I was told growing up that an education should produce open-minded and critical thinking individuals. A few days ago in Jerusalem, my experience with a group of North American students taking part in the Hasbara Fellowship program in Israel compelled me to reevaluate that assessment. Hasbara is a Hebrew word that describes Israel’s public diplomacy and public relations initiatives.
Practice Makes Perfect
A friend of mine is undertaking an internship at the Israeli Committee against House Demolitions and invited me to a talk being presented by her boss, Prof. Jeff Halper, to a group of participants in the Hasbara Fellowship program. On the way to the event, Jeff Halper explained to me that he was only invited so that the Fellowship students had an opportunity to practice rebutting criticisms of Israel. Halper’s speech was about reframing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and transitioning from the State of Israel’s conceptualization of the conflict to a human rights framework. The talk was followed by a question-and-answer session, which was less of a dialogue and more of a verbal assault. The security defense argument was mentioned so often by the audience members that my friend and I joked that every criticism could be rejected on the grounds of “security reasons.”
After a short discussion with a small group of students, the security guard responsible for protecting the group initiate a discussion with me and asked my opinion about Halper’s speech and the conflict in general. Shortly after, the coordinator of the Hasbara trip joined our conversation. I had no intention of engaging in a long, drawn out discussion but nonetheless ended up talking with the gentlemen for over an hour. On one hand, it was interesting to hear their point of view and their argumentation strategies. On the other hand, I grew frustrated with the conversation very quickly. I was frustrated by statements which while expressing pity for the innocent Palestinians who suffered from Israeli security measures justified those same security measures with portrayals of Palestinians as terrorists. According to them, even if a Palestinian is innocent today, he will want to kill you tomorrow. Another source of frustration was their uniform rejection of any and all criticisms or alternative representations of the conflict.
State Sponsored Activism
The Hasbara Fellowship program, a pro-Israel campus activism organization that coordinates over 400 pro-Israeli campus events on 80 university campuses across North America, is a project of Aish International (http://www.aish.com). Since 2001, Hasbara Fellowships have brought over 3200 students to Israel for Israel Activism Training, the largest program of its kind that instructs students on strategies for battling anti-Israeli propaganda. In 2011, Hasbara Fellowships, with the sponsorship of the Foreign Ministry of Israel, trained approximately 1000 students in Israel. According to the program, “Hasbara Fellows return to their campuses as strategic thinkers, organizational leaders and innovative advocates, dedicated to the positive portrayal of Israel on campus.“1
A selection process chooses participants based on variables which include Jewish religious identification, family background, education and history of activism. After being selected, participants are obligated to complete an online course that claims to provide a general understanding of the history of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. During their subsequent 16-day stay in Israel, the knowledge they acquire through their online education is reinforced by a range of presentations and strategic tours through the country. The participants complete an activism curriculum that aims to instruct them on how to effectively communicate about Israel and combat anti-Israeli propaganda. Moreover, Jewish identity is promoted and its significance highlighted. After returning to their respective college campuses, the program’s graduates are obligated to be active in pro-Israeli advocacy for at least two semesters. Hasbara Fellowships run pro-Israeli campus campaigns and events that include film presentations, speaking tours and thematic weeks.
For me, education is a critical requirement for formulating a reasonable approach to any conflict. But with the abovementioned experience, it is clear that education manifests itself in many different forms, some of which do not have the goal of developing critical and open-minded thinkers. I now realize that education can sometimes be an obstacle as well. In particular, education that borders on indoctrination has the power to promote radical opinions and marginalize and often exclude dissenting voices.