By Ray Hanania
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has given Palestinians an opportunity to confront Israel’s lies and propaganda, but it requires a steady focus to develop an effective public relations strategy. It should start by focusing on the American public, which has shown gut-wrenching revulsion and extreme outrage to issues of occupation, boycotts, refugees and extrajudicial killings.
This contradicts the feelings of the American public when confronted with Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories, its insensitivity to the Palestinian refugees created by Israel’s violence, and the Israeli policy of killing Palestinian suspects first and asking questions later.
The US is the place to start because Americans have been placed in an Israeli propaganda headlock, in which Palestinians have been made to look like terrorists and Israelis the victims.
Even when Israel kills an American, the silence is deafening. Yet, if an American were to be killed in Ukraine, it would spark outrage and demands for action and change.
Ukraine also brings into focus for many Americans the drive to pass anti-boycott laws. Such laws violate the fundamental basics of both the international rule of law and the US Constitution, which supposedly protect Americans’ right to express themselves without fear of retribution from their government.
According to representatives of the group Palestine Legal, who last week spoke at a conference hosted by the only pro-Arab national American publication, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, 32 states have adopted laws that make boycotting Israel, a foreign nation, illegal.
Yet Americans have overwhelmingly embraced calls to boycott a different foreign nation — Russia — as the foundation of the effort to pressure Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine and undermine its military. In fact, most Americans want the punitive measures to go further.
So why the different attitudes when it comes to Israel versus the Ukraine war? Pro-Palestinian expert Sut Jhally, a professor of communications at the University of Massachusetts who has written six books on the topic, calls it “impropaganda,” or “turning reality on its head.”
In the 1980s, the mainstream American news media was much more critical of Israel on all of the core points of occupation, including refugees, boycotts and extrajudicial killings. So what happened? The Israelis got together and did exactly what I am saying the Palestinians need to do now. They came up with language changes, learned to “manage” the news media and embraced the idea that propaganda is not a dirty word.
Jhally said it was suggested to Israelis that, after Israel kills a Palestinian, to always begin by expressing sympathy for the victim and their family. Then, once you appear human, sympathetic and believable, exaggerate the threats Palestinians pose to Israel. It is called “hasbara.”
It is not the issues or the principles that stand in the way of Americans supporting Palestinian rights. This is something the Palestinians need to understand before they can construct an effective public relations and education campaign to open American eyes to the reality of the Israel-Palestine conflict. The real issue is that most Americans have been bullied, or “educated,” into believing falsehoods about the Palestinians and their rights.
Protests, yelling and throwing emotional and angry rhetoric at this American mutilation of justice and morality does not work. It may help the Palestinians find comfort, but it does not work with this audience.
In public relations, an effective strategy requires that the people defining the message focus on what the audience believes, not what the activists believe. You do not speak to yourself to change things. You speak to the members of the audience in a way that helps them change their understanding.
The issue of Palestine must be separated into two parts: One involving what the Palestinians themselves believe to be true and the other what the American audience believes to be true. Then you target the latter.
However, this has never really been done in any of the pro-Palestinian media campaigns. One reason for this is that Palestinians are too emotional about it, so they focus on the issues that anger them the most rather than on the issues that inform the American mind.
You cannot just pull that out of thin air. It requires sophisticated polling of American audiences. And it requires addressing issues that the pro-Palestinian activists may find to be ridiculous. Without doing a poll, I expect these would include: Americans believe that Palestinians have repeatedly rejected peace because they hate Jews; that Israel distinguishes between Palestinian Muslims, whom Americans fear, and Palestinian Christians; and that the Christians of Palestine and the wider Middle East have been the victims of Muslim hatred, not Israeli oppression. The majority of Americans who are Christian might respond to this aspect of the conflict, but pro-Palestinian activists hate to separate Christians and Muslims.
Instead, the pro-Palestinian activists send the wrong messages to Americans: “We are all one people. We both bleed red. We fight together for justice side by side.” That nullifies sympathy for the Christian Palestinians by Christian Americans.
After the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, I actually had many Americans come up to me and say: “I can’t believe you abandoned your Christian faith to become an Arab.” How do you deal with that level of ignorance or, to be more generous, lack of understanding? You do not do it by responding angrily and reinforcing the falsehood. You step back and recognize the person as someone who needs to be educated. You learn what other falsehoods he or she believes and then you craft a message that peels back the lies in a way that is not threatening to the person. As you do that, you reeducate and explain.
Palestinians have never tried to get beyond their emotions when crafting media messaging. Instead, they react to everything from the deepest bowels of their emotions and, in so doing, reinforce the perceptions of the American audience.
Until we get past that, we will never be able to get the majority of Americans to see past the lies and support justice for the Palestinians. They deserve justice. The sad truth is that the pro-Palestinian activists have never given it to them.