Hasbara Is A Political Football


On Monday, Israel was tackled for a loss by the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. At least three current and retired National Football League players who were to take part in a weeklong tour of the country beginning this week backed out, claiming that they did not want to be seen as public relations advocates for Israel.

They had succumbed to BDS-orchestrated appeals.

On Wednesday, Israel ran another play.

Students from five universities in the U.S. were to compete here in a contest that supports initiatives designed to “better engage students about Israel on campus.” First prize in The Campus Pitch Initiative, under the auspices of the Israeli Consulate and the World Jewish Congress: $5,000.

The two-year-old hasbara project for students who attend schools in the Northeast — this week’s participants came from NYU, Yale, Brooklyn College, the University of Pennsylvania and the New School — is patterned after ABC’s successful “Shark Tank” program, on which budding entrepreneurs vie for seed money from a panel of multimillionaire business leaders.

But the students in Wednesday’s competition at Innovation Loft in Manhattan were looking to change opinions, not make money.

Anti-Israel sentiments have grown in recent years on many campuses. And they — or wariness of pro-Israel partiality — is growing too in the ranks of NFL players, role models for many young sports fans in this country.

First, Seattle Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett pulled out of the Israeli trip, which was organized by the country’s tourism and public diplomacy ministries, and by the Presidents Conference’s America’s Voices in Israel project to counter BDS and improve Israel’s image.

After Bennett, at least two other NFLers who were slated to go to Israel joined him in boycotting the trip.

Bennett tweeted that he had read a story about the trip in the Times of Israel — the trip’s goal was to make the players “ambassador[s] of good will” — and wrote that “I will not be used in such a manner. When I go to Israel — and I do plan to go — it will be to see not only Israel but also the West Bank and Gaza so I can see how the Palestinians, who have called this land home for thousands of years, live their lives.”

Israel erred in “making explicit the implicit purpose of the ‘mission’” and in calling the trip a “mission,” JTA editor Andrew Silow-Carroll wrote this week. That “put the players in an untenable position.”

“Mission,” a term “borrowed by Jews from Christian evangelists,” suggests “a trip meant to win converts,” he wrote. Better choices: “symposium or a fact-finding trip.”

The students in this week’s Campus Pitch probably understand the right language that will win hearts for Israel.

This time, the ball was in their hands.