Hasbara, or Israel’s social diplomacy, is the focus of Knesset member Nachman Shai’s excellent study Hearts and Minds, winner of the 2013 Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. According to Shai, hasbara is what Israel’s leaders have neither taken seriously enough, nor implemented well enough throughout the country’s existence.
Moving chronologically, Shai analyzes how Israel’s leadership has dealt with conflict. Though Israel has won many victories on the military front by exercising hard power, in the arena of soft power, or hasbara, Shai argues, resources have been either ineffective, reluctantly employed, or nonexistent. There are recent signs, however, of shifting attitudes. Public and private media and non-governmental organizations are playing a growing role in the battle for “hearts and minds.”
Too frequently, argues Shai, Israel is taken by surprise by anti-Israel propaganda campaigns — even though the state is rarely blindsided when it comes to the hard power dimensions of national security. Shai’s analysis of the Israeli reaction to the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement is remarkable in its incision and passion. In 2010, several years after the formation of BDS, the Israeli government proposed that the prime minister create policy to confront BDS propaganda. Why did it take so long to reach this stage? Shai claims that even when the necessity of public diplomacy has been understood and properly valued, Israel’s success has been limited due to its fragmented approach.
Through Shai’s highly persuasive and constructive criticisms, he also reveals the internal rivalries that hinder effective policy. Consistently, but with civility, he points out who has contributed to hasbara, and who has impeded progress. Names are named. Shai is, after all, a politician. However, he is also an impassioned scholar. His clarity and thoroughness — including extensive notes and references — make this book an important read for all who care about Israel’s future.
Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English at the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don’t Wave Goodbye: The Children’s Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.