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Hasbara Culture and the Curse of Bibi-ism

How Prime Minister Netanyahu turns all political opinions about his leadership into a referendum on nothing less than the Manichean struggle between good and evil

Yakov Hirsch
February 14, 2018
Illustration: Andy Friedman
Illustration: Andy Friedman
Illustration: Andy Friedman
Illustration: Andy Friedman

Editor’s Note: Yakov Hirsch is a person who came to our attention on Twitter, where he regularly assails “hasbara culture,” a banner under which he regularly berates a group of Jewish journalists including Liel Leibovitz at Tablet, Bret Stephens of The New York Times, and Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, and also the thinker Sam Harris.

What separated Hirsch’s attacks from run-of-the-mill social-media invective, at least in our read, was that they didn’t rely on the usual lazy thought categories like “right wing” or “liberal” or “neocon” or “anti-Israel,” which have been largely emptied of any specific meaning and become labels intended to put some writer or thinker beyond the pale for whatever group. Instead, he seems most offended by the idea that these writers are something else—but what?

We reached out to ask him. As it turns out, Hirsch grew up in Borough Park, where he spoke Yiddish, and then went on to study at the Mir yeshiva in Israel. He is still working on his high school diploma. He worked for years at 47th Street Photo while taking college classes at Hunter. He was also, it turns out, quite good at chess, which eventually landed him a job working for a nonprofit teaching and coaching chess teams for inner city schools. He coached a few to national championships and even went to Moscow in 1998 with a Bronx team to compete in the Chess Olympiad. He’s now a professional poker player living in Los Angeles.

Politically, he describes himself as “young neocon who at some point got mugged by reality.” He remembers answering “Bibi” when someone asked him who his favorite politician was in the early 1990s, but one particular Israeli government move disturbed him and motivated him to write about Israeli politics, with which he has been preoccupied ever since.

To him, “hasbara culture” means something specific, whose exact contours were impossible to sense and certainly to describe on social media. So we decided to invite Hirsch to explain “hasbara culture” in a medium in which he would have more than 140 characters to make his point.

Here is his reply:

I have written the following essay in the spirit of what the journalist Nicholas Lemann said on a YIVO stage on Nov. 5, 2007, before a discussion of Stephen M. Walt and John J. Mearsheimer’s The Israel Lobby:

To the extent that anyone here in the audience or on our panel may be Jewish, I would just remind you that we are people of the book, and we are raised on disputations over text. We believe that constant argument is a good thing; we believe that the best argument wins in the end after a lot of bitter disputation and that the really good arguments have a lot of staying power.


What’s Benjamin Netanyahu’s secret? How is it that he can do no wrong? We have lost count how many of his allies have turned into enemies. Words and agreements mean nothing to the man. He has bullied American presidents decades apart while remaining unscathed. His family life is a horror show, and he incites hatred among his people. He is responsible for making important segments of American Jews and Democratic Party politicians turn away from Israel in disgust. By word and deed, he makes a mockery of the Two-State Solution he (sometimes) claims to back.

And if that’s not enough to make Netanyahu an unappealing politician, “Mr. Security” is constantly overruling Israel’s own security experts on how best to keep Israelis safe. Instead of supporting his Likud defense minister and the IDF high command, Netanyahu took the side of Elor Azaria, the IDF soldier caught executing a Palestinian on video. Netanyahu, who sells himself as the great defender of IDF virtue, sabotaged the IDF’s already-imperiled image by supporting an unapologetic murdering medic. “The most moral army in the world” rings hollow when Netanyahu insists Azaria is “one of our children.” It is because of Prime Minister Netanyahu that IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan used a Holocaust memorial speech to warn of “revolting trends” reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s.

How could fair-minded people the world over not desert Israel in droves as a result of “Bibi’s” unconscionable behavior? And why do American journalists show Netanyahu deference they show no one else? Another question: Why is Netanyahu so confident of his continued leadership of Israel when at least one (likely more) shocking indictments are about to drop in his lap? (And just yesterday Israeli police recommended he be charged with bribery and fraud.) How is “Bibi” immune from behavior that would long ago have taken down any other Israeli politician?

Last question: If what I’m claiming about Netanyahu is true, why did the reader experience taboos being broken reading the previous questions?

The answer is “hasbara culture.” In Netanyahu’s hands “hasbara culture” is such a powerful tool that normal rules don’t apply. With hasbara culture, Netanyahu becomes more than another vulnerable politician. Instead, he represents an idea. And so compelling is this idea, so good is Netanyahu at conveying it, that no matter what his conduct, his political fortunes thrive.

Hasbara culture is a Jewish ideological perspective that ostensibly finds solutions to the State of Israel’s current problems in lessons learned from Jewish history. Let’s listen to Netanyahu express two main concepts of his hasbara culture worldview.

The first motif is reflected in this Netanyahu statement: “The will to destroy the Jewish people has not changed. What has changed is our ability to defend ourselves and our determination to do so.”

Netanyahu is saying that eliminationist anti-Semitism (more on these terms later) “the will to destroy the Jewish people,” is with us today. But the difference is, with Israel’s existence, the Jewish people not only have the ability now, but (also unlike before) the determination to do something about it. What Netanyahu is saying is the hatred for the Jewish people that led to the Holocaust is no different than hatred of Israel today.

The second theme appears in another Netanyahu statement: “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.”

The struggle Israel has with its enemies is nothing like normal disagreements and conflicts other countries have. Israel is involved in a Manichean struggle between good and evil.

And though related, “hasbara culture” is different from the pro-Israeli “hasbara” with which people are familiar. Hasbara is pro-Israeli spin. Hasbara is good public relations arguments in support of Israel. Hasbara is tactics. But Hasbara culture is different. Hasbara culture is a belief system about the world.


To understand the power of hasbara culture and Netanyahu’s use of its key motifs, we need to go back to a Historikerstreit between two Holocaust historians in the 1990s.

It is the contention of this paper that Holocaust scholars Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen, in writing competing books about ‘German Police Battalion 101,’ shaped our Jewish world.

It’s important to emphasize before we delve deeper into a “Holocaust debate” that the issues under discussion are not questions over what happened, not disputes over facts, but over the meaning of historical events.

What’s the takeaway, the teaching lesson, these events warrant grappling with? Think of genocide scholars as meteorologists. They study events to become better predictors of the next natural disaster. What exactly was it that made the Hutus suddenly turn on their Tutsi neighbors in the Rwandan genocide? Finding the truth to that question, separating signal from noise, is what these serious people have devoted their lives to. Answering questions correctly will hopefully give genocide experts an early warning before the next slaughter.

Which brings us back to Police Battalion 101. Why were two books written about that unit? What was so noteworthy about them to get this attention?

Christopher Browning was first to put a spotlight on Battalion 101 with his 1991 book Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. The question Browning’s book explored was not if but why a battalion of middle-aged reserve policemen shot 1,500 Jews in the Polish village of Jozefow in the summer of 1942. These men were in their 30s and 40s, grew up in Germany before Hitler came to power. How would their behavior differ from young indoctrinated Nazis? What made this unit worthy of scrutiny to Browning was that the commander of Battalion 101, career policeman Maj. Wilhelm Trapp, gave those serving under him the choice to opt out of the butchery. But only 10 to 20 percent did. Thus, the question Browning’s book is preoccupied with is what it means if even “ordinary” Germans (most of these men not even in the Nazi party) killed and behaved with similar brutality as the most fanatical and ideologically motivated SS men?

In 1995 Daniel Goldhagen published Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, which covered the same police battalion. The noted Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg reviewed the dispute between Browning and Goldhagen in “The Goldhagen Phenomenon,” which appeared in Critical Inquiry, summer 1997. He wrote:

Goldhagen’s use, however, of the phrase “ordinary Germans” also has a special meaning with a purposeful edge. It was calculated as an attack on a senior scholar, Christopher Browning, who had previously authored a work titled Ordinary Men. In Goldhagen’s study, the centerpiece is the German Reserve Police Battalion 101, which was made up of personnel from the Hamburg area and which massacred Jews in Poland. Browning had written his book about that particular battalion. It is Browning who had made a discovery and who had recognized its significance. On the day when the battalion was first confronted with the task of killing Jews, its commander, Maj. Wilhelm Trapp, had made a speech to his men and had given them the choice of not firing their rifles at the victims. Some of the men stepped out; the others were ready to shoot. This scene is a revelation because it shakes to its foundation the long-held supposition that orders were indispensable. Why then did Goldhagen write another book about the same event? There was something he wanted to add.

In his book, Goldhagen introduced the concept of “eliminationist anti-Semitism” to genocide scholarship. Goldhagen argued it was the unique German national culture and experience that explains the Holocaust, which was, therefore, itself a unique event.


Goldhagen wanted to describe what these men were thinking in the course of such actions. Since they were street policemen, and most of them had not even joined the Nazi party, he does not assume that they were specially indoctrinated. He is certain, however, that they must have hated the Jews to act as they did and that this hatred must have been so “ubiquitous” and “profound” in German society that they absorbed it as a matter of course. The origin of the hatred, he goes on to say, had to be anti-Semitism, but since that ideology was not confined to Germans, the German brand had to be a special product, which contained a “genocidal potential.” He labels that brand as “eliminationist.” Only such a pervasive belief system, he declares, could have generated a “culture of cruelty” vis-à-vis the Jews.

Here we get to the crux of the disagreement between Browning and Goldhagen. The point of Browning’s book was that Police Battalion 101 demonstrated what ordinary individuals could do in extreme situations. Of course, Browning understood, anti-Semitism was part of the dehumanization cocktail that allowed these men to do what they did. But Browning was still telling a universal story. This is what “ordinary men” are capable of. Browning in effect humanized these men, in the hope of gaining insight into the next storm.

Goldhagen attached a very different set of meanings to Police Battalion 101’s behavior. He says it’s a mistake to universalize German Police Battalion 101s bloodletting. The knowledge to be gleaned from these men’s behavior is about Jew-hatred.

Raul Hilberg didn’t think Goldhagen made his case:

For his insistence that virtually all of Germany was virulently anti- Semitic, Goldhagen marshals such evidence as graffiti with rhymed words and a lecture by a leader of the German Christian Church. He also cites Mein Kampf; but not the paragraph in which Hitler writes that his own father had regarded anti-Semitism as a sign of backwardness. Nor does Goldhagen note that the young Heinrich Himmler once described a German novel as “polemical” and “full of anti-Semitic lectures.” Goldhagen overstates the extent and depth of German anti-Semitism. At the same, time he underplays two factors that greatly weaken his basic thesis. One is that not all the shooters were Germans, the other, that not all the victims were Jews.

It did, however, appeal to a large number of book buyers, who cannot do research but who have wanted an explanatory statement for a long time, one that appears to be sufficient, and for that reason satisfying as well. It was not factual evidence that convinced them, for he had none … Goldhagen mentioned these words often in his six hundred pages, and added others like “unspeakable,” “murderous,” “horrific,” “demonological,” “vitriolic,” and “gruesome.” The adjectives are accusatory; they are taken from the domain of politics and not political science.

By the end of 1996, it was clear that in sharp distinction from lay readers, much of the academic world had wiped Goldhagen off the map.

Hilberg bemoans the parting of ways between academic experts like Browning and himself and Hitler’s Willing Executioners “book buyers,” on the role “anti-Semitism” played in the barbarism of the “ordinary men” of Police Battalion 101:

Goldhagen has left us with an image of a medieval-like incubus, a demon latent in the German mind, which had been waiting for an opportunity to strike out.

Dismayed, specialists on both sides of the Atlantic asked themselves and each other privately whether Goldhagen’s book was a transitory event or a lasting addition to the literature. They know, however, that sheer momentum will guarantee the presence of the volume on the shelves of bookstores in hardcovers or paperback for years to come. They realize that the growth of knowledge is slow and painful and that it takes time, often decades, before detailed information is absorbed by a community of historians, let alone the wider public. In the meantime, Goldhagen will be quoted by ignorant generalists who are not even aware of the progress made with the opening of archives and the opportunities now beckoning to interested researchers. Thus the cloud that Goldhagen created will hover over the academic landscape. It will not soon disperse.


The ideological debate on the “meaning” of the perpetrators of the Holocaust was not new, of course. Most famously, Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem: The Banality of Evil did to Eichmann what Browning did to the perpetrators of Police Battalion 101. She humanized him. Reporting from Israel for The New Yorker in 1961 on the Eichmann trial after the Mossad grabbed the escaped Nazi war criminal off a Buenos Aires street, the great social scientist sent back the same culturally disruptive insight that Christopher Browning did. Adolf Eichmann was not the personification of evil as everyone expected. Despite being responsible for millions of deaths, he was a most ordinary character.

What scholarship has been up against on questions of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, then, is the human need to make sense of incomprehensible “evil.” What does Netanyahu have to do with all this? Haaretz journalist Chaim Levinson begins our exploration. He coined the term “Bibi-ism” to describe Netanyahu and other Bibi-ists: “They don’t live in the world of ordinary human beings. They live in a world whose driving forces aren’t human beings, but ideas and metaphors and worldviews and big words.”

While other scholars approach Eichmann and the men of Police Battalion 101 as individual human beings, influenced by their culture, Bibi-ists are more likely to see human behavior representing ideological ideas much larger than themselves. Their lessons will be, as Levinson calls it, “meta-historical.”

Let’s look at a Netanyahu video to see what Bibi-ism sounds like:

In Netanyahu’s telling, a “short snippet” of video showing Palestinian father Ayoub Sroor explains the persistence of the 100-year conflict between the Jewish and Palestinian national movements. In “just a few seconds” Bibi-ist Bibi exposes “why the conflict persists.” A non-Bibi-ist might see in Ayoub Sroor, an “ordinary human Being” aggrieved by Israel, taunting his tormentors because that day the large contingent of journalists armed with cameras were protecting him. You’re not such tough guys now, with all these people watching, Sroor might have been mocking them. Non-Bibi-ists might or might not wonder whether injuries from years of IDF interactions caused Sroor to use his child to make his point. It should be obvious that the Bibi-ist Bibi is presenting Ayoub Sroor as an idea, not a human being.

Here are a few things to ponder about the Netanyahu production. What explains why it’s inconceivable that Rabin or Barak would record a video like that? Also, why does it not shock us that the leader of a Western country and one of the most powerful and influential people in the world is doctoring a video of one of the most downtrodden to imply that the Palestinian people are different than the rest of us? Where is the outrage we would likely have seen if comparable videos had been done by any other politician around the world?

The answer to those questions lies in Netanyahu’s unique skill in turning “snippets” into “moral clarity.” Netanyahu has cultivated a worldview of constant battle between the forces of good and evil. He has taken for himself the authority to assess and judge, good and bad, and always what principles apply. (It’s the same moral immunity that Bibi-ist New York Times columnist Bret Stephens has with his references to the “disease of the Arab mind.”)

Now, most of us would agree that the world has a lot of nuances, and human beings are complicated creatures who are not so easily simplified into Manichean “ideas.” In contrast, Bibi-ists claim Manichean ideas and concepts shape human beings and our world. “Hasbara culture” is Netanyahu’s successful cultural revolution to impose lachrymose Manichean ideas about Jewish history to Israeli politics in the 21st century. Netanyahu has molded Israeli political culture to perceive Israel’s enemies as Goldhagen’s eliminationist anti-Semites. The “medieval-like incubus” that historians discredited, the “demon latent in the German mind, which had been waiting for an opportunity to strike out,” the “pervasive belief system” about Jews among Germans that led to a “culture of cruelty,” is now everywhere, according to hasbara culture.

That’s the way to understand Israeli political rhetoric during the recent so-called knife intifada. 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.”

And it’s not just the inhumanity of Israel’s enemies that Netanyahu proselytizes but Israeli/Jewish virtuousness as well, as sold by former ADL chief Abe Foxman and the late Elie Wiesel.

Foxman:“The Holocaust is something different. It is a singular event. It is not simply one example of genocide but a near successful attempt on the life of God’s chosen children and, thus, on God himself. It is an event that is the antithesis of Creation as recorded in the Bible; and like its direct opposite, which is relived weekly with the Sabbath and yearly with the Torah, it must be remembered from generation to generation.”

Wiesel: “How do Jews respond to violence? With retaliation? No. When the enemy is mad he destroys when the killer is mad, he kills. When we are mad, we sing.”

Netanyahu has cultivated an Israeli and Jewish politics and discourse where only one question is asked: Are you with those “who sanctify life” or those “who sanctify death?” Yet those are hardly the only two options that thinking people have. Here, for example, is the journalist Peter Beinart responding to Wiesel’s Manichean perspective:

Again and again, Wiesel takes refuge in the Israel of his imagination, using it to block out the painful reckoning that might come from scrutinizing Israel as it actually is. “I can’t believe that Israeli soldiers murdered people or shot children. It just can’t be,” Wiesel said in 2010. But these are not questions of faith. Israel is a decent country composed of decent young men and women who, in the West Bank, are obliged to police people who lack basic rights. And in such circumstances, decent people do indecent things. “We are making the lives of millions unbearable,” declares one former Shin Bet head, Carmi Gillon, in the film The Gatekeepers. In the West Bank, Israel has become “a brutal occupation force,” notes another, Avraham Shalom. A third, Yuval Diskin, calls the occupation a “colonial regime.” These men don’t hate Israel; they have dedicated their lives to protecting it. But unlike Wiesel, they are discussing the real Israel, not the one they have constructed in their minds.

In 2013, Goldhagen published The Devil That Never Dies: The Rise and Threat of Global Antisemitism. This is from the review by Anthony Julius in the Wall Street Journal:

I have written this review with reluctance. That there should be strife within the party to which Mr. Goldhagen and I both belong, the party of anti-anti-Semites, will only give satisfaction to the haters. But we must be the smart, truth-telling participants in this terrible struggle; we must be intelligent in our judgments, reliable in the claims we make. And for sure, while we must not minimize dangers, we shouldn’t overstate them either. The Devil That Never Dies doesn’t contribute to our existing understanding of anti-Semitism; it doesn’t give anti-anti-Semites fresh, good arguments. Indeed, it is so easily and justly dismissible, it weakens the very cause its author seeks to promote.

J.J. Goldberg reviewed The Devil That Never Dies in Democracy magazine. He too doesn’t accept Goldhagen’s ideas about anti-Semitism. It’s worth quoting at length from this article because of how well it describes the ideological differences between the hasbara culture perspective and a more objective one:

In the past half-century the Catholic Church has declared anti-Semitism a sin, the European Union has outlawed defamation of Jews, and the United Nations has established an annual day for worldwide Holocaust remembrance. Most important, Jews are no longer a scattered, homeless, powerless minority. Nearly every position of power is open to them as citizens in the countries where they live today, and in one nation they are a majority with a powerful army.

But—and this is the critical point—the creation of that Jewish nation planted the seeds of a new conflict that has yet to be resolved. And unlike classical anti-Semitism, which entailed the persecution of a minority for no reason that the victim could control, this new conflict has two active parties, each with claims against the other. The conflict has spillover effects on others around the world, Jews and Muslims, who identify with one side or the other. It is ugly and getting uglier. But to call it merely a rebirth of the old hatred is to deny that there are two sides to the conflict.

The Devil That Never Dies sounds like the worst book ever written, but now see something interesting. The culturally influential Sunday New York Times also reviewed this book. And the reviewer they chose agrees almost entirely with Goldhagen’s hasbara culture perspective on anti-Semitism. Aside from a few trivial objections to the book, the reviewer, Jeffrey Goldberg, spends his entire “New Chapter, Old Story” review proselytizing Goldhagen’s ideological message.

Once again “book buyers” were getting a version of reality on anti-Semitism that doesn’t reflect the real world as defined by academics and scholars. The lesson of the Holocaust for Goldhagen and Goldberg is enduring anti-Semitism if not permanent “eliminationist anti-Semitism.” There is no Jewish or “pro-Israel” conspiracy that Jeffrey Goldberg reviewed Goldhagen’s book in the Sunday New York Times, because the “hasbara culture” understanding of anti-Semitism is now accepted as truth, and is hardly even controversial in popular political culture. Denying there are “two sides to the conflict,” as hasbara culture does, has made the Palestinian narrative illegitimate and taboo.

The debate over the Iran deal shows the result of the success of the “eliminationist” anti-Semitism concept and anti-Semitism as a virus. Examine Khamenei’s “nine key questions” to “eliminate” Israel. If the head of the Mossad got early wind of the Ayatollah’s publicity campaign for a “referendum” to “eliminate” Israel, he would likely chuckle at Khamenei’s fantasy. But just as on lessons of the Holocaust experts hardly matter, so on the question of Iran and its intentions the Mossad and Academic scholarship are no longer relevant. Because what do they know about “eliminationist anti-Semitism” and “medieval incubuses?” According to hasbara culture’s understanding of Iran’s relationship with Israel, the reason Iran wouldn’t accept Israeli earthquake aid is that hatred of Jews is Iran’s raison d’être.

Obama to @JeffreyGoldberg about Iran: “The fact that you are anti-Semitic… doesn’t preclude you from being interested in survival.”

— Omri Ceren (@omriceren) November 15, 2017

That Iran likely wouldn’t take aid from Saudi Arabia either is a question that doesn’t reverberate in the hasbara culture echo chamber.

Now listen to Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s discourse on his old friend Sen. Cory Booker supporting the Iran deal: “Cory references his visit to Yad Vashem, the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, when he was 25, a trip that I arranged trusting that he would absorb the never-ending Jewish struggle for survival in a world inhabited by the kind of evil represented by the Iranian regime.”

This is hasbara culture in action. It is no defense against Boteach that the ex-head of Mossad said, “maybe in a thousand years” Iran will be an “existential” threat to Israel because the biggest experts on Iran are no longer the biggest experts on Iran. Their place has been taken by pseudo-experts on “anti-Semitism.”


Benjamin Netanyahu’s success is due to his genius at cultivating the perspective of a dualistic war between sacred Israel and its anti-Semitic enemies. That’s what Bibi-ist hasbara culture Israel advocacy sounds like. And this sacred perspective is also cultivated by the best propaganda money can buy. In 2009 Newsweek reported that the Republican pollster Frank Luntz had authored a 117-page study titled The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary.

How do you sell the American public on the idea that Israel has the right to maintain or even expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank? Be positive. Turn the issue away from settlements and toward peace. Invoke ethnic cleansing.

Luntz, who has advised mostly Republican candidates, appears to have tested a variety of messages on the focus groups. He concludes that “public opinion is hostile to the settlements,” even among supporters of Israel. “Nothing is tougher to articulate effectively to neutral Americans than a message in favor of the settlements,” Luntz writes. “Let me be clear about this conclusion. Plenty of Israeli and American Jewish leaders have tried, but American and European audiences rejected almost everything we tested.”

In the report, Luntz describes the “best settlement argument” as one that draws a parallel between the Arab communities in Israel and the Jewish settlers in the West Bank—and refers to the idea of evacuating Jews as racist. “The idea that anywhere that you have Palestinians there can’t be any Jews, that some areas have to be Jew-free, is a racist idea,” he suggests saying. “We don’t say that we have to cleanse out Arabs from Israel. They are citizens of Israel. They enjoy equal rights. We cannot see why it is that peace requires that any Palestinian area would require a kind of ethnic cleansing to remove all Jews. We don’t accept it. Cleansing by either side against either side is unacceptable.”

Netanyahu’s 2016 “No Jews” video defending settlements was almost word for word what Frank Luntz and his team concocted in 2009 for the Israel Project. Now consider for a moment Luntz and Netanyahu’s hasbara, or spin. Netanyahu is claiming Palestinian objections to settlements are evidence of “No Jews” ethnic cleansing. Think of the chutzpah of the argument. Netanyahu is playing on his audience’s sensitivity to “ethnic cleansing” in Jewish history to obfuscate Israeli settlement policy. Even the ADL condemned Netanyahu for his “No Jews” “ethnic cleansing” argument in defense of violating a common interpretation of the Geneva convention.

While the “ethnic cleansing” circus might have been a public-relations disaster for Israel, for Netanyahu it was a hasbara culture success. Just look at the reaction of culturally influential Muslim “radical” Maajid Nawaz and even more influential “public intellectual” Sam Harris to the “No Jews” argument. Here is Nawaz in the Daily Beast:

Settlements are illegal. But why is it that Israel is expected to integrate—and does a reasonable job of including—the 20 percent of its population that is Arab, yet a Jewish presence of 500,000 settlers in any future Palestinian state is deemed “an obstacle” to the two-state solution? Are Palestinians assumed to be ethno-fascists? Are they not capable of building a multiethnic state just like Israelis? Is this how low the standard is to which Western leftists hold Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims?

Sam Harris’s reaction to the “no Jews” “ethnic cleansing” argument in defense of Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories is instructive. Because Sam Harris is not a Zionist:

“I don’t think Israel should exist as a Jewish state. I think it is obscene, irrational and unjustifiable to have a state organized around a religion. So I don’t celebrate the idea that there’s a Jewish homeland in the Middle East. I certainly don’t support any Jewish claims to real estate based on the Bible.”

Harris is also not a “hasbarist.” Harris brings up uncomfortable issues few “pro-Israel” advocates ever would:

I’m not saying that Israel hasn’t done appalling things—but governments, including our own, do appalling things in times of war. In fact, there is evidence that the Israelis intentionally torpedoed a U.S. ship during the 1967 war, killing some dozens of American soldiers. If true, this was an outrageous crime.

Why do Palestinians object to settlements? “Are they ‘barbaric’?” asks Harris as he repeats Luntz and Netanyahu’s “no Jews” argument to the journalist Lawrence Wright, on his “Waking Up” podcast. Harris’s own Manichean worldview makes him easy prey for Luntz and Netanyahu’s sacred obscurantism. Trump advisor and now U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman had this to say:

The Obama administration “should be ashamed of their misguided reaction” to remarks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “Prime Minister Netanyahu makes exactly the right point. The Palestinians want Israel to absorb countless ‘refugees’—people who never lived in Israel and whose ancestors were never forced to leave Israel—while their so-called ‘state’ is required to be, as the Nazis said, Judenrein (devoid of Jews)…the Prime Minister of Israel correctly observes that the Palestinian demand to remove all Jews from their ancestral homeland in Judea and Samaria is nothing short of an attempt at ethnic cleansing. The State Department should be ashamed of their misguided reaction to Mr. Netanyahu’s remarks.


The achievement of Netanyahu’s hasbara culture has been to sell the idea that Israel-a modern nation-state—is part of a global battle between good and evil. And his political prowess derives from manipulating this discourse to his benefit. Naftali Bennett and Netanyahu are not fighting over a few right-wing votes. They are fighting for control of a sacred discourse. Which brings us back to the Elor Azaria affair. As I have written elsewhere:

Elor Azaria was caught red-handed on video executing a prone Palestinian in March 2016 in Occupied Hebron. Even a child watching the video can see the killing was an act of revenge against Abd al Fatah Al-Sharif for injuring his friend.

They recognize his “take that” expression at the end from the bullies in their school. So what then are Azaria’s loudest supporters like Naftali Bennett shouting about? Have they found some exculpatory evidence for Azaria by scrutinizing the B’Tselem video?

“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 amended.”

That Azaria arrived 10 minutes after the “combat operation” and was avenging his friend’s stabbing does not interest Education Minister Bennett. What Bennett finds morally objectionable is “good” Azaria going to prison for killing “evil” Abd al Fatah Al-Sharif.

So how did Netanyahu interpret the Azaria killing?

“What happened in Hebron does not represent the values of the Israel Defense Forces,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in reaction to the incident, adding that the IDF “expects its soldiers to act coolly and in accordance with the rules of engagement.”

Likud Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon agreed:

“Even when our blood is boiling, we must not allow such a loss of sense, such a loss of control,” Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon (Likud) said in a press statement, adding that “terror must be fought uncompromisingly, he stressed, “but even so, woe to us if we act contrary to our moral values and our conscience.”

Ya’alon continued that Israel has a “moral obligation” to “preserve its humanity,” “remember the limits of power” and “keep ourselves from immoral behavior.”

But then Netanyahu changed his tune. And the big story of the Azaria saga is what he said. Because defending Azaria had to be done on moral grounds; “moral clarity” is the essence of Netanyahu’s appeal. But Netanyahu’s challenge was a video of a murder that left little to the imagination or open to interpretation. After all, Azaria even said, “The terrorist must die.” Azaria’s behavior is indefensible in any army in the world, and no one was putting the IDF on trial, or the state of Israel on trial, or the Jewish people on trial. One man, Elor Azaria, was put on trial for manslaughter for his actions. And that’s how Netanyahu initially framed Azaria’s extrajudicial killing.

Now listen to Netanyahu’s rhetoric once he started supporting Azaria. What was the rationale Netanyahu gave for backing Azaria, for comparing him to a fallen or captured IDF soldier, and for calling for a pardon for Azaria’s crime?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday that he was certain that the army’s murder investigation into the Hebron shooting of a prone Palestinian assailant last week by an Israeli soldier will take into account the fact that IDF soldiers deal with bloodthirsty murderers under difficult operational circumstances.”

As the father of a soldier and as Prime Minister, I would like to reiterate: The IDF backs its soldiers. … Our soldiers are not murderers.

They act against murderers and I hope that a way will be found to balance between the action and the overall context of the event.

What is the meaning of “our soldiers are not murderers” when only one soldier caught on video was being accused of the killing? Netanyahu was using hasbara-culture tropes to defend an unjustifiable killing: “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.”

Here is Ya’alon on Netanyahu switching sides:

“Afterwards the prime minister unfortunately switched sides, and decided to embrace the soldier’s family. That’s his business, not mine. I decided to support the commanders and I was left alone in that war,” Ya’alon said.

“To all the commanders it was clear that this was something that should not be done. The commanders are the ones who should set the rules of engagement, not politicians like Hazan and Lieberman,” he added.

What at heart is the issue Azaria’s crime raised? Why did that killing set off the cultural furor it did? It’s because it presented a question Israel hadn’t had to face so starkly before. Who is Abd al Fatah Al-Sharif, the Palestinian who stabbed Azaria’s friend, which led to the execution by Azaria? More broadly, why do Palestinians try to kill Jewish Israelis?

Netanyahu has made a career out of connecting the Palestinian national movement to the Holocaust. Most infamously in October 2015, he exculpated Hitler for the idea of the Holocaust:

Mr. Netanyahu said in a speech to the Zionist Congress on Tuesday night that “Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews.” The prime minister said that the mufti, Haj Amin al-Husseini, had protested to Hitler that “they’ll all come here,” referring to Palestine.

“ ‘So what should I do with them?’ ” Mr. Netanyahu quoted Hitler as asking Mr. Husseini. “He said, ‘Burn them.’ ”

Look at the group of influential diaspora Jews toward whom Netanyahu gears this anti-Palestinian hasbara. The ideological war against BDS is also decided upon in Israel and then reflected in hasbara culture discourse here.

Just as Netanyahu is (at best) indifferent to the State Department and the ADL condemning his “No Jews” video if he can seduce “public intellectuals” with his ideas, so too Netanyahu is impervious (and politically immune) to what historians had to say about his Holocaust revisionism. Professor Meir Litvak, a historian at Tel Aviv University, called the speech “a lie” and “a disgrace.” Professor Moshe Zimmermann of Hebrew University said, “With this, Netanyahu joins a long line of people that we would call Holocaust deniers.” In fact, Netanyahu’s life in politics has been one long hasbara campaign associating Palestinians in the public imagination with the Holocaust, and Jew-hatred. Already in his 1993 book, A Place Among the Nations, Netanyahu asserted the Mufti was “one of the initiators of the systematic extermination of European Jewry” … collaborator and adviser to Eichmann and Himmler in the execution of the plan.” Historians view this claim as fiction.

Yet Netanyahu has won. Israeli political culture is now hasbara culture. Listen to Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely describe the recent killing of an Israeli policewoman by a Palestinian: “Hadas Malka, heroine of the war of light against darkness, the war of purity against brutality.”

And examine Bennett and Azaria’s appeal to President Rivlin for a pardon. It is the hasbara culture perspective on Palestinian violence: Bennett claims, “Elor was sent into dangerous territory in which there had been an attempt to murder Jews.”

And Azaria sees himself as an “Israeli soldier whose freedom of taken away from him because he acted against vile people who came to spill Jewish blood.

When an unscrupulous politician like Netanyahu gets to manipulate “anti-Semitism” and the Holocaust for personal and ideological benefit there are going to be insidious cultural consequences. In Netanyahu and hasbara culture’s hands, the historic relationship between anti-Semite and Jew informs Palestinian behavior toward Israel.

The “meaning” of Palestinian violence against Jewish Israelis is a casualty of the popularization of “eliminationist anti-Semitism.” With “eliminationist anti-Semitism” and Jew hatred as mutating medieval virus, it should not be surprising where the “roots” and “truth” of Palestinian violence is found. So compelling is this narrative that the Israeli security professional’s opinion of the real roots and truth of what’s motivating Palestinians have little sway in popular opinion. The anti-Semitism of the Hamas charter and Iran’s Holocaust cartoon contests are given ideological and real-world significance that experts do not attach to them.

In response to the hasbara-culture “populist madness” unleashed by the IDF decision to prosecute Azaria, then-IDF deputy chief Yair Golan (since retired) addressed the issue in a Holocaust memorial speech. Netanyahu then rebuked Golan for that speech. Defense Minister Ya’alon defended Golan, which led to Ya’alon being replaced as defense minister by Avigdor Lieberman.

The Golan-Netanyahu ideological disagreement was also a reprise of the Browning/Hilberg-Goldhagen debate.

This is what Golan said:

The Holocaust, in my opinion, must lead us to a deep reflection on the nature of the human, even when that human is ourselves.

Because if there is something that scares us about the memory of the Holocaust, it is identifying nauseating processes that occurred in Europe in general and Germany in particular, 70, 80, and 90 years ago, and finding evidence of their presence here among us, today, in 2016.

Netanyahu responded with:

The comparison that arose from the deputy chief of staff’s comments on the processes that characterized Nazi Germany 80 years ago is outrageous, Mr. Netanyahu said. “They wrong Israeli society and cheapen the Holocaust.” Mr. Netanyahu has not commented on the general’s future, but Miri Regev, a cabinet minister from his right-wing Likud party, called on Maj Gen Golan to resign.

The right-wing anti-Golan backlash was more than a reaction to the taboo Nazi analogy he made. Golan’s speech was a direct ideological challenge to the hasbara culture takeaway from the Holocaust. The meaning he found in the Holocaust was same as Browning and Hilberg’s. The lesson of the Holocaust according to Golan was a universal one, and the admonition of the Holocaust even applies to “ourselves,”—i.e. to Jews.

According to the universalist understanding of the Shoah, it’s possible for Israeli Jewish behavior to be reminiscent of Germany in the 1930s and ’40s. But for hasbara culture, it can’t be. Israeli political culture under the sway of hasbara culture views Elor Azaria’s killing of Abd al Fatah Al-Sharif as similar to a Warsaw ghetto fighter killing off a wounded Nazi.

How then did hasbara-culture-leaning American journalists report on the Azaria morality tale that had Israel riven for 18 months? What was the “meaning” of the Golan speech, its defense by Ya’alon, and the defense ministers subsequent dismissal by Netanyahu? Which ideas in the Azaria maelstrom represented Manichean moral clarity to American Bibi-ists? For our purposes, the journalists who grabbed the ideological bull by the horn are more interesting than ones who sidestepped the large issues the Azaria killing raised. Few Manichean “pro-Israel” journalists wanted to write about the Azaria mess, with its bad PR storyline, although with Lieberman replacing Ya’alon in the news, some felt the subject could not be avoided. Former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens summed up what all these journalists felt about the Azaria affair: “Elor Azaria’s Trial Should Never Have Become a Public Affair.”

In the WSJ and Tablet, Golan was turned into a villain. Bibi-ist Bret Stephens described the “meaning” of the Golan/Ya’alon-Netanyahu feud on CNN and his WSJ column. On Fareed Zakaria’s GPS, Stephens explained what “principle” was at stake in the Golan Holocaust speech and Ya’alon firing:

In a democracy, the principle of civilian control over the military—of a military staying away from politics is very important. It’s what Obama asserted with McChrystal. Harry Truman with Douglas MacArthur and should be the case in Israel.

The basic issue is, does—do the civilians control the military? Whether you like the policies or views of those civilians. And that seems to me fundamental in any democracy. … Douglas MacArthur was probably a better general than the people who succeeded him. He still deserved to be fired.

According to Stephens, Israeli democratic ideals dictated that Golan be rebuked and Ya’alon dismissed.

Stephens expanded on those principles in a WSJ column, “Netanyahu Against the Generals.” Claiming that the Israeli military is a “Sparta in the service of leftist goals,” he explained that “at stake here is no longer the small question about Sgt. Azariah, where the military establishment is in the right. It’s the greater question of civilian-military relations, where Israel’s military leaders are dead wrong. A security establishment that feels no compunction about publicly telling off its civilian masters is on the road to becoming a law unto itself … in the service of leftist goals.”

Stephens concludes his article with the uplifting sentiment that “those who believe that Israel must remain a democracy have no choice but to take Mr. Netanyahu’s side.”

And just as WSJ readers learned that Gen. Yair Golan’s Holocaust speech was a dangerous act by someone who “believes himself virtuous,” so too did Tablet readers. This was the interpretation of Golan’s speech by Liel Leibovitz:

(Golan) enjoying the privilege of living in a robust democracy, made a shockingly irresponsible and vile statement, a khaki-clad version of virtue signaling, endearing himself to liberals everywhere at no real cost to himself.

This is what hasbara culture must stoop to. Because hasbara-culture dogma has no ideological room for a critique like Golan’s. According to Manichean hasbara culture, the Golan speech put him firmly on the side of Israel’s enemies:

But a better argument could be made that the general’s statement is reason enough to kick him out of the army, If there’s any real threat to democracy, in Israel or elsewhere, it is likely to occur when career soldiers begin to see it as their duty to pontificate on matters of state.

It is also thanks to the influence of hasbara culture that Sheldon Adelson can voice his opinion about Israeli democracy without it causing a political or moral ripple. “I don’t think the Bible says anything about democracy,” Adelson said. “[God] didn’t talk about Israel remaining as a democratic state. … Israel isn’t going to be a democratic state—so what?” And so what about Israel being the only Western country selling arms to Myanmar, which is ethnic cleansing its Muslims? “What Zionist justification can there be for different rules applying to the Jewish state?”

It might ultimately be Benjamin Netanyahu’s severe legal troubles that will bring about a public confrontation between hasbara culture and its ideological opponents. In the next few months, Netanyahu will be confronted by powerful forces in Israel. How this great drama plays out will shape Israel, the region, and the world. True friends of Israel must hope that Netanyahu and his Bibi-ist hasbara culture allies are defeated.


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Yakov Hirsch is a professional poker player. His Twitter feed is @yakovhirsch.