Latest update: July 31st, 2012
Berachah – blessing – says the Gemara, is found only in things that remain unwatched and out of sight. Hasbara – the way Israel explains itself to the world – might be in better shape taking a cue from that Gemara.
Every few years marketing pundits come up with a new strategy for hasbara, claiming the old one was all wrong and the new one will work better. Perhaps the most infamous sea change in hasbara took place a few years ago, when marketers decided Israel should brand itself as a “fun” place and undo all the old stodgy stereotypes. We know how well that worked.
It is unfair to blame Israel. Its job is to fight on the military front, and we daveneach day for the success of its soldiers. The second front, that of public opinion, should be fought by Jews around the world. There is only so much a small country with limited resources can do. (Friends in the Foreign Ministry like to remind me that the yearly hasbara budget for the ministry is less than the advertising budget of Israel’s leading yogurt producer.)
Yet the most effective tools sometimes are the ones that remain hidden from sight, never having been promoted as hasbara instruments. A few weeks ago I witnessed one of these in action.
Around this time each year, dozens of cities host “Honor Israel” nights in which Christian friends of Israel gather to show their support for the Jewish state and the Jewish people. As a staffer at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, I was invited to Grand Rapids, Michigan to update such a gathering about BDS – the boycott, divestment and sanctions strategy that Palestinians have been counting on to turn public opinion away from Israel. When I arrived, I learned that someone who happened to be nearby had been added to the program.
Major Liron Shapira is a career IDF officer. A kibbutznik, he served in a combat force and then decided he was ready for new challenges. He switched to the IDF search-and-rescue (SAR) unit. When the earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, Liron deployed with the IDF team that was one of the most vaunted success stories of the international relief effort.
Liron was not in the U.S. on a hasbara assignment for the IDF. He was the partnering with a U.S. military unit he held in high esteem. In several ways he struck a different figure from the type of Israeli spokespeople Americans often encounter. He was soft-spoken, tentative rather than certain, and strikingly humble. No airs or pretensions at all. All of this made his effort devastatingly effective.
His audio-visual presentation told the story of the entire operation as seen by the SAR people, as opposed to the medical personnel who took over once survivors were located and transported. Preserving footage of some of the most difficult extractions from the rubble demonstrated the competence of the Israeli team, but small vignettes he included offered the greatest insight into the Israeli soul.
He showed pictures of backslapping between members of different SAR teams, but also pointed out the differences between them. On one occasion, cutting through concrete was hampered by embedded iron rods. His platoon did not have the instrument it needed to reach a trapped survivor, but he knew of several others that did. He only went to groups he knew possessed at least two of the tools. Nonetheless, each of them turned down his request to borrow the tool.
Liron detected a casualness about human life even among these lifesavers – with one exception. The U.S. team shared the same regard for human life, he said. Liron’s voice expressed genuine anguish and childlike innocence in relating this and similar stories. How could people not respond to the opportunity to save a life?
Even in dealing with death, the different groups displayed their prejudices. He showed pictures of large buildings reduced to piles of rubble, with bodies openly lying in the debris days after the quake. No one stopped to cover them until the Israelis chanced upon them. (A Midrash praises King David for returning to the battlefield the day after victory for the single purpose of burying the enemy dead.)
The most poignant moment came at the end of a clip on the successful extraction of a Haitian buried for nine days beneath a collapsed building. After burrowing, cutting and chiseling, the Israelis found him and began the arduous task of hauling a possibly injured man through a narrow passageway they had freed up.
The crowd outside cheered “We love Israel” as they brought the man out to light he had not believed he would see again. His eyes strained against the light as he opened his eyes. The very first thing he saw was the face of the doctor peering down at him, probing his face for broken bones. The doctor was an Ethiopian Jew, sent half way around the world by “apartheid” Israel.
When the SAR work was completed, his men didn’t simply wait out the time until departure. They spent their last days providing needed services for the Haitians, like building latrines and water tanks. Liron showed one such tank, decorated by the Haitians after they had constructed it. Its entire height had been painted in the form of two flags, side by side – one of the U.S., the other of Israel.
Liron left the audience with a glimpse into the Jewish soul common to all the team’s participants: religious and secular, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, male and female, young and old. It was moving for the non-Jews to behold. It was moving for me. It was hasbara at its best – without even trying.
Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Sydney M Irmas adjunct chair, Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School.
About the Author: Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein is director of Interfaith Affairs of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles and the Sydney M Irmas adjunct chair, Jewish Law and Ethics, Loyola Law School.
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