How Israel's Dusty Zionist Bureaucracy Survives

Jobs for Cronies — and Ties to Deep-Pocketed Diaspora


By Anshel Pfeffer

Published May 10, 2014.
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“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.”

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