In Israel, the term “hasbara” is loosely translated as “propaganda.” In more general terms, hasbara is seen as the attempt by Jews and Israelis around the world to explain Israel’s position in a way that will help others understand why we do what we do, how we live where we live, and why. Hasbara is about taking the cause of Israel and explaining it so that people don’t automatically sympathize with what they perceive as the underdog.
Instead, they see the broader picture, one of historical rights, of peace offerings made and violence returned, of a people who have built a nation out of sand and another people who have been robbed of billions of dollars in donations, incited to violence and continually deprived of a democratic voice by their own religious and political leaders. Hasbara means making it clear that there is no “cycle” of violence, but a long history of terrorist attacks and attempts to stop these attacks with various means.
Hasbara is about explaining what the Arabs have done to their own children and why we are not to blame. Hasbara is about explaining that Israel has a right to exist and Jews have a right to live in this land, and that there can be no peace agreement until these basic principles are accepted by the Palestinians. And finally, hasbara is about explaining that what Arab leaders SAY in English is not relevant when compared to what they SAY in Arabic, and what they do.
Just about everyone agrees that in the war of information, Israel continues to lag hopelessly behind the Palestinians. They are so much better than we are at getting their side across to the media. They have no problem showing their wounds, they glory in them. They even glory in wounds that never existed, as when they cried “massacre” in Jenin and left the world believing that thousands had been murdered, when the real death toll was 52 (vast majority of which were armed gunmen).
After a terrorist attack in which Israeli citizens are murdered, the Palestinians are quick to condemn violence on both sides, as if the death of the terrorist is morally and socially equivalent to the deaths of those he murdered. Smooth-talking Palestinians such as Saeb Erekat and Hanan Ashrawi fill the airwaves with their double talk, exaggerations and outright lies, while incoherent Israeli representatives, vying for time in front of the lights, stumble through with the heavily accented English and embarrass us all. They focus on points and miss nuances and meanings. They confuse with details and buzzwords while Palestinians talk about real people and suffering.
The impending visit of a radio journalist explains it all. Already, an impressive list of Palestinian leaders are lined up to meet her, show her the camps, the poverty, the disadvantaged Palestinians, the evil fence we are building, the unemployment. They will not show her the Palestinian textbooks filled with hatred and incitement, nor will they show her Palestinian television which broadcasts Holocaust denial, anti-Semitic slander and calls for violence.
While the Israelis will offer her a press card giving her the right to travel all over, they are too busy to organize an impressive list of Israelis who can counter in a meaningful way what she will see and hear during her visits with Palestinians. It is therefore left to ordinary Israelis to speak for our side, to explain why Palestinian poverty is self-inflicted, why violence in textbooks yields a violent society.
If we are not careful, this becomes something of a race for each side to show its bloody wounds and she is left to judge which side has bled more. In sheer numbers, the Palestinians will win because buried in these figures are the suicide bombers, those who shot and lynched and attempted violent actions and were eventually stopped. We have our blood and the Palestinians have theirs. We have our land issues and they have theirs, our claims versus theirs, our history versus theirs. Worse, from the point of view of the impartial scales, our children are brought up in comparative wealth while the Palestinians retain their “underdog” image at all costs.
I’ll take the journalist to meet settlers as she has requested, but my goal will be to show her that settlers are nothing more than people who have chosen to live on this block versus that one, in this house versus that one.
And yet, there is a more important challenge facing Israelis who are put in the position of having to defend Israel. How can we quickly show the difference between the Palestinian side and the Israeli side? I began by thinking of what she would see from them and what we could show her. They would show her squalor and refugee camps, we could show her orderly homes and planted trees. They would show her a wall covered in angry graffiti, and we could show her statistics showing that terrorist attacks have dropped 90 percent since the security fence was built. They can show her families who have lost children and we can show her families decimated by terror. A pathetic parade of victims, she will quickly conclude.
Slowly, an idea began to form in my head. I could ask someone from ZAKA to speak to her, that amazing organization of people tasked with the job of cleaning up the human remains after a terrorist attack. To the last drop of blood and human flesh that can be gathered, they fight for the dignity of the dead.
Even better, I thought, is for her to see. A visual is needed beyond the words. And that’s when the picture formed in my mind. I could take her to see what is left of the buses after the terrorist attack, sanitized and cleaned, but horrific nonetheless. I could ask the ZAKA representative to meet us there, to walk with us and explain what happened on some of the buses. The child found alive under the remains, the victims, the blood, the horror that was inflicted on people who simply got on the wrong bus. The school children on the way to school, the doctor on his way to the hospital, the grandmother on her weekly run to the market.
And therein lies the difference, the one thing that we have that the Palestinians do not, the one piece of the puzzle that is uniquely Israeli. The Palestinians have no buses to show. We have never targeted a bus filled with innocent Palestinians on their way to school and work. Our defense forces have never intentionally bombed civilians, shot babies in the head, indiscriminately opened fire on Arab cars. Even more so, our leaders have never threatened these actions as a means of forcing the other side to surrender. Beyond the poverty, self-inflicted or not, beyond the pain of wasted lives and incitement, it all comes down to the buses.