British Chief Rabbi Sacks: Knee-jerk Hasbara Efforts Miss the Target, Harm Israel

Says policy makers need to change paradigm of Israeli public diplomacy, calls for creation of hasbara think tank.

Israel needs to use its brain if it wants to win the battle for the hearts and minds of the world, Britain’s Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks told Anglo File recently, advocating for the creation of some sort of think tank that would change Israel’s public diplomacy.

Speaking for the first time candidly about what he considers a dangerous shortfall endangering Israel’s future, Sacks urged local leaders and opinion makers to try to first understand their enemies and the nature of their hostility rather than engage in haphazard acts of public diplomacy, known as hasbara, or creating new political PR campaigns.

sacks - Courtesy - July 8 2011

“You have to understand what the world is, not what our message is,” Sacks, 63, said. "Hasbara as government officials and pro-Israel advocates understand it today is based on persuasion. But the right approach to fight Israel’s detractors is to understand the enemy and to find out the truth for oneself before trying to influence others, he explained. “So far I haven’t seen anything but hasbara, which is like marketing. It’s missing the target completely.”

“Once you know the truth you’re not merely making a case, you’re actually telling it as it is,” Sacks told Anglo File during last month’s Presidents Conference. The rabbi said Israel's PR blitz during the 2006 Lebanon war was misguided, focusing on the lives of three kidnapped soldiers instead of the battle for the country's existence. “The hasbara there was not poor, it was genuinely nonexistent, it was all focused at the wrong targets. What was wrong about it? It was hasbara, public relations. Forget it. For something this serious, nothing less than the truth will do, nothing less than total absolute honesty.”

The creation of new paradigm in how Israel combats delegitimization – which he said is based on a new form of anti-Semitism prevalent in the world today – is “exceptionally urgent,” said Sacks, who became chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth in 1991 and is expected to step down in 2013.

“Sometimes the philosophy is more important than the action,” he added. “We are a nation of intellectuals but for some reason we forget that when we are living as Jews. We were called in the Talmud an impetuous nation. We always acted first and thought second. This is a battle in which thought proceeds action and the single reason that Israel and those who love it have not got it right is they been asking that what can we do now?”

“Don't ask me what we should do right now. What we should do right now is stop thinking ‘right now,’” the native Londoner said. “Start thinking long term, start trying to understand the mindset of Israel's deepest enemies of Iran, of Hamas, Hezbollah, and Al Qaida, if you like. They are deeply religious – now if there is one thing Israel finds it hard to understand it’s people who are deeply religious. If they are threatening your continued existence you jolly well better understand. There is real serious work to be done.”

The right approach, according to Sacks, would be to stop doing and start thinking. The first rule in the war against delegitimization is to understand the enemies’ psychology – but Israel absolutely failed to do that, he said.

“First seek to understand and only then seek to be understood. Israel is convinced of the rightness of its cause because its thinks in term in it own modes of thinking. Almost nobody has worked out what is the point of view of the people we’re opposed to. How do they think? It’s not just a question of how Palestinians or Iranians think. How do perfectly decent human right activists think?”

Entering one’s enemies mindset requires enormous power of empathy and humility, Sacks added. To help Israeli leaders achieve that goal, he advocates the creation of an institute of advance studies that would engage in in-depth analysis of these issues.

“We have the world's greatest minds in this field but we are very slow in enlisting them. If I were in Israel, I would enlist right now people like Amos Oz, David Grossman and [philosopher] Moshe Halbertal. Out of that would emerge a new paradigm, we would understand things differently and then we would do things differently.”

Israel is not the only country that failed to understand the mindset of radical Islamists, Sacks added. When the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq a few years ago, President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of spreading freedom and democracy in the Middle East.

“Now if you're going to fight a battle with those weapons, you have lost before you have begun,” the chief rabbi said. “Freedom doesn't mean anything to people who believe the highest goal is submission to the will of God. Democracy doesn't mean anything to people who believe that the will of god always trumps the will of the people. So these were words that made sense to western politicians but not to the people that were trying to influence, and the first rule is understand the people you are trying to influence. For those people freedom and democracy don't open any doors at all. If the top British and American politicians don't get it, I am not surprised that a country as embattled as Israel fighting on so many fronts doesn't get it. But somebody sometime has to get it.”

Hasbaratists Respond

The Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs responded to the chief rabbi’s criticism by saying it runs broad projects providing the public with tools to do effective hasbara. The ministry “promotes and welcomes the public’s hasbara initiatives and welcomes any person living in the Diaspora who chooses to join the state of Israel’s hasbara efforts.”

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a co-founder of The Israel Project – which aims to improve the state’s image by providing information to international opinion makers – said she suspects Sacks would be happy to know that her organization tries to actually listen to what the other side thinks. “Indeed, we have done polling and focus groups in Egypt, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. Right now as this very moment we are doing more polling in the Palestinian areas.” The problem with certain hasbara efforts is a schematic division of the world in good and bad, she added. “The fact is that to be really good at promoting Israel’s image you have to understand that Israel is not perfect. Israel is a democracy…a collection of people….and all human beings make mistakes.”

Theory of New anti-Semitism

Israel is threatened not only by Arabs, Sacks asserted. The country finds itself at the center of what he calls the new anti-Semitism. He describes the hatred of Jews by comparing it to a virus that survives by mutating. The religious anti-Semitism prevalent in the Middle Ages was defeated when science took over from the church as society’s supreme authority. But the virus beat the new immune system of the enlightenment by mutating. In its new version, anti-Semitism was considered legitimate as it drew on science or pseudo-sciences, such as racism and social Darwinism, Sacks said.

“We are now in the third mutation and the supreme source of authority in the post Holocaust world was not science,” Sacks said. “The supreme source of authority is human rights and therefore any hatred of Jews has to be legitimated in terms of human rights.” For the last 10 years or so, Israel has regularly been accused of violating the cardinal sins against human rights: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, crimes against humanity and attempted genocide, he added.

“That is what makes the new anti-Semitism new and that is why it was able to defeat at a stroke the immune system: if you’re against racism, who are the new racists? The Jews.”

The fight against this new anti-Semitism is mainly a battle of ideas and Israel has failed to engage in this battle, Sacks said. “Israel still thinks of the new anti-Semitism as the old anti-Semitism and combats in the old ways and wonder why nothing works.”

After the Holocaust, many Jews started defining themselves according to the biblical phrase (spoken by Bilam) that Israel shall be a “people that dwells alone.” Not only is this blessing really a curse, it unfortunately became a self-fulfilling prophesy, Sacks said.

“I have the impression that Israel regards the battle lost from the outset, certainly vis-à-vis Europe,” he said. Therefore Israelis have neglected to create an in-depth hasbara strategy, something that should have been done since Zionism was declared racism by the United Nations in the 1970s.

“Israel never developed the mechanism to deal with human rights and NGOs. That’s being done by lone operators, almost. Israel was so slow and to this day I don't know if it fully realizes the battle that is being waged against it.”