Yair Lapid woke up Friday morning to discover that Breaking the Silence had taken Jewish young women from a Taglit-Birthright program group on a tour of Hebron. Still feeling like he was in the grip of a nightmare, Lapid furiously posted a Tweet, calling the move “further proof that [Breaking the Silence] is part of the BDS movement and seeks to hurt Israel and the Jewish people.” By Sunday, Lapid had decided that a Knesset conference on “children under occupation” was “a gift to Israel’s enemies.”
It’s not hard to guess why a talk by Sheldon Adelson to Birthright participants the day before failed to elicit so much as a yawn from Lapid, while a tour of Hebron immediately prompted him to don his faded uniform from his glory days at the army magazine Bamahaneh. He knows that Breaking the Silence has nothing to do with BDS and is not calling for a boycott of Israel but rather trying to stimulate discussion about Israeli policy in the territories. If he’s forgotten, he can ask MK Ofer Shelah.
But Lapid has a tried and true method of staving off dips in the polls. “Strike at the Jews and save the homeland” was the anti-Semitic slogan of the pogroms in Czarist Russia. In 2018, the man who fancies himself the next prime minister has adopted the slogan “Strike at Breaking the Silence and save the party’s Knesset seats.”
It reminded me of another bit of Lapid PR from 2010. At the time he was still a columnist with political aspirations, and was appalled by what happened with the raid on the Gaza flotilla. However, he was not upset because of the wounded soldiers or the people killed. No, even then, Lapid showed the same key concern that would become his trademark; he was outraged about the public diplomacy debacle. He even offered a practical suggestion, arguing the army should have displayed weapons from its arsenal and pretended they were captured in the flotilla raid. The popular columnist had proposed that the army lie to the foreign press and to the Israeli public.
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That Lapid column perfectly illustrates the main problem with the Israeli obsession with public diplomacy, known as hasbara. When you lie to the world, you have to lie to the Israeli public, too. There is no such thing as hasbara that is exclusively for foreign consumption. So the more emphasis we put on hasbara regarding a certain policy, the more we limit our ability to seriously discuss that policy and its implications.
For 51 years now, we’ve been dispatching our soldiers to maintain a military regime in the territories. This is the longest-running Israeli government policy, which has military, legal, diplomatic and economic implications. We cannot afford to treat this policy as a dirty little secret. Hasbara has become the ultimate silencing machine that sanctions all whitewashing, ass-covering and turning a blind eye. Israel has spent millions creating a worldwide network of hasbara organizations, but will not reveal the names of the organizations or just how much money is involved; for the sake of hasbara, the public is willing to remain ignorant.
This is a sign of a fanatic society. The political right and center are currently suggesting to the public that it keep its mouth shut. You are asked to send your children off to endanger their lives for the sake of the settlements, but don’t dare say what you saw there. You are obligated to guard the settlement in Hebron, but don’t dare take any American Jewish tourists there. And don’t talk about what happens to children in East Jerusalem under occupation either. Breaking the Silence refuses to agree to the dirty deal that Lapid is offering them. What’s truly astounding is that most of the Israeli public has yet to reject it with disgust as well.