(Originally published at Al Mayadeen.)
The Hebrew term hasbara literally means ‘explanation’ and is a euphemism within “Israel” for a formal policy of pro-“Israel” evangelism, apologism, and propaganda. Hasbarists seek to influence public opinion across the globe in favor of “Israel” and Zionism, with Israelis and Zionists abroad acting as ‘mouthpieces’, alternatively known as ‘shlichim’; a Hebrew word meaning ’emissary’.
What is hasbara?
The aim of hasbara is to justify, rationalize, and support the actions of “Israel” and its ideology of Zionism and to attack those who criticize or resist them. This is achieved through common public relations techniques, such as talking points, spin, and misinformation. However, what makes it unique is its particular use of ‘antisemitism’ accusations and claims of personal ‘hurt’ and of ‘feeling unsafe’. The hasbara policy is not a secret and is allocated substantial resources and finances by Israeli and Zionist organizations globally.
In 1974, a short-lived Ministry of Hasbara was established, with Shimon Peres (who later became Prime Minister and then President of “Israel”) at the helm. Despite the disbandment of the Ministry in 1975, hasbara remained a vital Israeli policy and lived under the purview of various ministries. Yonatan Mendel explained that, after 1975, “the importance of hasbara has come to the fore every time Israel has been involved in a major conflict – the 1982 [invasion of Lebanon], the 1987 intifada, the 2000 intifada.”
In 2009, when a flurry of negative publicity broke out after “Israel” launched an onslaught against Gaza known as “Operation Cast Lead,” the Ministry was resurrected as the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. This was preceded by English-, French- and German-speaking agents of hasbara being dispatched to European countries to recount their personal stories of supposedly living in fear of Palestinians. Israeli tourists to Europe were also bombarded with information on television and in-flight magazines about how to sell “Israel” abroad.
Benjamin Netanyahu, then in opposition, even “addressed an audience of 16-year-old Israeli students in a TV broadcast entitled Hasbara and History” in which “45 minutes were given over to teaching the students how to explain Israel to the world.”
‘‘We need to learn the technique of our enemies,” [Netanyahu] said. “They reverse the outcome and the result; they blame Israel for occupying the territories, even though these territories were originally occupied as a result of their aggression … We need to convince the world that we are right.’”
Global reach of Hasbara
The Zionist entity has a myriad of ways to target audiences outside occupied Palestine. One time-honored approach is to send settler colonists from Palestine to spread the word as “Shlichim” or “emissaries” in what is referred to incorrectly as the “diaspora”, a term which implies, falsely, that all Jews have some connection to Palestine. This activity is overseen by the Jewish Agency; one of the four “national institutions” that make up the leadership of the Zionist movement. In the UK, the shlichim are distributed. On campus, the shlichim program supported the Zionist Union of Jewish Students “through the Campus Fellows programme,” and “grants” were provided so that shlichim could “work with a variety of youth organizations, schools, and synagogues.”
Various religious groupings also send shlichim abroad on similar missions to act as local rabbis or mentor youth groups. Mizrachi, the Religious Zionist movement, advertises eight current couples at various UK locations. Some are from illegal settlements such as “Gush Etzion” or attended “Ariel” University, which is also on an illegal settlement. In addition, experiences in the occupation forces litter their profiles with mentions of a “tank commander”, a “paratrooper”, the “Combat Engineering Corps,” or a “commander in the Givati brigade.” In 2014, the commander of the “Givati Brigade”, Colonel Ofer Winter, told his men as they were about to enter Gaza that they were engaged in a war to “wipe out” an “enemy who defames” God. Shlichim with these backgrounds pose an obvious danger to both Jewish and non-Jewish children in the UK.
Mobilizing Zionist citizens
Another approach is to try and enlist citizens and community groups in occupied Palestine and beyond. The “Israel” Citizens’ Information Council was created in 2001 by Natan Sharansky, the former Soviet prisoner and government minister. It was a “grassroots network providing a platform for English-speaking Israeli citizens to actively participate in Israel’s information and promotion effort.” While short-lived, it was one of many similar initiatives like the more long-running Ambassadors Club set up at every university in “Israel” by StandWithUs – an advocacy group very close to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – to develop “Israel’s” advocacy.
Sharansky’s short-lived group was also a member of a wider grouping, the Coalition of Hasbara Volunteers (CoHaV), set up in 2003 by British-born Zionists who have become settler colonists in Palestine. One, Stuart Palmer, coordinates “Israel’s” advocacy around the world in at least fifteen countries. It seeks to generate pro-“Israel” coverage in print and broadcast media, public presentations, and research. It is strongest in “Israel”, the UK, and the US. In the UK, among the twenty-four groups are several “friends of Israel” groups, the key lobby groups BICOM – British “Israel” Communications and Research and its offshoot We Believe in “Israel”, run by Luke Akehurst, a current member of the ruling body of the UK Labour Party. Also listed are StandWithUs UK and UK Lawyers for “Israel” both of which are closely connected to the Ministry of Foreign affairs. In case anyone thinks these groups are in any way independent of the regime, the Israeli Embassy is also listed as a member.
The fifteen groups active on university campuses that are members of CoHaV include the World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS), of which the Union of Jewish Students of the UK and Ireland (UJS) is a member.
“Hurt as a Jew” – weaponizing anti-Semitism
In 2002, WUJS produced a hasbara handbook, subtitled ‘Promoting Israel on Campus’, which was sponsored by the Jewish Agency for “Israel”, one of “Israel’s” institutions. The handbook aimed to arm pro-“Israel” Jewish students with tools for influencing the public, political, and campus opinion on “Israel” and Zionism.
Among other things, students were advised to ‘write an article for a university paper’ and were told that, when it is not possible to level the charge of antisemitism, “it is often worth expressing personal upset, saying that one was ‘hurt, as a Jew’ by the controversial act.”
The Ministry of Strategic Affairs was given the lead role in undermining BDS in 2015. It created a platform called 4IL and a related smartphone app, Act.IL. This astroturf project provides hasbara activists with links to champion “Israel” online, amplifying supportive comments. It also calls on the app’s users to target anti-Zionist content. In March 2021, Act.IL attacked me, calling on “Israel’s” advocates abroad to target a supportive post on Al Jazeera Twitter account. In 2017, the Ministry set up a company, now called Concert, which has given more than $1 million USD to support hasbara fellowships in the US.
During his second term as “Israel’s” Prime Minister, Netanyahu used his office in 2013 to create ‘covert units’ at Israeli universities to “post on social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter on Israel’s behalf” but which “[do] not identify themselves as official government representatives.” The head of each unit reportedly “receive[s] a full scholarship from the Prime Minister’s Office.”
Both the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs invest significantly in “digital diplomacy”. The Israeli Embassy in London “annually invites representatives” of Zionist groups “for a day’s advocacy training.” Among the speakers in November 2016 was David Collier, a blogger who went on to be part of the GnasherJew troll account on Twitter. Collier and others recruited to the regime network also attended the Digitell 18 and Digitell 19 events hosted by the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.
Here, scores of activists were recruited into a global network. Using a common Zionist trope they even leaned into this by celebrating their role as “undercover Hasbara trolls” at the 2019 event. A close colleague of Collier, Simon Cobbs of “Sussex Friends of Israel”, tweeted with the MSA-produced banner, calling for money to be sent, without any indication that it already had been.
Alumni of the Digitell network pop up everywhere including the creation of a US-based Combat Antisemitism Movement and a celebrity troll farm called the “Tel Aviv” Institute that works closely with it. The Movement was co-founded by the former Israeli spy and Director General of the MSA Sima Vaknin-Gil which claims 650 members in its supporters’ network. Over at the Institute are Hen Mazzig and Emily Schrader, both Digitell network alumni.
Anyone who has expressed support for Palestine on social media or who has criticized “Israel” or the Zionist ideology has likely encountered pro-“Israel” troll accounts. These accounts coalesce together to engage in ‘pile ons’ in which multiple accounts attack a single user; mass-report pro-Palestine accounts in the hope of having them suspended; and level false allegations of “antisemitism”.
There is no point in engaging with Zionist trolls. They are not interested in rational or good-faith debates. They are only motivated to destroy all resistance to Zionist crimes. After all, support for a racist settler-colonial entity, engaged in ethnic cleansing, apartheid practices, and routine barbarity requires the suspension of rational, logical, and ethical beliefs.
The opinions mentioned in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Al mayadeen, but rather express the opinion of its writer exclusively.