegitimization and the iniquities of the New York Times and the Guardian.
Excuse me. What delegitimization?
For the last decade no one has stopped Israel from doing pretty much whatever it likes in Gaza and the West Bank. No one has put any meaningful pressure on Israel to end the occupation. And the economy has continued to grow, foreign relations with the Far East, Latin America, Africa and even parts of the Arab world have flourished, and it’s no thanks to hasbara.
The world hasn’t been convinced of Israel’s case. It just stopped caring about the Palestinian issue because other things distracted it and meanwhile, Israel has hi-tech to sell. The cold hard facts of geopolitics are that the "international community," such as it is, simply has bigger fish to fry elsewhere.
Both from a tactical and strategic perspective, there is simply nothing to be gained by energetic hasbara efforts, from suppressing the pitiful handful of BDS activists who arrive, and the expulsion of human rights NGO employees who write reports few will read and no government will act upon. All it does is draw a bit of attention and invigorate them.
But hasbarists are missionaries. They preach because they believe their very existence relies on it. Not enough that Israel, at least Netanyahu’s Israel, is winning, they need to convince everyone that Israel is justified as well.
And thereby lies hasbara’s internal contradiction. If you think Israel constantly needs justifying, then you are accepting its basic illegitimacy. It’s a self-defeating argument.
And yes, there are those who question Israel’s right to exist, but they should simply be ignored, because Israel has as much right to exist as any other country or nation. The hasbarists, by treating (nearly) every critic of Israel’s policies as a critic of its very existence, are those who have elevated Israel’s deniers to the status of worthy interlocutors.
I was recently asked to be a panelist in a debate on whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. I turned down the offer, despite the generous fee (and I’m always happy to speak for money) partly because I won’t sit across from someone trying to goysplain me what anti-Semitism is or isn’t, but mainly because it’s a bullshit argument either way.
Zionism as a real concept ended in 1948, the moment its program was successfully fulfilled and the Jewish state came in to being. There’s no such thing as anti-Zionism, because unless you’re a genocidaire, you can’t will an existing nation or state out of existence.
People who claim today to be anti-Zionists, and are younger than ninety and therefore were not around when the argument was still relevant, are either ignorant, charlatans or anti-Semitic. Quite possibly all three. It’s the equivalent of flat-earthism or being an anti-vaxxer. And no matter how much money you offer me, I won’t degrade myself by debating them.
Israel has a serious racism problem. There is a legal and social framework that discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens. For the last 52 years it has been occupying millions of stateless Palestinians who still have no prospect of receiving their basic rights.
Acknowledging these fundamental issues has nothing to do with the argument of whether Zionism was a practical and just solution for the historical and genocidal persecution of Jews before 1948.
That’s why hasbara is a waste of time. All it does is undermine Israel’s legitimacy. Because real countries don’t have to argue they are legitimate. Hasbara’s one function is to deny Israel is a real country with real problems that need dealing with.
But Israel is a real country, and no one's buying your hasbara. You may as well go and try convince people on an isolated island that your imaginary friend in heaven is more powerful than theirs.
Next week, when we justly celebrate Israel completing its seventy-first year of existence, let’s do it the real justice it deserves - and stop trying to justify it.