Israel’s enemies like to invoke the Hebrew word “hasbara” (perhaps because they think it sounds sneaky and sinister) whenever they want to suggest something malevolent about Israel and its supporters making their case in the public arena.
In fact “hasbara” means nothing more pernicious than “explaining.” The Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronot reports on a number of young people worldwide who have taken it upon themselves to explain Israel on often hostile online comment boards.
Dubbed “Talkbacks” in Hebrew, comments first appeared in the bottom of news websites, where they were carefully screened for swear words and racism, but recently they’ve wandered to the news Facbook pages, which attracts hundreds of thousands if not millions of followers. There, under a full name and without masks, anything goes.
Now, in the Israeli-Palestinian battle for world opinion, comments are an unusual battlefield: They are the only arena in virtual space that creates a direct, real-time and active conflict between Israel’s supporters and its opponents. Here, clever illustrations of missiles or a screen caption of a mother shielding her children from missiles will not do; in the neurotic world of talkbacks, every photo has a reply, every reply has a comment, and every comment has a minute-long shelf life before it too is debunked by rivals. Which truth will eventually win – the Israeli one or the Palestinian one? Much of it depends on comment posters’ perseverance and their devotion to the battle of the minds.
Dr. Tzvi Reich from the Department of Communication in Ben-Gurion University took part in a thorough international study where Internet surfing and comment posting habits were studied on 24 leading news websites in the world, from the US to France, from Germany to Estonia. He said the comment posters’ ability to control discourse compared to their size in the population is simply enormous. Studies in the world and in Israel, he said, show that only 4%-7% of news website surfers post comments, and a much larger percent reads them: 30%-40% of surfers.
“A small group of comment posters who are skilled and devoted can monopolize an article, such as a political item in Israel, and appear as a majority, or at least larger than it is,” he said. It is clear to him that comments posted on news websites have psychological effects as well: “A surfer can read a comment in an article and understand he is in the minority and feel bad about it, like he’s on the wrong side.”
That is the exact reason why some try to show surfers “the right side”. Avishai Bitton, a 24-year-old student from Rishon Lezion, is another Israeli web warrior. As a child, he came to Israel from New York, where he lived right across from the UN Headquarters. During his military service, a while after the operation in Gaza in 2009, he went to visit family in the US and passed by a pro-Palestinian rally in the Big Apple. The chasm between the signs reading “Israel is a murderer” and his experiences as a soldier in the most moral army in the world, as he continuously calls it, jolted him. Since then, he has been there: Morning, noon, night, whenever is needed. Coffee on the table, laptop in his hands, looking for virtual battles around the world.
“There isn’t a day when I don’t visit an international news website,” he says. “Some days the world is merciful and focuses on Syria and I can sleep. But you find yourself awake at night, and it’s not just due to empathizing with the State, it’s because of wanting justice. You write ten lines in a comment just so you can go to bed at night and say, ‘I did what I could, I showed the other side of the story as much as possible.’ There were days when I spent 12-14 hours in front of news site. I got up in the morning, I sat at the computer; and only went to sleep when I could no longer write.”
But Israelis and Jewish communities in the Diaspora are not alone in the fight. “The majority of the people writing pro-Israel talkbacks are not Jewish,” said Philip Fabian, a 32-year-old German from Berlin. “I never started to write pro-Israeli talkbacks consciously. I am a classic news-junkie, and the internet contributed a lot in developing my political conscience, starting in the post 9/11 world and the Intifada of the last decade. It made me realize the obvious shortcomings of mainstream media news outlets, especially when it comes to Israel.”
The experience he describes sounds thoroughly Israeli: “With many people, after discussing and repeating the same things again and again, you realize that you are in a loop with no way out, and you know that trying to explain Israel or anti-Semitism to them is like trying to teach a cow how to read. But sometimes, you realize some people start to change bit by bit, because they admit to themselves that you are right in some points, or because they get a point of view on things that they haven’t encountered before.”
And Israel has Arab online defenders too.
A few Arab Israelis who were part of hasbara efforts during various wars refused to be interviewed, but young Saudi Hussein, resident of Riyadh, is proud of his work. He started posting comments supporting Israel four years ago.
“I admit that I used to hate Israel because of the propaganda in the Arab and Muslim world,” he said, “And I even thought any dialogue with Israelis is treason. But as time passed, my opinions changed, and the Israelis I talk to helped me see the facts.” Hussein saves Israel’s face on Arab websites and on Facebook. More than once, he said, he has received hateful comments from extreme Islamists, as he calls them, who were enraged about his support of Israel’s existence and about negative comments he made regarding Hamas and Hezbollah.
“I write that I’m a good friend of Israel and Israelis and I’m proud of it,” Hussein said. His Saudi friends are aware of his odd hobby, and he said some support him and some do not care. He is not afraid of the Saudi regime, either: “I know the red lines in my country. If you attack religious symbols like Muhammad, you’re in trouble, but if you praise Israel – there’s nothing to worry about. Many Saudis support peace with Israel, and many famous Saudi individuals, like the manager of Al-Arabiya, said wonderful things about it without anything happening.”
I’ve long believed that Israel’s most effective supporters are those who acknowledge its faults and don’t feel compelled to defend every action of the Israeli government, whether or not they agree with it.
The Israeli army of comment posters is made up of idealists driven by a sense of calling who want to prove the world wrong, but some of them say they themselves sometimes are faced with complex reality, and enemy comments seed doubts in them. Some incidents are hard to justify, some killing is avoidable, and sometimes they too are convinced that Israelis can do more for peace.
“I’m generally very convinced of the importance of Zionist work,” said [Ehud] Assoulin [an Israeli studying in Rome], “So there isn’t a comment poster who made me question the idea that Israel is based on, but such massive exposure to opposite opinions has made me see the reality in a more balanced way. I also don’t rush to justify everything Israel does. When soldiers in the West Bank detained the five-year-old, I clarified in my comments that I think the soldiers were wrong, and focused on explaining the context, the fact that what happened was a detainment and a slap on the wrist, not an arrest, and that it’s not a game of good vs. bad.” Many comment posters also say that the building in the settlements is an action they find difficult to explain.