An eon or so ago, when I worked at the AP in Jerusalem, my boss Marcus Eliason would write the occasional color story about Israel, having nothing at all to do with the conflict.
One that sticks in my mind was about a radio riddle show that would rivet the country each day. Many of the riddles alluded to episodes in Jewish history, literature or lore. The prize amounts were paltry, but Dan Hamitzer’s riddle was easily the most popular thing on Reshet Bet.
The story was light and engaging, and got terrific "play" (what we called "hits" before y’all invented this Internets thingy, joon-yer.)
The reaction among international media colleagues in Jerusalem stunned me: Stories like the Hamitzer piece were "propaganda," I was told; "hasbara." They distracted from the conflict. That was the real story.
That was 1992, and I subsequently reported for the AP for three years from London, and then for three years here in DC. In both cities, I had to cover "real" news, of course — governments elected and fallen, terrorist attacks, financial crises — but I was also expected to turn in a quota of "quirky" stories, affectionate takes on whatever town I was in. Why was this not permitted Israel? Why was saying anything even remotely positive about the country "hasbara"?
This has become obsessive, and now Israel critics seize on any non-conflict news about the country — however parve — as "hasbara," an attempt to distract the world from Israel’s true nature.
Yes, of course, the flacks who peddle these stories want to convey a positive image of Israel, but so what? What do tourism boards and chambers of commerce do, wherever they are?
Dismissing every positive take borders on racism, and worse, dives straight into outright stupidity.
Palestinians also have a "they’re all about the hating" image problem, and it’s equally as unfair.
It’s good to see, then, that they’ve taken to "hasbara," in its most benign sense. Palestinian Surprises is a website that guides you gently away from the conflict into pleasant realities, like the Palestinian Oktoberfest, women race car drivers and ice hockey pros.
There are occasional irksome lapses into the political: Samaritans, in fact, are considered Jewish, and their frustration with Palestinian Muslim hegemony is a matter of record.
But this video, touting the website, is blessedly only about pitching Palestine as a culture and a destination. Which is as normal as it gets.