How Israel's Dusty Zionist Bureaucracy Survives

Jobs for Cronies — and Ties to Deep-Pocketed Diaspora


By Anshel Pfeffer

Published May 10, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 5 of 5)

“That’s ridiculous,” says a veteran diplomat who has served in Eastern Europe. “What does Israel have diplomats for? If Nativ is so capable, why has more than one of its representatives been kicked out of Russia and other places in recent years? And why is Nativ trying to work in Germany and the U.S.? The only reason is it provides Lieberman with funding and people to safeguard his interests with his base.”

Nativ today has only two defined roles: To examine the eligibility of potential immigrants and to operate Israeli cultural centers. “It’s redundant since the Jewish Agency is the body that normally prepares immigrants, and there are cultural attaches at the embassies,” says an experienced aliyah activist. “As it is, emigration from the Former Soviet Union is dwindling, and there’s no reason it can’t be handled through the consulates in an orderly fashion.”

Despite everything, Nativ is under pressure to justify its existence and is occasionally forced out of the shadows. The comptroller found it overstepped its authority by organizing “hasbara,” or “Israeli PR,” and “branding” events abroad. In that, Nativ is no different than the “national institutions,” which have all been trying recently to get in on the hasbara act, the new global frontier of Zionism.

Everyone wants to be a hasbara hero

Two weeks ago, the National Information Directorate in the Prime Minister’s Office held an unofficial gathering of hasbara organizations. “Members of over 30 private organizations came,” said one of those present. “It was incredible, there wasn’t enough room for everyone.” Each of these groups has heavy-weight donors, offices in Israel and abroad, a strong presence on the Internet and social media and a steely determination to conquer the battlefield of ideas — for Israel and the Jewish people.

In the absence of mass aliyah, the hottest cause in the world of Jewish organizations is hasbara — fighting the two-headed monster of anti-Semitism and the delegitimization of Israel. ”There’s no security or diplomatic crisis,” says one Zionist activist with years of hasbara experience. “But you have to keep the Zionist engines running, so you manufacture a threat.”

“Everyone now wants to be a hasbara hero,” sighs an Israeli diplomat. “They need a crisis, so they have ‘delegitimization,’ as if that’s going to destroy Israel.”

Despite the often-heard complaints that “Israel doesn’t explain itself well,” the Jewish state has never had so many self-appointed ambassadors to the world, and the government’s allocations for PR are breaking records. Entire organizations, such as the World Jewish Congress, which used to focus on discreet diplomacy, have been refocused on hasbara for Israel and fighting anti-Semitism. The WZO has beefed up its anti-Semitism department and hired a PR firm to draw journalists’ attention to any and every odious utterance on the Internet.

As in any war, facts go out the window. Research showing that anti-Semitism in Europe and North America have actually gone down is disregarded, as is the expert view that the threat to Israel from delegitimization and the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement has been blown far out of any proportion. “Thirty years ago, Jewish officials were talking about the poisonous atmosphere on campuses in America, exactly as they are today,” says one Israeli who works with American-Jewish organizations. “But if you look at things from a historical perspective, nothing has changed. It’s just the Internet that’s magnifying the threat. Meanwhile, Israel’s diplomatic and commercial ties with the world have improved exponentially and there’s absolutely no sign of any reversal of that trend.”

The argument over the severity of the threat has combined with a turf war between the Foreign Ministry and other government departments trying to get in on the hasbara act. In the previous Netanyahu government, Yuli Edelstein’s Diaspora and Public Diplomacy Ministry tried to lead the charge and push campaigns on campuses. Funding that it transferred abroad was blocked by the consulates and Edelstein had to get Foreign Minister Lieberman to intervene. A hasbara activist complains, “The Foreign Ministry wants everything to stay with them, that’s why Israel’s image is so bad. They block initiative and resources because of the diplomats’ prestige.”

In the current government, the standard-bearer is Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz. His office has prepared an ambitious plan to fight delegitimization, which demands a budget of 100 million shekels. “All they want to do is fight the whole world,” says a dismissive diplomat. “We have to engage with people, but they are convinced we’re facing an existential threat.”

Netanyahu has yet to decide whether to award Steinitz the budget. While the squabbling within the government continues, the freelance organizations are representing Israel. They all claim to be non-political and “pro-Israel,” but the reality is they hew to a hard-right agenda, often creating absurd situations. Earlier this year, a group of British Jewish students backed by the Stand With Us movement expelled from the Israel Society at Oxford University Israeli students who were unhappy with their obsessive focus on fighting pro-Palestinian groups on campus.

“Only the right-wingers are on the frontline” says a British left-wing Zionist activist. “I wish groups like Peace Now and J Street were prepared to confront the anti-Israel far-left. Instead the right-wing has totally monopolized hasbara and it’s all become very violent and theatrical. The whole world now believes the far-right represents Israel.”

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • Move over Dr. Ruth — there’s a (not-so) new sassy Jewish sex-therapist in town. Her name is Shirley Zussman — and just turned 100 years old.
  • From kosher wine to Ecstasy, presenting some of our best bootlegs:
  • Sara Kramer is not the first New Yorker to feel the alluring pull of the West Coast — but she might be the first heading there with Turkish Urfa pepper and za’atar in her suitcase.
  • About 1 in 40 American Jews will get pancreatic cancer (Ruth Bader Ginsberg is one of the few survivors).
  • At which grade level should classroom discussions include topics like the death of civilians kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets?
  • Wanted: Met Council CEO.
  • “Look, on the one hand, I understand him,” says Rivka Ben-Pazi, a niece of Elchanan Hameiri, the boy that Henk Zanoli saved. “He had a family tragedy.” But on the other hand, she said, “I think he was wrong.” What do you think?
  • How about a side of Hitler with your spaghetti?
  • Why "Be fruitful and multiply" isn't as simple as it seems:
  • William Schabas may be the least of Israel's problems.
  • You've heard of the #IceBucketChallenge, but Forward publisher Sam Norich has something better: a #SoupBucketChallenge (complete with matzo balls!) Jon Stewart, Sarah Silverman & David Remnick, you have 24 hours!
  • Did Hamas just take credit for kidnapping the three Israeli teens?
  • "We know what it means to be in the headlines. We know what it feels like when the world sits idly by and watches the news from the luxury of their living room couches. We know the pain of silence. We know the agony of inaction."
  • When YA romance becomes "Hasidsploitation":
  • "I am wrapping up the summer with a beach vacation with my non-Jewish in-laws. They’re good people and real leftists who try to live the values they preach. This was a quality I admired, until the latest war in Gaza. Now they are adamant that American Jews need to take more responsibility for the deaths in Gaza. They are educated people who understand the political complexity, but I don’t think they get the emotional complexity of being an American Jew who is capable of criticizing Israel but still feels a deep connection to it. How can I get this across to them?"
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.