June 27, 2019

Reverse Hasbara

I once broke up with someone for calling me a “Zionist pig.”

Let’s call him Nir. We met through mutual friends, exchanged phone numbers, and then met up at a bar.

We asked each other the usual first date questions (How many siblings? What kind of music do you like?) and had a few laughs. At one point, he stopped the conversation and said, “How about we rate our date on a scale of 1 to 10?” The question made me nervous, but I figured that he wouldn’t have asked me if he wasn’t having as good a time as I was. “I’d give it an 8 out of 10,” I said.  “Just eight?” he asked. “I was going to say nine, but OK. Fine. Have it your way.” I laughed. He laughed. I was sold.

The only catch was that he didn’t live in Israel. He was one of those Israelis who lives in Berlin. A documentary filmmaker, he was in Tel Aviv conducting some interviews for a film he was working on about a little-known Israeli poet. He would be in the country only for a week — and then again in a few months, and then again a few months after that.

It didn’t slow us down. We played house while he was in town and talked on the phone when he wasn’t. I was hoping he would move back to Tel Aviv but also decided to go visit him in Berlin. If I liked it there, I thought, maybe that would be something we could talk about.

In the public’s perception, Israel is an idea rather than a place. This is so even among those who love Israel.

Of course, that was not how things played out. Our Tel Aviv romance didn’t translate to Berlin. This was immediately noticeable when I arrived. There was something different about his attitude — something cold and distant — but I couldn’t yet understand what or why it was.

In any event, I was on vacation and wanted to enjoy myself. We went out to bars and clubs at night and, during the day, I wanted to sightsee. It was my sightseeing trips that first clued me as to the reason Nir had cooled on me. He was happy to go along with me to Tempelhof, but scoffed when I wanted to go to the Holocaust memorial and teased me for being a Jewish cliché. He wanted to join me when I went to see the Berlin Wall, but laughed at me when I went to the Jewish museum.

The week passed tensely. Our past intimacy and ease were gone, and I was frustrated. But the day before I was to fly back to Tel Aviv, it all came into focus when we met a group of his friends. We encountered them by chance. Until then he had not introduced me to anyone. “This is Matthew,” he said. “He’s a Zionist pig and lives in Israel.”

I stifled whatever shock I felt and put on a smile, though I was blushing. One woman, incredulous, asked me if I was really a Zionist. I laughed and my eyes widened. Zionist is one of those words that I like to define before discussing. Otherwise you wind up having two simultaneous discussions with someone about two completely separate things. “Yes?” I said. “Well … you know … it’s …”

“Like, is that why you moved to Israel?”

I laughed again. “I moved to Israel,” I said, “because I love Tel Aviv.”

This seemed to be as good an evasion as any. The conversation drifted and eventually my “friend” and I were on our own again.

“I think I’m going to take a walk,” I said. “Alone.”

And off I went.

I’ve been thinking about this incident lately, as well as what followed it, in the wake of actress Natalie Portman’s decision to sit out an Israeli awards ceremony because of “recent events” in Israel. The news was shocking to many people. How could a Jerusalem-born woman who holds dual citizenship do something that so resembles what the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement does?

For me, however, Portman’s actions were not so shocking. I recognized them right away for what they were: reverse hasbara.

Hasbara is an Israeli-ism that refers to Israel PR. It means “explanation” and is a sort of Israeli cultural directive — the idea that wherever you are, if you are a Jew or an Israeli, it is your obligation to counter anti-Israel bias and spread a pro-Israel narrative.

Less talked about is reverse hasbara, something that Israeli leftists and Israel-supporting liberals feel compelled to do when they are around non-Israeli and non-Israel-supporting people. Reverse hasbara means explaining to people that you (despite the fact that you either live in Israel, immigrated to Israel or are from Israel) are not an Arab-hating fascist. The assumption is that this is what progressives will think of you if you don’t explain otherwise. I’m not sure this assumption is true but I’ve been in a few situations where I wanted to hedge my bets.

As a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, a super-progressive liberal arts college just north of Manhattan, and also as a queer person, my liberal stance on most issues easily can be  guessed. This can lead some of my American friends to call into question my love of Israel. Why is it that, although I’m left on every other issue in the world, I’m right on Israel?

It’s a fair question. My answer would be that I’m not right on Israel, and that I don’t relate to Israel as an “issue” on which one can be right or left. I relate to Israel as a place. It is the place where I live and it is a place that has been good to me. Connected to Israel are all sorts of political issues, and on these I generally fall on the left side of the spectrum. But I see Israel as more than the sum of its headlines.

That said, many people do not. And yes, I am guilty of reverse hasbara. Last New Year’s Eve, I was at a party with friends in New York and found myself grumbling about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Not because I cared to have a political conversation at that moment, but because I wanted my friends to know that I was still the same progressive Matthew they knew from Sarah Lawrence.

I’ve often wondered about reverse hasbara and why it is that so many of us feel the need to engage in it. It’s not as if American leftists have to wander around the world apologizing for everything President Donald Trump says. There is a natural separation in people’s minds between aspects of American life: the life of its cities, its people, its government and its military.

With Israel, there is no such separation. All are lumped together.

In the public’s perception, Israel is an idea rather than a place. This is so even among those who love Israel. I’ve met several devoted American Zionists who have no sense of (or love for) Israel the place. They love the Jewish state — but do they love this Jewish state?

Similarly, among Israel’s critics, Israel is little more than an ideology that must be disavowed.

Nir, I realized, had been carefully building a life for himself in Berlin based on reverse hasbara. And then I showed up — not only an Israeli person but an Israeli by choice. When we ran into his friends, he was put on the spot — caught between selves. He had two options in that moment. And he chose the second one. He threw me under the bus.

Leaving Israel is perhaps the strongest form of reverse hasbara there is. “Yes, I’m from that place. But I left. Because of recent events.” There’s something tragic about it. No one should feel ashamed of being from a certain country, and no one should assume anyone’s politics based on their passport.

I had a few other friends living in Berlin. As I walked away from Nir and the “Zionist pig” incident, I texted one of them to ask if I could crash at his place. Nir also was messaging me to ask if I was upset. I told him we could talk about it the next day. I would be heading back to Israel in the afternoon and needed to get my things anyways before heading to the airport.

We met at Nir’s place the next morning. I packed my bag and then we strolled to Tempelhof park and sat in the grass. He apologized. I accepted his apology. We understood quietly that our week together in Berlin would be our last week together anywhere. We moved onto other subjects of conversation — like his movie. It was mostly finished and he would soon be screening it.

“I was wondering,” he said, “if I should put something at the beginning of the film. A kind of dedication that says I’m against the occupation.”

“Why would you do that?” I asked. “The movie has nothing to do with the occupation.”

“Well, it sort of does,” he said. “It’s about Israel.”

“OK,” I said. “But why do you really want to put that disclaimer there? It seems a little unnecessary if you ask me.”

“I dunno,” he said. “Just so everyone knows how I feel.”

Matthew Schultz is a writer living and working in Tel Aviv.