This is one in a series of columns by Yakov Hirsch on Hasbara Culture, and its impact on discourse and politics in Israel and the U.S. You can see the other columns here.
In the beginning of January 2017, Israeli sergeant Elor Azaria is going to be found guilty for the execution of Abd al Fatah Al-Sharif lying prostate on the ground in Hebron last March 24. And the Israeli political reaction to that verdict will be transformative. It is then that the hasbara culture cultivated by Benjamin Netanyahu will at last be confronted by a sane Israel led by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak.
The discourse that will resound in Israel in defense of Azaria will be incoherent to anyone who is not an adherent of the hasbara culture that now permeates that society. Naftali Bennett, the education minister under Netanyahu, has already been saying that Azaria needs to be pardoned if convicted.
We have already heard from soldiers who say they will go “AWOL” or even desert should their fellow combatant be convicted of manslaughter charges by the military court.
The saga of the Murdering Medic is so important because it has revealed the way that “hasbara” – or the Israeli tradition of spinning its actions to try and make them acceptable to the world – has so deeply affected the spinners themselves that hasbara has hardened into an Israeli construction of reality, so much so that the many participants in that reality no longer think it is necessary to even spin bad events.
The real struggle in Israeli leadership is who can control a sacred ethnocentric discourse of Jewish persecution and innocence. That is what has shaped Israeli politics in recent years: the heavyweight battle between Netanyahu and Bennett over control of the reins of hasbara culture.
Let us recall the Israeli government reaction to the video of the killing when it came out last March. Here, after all, was irrefutable evidence of the IDF behaving as its worst critics around the world claim that it does. The whole scene in its hideous naked glory — with the indifferent Israeli soldier “bystanders” to the shooting, as well as the congratulatory hand shake for Azaria from his friend the settler leader Baruch Marzel at the end (as Larry Derfner revealed)—was a nightmare for the difficult business of hasbara.
The video gave the lie to the carefully cultivated image of the world’s most moral army.
We all braced ourselves for the Israeli effort to spin the video: if only to argue that it was an aberration from the IDF norms.
But that is not what happened. What happened is that high officials in the government said, we saw exactly what you saw in that video, and it is fine.
Let’s go back to the timeline. A couple of days after the killing, Amos Harel in Haaretz described it as a “coldblooded execution” and an inevitable one, but he anticipated official condemnation.
“The chief of staff, who was once a brigade and division commander of soldiers in the territories, knows [that]… Animal-like behavior like that seen in Thursday’s incident in Hebron can quickly become the unwritten procedure for units in the field. That is the reason that the shooter was immediately arrested, an unusual move for the IDF these days, and the reason for the sharp public condemnations issued by [chief of staff Gadi] Eisenkot and Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon…”
“Meanwhile, we’ve seen no right-wing campaign in support of the shooter.”
Even Netanyahu was on board at this point. He said
“that the soldier’s conduct does not represent the army’s values and even insinuated that the soldier failed to act in accordance with the military’s open-fire rules.”
This story might very well have ended there were it not for hasbara culture. Azaria would have been a bad apple. Even the most moral army in the world has a bad apple or two!
But then Education Minister Bennett came into the picture. Three days after the killing, he began lecturing Netanyahu in the very way Netanyahu lectures human rights groups.
“This soldier was sent by the State of Israel to defend against terror during war,” he said before entering the [Cabinet] meeting. “That some of this country’s leadership has jumped to conclusions before the trial is a mistake and are dancing to the tune of B’Tselem…”
Once the Azaria incident got defined as a story of “us” vs our “enemies,” Netanyahu had nowhere to go except to agitate with Bennett. Because it is Netanyahu himself who has cultivated the world view that the Palestinian on the ground should be killed.
Netanyahu can’t be on the B’Tselem side of this fight!
It should be stressed what the environment is in Israel since the so called “knife intifada” started.
Naftali Bennett states that “terrorists must be killed, not freed”; Yair Lapid clarifies, “You have to shoot to kill anyone who pulls out a knife or a screwdriver”; Bezalel Smotrich cries, “A terrorist who sets out to murder Jews, whatever his age, must not return alive”; and Gilad Erdan declares, “Every terrorist must know he won’t survive the attack he is about to commit.”
Bennett best summed up the government line on Azaria:
“Talk of a murder charge against a combat soldier during a combat operation is a moral mistake that blurs the lines between good and evil. I expect this mistake to be mended.”
Netanyahu then reversed himself. He called the parents of the accused medic, and described Azaria as “one of our children.” He later compared his empathetic call to calling a parent of an IDF soldier fallen in combat.
In Netanyahu’s Israel, hasbara culture is the only game in town. You’re either on the side of hasbara culture and all that’s good in the world, or you’re on the side of the devil. Remember what hasbara culture ideas Netanyahu most champions. From his speech at the teens’ funeral in 2014:
“A deep and wide moral abyss separates us from our enemies. They sanctify death while we sanctify life. They sanctify cruelty while we sanctify compassion.”
That statement and Bennett’s statement of “a moral mistake” in blaming Azaria is why I insist that we are dealing with hasbara culture.
Hasbara began as the need to make sense to outsiders, to spin reality. But these leaders are no longer concerned with that project: they will not convince unindoctrinated outsiders that Azaria doesn’t belong in prison with this type of talk. Any ordinary person seeing that video realizes that Elor Azaria does not represent “good” and his going to prison is not a “moral mistake.”
But for the indoctrinated these statements fall on fertile soil. Bennett is reflecting the Israeli experience of reality when he says that the idea of charging Azaria “blurs the lines between good and evil.” We are good, they are evil. Bennett is saying that the scene of the Azaria shooting of Abd al Fatah Al-Shari is “sacred.” It’s part of the us vs them, good vs bad, narrative that is at the heart of hasbara culture. Hasbara culture understands Jewish history as one long morality tale. It is the foundation of an extreme Jewish ethnocentric narrative, which in its telling, started over two millennia ago and runs through all of hasbara culture’s tendentious telling of Jewish history up to today.
We are going to be hearing a lot more of this kind of talk after the inevitable guilty verdict for Azaria in early January.
But we will also be hearing pushback from Israelis who understand how the rest of the world sees reality.
To understand the other side of this ideological battle, you must recall Gen. Yair Golan’s Holocaust memorial speech of last May, when, alarmed by the rising chorus of voices that excused Azaria’s conduct as the appropriate way to treat Palestinians, he warned that Nazi currents are alive in Israeli political culture today. The speech resulted in the sacking of Golan’s former boss, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon, who had defended the speech to Netanyahu.
This duality is also what the whole circus surrounding the Amona settlement is about. Once Bennett agitates and defines the struggle on behalf of the Amona settlers as being the same as the sacred struggle in Jewish and Zionist history, Netanyahu becomes Bennett’s hostage.
Ideological moderation is no longer an option at this late date of Benjamin Netanyahu’s political career. His Manichean scorched earth holy wars against his “leftist” political and cultural enemies is Netanyahu’s signature use of toxic hasbara culture for his personal gain; for electoral success.
And Netanyahu’s big political problem these days is Bennett wanting to become the new overseer of hasbara culture. Netanyahu can never let that happen – or he is done.
This is not just about securing the support of the pro-settlement voters. It’s about securing the support of the entire political culture of Israeli society.
And Naftali Bennett is no ordinary right-wing politician. He has constantly been trying to wrest control of hasbara culture from Benjamin Netanyahu. He knows that it is the key to Netanyahu’s success.
As a recent poll has shown, nearly half of Israelis think the left are “traitors.”
In short, there is no place for the “left” in the totalitarian ideology of hasbara culture.
It is one thing for Netanyahu and Bennett to drag Israeli politics into the narrow and confined space of hasbara culture. The state of Israel must work these things out for itself.
But as an American and a Jew, my concern is the fact that hasbara culture also dominates our discussions of the conflict.
That is the achievement of Jeffrey Goldberg and his followers, who are ready to use the Holocaust and anti-Semitism and other smears against any mainstream voice that is out of line.
Goldberg has said that Jill Stein is crazy for supporting Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions. For the same alleged crime, going to a BDS rally, he has accused a Norwegian rock band of being Nazis.
What Netanyahu has done with hasbara culture in Israel Jeffrey Goldberg has done with it here: created a sacred discourse that no one in the mainstream can contradict. In fact, ever since Andrew Sullivan left the scene, no one has confronted hasbara culture directly here.
And therefore, the Elor Azaria case is a crisis for Goldberg, too. The video of the murdering medic set off a chain of events in Israel in which hasbara culture is NOW facing a serious confrontation. Leading figures have become dissidents, accusing Netanyahu and Bennett and others of fostering fascistic strains in Israeli society. This drama is only going to accelerate when as I believe, Azaria is convicted in January.
Goldberg has had almost nothing to say about Azaria. The reason is obvious. Azaria executing someone because the hasbara culture voice in his head told him to may not be a problem for Naftali Bennett and Israeli leaders, but it is a big Stop sign here. Azaria exposes Goldberg’s achievement: Because in the sacred and tribal socially-constructed reality Goldberg has created, all Palestinian resistance is motivated by hatred for Jews. That is why they attempt to stab soldiers.
But the video of the medic calmly killing an incapacitated Palestinian on the ground exposes what is really going on there. Haaretz’s Gideon Levy described the Israeli policy in the territories:
a policy – to kill, kill and kill. No taking prisoners, no arrest procedures, no rules of engagement. Every knife or scissors wielder, every stone or firebomb thrower and every car rammer – or anyone who is seen to resemble one – must die.
Jeffrey Goldberg has attacked Haaretz as a dissident publication, but his career ambitions do not allow him to say what he really thinks about the “plight” of the Israeli soldier while the world is looking at the Azaria video. Because what Elor Azaria thinks about Palestinian resistance is what Jeffrey Goldberg thinks about Palestinian resistance: It’s all about the Jews. Jeffrey Goldberg’s whole career has been one long tendentious effort to define opposition to Israel as opposition to Jews, as being motivated by a hatred of Jews. And that “social construction of reality” about Abd al Fatah Al-Sharif, which Elor Azaria experienced when he said “the terrorist must die” is what Jeffrey Goldberg has been preaching to the Jewish community and everyone else for the past twenty years.
But when even Israeli leaders have said that the case exposes fascism and Nazi currents in Israel, it is too dangerous for an ambitious “liberal” like Goldberg to say a word in Azaria’s favor.
It is not a surprise that the only thing Jeffrey Goldberg had to say about the case was to retweet a Shmuel Rosner article, whose only coherent message is that the Azaria trial is a PR disaster for Israel. Rosner repeated former defense minister Moshe Arens’s warning about the case:
“Elor Azaria’s Trial Should Never Have Become a Public Affair”
That is precisely Goldberg’s feeling. The case should never have become a public matter because it has only exposed the fact that Hasbara Culture is now run amok in Israel. And when Azaria is convicted, all hell will break loose. A broad segment of society will be outraged; a few sane Israelis will plead for the rule of law. Netanyahu will defend the medic. And Barak will try to unify an anti-Netanyahu coalition.
Goldberg must have felt like the luckiest person in the world when he got promoted to being editor in chief of The Atlantic two months ago. Who could expect the new editor with his huge workload to share his opinion about what was going on in Israel!
I have done my best to show how the Elor Azaria story and its reverberations in Israel have been spun by the hasbarists here. The people who have made a career out of obfuscation and obscurantism about all things Israel (from Max Boot to Bret Stephens to Eli Lake) continued to do so in our discourse. We will return after the Azaria verdict to assess how these “journalists” who claim to be the biggest experts America and the Jewish community have to offer on Israel did on their real life quiz about what the Azaria story was really about.
Meanwhile we can only cross our fingers and hope that Jeffrey Goldberg– “no greater journalist writing in the country today,” and our biggest expert on Israel– will take a break from his busy schedule and share his wisdom with the rest of us. What has Elor Azaria wrought?