Why ‘Hasbara’ is a Dirty Word
The passing of former Israeli Premier Yitzchak Shamir this week prompted a public reckoning of his life and achievements mostly in the form of newspaper obituaries, and eulogies from Israeli leaders. Nothing however compares to the well rounded impression that one can glean, of a man one has never met, by watching videos of his interviews and talks.
What is striking about Shamir, as many before me have observed, is the directness of his language. In a 45 minute interview from 1988 conducted by the Council of Jewish Federations he refers to “our interests” repeatedly. I don’t recall hearing Prime Minister Netanyahu dismiss an American or foreign position simply “because it is not in our interests.”
I was reminded of George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” in which he condemns political rhetoric as a vehicle “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable,” and “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He counsels; “if you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy.” By all appearances, Shamir refreshingly lived by that creed.
Shamir may have frustrated many, particularly those, whose positions were at odds with Israel’s but under his watch they were clearly conveyed and understood.
Israel’s enemies have long appreciated the value of linguistic obfuscation and have even institutionalized its use. For example, the Palestinian Authority Ministry of Information has published a book instructing Palestinian Arabs on what terms and phrases they should use. Instead of ‘terror’ they are instructed to say ‘resistance,’ for ‘Judea and Samaria’ say ‘Occupied West Bank,’ for ‘Israeli Defense Minister’ use ‘Israeli Minster of War’ and so on.
In some instances this strategy has been so effective that these PA terms have permeated mainstream lexicon. Who nowadays refers to Judea and Samaria? The implications of the successful implementation of this strategy have been far reaching in negatively framing the context of discussions regarding Israel from the outset.
However, on the other side, the term that is typically used to denote the activity of stating Israel’s case; ‘hasbara,’ is indicative of everything that is lacking in the effectiveness of many of the well intentioned efforts out there.
For starters, the word, which means ‘explanation,’ is a defensive and reactive term, in and of itself, it denotes acceptance of some need for ‘explanation,’ it acknowledges an alternate narrative that needs to be explained away. Certainly it lacks the definitiveness and finality of a word that carries a straightforward statement of fact, like for example, zehu, – this is.
Hasbara reflects the kind of language that Orwell rallies against. The talking points and sophisticated justifications, avoidance of difficult issues and the repeated use of terms that mean vastly different things to different people and groups, for example ‘peace,’ or ‘security.’
In this sense Shamir was a breath of fresh air as he intimately understood the need to do away with the explaining and start stating, the importance of language, and its capacity to convey simple clarity.
“If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration,” Orwell wrote. Undoubtedly, in the battleground of ideas, achieving clarity is the first step to securing victory.
If Shamir was charged with branding today’s preeminent occupation of myriad pro-Israel organizations, instead of hasbara, I would wager that he would have labeled his brand of Israel representation simply as hatzharah – Statement.