Hasbara industry: deconstructing Israel’s propaganda machine

Reza Behnam

The Palestine Chronicle  /  June 8, 2023

Tel Aviv is, however, finding it increasingly difficult to whitewash its entrenched apartheid system and ongoing genocide, especially in light of the openly racist policies and practices of the current right-wing regime cobbled together by its legally-plagued prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

Most mornings as I prepare for my run, I tune in to BBC News. Of late, the newscaster has presented, in sober British fashion, the number of Palestinians killed the night before by the Israeli army in its near-nightly raids on homes and refugee camps in the occupied Palestinian Territories. When I canvass American news sites to learn more, there is no mention of these atrocities.  The airwaves are replete, however, with news of the Russia-Ukraine war and the death of civilians.

What many Americans won’t hear from these “news” sources is that in 2022, the Israeli army killed more than 170 Palestinian civilians, including 30 children, in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; and that since the start of 2023, Israel’s occupation army has already killed 158 Palestinians, including 26 children.

They won’t hear that Israel controls the lives and resources (access to safe clean water) of approximately 7 million Palestinians, and that Palestinian cities, towns, homes, orchards and businesses have been systematically destroyed and repopulated with upwards of 750,000 illegal Jewish squatters (“settlers”).

They won’t hear of the 56 years of Israeli occupation, dispossession, house demolitions, curfews, checkpoints, walls, blockades, permits, night raids, targeted killings, military courts, administrative detention, thousands of political prisoners, tortured Palestinian children, and 56 years of oppression and humiliation.

The ‘exceptional’ treatment

What explains the “exceptional” deferential treatment Israel receives, while other human rights violators are condemned or sanctioned by the United States and its allies?

Much of the explanation has to do with Israel’s powerfully effective state-run public relations industry reliant on myths and duplicity. Since its establishment in 1948, Israel has successfully created a new illogic of its own; an illogic that has made the illegal seem legal, the immoral appear moral and the undemocratic sound democratic. It has masterfully marketed a number of myths that have become a part of the political and mainstream media narrative.

From the outset, Israel’s Zionist founders cloaked their true goal of creating a “Greater Israel” —a Jewish state not just in Palestine, but in Jordan, southern Lebanon and the Syrian Golan Heights—in heroic terms.

Fabricated history and tropes about the “good” Israelis developing an unpopulated land, creating agrarian miracles in the desert and reclaiming an historic promised land have become deeply embedded.

In reality, Zionists, like Israel’s first prime minister, polish-born David Ben-Gurion, saw the 1948 United Nations General Assembly partition plan for Palestine as the first step toward future expansion.

Israel’s colonization plans

Benny Morris in his book, Righteous Victims, writes that Ben-Gurion in a letter to his son in 1937, framed the Zionist plan for colonizing Palestine:  “No Zionist can forego the smallest portion of the Land of Israel. [A] Jewish state in part [of Palestine] is not an end, but a beginning….through this we increase our power, and every increase in power facilitates getting hold of the country in its entirety. Establishing a [small] state….will serve as a very potent lever in our historical effort to redeem the whole country.”

That Israel would have to forcibly transfer and remove the indigenous Palestinian population to realize its colonization plans were erased from the Israeli narrative.

As a consequence of its effective disinformation campaign, many Americans have come to believe that Israel is a democratic, progressive and humane state; a small but brave nation defending itself against “foreign” violence and terrorism.

To realize its “Greater Israel” annexation mission, Israel created another fiction to legitimize its war of choice in 1967. Although the Six-Day War, which began on June 5, 1967, has proved to be a crucial turning point in the modern history of the Middle East, the Israeli myth of vulnerability and “nation under siege” inventions remain largely unchallenged.

Zionist mythmakers

Fifty-six years ago, the Israeli air force attacked air bases in Egypt, Syria and Jordan, destroying over 80 percent of their warplanes on the ground.  Israeli troops swiftly occupied Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank of Jordan and the Syrian Golan Heights.  According to Israeli government minutes, its attack was not defensive, but a planned preemptive strike.

The Israelis were fully aware of the need to initiate a disinformation campaign alongside their planned first-strike military operations to allay adverse reactions from Washington and other Western powers.

The Israeli myth that the Jewish state was fighting for its physical survival against a more powerful Arab enemy has had a powerful hold on America’s political leaders and the public. In fact, Arab leaders had no plans to invade Israel and Israel’s leaders knew the war was easily winnable.  The annihilation fallacy has become unassailable dogma in Washington—the “right to defend itself” mantra— has allowed Tel Aviv to continue its illegal annexation of captured Palestinian land.

Zionist mythmakers got busy again in the 1980s.  To counter the criticism it received following its indiscriminate bombing of Lebanon and massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Beirut in 1982, Israel birthed the Hasbara (“explaining” in Hebrew) Project in 1983.

In that year, the American Jewish Congress sponsored a conference in Jerusalem of top executives, journalists and academics from Israel and the United States, to devise a strategy to resell Israel, cement U.S. economic and military support and make it extremely difficult to critique Israel’s actions.

Hasbara established permanent structures in the United States and Israel to influence how the world, especially Americans, would think about Israel and the Middle East in the future. The talking points they developed are recognizable in current rhetoric; among them: Israel’s strategic importance to the United States; its physical vulnerability; its shared cultural values with the West; and its desire for peace. Israel now labels its continuing hasbara propaganda “public diplomacy.”

News organizations, journalists, academics, politicians and entertainers have come to expect pressure if they go outside the level of acceptable discourse established by Israel and its supporters.  Alternative narratives that expose Israel’s abuses are dismissed as anti-Israel or given the feared label of anti-Semitic. Israeli propagandists have made certain to fuse criticism of the regime—anti-Zionism—to anti-Semitism. The anti-Semitic accusation has proven to be a powerful rhetorical device to shield Israel from fault. It has destroyed careers and reputations.

Challenging Israeli myths

The late-Helen Thomas, noted journalist; Norman Finkelstein, prominent Jewish intellectual, political scientist and author; and Fatima Mohammed, 2023 graduate of CUNY law school are among those who have been willing to brave the onslaught of criticism they would inevitably face for “daring” to challenge Israeli myths.

Helen Thomas, national icon and senior White House correspondent for UPI, was forced to end her 57-year career in 2010 because she persisted in publicly questioning U.S. support for Israel. Thomas later remarked, “You cannot criticize Israel in this country and survive.”

In 2007, DePaul University denied tenure to Norman Finkelstein because of his criticism of Israel. In his books, Finkelstein claimed that anti-Semitism has been used to stifle critics of Israeli policies toward Palestinians, and that the Holocaust is exploited by some Jewish institutions for their own gain and to cover Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  Because his name had been sullied, Finkelstein was never able to teach again.

Fatima Mohammed, in her recent commencement address to fellow graduates, condemned Israel for perpetuating the Nakba (catastrophe); stating that “our silence is no longer acceptable….Palestine can no longer be the exception to our pursuit of justice.”  Predictably, Mohammed faced immediate public condemnation from U.S. politicians and pro-Israel groups, who have accused her of anti-Semitism, and have called for the university to be defunded over her speech.

In December 2008 and January 2009, as before, Israel marshaled its public relations machine. This time it was to counter the criticism it was receiving for its massive 22-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip, in which 1,398 Palestinians were killed.

The Israel Project

The Israel Project (TIP), a pro-Israel Washington-based group, hired Frank Luntz, a Republican operative and political strategist, to shore up its image. Luntz conducted an extensive study to determine how to integrate Israel’s narrative into mainstream media. His findings were reported in a document titled, “The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary.”

Language from Luntz’s primer, with its scripted discourse for Israeli supporters, has seeped into the thinking, vocabulary and comments of American, Israeli and European politicians, academics and mainstream media.

In his 18-Chapter primer, Luntz coaches Israeli supporters on how to tailor answers for different audiences, outlines what Americans want to hear and what words and phrases to use and to be avoided. It provides guidance on how to challenge statements from and to feign compassion for Palestinians. Luntz advises to always emphasize Israel’s desire for peace, although he initially states that it does not really want a peaceful solution.

Supporters are enjoined to give the false impression that the so-called “cycle of violence” has been going on for thousands of years, that both sides are equally at fault and that Palestine-Israel catastrophe is beyond their understanding.  He urges advocates to stress Israel’s need for security, emphasizing that Americans will respond favorably if Israeli civilians are portrayed as the innocent victims of Palestinian “terrorism.”

Luntz states that when Americans are told that Iran supports Hezbollah and Hamas, they will be inclined to be more supportive of Israel. Therefore, when talking about them to repeatedly say “Iran-backed” Hamas and Hezbollah.

On the rare occasions the mainstream media reports on Israel’s abuses, it conforms to the official lexicon outlined in Luntz’s dictionary. Israel’s army of occupation, for example, is referred to as “defense” or “security” forces, Zionist colonizers, (squatters), are termed “settlers,” Zionist colonies are called “settlements” or “neighborhoods,” Palestinians “attack,” while Israelis merely “retaliate.”

Normalizing the abnormal

Among the more glaring fabrications is the characterization of the Israel-Palestine quagmire as a “conflict” between two peoples with equal political and military resources and equal claims; when it is, in reality, a conflict between the colonizer, Israel, and the colonized, Palestinians.

For 75 years, Israeli propaganda has allowed it to be the exception—to flout international norms and laws with impunity.  Because of the myths, Israel has been extremely influential in determining U.S. policy in the Middle East. The country’s unremitting and methodical disinformation campaigns from 1948 to the present have allowed Israel to plant the Zionist flag on Palestinian land and in the hearts and minds of Americans.

Tel Aviv is, however, finding it increasingly difficult to whitewash its entrenched apartheid system and ongoing genocide, especially in light of the openly racist policies and practices of the current right-wing regime cobbled together by its legally-plagued prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s hasbara industry, however, remains undaunted.  TIP folded in 2019 after its funding dried up, but the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) continues to carry on Israel’s hasbara mission.

Israel knows that the narratives it tells itself and the world are apocryphal and the Jewish state, in its present form, is unlawful and unjust. Hence, in an attempt to make the apocryphal real and the fraudulent legal, Israel continues its ongoing ideological war to normalize the abnormal in Palestine.

Reza Behnam is a political scientist specializing in the history, politics and governments of the Middle East