How Did Being An Israel-Critical Zionist Become An Oxymoron?
Opinion: the ‘hasbara culture’ which writers like Yakov Hirsch deride has made it difficult for those living in Israel to even voice dissenting opinions about the country they live in
If you’ve followed my posts on Medium, you may be aware that I have a general distaste for hasbara — which is usually referred to as Israel advocacy, although propaganda is an unkinder translation.
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You could even call me a former hasbarist who had a perspective change. I wouldn’t take offence if you did.
Back when I was still living in Ireland, I set up a website called Irish4Israel.
I “stepped down” from the website I started when I first began having misgivings about whether being an “Israel advocate” was in any way constructive ( — I say this partially so as not to take credit for the website’s achievements; almost all of those belong to its later owner and not I).
Under entirely different leadership, the website rose to some prominence in Ireland, coalescing support amongst both (some) Irish Jews and non-Jewish supporters of Israel. These days, the Irish Israel Alliance, set up by Jackie Goodall, is the main Israel-advocacy organization in the Republic.
But back during those early days, like many Diaspora Jews my age, I went through the motions of Hasbara 101.
I wrote “fact sheets” that urged people to realize that the majority of the West Bank separation barrier is, in fact, simply a chain-link fence (missing from the analysis of those who make this point, including younger me: why does that matter? It still has the same disruptive effect on the life of a civilian population).
I went on local radio to defend Israel. against charges that I sometimes partially agreed with. Why did the Israeli army prevent a flotilla from reaching the shores of Gaza? And I attended a conference on behalf of my local Israeli Embassy. But that was then, when I was living in the diaspora. This is now. I write this post from Jerusalem.
My brief tenure as a hasbarist wasn’t without value.
Even before I made aliyah to live in Israel, I could see that any occupation that demanded that one endorse every Israeli action — or, at best, make only token concessions in response to points raised — wasn’t really congruous with intellectual thinking. Or a conflict that often seems to have more gray than black and white.
Later, when I moved here, I could see that many of hasbara’s sacred cows — the supposed coexistence between Jews and Arabs that I’ve seen very little substantial evidence of during my six year tenure in the country — were either outright lies, gross exaggerations, or extremely selective uses of information. The Israel I live in isn’t the goodie-two-shoes, picture-perfect place that the pro-Israel narrative makes out. It’s a living, breathing, functioning state. With plenty to admire. But some unmistakable character flaws.
To regard Israel as a beacon of flawlessness and then rush to justify its every action isn’t “supporting” the country, or at least as I conceive of it.
It’s volunteering to serve as an unpaid propagandist of it.
And to do so on a misguided Israeli principle that the best means of combating the often unjustified vitriol directed towards Israel is to engage in some ideological means of meeting fire with fire. I see that as unconstructive as the hatred that pours from the other side.
One of the most prescient words I’ve ever heard about Israel was shared at the aforementioned conference (on the subject of combating legal warfare).
The speaker was Daniel Taub, who formerly served as Israel’s Ambassador to the UK.
Daniel concluded his remarks by urging attendees to celebrate Israel.
I’m wont to paraphrase a speech I can’t repeat word for word, but the part was stuck with me went something like this:
Don’t get so involved in “defending” Israel that you’re too busy to actually enjoy the country, especially if you’ve chosen to live in it.
Write the fact sheets. Go on local radio. But if you haven’t made aliyah yet, then don’t get so preoccupied with your calling that you forget to have a dip in the Dead Sea or a bite of shawarma. Defend Israel. But smell the roses while you’re doing so.
It was a thought that’s really stuck with me.
I’d add one of my own:
“Don’t get so involved in defending Israel that you forget that it’s not perfect yet, and there’s still a lot of work to do — just like in every country. In fact, if you really love Israel, the most constructive thing you could do with your life would probably be to move there and work on building it and improving it.”
Unfortunately it nowadays feel as if that’s an increasingly untenable position. Because to hold oneself out to be a supporter of Israel seems to imply that you’ll defend every one of its actions.
Or at least one that’s been excluded to the margins of discourse in the Jewish world.
My fall guy for that development and the erasure of the “critical friend” from the pro-Israel community: none other than hasbara itself.
Yakov Hirsch And His Crusade Against ‘Hasbara Culture’
Perhaps the only voice to have taken a consistent stand against hasbara and its far-reaching effects on the mainstream Jewish narrative in recent years is Yakov Hirsch, an American writer living in Los Angeles. Yair Rosenberg seems to be something of his ideological arch-nemesis.
Even if you’re ideologically opposed to all of this, his writings are worth a read — if for no other reason than to open up for questioning the idea that a culture that demands that no criticism of Israel is acceptable may have pernicious and deconstructive ends for the Jewish state.
Beginning with ‘Hasbara Culture And The Curse of Bibi-ism’ — an essay for Tablet Magazine — Hirsch has taken aim at what he terms ‘hasbara culture,’ a mindframe which elevates the State of Israel to a level of untouchable sanctity and quietly relinquishes the Jewish tradition of critical thought. All without anybody, apparently, batting an eyelid.
This week, Hirsch published a piece in Mondo Weiss, alleging that Jewish victimhood and interpretations of anti-Semitism have fed into this culture.
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To be crystal clear: I don’t endorse all of Hirsch’s writing, especially the latter piece I just mentioned. Additionally, living in Israel, I’m far less interested in how the Jewish Diaspora interprets the State of Israel, which they — including Hirsch — don’t live in. I’m far more interested in how we — Jewish Israelis by choice — frame narratives around this country. When the concept of untouchability which Hirsch rails against reach these parts, I’m far more concerned. But that’s a process that has long already taken hold.
Many of the dynamics which Hirsch laments — the polarization, the relentless urge to deflect any criticism of Israel with either hostile denial, name-slurring, or downplaying — are shared in this part of the world and weaponized not against critics of the State but against critics of facets of this country and how it is run. In fact, I believe that this is their point of origin, and the dynamics which he is witnessing among his American Jewish contemporaries, are merely the export product of a toxic ideology that sprung from Israeli activism.
Zionism And Acknowledging Israel’s Flaws Can’t Be Mutually Exclusive
This trend — that Israel is sacred and must be held above reproach — is a dynamic that I have been surprised to witness here. It is prevalent, though of course not universal, among English-speaking immigrants.
What I find ironic: it is sometimes those who prize themselves most on their ability to think critically who prove to be the most closed-off to any narrative that holds Israel as anything other than the world-beating encapsulation of perfection in a nation.
It’s a line of thinking advocated for by those who the opposing side mocks as “Israel Disneylanders.”
And it’s also an argument that I’ve even heard explicitly advocated for, by advocates of aliyah (immigration to Israel). Unflinchingly, some will tell you that it’s an unforgivable sin to publicize a blog such as this one which suggests that everything in Israel is not entirely made up of rainbows and roses.
Their logic: every single critical word spilled about Israel has the potential to dissuade the next generation of immigrants from coming here and continuing the project. Therefore, if the various problems in the State of Israel can be spoken of at all, they can only be uttered in hushed tones. Once one has already arrived.
That argument makes it our collective responsibility to maintain a picture of the State that I — and others living here — sometimes find totally at odds with reality.
My Zionism, and that of many, is different to those who view any critical world uttered about the state as anathema.
But sometimes — perhaps increasingly — we find ourselves perplexed to find ourselves questioning where we belong when confronted by an ideology — springing from our own side of the political divide — that seems to demand the same kind of ideological totalitarianism that we’ve been applying to Israel advocacy for years.
Should we really be surprised when we find this thought process turned inwards and used to try keep quiet those of us who made aliyah?
We’re told that the problems we may witness in the country we live in — the as significant as the impossibly high cost of real estate, as mundane as the traffic jams, or as underdiscussed as the rate of non-participation in the high-tech sector, which reportedly stands above 90% — are the stuff of our imaginations.
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People are free to break ranks with the dogma of course and to hold themselves out as contrarians.
But when we do so we too often find ourselves branded as haters or — most odiously — as self-hating Jews. Far too often, we find ourselves excluded from key conversations because we’re no longer “Zionist enough” or Zionist at all. Cast in with the same labels as those who are truly hostile to the State.
My Zionism — and that of many — is one that draws its energy from the process of building. From the feeling that the work of building the State of Israel is far from done and that we’re sharing in the project of improving it.
Of celebrating Israel and its achievements — just as former Ambassador Taub recommended we do. While also remaining conscious, and sometimes critical, of its flaws.
Of tikkun. Of attempting to graft positive change upon the country and leave it in a better place than we found it when we first made aliyah and received our teudot zehut (Israeli identity documents).
But it’s not one that can accept turning a blind eye as a central tenant of its mission. Or pretending that we’ve already reached the fulfillment of what Israel can be as a state. For if we do not, there can be no work left for us to aspire towards.
We live in strange times — in the world as much as in Israel.
Of extremism and increasingly blunt and uncompromising ideologies.
Of Trumpism, nationalism, and movements that seek to wedge divides between the supporters and the ‘other.’ These are movements which Israel, in recent years, has sometimes unashamedly thrown its weight behind.
It has disappointed me to see this dynamic increasingly spread among the Jewish world–and right into the core of the Israel-supporting community.
To discover that those of us who take issue with certain dynamics in Israel are (it feels) increasingly being branded as enemies of state. A fifth column that the “true” Zionists would rather be rid of.
My central response to their arguments is this one:
The State of Israel — and all of its policies — are not automatically the same thing as the ideological movement which spawned its foundation and which calls for the re-establishment of the world’s only Jewish state.
The State of Israel can act in manners that toe against its own ideology. Or, indeed, against Judaism.
To criticize Israel’s policies vis-a-vis the Arabs living within its borders; to have the temerity to use the word ‘Palestinian’ or ‘East Jerusalem’; or to criticize the unsustainable cost of living here is not to attack Israel or its founding ideology. It doesn’t mean that you’re likely to be found burning the country’s flag at night. It just means that you think differently about many issues here than some.
Not every critical thinker is an enemy. If we think that, we’re behind held hostage to a thought police.
Not every argument demands an opposing fact sheet as hasbara and its supporters seem to believe. Concession is a possible response too.
For Zionism to be a movement large enough to house all of world Jewry, it has to be broad enough to encompass differences of opinion.
It feels strange to live in a time when being a Zionist with criticisms about Israel sometimes feels like an oxymoron.
— I rarely turn off comments on my Medium articles but this is one of the exceptions — because anything involving Israel tends to evoke emotional rather than rational responses. If you feel strongly about the above — or would like to express disagreement or offer an alternative perspective — I encourage anybody to write their own article in response!