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Defending the indefensible: Israel’s Wikipedia war

For more than six decades, unquestioning Western public support for Israel has been contingent upon the ability of pro-Israeli groups to dominate the media and spin even the most appalling of Israeli actions into something acceptable. Central to this need for advocates to defend Israel is the persistent question marks over its legitimacy, going back to 1917 and colonial Britain’s endorsement of the Zionist project through the Balfour Declaration. Since 1967, Israel’s oppressive military occupation of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem – characterised by serious breaches of international and humanitarian law, the siege of Gaza, its ethno-religious apartheid system of discrimination within its borders and its growing reputation as a rogue state – has magnified the legitimacy question. Despite the existence of an elaborate Israeli propaganda (“hasbara”) machine and a long-term PR campaign to mask a grand strategy of settler-colonial expansionism, increasing access to the internet has meant that Zionist hegemony over the carefully edited narrative that dictates western perceptions of the Middle East conflict is being eroded. While many remain unaware of the full situation in all its ugly reality, with the help of the internet and the ever more extreme actions of Israel itself, the obfuscating explanations being pushed by the compliant media are scrutinised more objectively and rejected by the public.


In response to the “threat of losing the internet” and the legitimacy war as a whole, pro-Israeli hasbara and “diplomacy route” efforts have diversified and widened the scope of their action. The groups, individuals, lobbies and think tanks involved, although extrinsic to the Israeli government, often work in tandem with the state’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to attack critics of its policy and promote a pro-Israel message using explanations thought up to placate Western opinion.

Last week, Wikipedia, the hugely popular online encyclopaedia that has long been a battlefield in the narrative war, became an official target of “Zionist editing”. Two right-wing Zionist groups in Israel, the Yesha Council of Settlements and Israel Sheli, have set up a training course to teach individuals about methods of editing and influencing online content to reflect a particular ideological view point. In this way it is hoped that Westerners will, subconsciously, take as fact Israeli propaganda consisting of “all the correct arguments and explanations” in defence of Israel and its image. One of the course organisers explained: “…we want to be there [on the internet]; to influence what is written there, how it’s written and to ensure that it is balanced and Zionist in nature”. A course participant said, “In general, it’s so important for us to be online working to defend ourselves and to prove to the world and to ourselves that we are just and we are right.” The type of “problem” the course hopes its newly-trained editors will “fix” is Wikipedia’s use of the word “occupied” to describe the Palestinian territories occupied by Israel in 1967; one participant has taken issue with the map of Israel being portrayed “without the Golan Heights or Judea and Samaria”, known more generally as the Syrian Golan Heights and the occupied West Bank.

Of the 80 participants on the course, the majority were either religious or settlers, or both. This is indicative of the current ideological revivalism in Israel spearheaded by the ultra-nationalist, religious and messianic settler movement and of the country’s inexorable shift to the far-right of the political spectrum. Coupled with Israel’s crisis of legitimacy, its deep-seated anxieties about its viability, a siege mentality and irrational fears of mortal threat, Israelis feel obliged to defend themselves psychologically by entrenching in their world view. According to Carlo Strenger, this includes identity narratives of righteousness which become ever more rigid leading to growing distrust, hatred and negative stereotypes of outsiders. This would account for the rise of hawkish ultra-nationalists like Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the central role Zionist ideology has assumed in decision making and Israel’s new media image. It is based on a staunch belief in Israel’s exceptionalism; that it is completely justified in whatever it does and as such should never be held to account for its actions, leading to a categorical rejection of any kind of criticism.

Writing for Haaretz, Yitzhak Laor explains that this status quo is maintained through much of Israeli society existing in a state of deliberate denial of a 43 year long reality too ugly to confront – its military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and the Golan Heights. Human rights organisations in Israel are lambasted because the public refuses to know about the oppression and daily atrocities perpetrated in their name against Palestinians; it is even becoming taboo to talk about the occupied territories. This mental separation is maintained with the help of the apartheid wall, the separate settler-only roads, the army and the media, and nurtures a mindset that asserts “we are here and they are not here. The only freedom is the freedom to be and to blot out whatever casts doubt on the safety of the knowledge that denies this”.

By claiming to promote Zionist values, the Knesset continues to produce increasingly fascistic legislation aimed at blotting out uncomfortable truths, including inter alia the law against commemorating the Nakba (the events of 1948 which lead to the creation of the Palestinian refugee crisis and the loss of their land); the law against denying that Israel is both Jewish and democratic; the law demanding an oath of loyalty to the Jewish state; and the anti-boycott laws.  

This willingness to deny or alter the facts, and to play at semantic mind games where “balanced” becomes a synonym for “Zionist in nature” and the word “occupied” must not be used to describe land which is, well, occupied, does not translate well to the logically minded or those who’d just rather not be lied to. Moreover the demand that the world must understand and accept Israel’s exceptional position, would require everyone to cultivate a certain disjointedness of thought and the kind of casual relationship with reality that would allow the trainee Zionist Wikipedia editors to prove to themselves, through their own fabrications, that they are just and right. It is this sort of twisted logic for which the Orwellian word “doublethink” could have been invented: “the acceptance of contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time, especially as a result of political indoctrination”.

These underlying facts go a long way in explaining the major recent failures in Israeli hasbara efforts and why it appears so very ludicrous to the independent observer. The sloppy, malevolent bullishness of official Israeli PR, not dissimilar to Lieberman’s periodic bouts of verbal incontinence, may be underscored clearly by the flotilla incident earlier this year in which 9 Turkish activists were shot dead by the Israeli navy in international waters. From its grotesquely quaint operational name (“Sea Breeze”), to the government press office circulating a repulsive youtube spoof poking fun at the massacre, to the army having to retract footage it edited then claimed showed activists shouting “go back to Auschwitz”, as well as claims that activists were violent terrorist al-Qaida mercenaries, Israel’s spin on the murderous piracy was a complete fiasco.

That is not to say that all hasbara on Israel’s behalf is failing. The tried and tested array of tactics such as outright denial, de-contextualisation, justification, obfuscation, deflection and smear campaigns attempting to make us all believe absurdities and forget the truth, are alive and well. Most crucial are the explanations based on slogans and canards we have been conditioned not to question: Israel has a right to exist, to defend its security and to defend itself against violent terrorist attacks; Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East; the West is built on Judeo-Christian roots; and Israel is an integral part of the West.  

Indeed, given Israel’s monopoly on the distribution of evidence from the flotilla; the fact that it cut live streaming from the ship, confiscated and edited all photographic and video evidence from activists; and that for days, major media organisations had little choice but to focus on an Israeli led discourse, some would argue that Israel won the flotilla media battle. This does not mean, however, that the British public bought Israel’s version of events. Commenting in the Guardian, Robert Fowke wrote, “Another reason for my disproportionate interest in the conflict is that I feel I have been lied to, and I feel that people are still trying to lie to me and I don’t like it. Why try to convince me that those Turkish activists on board the Mavi Marmara were terrorists? Whatever else they were, they patently were not that. If the word terrorist is to have any meaning at all, it must refer to those who attack innocent civilians. From an Israeli propaganda perspective, silence would be better than lies.” The resources, influence, long-term nature and media expertise behind Israel’s hasbara and PR campaign should guarantee that it continues to win media battles. However, advocacy and PR for Israel has essentially become an exercise in censorship and attests to the fact that it is definitely losing the legitimacy war; this is its only real existential threat.

In 2005, Professor Avi Shlaim wrote: “The Palestinians do not pose a threat to Israel’s basic security; it is the other way round. Israel is not fighting for its security or survival, but to retain territories it conquered in 1967. The war that Israel is waging against the Palestinian people on their land is a colonial war. Like all other colonial wars it is savage, senseless, directed mainly against civilians, and doomed to failure.” Since Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s brutal assault on and invasion of Gaza in 2008/9, it has become near impossible to sell the Israeli case in Britain. Not only is Israel seen as the last bastion of colonial power but also as a bulwark of apartheid rule and even a rogue state. In the past few years, taking the struggle against the utterly discredited apartheid regime in South Africa as its historic inspiration, Britain has become a centre for international civil protest and BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) initiatives against Israel.

The threat posed by this global justice movement is considered a greater threat to Israel than Palestinian violence. As such, pro-Israeli organisations worldwide have, in conjunction with the Israeli government, mobilised to fight the threat of “de-legitimisation” through a strategic counter-campaign with massive additional investment and government funding for PR activities. Conferences have been held and specialist organisations and working groups set up, preparing reports, working papers and new strategies which have been hammered out to try and meet the challenge. One of the key strategies has been to “rebrand” Israel by downplaying both religion and the conflict with the Palestinians and promoting the state in terms of trade, scientific and cultural achievements and a pink-washed tourism. An offensive element of the campaign includes keeping tabs on activists, pressure tactics, “lawfare” and “de-legitimising the de-legitimisers”, as was seen with the campaign to discredit Judge Richard Goldstone following the publication of his UN Report on the Gaza invasion.  

Due to Britain’s prominence in BDS and other pro-justice activities, pro-Israel organisations in the UK have taken an active role in the anti-boycott campaign. According to the Jewish Chronicle – itself a mouthpiece for Israeli hasbara – the three most prominent pro-Israel lobbies fighting the boycott campaign in Britain are BICOM (British Israel Communications and Research Centre), Conservative Friends of Israel and the Labour Friends of Israel; together they have an annual budget of £2-2.5 million with BICOM’s billionaire chairman, Poju Zabludowicz, allegedly underwriting any budget shortfalls. This does not take into account the vast sums received from the Israeli government or the hugely powerful American lobbies likes AIPAC.

There have been calls for a centralised coordinating body for the anti-boycott campaign, taking its lead from Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. With Israel’s shift to the far-right, the undercurrent of ideological revivalism in Israel has had a definite impact on the type and method of support being offered to the state by diaspora Jewish organisations. According to David Newman, they “have become more outspoken, less apologetic and more ‘Americanised’ in the way they defend the Jewish state from afar.” According to BICOM’s chairman, “Israel has nothing to be ashamed of and should speak up more and explain more.” Indeed the ubiquity, speed of response and vociferousness of pro-Israel supporters is eye-watering.

However, this strident, unapologetic “Lieberman-esque” form of advocacy is failing and has backfired. Not least, this is because it relies on an approach of simply discrediting opponents rather than tackling the issues, and proclaiming national innocence and virtue, which actually contributes to Israel being singled out for condemnation and aggravates the public’s antipathy.  

Moreover, to be aware of Israel’s dirty underbelly and yet support it unquestioningly and, indeed, advocate its cause, is a dish, according to the Beinart essay, that young liberal American Jews haven’t quite got a taste for; repulsed by the status quo, they are abandoning their support for Israel as an occupying power. For diaspora Jews in the US who are largely liberals, there is a chasm between their supposed liberalism and their support for Israel and for years they have been told to “check-in their liberalism at Zionism’s door”. However, the refusal of many leading diaspora organisations to adopt a moral stance on Israel’s behaviour in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and towards Israel’s own Arab citizens is forcing them to choose between their core beliefs and a right-wing state. Consequently, fewer and fewer liberals are identifying themselves as Zionists.

Israel’s flotilla PR debacle and Zionist targeting of Wikipedia entries, along with liberal US Jewry’s abandonment of right-wing Israel and the millions being ploughed into Israeli hasbara, are symptoms of a malaise with the same root cause: a refusal to use international law to address the core issues going back to 1948. No amount of Wikipedia editing can alter the fact that Israel is a colonial occupier. No matter how many laws are passed in the Knesset, it cannot alter the fact that Israel discriminates against its non-Jewish citizens. No amount of pink-washing can change its abominable human rights record. Cosmetic changes and lip service will no longer do, as very soon Israel will be a state that even Israelis cannot defend.

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