Hasbara (Hebrew meaning "explaining") refers to pro-Israel propaganda efforts (or similar propaganda efforts promoting Jewish interests more generally). The term is used by the Israeli government and its supporters to describe efforts to "explain" government policies, to promote Israel, and to counter what they see as delegitimisation of Israel around the world. Hasbara means "explanation" but is also a Hebrew euphemism for propaganda.
One prominent goal of hasbara is influencing Wikipedia.
Meaning of the term
While hasbara literally means "explanation", its exact import in its current usage is debated. Gideon Meir has said that there is no "real, precise" translation of the word hasbara in English or any other language, and has characterized it as public diplomacy, an action undertaken by all governments around the world with the growing importance of what Harvard professor Joseph Nye termed soft power. Gary Rosenblatt describes it as "advocacy".
Hasbara has been described as "pro-Israel propaganda," and "the new user-friendly term for Israeli propaganda" but while "propaganda strives to highlight the positive aspects of one side of a conflict, hasbara seeks to explain actions, whether or not they are justified."
Historian Giora Goodman considers "hasbara" to mean "propaganda" in practice, explaining
The term "propaganda" acquired a pejorative sense during the first half of the twentieth century. Accordingly, British and American propagandists used "information" to describe their work and the positive-sounding word hasbara has generally been preferred in Hebrew. "Propaganda", ta’amula in Hebrew, is mostly reserved for what opponents do, but the term was often used by the Zionist movement to portray its own efforts to influence mass audiences.
The early mentions of the term hasbara in English mainstream print media date from the late 1970s and describe hasbara as “overseas image-building.” According to The Washington Post, this work "is called hasbara when the purpose is to reshape public opinion abroad.” In the early 1980s, hasbara was defined as a "public relations campaign," In Newsweek it was described as “explaining.” In 1986, the New York Times reported that a program for “communicating defense goals” was started in the late 1970s, and a 1984 implementation of a “Hasbara Project” to “train foreign-service officers in communications by placing them with American companies.” Carl Spielvogel, chairman of Backer & Spielvogel, traveled to Israel to advise the government on communicating its defense goals. The trip led to the Hasbara Project, an internship program established to train foreign-service officers in communications by placing them with American companies.
Shmuel Katz's book Battleground: Fact and Fantasy in Palestine, published in 1973, was described as “an encyclopedic source-book for those involved in Israel's hasbara (public relations) effort.” In 1977, Prime Minister Menachem Begin named Katz "Adviser to the Prime Minister of Information Abroad."
In May 1992, The Jerusalem Post reported that American Jewish leaders hardly reacted to news that the Foreign Ministry's hasbara department would be eliminated as part of a sweeping reorganization of the ministry. Malcolm Hoenlein noted there had been talk of streamlining the ministry's hasbara functions for some time. He said that merging the hasbara department's functions with those of the press department did not portend any downgrading in the priority the Likud government gives to hasbara abroad. Abe Foxman, reacted similarly, saying he was "not distressed or disturbed", and noted that disseminating hasbara has always been the responsibility of every Foreign Ministry staff officer, especially those working abroad; if eliminating one department means everyone will assume greater responsibility for his or her own efforts in distributing hasbara, then he is all in favor. It also reported that personnel in foreign hasbara departments would be shifted to press departments, which is where much of the work currently done by hasbara officials properly belongs. He explained that Israel's efforts to provide hasbara abroad would focus on media communications.
In 2001, Shmuel Katz published a retrospective of Israeli hasbara efforts and said that the task of Israel's hasbara "must be tackled not by occasional sudden sallies but by a separate permanent department in the government." Sharon did increase hasbara efforts, but did not create a cabinet-level ministry for that purpose.
Also in 2001, the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry, the diplomatic arm of the Government of Israel, was an original co-sponsor of the Hasbara Fellowships activities of Aish HaTorah. The Jewish Agency for Israel, Department for Jewish Zionist Education, operates a campaign called "Hasbara, Israeli Advocacy, Your Guide to the Middle East Conflict".
In 2002, the Israeli State Comptroller's office issued a report critical of Israel's PR efforts, "A lack of an overall strategic public relations conception and objective" and lack of coordination between the various organizations were mentioned. Funding levels are modest; the Ministry of Foreign Affairs spent about US$8.6 million on these efforts in 2002, and the Government Press Office was only budgeted at US$100,000.
In 2008, Yarden Vatikay was appointed to coordinate Israel’s domestic and foreign media policy.
In 2009, Israel's foreign ministry organized volunteers to add pro-Israeli commentary on news websites. In July 2009, it was announced that the Israeli Foreign Ministry would assemble an "internet warfare" squad to spread a pro-Israel message on various websites, with funding of 600,000 shekels (c $150,000).
A 2010 report produced for the Israeli cabinet by the Reut Institute, and cited by the newspaper Haaretz, exemplifies the common Israeli view that hasbara efforts are needed to respond to what it describes as a diffuse "delegitimization network" of anti-Israel activists. As Haaretz put it, "The network's activists - 'delegitimizers' the report dubs them - are relatively marginal: young people, anarchists, migrants and radical political activists." The newspaper also cites the report as saying this network promotes pro-Palestinian activities in Europe as "trendy," and calls for it to be monitored by Israeli intelligence services, and for the cabinet to treat the network as a strategic threat. It concludes that Israel was not prepared to meet the threat posed by this diffuse network, and that a counter-effort must be more vigorously undertaken to respond to its activities.
Hasbara advocate Neil Lazarus says that what he calls "low budget, grassroots Hasbara 2.0" has come of age, and commends web sites that keep track of what supporters see as anti-Israel media bias, and that promote e-mail campaigns on behalf of Israel. He observes that "Israel’s hasbara seems to be becoming more dynamic, as the Diaspora takes responsibility", and that, "Even day schools and MASA programs have been conscripted to the task."
The Israel Citizens Information Council (ICIC) says its purpose is "to assist efforts to explain Israeli life from the vantage point of the average Israeli citizen. Towards that end, the ICIC enlists Israelis from all walks of life to participate in its various projects ... One of our major activities is the production of special Powerpoint presentations which we post on our website. These presentations review specific aspects and issues related to Israel and the Middle East."
Some hasbara experts study methods used by Palestinian activists and offer advice on how to respond. Describing demonstrators as "youths," for example, creates a different impression from calling them "children." They draw attention to the subtle differences of meaning between words such as demonstration and riot, terror organization and Palestinian political organization. They advise against name calling and point scoring.
Edward Said wrote that hasbara methods used during the Second Intifada included lunches and free trips for influential journalists; seminars for Jewish university students; invitations to congressmen; pamphlets and donation of money for election campaigns; telling photographers and writers what to photograph or write about; lecture and concert tours by prominent Israelis; frequent references to the Holocaust; advertisements in the newspapers attacking Arabs and praising Israel.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry has instituted new training on the appropriate use of social media methods in its hasbara strategy. There have been multiple instances where embarrassing and inappropriate tweets and posts by the Israeli Embassies, particularly the one in Ireland under the leadership of Boaz Moda'i, have brought international condemnation. In response to such incidents, Israel's Foreign Ministry updated online social media guidelines for worldwide representatives of the Israeli government, so that the "combat doctrine" of the media guide will include appropriate "Do's and Don'ts."
Hasbara Fellowships is an organization that brings students to Israel and trains them to be effective pro-Israel activists on college campuses. Based in New York, it was started in 2001 by Aish HaTorah in conjunction with the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The organization claims to have trained nearly 2,000 students on over 220 North American campuses. Students in the program have the opportunity to meet high-level Israeli officials. A sample itinerary given by the organization includes meetings in Jerusalem with the foreign press advisor to the Prime Minister of Israel, the mayor of an Israeli city, a member of the Knesset, and the foreign minister of Israel.
The Israel on Campus Coalition is a pro-Israel umbrella organization founded in 2002 under the auspices of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. The organization was created in order "to evaluate the worrisome rise in anti-Israel activities on college campuses across North America" and "serves as the central coordinating and strategic body to address campus issues and intelligently impact a pro-active, pro-Israel agenda on campus."
A 2013 article stated that "the task of disseminating hasbara now falls on a special Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs... boasts an advanced “situation room,” a paid media team, and coordination of a volunteer force that claims to include thousands of bloggers, tweeters and Facebook commenters who are fed the latest talking points and then flood social media with hasbara in five languages... rise to the phenomenon of the “hasbara troll,” an often faceless, shrill and relentless nuisance deployed on Twitter and Facebook to harass public figures who express skepticism about official Israeli policy or sympathy for the Palestinians. These efforts have been complemented by the office of the prime minister, the IDF spokesperson’s unit, and the ministry of tourism and culture, each of which hosts newly created hasbara units... Tel Aviv University sends hasbara delegations to campuses across Europe and the United States, the National Union of Israeli Students offers Israeli college students $2,000 to spread propaganda “from the comfort of home.”
A 2015 article stated that "the education ministry has launched a compulsory hasbara course for Israeli students travelling abroad. All youth delegations are now required to learn how to justify to outsiders Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. According to officials, the students must challenge those who “seek to delegitimize Israel”.... Some 85 per cent of Israelis tell pollsters they are keen to become hasbara ambassadors... A hasbara ministry already targets the international media with good news, while cultural events from food fairs to Israeli entries at film festivals are designed to prove that Israel has another, hidden side. For years the Israeli government has relied on paid workers – and thousands of volunteers in Israel and abroad – to surf the net posting pro-Israel comments. At Israel’s international airport, Israeli holidaymakers are offered brochures explaining the importance of persuading those they meet that Israel is misunderstood. Advice suggests emphasising successes such as Israel’s invention of drip irrigation and popular varieties of the cherry tomato."
In May 2007, the Hasbara Fellowships asserted that "Wikipedia is not an objective resource but rather an online encyclopedia that any one can edit. The result is a website that is in large part is controlled by 'intellectuals' who seek re-write the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict. These authors have systematically yet subtly rewritten key passages of thousands of Wikipedia entries to portray Israel in a negative light. You have the opportunity to stop this dangerous trend! If you are interested in joining a team of Wikipedians to make sure Israel is presented fairly and accurately, please contact [our] director".
A similar advocacy campaign on Wikipedia was later launched by the CAMERA in May 2008; it resulted in administrative action by the project, and several editors were blocked indefinitely.
In 2010 two right-wing Zionist groups in Israel, the Yesha Council of Settlements and Israel Sheli, set up a training course to teach individuals about methods of editing and influencing Wikipedia content. "In general, it's so important for us to be online working to defend ourselves and to prove to the world and to ourselves that we are just and we are right." Of the 80 participants on the course, the majority were either religious or settlers, or both.
In 2012 Haifa University offered elective courses in hasbara which included participating in writing Wikipedia entries.
2014: Wikipedia writing integrated into the Israeli educational system
In 2014 Wikipedia writing was becoming an official concern for the Israeli educational system in general. "An agreement was met in a meeting between Rabbi Shai Piron, Israel’s Education Minister, Jan-Bart de Vreede, Chair of the Wikimedia Foundation Board of Trustees, Itzik Edri, Chair of the Wikimedia Israel Board and Michal Lester, Executive Director of Wikimedia Israel, regarding a shared cooperation with Wikimedia Israel in the framework of the ministry’s school curricula in the coming years. Through the planned cooperation, history, geography and science teachers will receive special professional training to instruct students on how to contribute to new or incomplete Wikipedia articles for which information is lacking or inadequate.
"The Education Ministry will also examine the possibility of integrating Wikipedia writing assignments in the teaching of research and community involvement. They will also consider having students who speak additional languages (primarily English and Russian) write Wikipedia articles about Israel in those particular languages."
"In the framework of cooperation that is already in place between Wikimedia Israel and the Ministry of education, several pilot projects are being conducted. The projects involve teacher training in good Wikipedia usage, article composition, Wikipedia article writing by gifted high school students and the teaching of proper Wikipedia usage to elementary schoolchildren. It is worth mentioning that through cooperation with academics in a variety of universities and colleges throughout Israel, hundreds of articles are written each year by students in courses. Thus students write Wikipedia articles as part of their degrees, sometimes even in lieu of exams or final papers."
"Survey results published last week as part of Wikipedia Academy 2014 Israel revealed that 84% of the Israeli public relies heavily on Wikipedia and 74% say that it provides all the information they need. Over one third of the population expressed interest in learning to write for Wikipedia."
- Israel to pay students to defend it online
- From Hasbara to Intifada: How Israel's foreign press corps rewrote history
- Israel Cranks Up the PR Machine. The Nation
- Hasbara Propaganda Units Comes to Town
- Hasbara (history)
Hasbara and Wikipedia
- Wikipedia's Hasbara
- Wikipedia: All murdered Israeli children are murdered by… Arabs
- Now It Is Official: Israeli Campaign to Control Wikipedia Content
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- Based on a search of nexislexis for the term “hasbara” in electronically available “Major U.S. and World Publications”, between Jan 1 1940 and Jan 1 1987
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- Israel’s Ministry of Education & Wikimedia Israel Agree On New, Unique Initiative https://blog.wikimedia.org/2014/06/10/israels-ministry-of-education-wikimedia-israel-agree-on-new-unique-initiative/