Hasbara 101: How Israel forces students who want to study abroad to undergo 'propaganda' course

Hasbara 101: How Israel forces students who want to study abroad to undergo 'propaganda' course
The course is meant to train teenage students to act as "ambassadors" of Israel abroad and present a positive image of the state in the face of foreign scrutiny.
4 min read
08 August, 2019
In 2015 criticism of Israel intensified following the 2014 Gaza war [AFP]
Israel's Education Ministry requires all high school students to pass an online course spouting what critics say are 'racist' ideas about Arabs before travelling on school trips abroad.

Now, one Palestinian school in northern Israel is urging the government drop the course.

The Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel sent a letter to the ministry last month on behalf of the Masar Institute for Education demanding authorities immediately terminate the course. The letter said the mandatory course imparts on students "content that is mainly political, biased and transmitted from a one-sided and narrow perspective". 

The not for profit organisation runs the Masar Alternative School in Nazareth. Rather than force their students to "learn racist ideology", the school has since cancelled their annual exchange programme to Sweden. 

Turning students into 'agents of propaganda'

The curriculum is comprised of a series of videos in Hebrew, with the option of Arabic subtitles, followed by a multiple choice exam. The correct answers to the test’s questions dictate discriminatory ideas about Arab minorities, specifically promulgating that Arabs and Palestinians are dangerous.

"These questions align with a radical and racist political worldview which views Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims as a terrorist or a threat," Adalah Attorney Nareman Shehadeh-Zoabi wrote in the letter to the ministry.

According to Adalah, the course violates sections of Israel's Education Law, "which requires consideration of the uniqueness of the Arab minority, citizens of Israel, recognising its language, culture, and heritage". Adalah says the programme also breaches "the principle of equality [and] contradict Israel's Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty".

The Israeli Education Ministry is trying to turn high school students into agents of propaganda charged with spreading extreme racist ideology

One question asks, "How do Palestinian organisations use digital social networks?" The correct answer is "encouraging violence". And another question asks students to name the origins of modern anti-Semitism. The correct response is "Muslim organisations" and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement

"The Israeli Education Ministry is trying to turn high school students into agents of propaganda charged with spreading extreme racist ideology," Shehadeh-Zoabi says.

"This is especially grave for Palestinian Arab teenagers who, with this exam, are being forced to internalise humiliating statements about themselves and their families." 

A 'hasbara' course

The course falls under Israel's campaign of "hasbara", a Hebrew word loosely translated to explanation. Some interpretations of hasbara suggest it is just Israel's form of public diplomacy. Others indicate, however, that hasbara is part of Israel's propaganda efforts and meant to disseminate positive information about the state to an international audience. For hasbara supporters, criticism of Israel is not because of the occupation of Palestine, but because Israel is merely 'misunderstood'.

The course was established in 2015 when criticism of Israel intensified following the 2014 Gaza war.

"Students who flew abroad encountered questions like what happens in Israel? They were asked about the separation fence, about the country's borders. They did not know what to answer," Hadara Rosenblum, an education ministry official, said.

The course is meant to train teenagers to act as "ambassadors" of Israel abroad and present a positive image of the state in the face of foreign scrutiny. 

Far-right, religious politician Naftali Bennett made the course mandatory in 2017 when he was the education minister. 

'Blunt brainwashing'

The course's description says it provides students "with basic tools and information" for navigating their journey abroad. 

Bennett tells students in one video that they "will meet people who may not have come across Israel before, and if they did, it was only as a country with the Intifada and where Israeli soldiers shoot Palestinians".

Bennett then lists out Israel's achievements in technology and irrigation. 

"There is a big gap between the image of Israel and the reality," he says.

But Shehadeh-Zoabi disagrees, saying "[t]he videos are a kind of blunt brainwashing that tries to shape [students’] worldview".

While not all of the exam's questions are political, a fair amount discuss controversial political issues and push a given narrative onto students.  One question asks, "What are the challenges facing Israel?" The correct answer is "The Iranian threat", "Delegitimisation" and "Terror groups to the west, east, north and south".

Other questions also address delegitimisation, demonisation and anti-Semitism.

Shehadeh-Zoabi describes how "other questions fall at the heart of the deep Palestinian-Israeli conflict and are in political dispute" like Israel's withdrawal of army forces and settlers from Gaza in 2005.

"It should also be noted that some parts of the videos contain inaccurate information, and others display topics 'in' controversy 'as' fact," she writes.

To Adalah, the programme blocks the possibility for students to develop their critical thinking skills and discourages independent thought.

"It involves the transmission of misleading messages to students and thwarts any attempt to educate them towards dialogue and to examine complex issues on all sides before formulating a position," Shehadeh-Zoabi says.

Legal action going forward 

Adalah requested the education ministry respond within 30 days to the 18 June letter. Shehadeh-Zoabi tells The New Arab authorities have not responded yet and she plans to send a reminder on the 29 July.

If the ministry still doesn't respond to the reminder after two weeks, Shehadeh-Zoabi says Adalah will take the case to court.

The education ministry did not respond to The New Arab's request for comment.