Jerusalem & Babylon / The Ministry of Silly Talks

Benjamin Netanyahu's worthless propaganda department has a lot of explaining to do.

Did you know that Israel has a propaganda ministry? Of course, basically that is what the Prime Minister's Office does 90 percent of the time, but there is also an official government department dedicated to recruiting amateur ambassadors and equipping them with a war chest of arguments promoting the Netanyahu government's policies. Not that it has a high profile most of the time.

The propaganda bureau reappeared last week with a rather annoying radio ad in which a nasal voice, masquerading as a six-year-old girl, calls up "the Shulman Family in Spain" - of all places - and wishes a rather bewildered man's voice, speaking in perfect Hebrew on the other end of the line, a hearty new year on behalf of "all the family in Israel." The ad promotes a childish website, which would have looked out of date a decade ago. The site enables you to design your own 'Shana Tova' card from a small range of simple designs and infantile, meaningless, Hallmark-style messages. There is no room for any personal creative thoughts and you don't even get to decide who will receive your felicitations. It just gets sent out, theoretically, to a Jewish family somewhere in cyberspace and you will get an answer. I'm still waiting for mine.

Who came up with this puerile wheeze? Meet the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs, who put this on the web. I had almost forgotten the ministry existed, so I immediately searched for its website to find out what other shenanigans it has been getting up to recently. Well, there isn't one. I mean, there isn't a website in the normal sense, detailing what the MPDDA actually does, the services it offers, programs it operates, and so on. There is just a website called (For those of you who need a translation, masbirim literally means "explainers." )

Actually this isn't a new campaign, it was launched a year and a half ago, with equally infantile ads, and it attracted a fair amount of derision at the time. Still I think it is worth revisiting, since the campaign is still running, is all the MPDDA is doing (that and the Shana Tova idiocy ) and it totally encapsulates what this government is about and has been doing since it came to power.

So, what or who are masbirim? Apparently every Israeli who meets a foreigner, in Israel and abroad, is instructed to be one. To make sure we act as faithful ambassadors, the site offers extensive, if highly selective information on Israel's history, technological achievements, scenery (including tourism tips on beauty spots in the West Bank ) and, of course, a wealth of details on the Israeli-Arab dispute, including useful quotes, facts and figures on how the Palestinian narrative was 'invented' - the Palestinians actually being refugees from other Arab lands, apparently. History is such a freestyle discipline, so I'm certainly not going to start fact-checking the veracity of masbirim's narrative. Anyway, that would leave me no time to read some other helpful tips on the correct body language to use when explaining Israel's case to the Gentiles (did you know that it helps to look them in the eye? ).

I'm not that concerned with the authenticity of the website's content, or its one-sidedness (though what will happen with all this information when a new government of different political hue comes to power? ). It is the entire concept that is troubling. How insecure does Israel's leadership feel if it needs to press-gang its civilians into a propaganda corps and supply them with precise instructions on how to act when meeting foreigners? Did whoever came up with this website not think that, when traveling abroad, Israelis are just interested in a vacation, away from the daily challenge and dilemma of living in this country? Maybe when I meet a Frenchman or Zimbabwean I prefer to hear a bit about his life, instead of haranguing him with the Palestinian question. And is this what an entire government ministry has been set up to do?

The last time I wrote about the MPDDA was before it even came into existence, two and a half years ago, immediately after Netanyahu appointed his cabinet. I used this column as an open letter to Public Diplomacy Minister Yuli Edelstein. (The ministry had not yet been christened but it certainly confirmed to the rule that the more grandiose an organization's title is, the more empty its purpose. Fans of British comedy will certainly be reminded of Jim Hacker's Department of Administrative Affairs in "Yes Minister." ) In the letter, I recommended Edelstein not to take the job, as 'Hasbara' is a pointless exercise and he would have no influence over Diaspora affairs - there are already much larger and better-funded organizations who certainly would not take orders from him.

Not surprisingly, Edelstein did not heed my advice and now we have this MPDDA, with a budget of some NIS 30 million a year and, I'm sure, a spokesperson who will next week write an angry letter to Haaretz excoriating my column and detailing all the worthy projects undertaken by the ministry. We know the truth, though: The only reason there is an MPDDA is that Netanyahu had to appoint Edelstein to his cabinet, as a reward for political loyalty and with an eye to the next elections, to make sure that Likud would have a Russian-born minister. There was no need for the MPDDA before Netanyahu formed his government and when a new prime minister comes along, on that very day, the MPDDA will evaporate, from obscurity to nothingness. But its spirit will live on.

The MPDDA spirit is the deep lack of confidence that still bedevils so many Israelis. It's that persecution complex that convinces us all that criticism is irrational and bred of anti-Semitism and ignorance (which do exist ), and if only we could find the way to explain ourselves better, the enlightened citizens of the world would automatically love us and realize how hollow and pernicious the Palestinians' claims are. This feeling is stronger on the right, but it exists also among left-wingers; the obsession with how we are seen from outside transcends politics.

Is there a chance that Israelis are finally trying to work out for themselves what kind of a society they want to live in, and not just worrying about external critics? Perhaps this summer's social protests were also subconsciously motivated by this. At the end of such a turbulent year, both within Israel and the nations around us, I think the best thing we can wish ourselves, and our neighbors in 5772, is that we finally reach some kind of understanding of who we are, what we stand for and how we hope to solve our problems, because ministries of propaganda can't supply any of those answers. Shana Tova.