If you ask someone on the street "What does 'hasbara' mean?", they will stare at you blankly.
That's because, contrary to what the internet might have you believe, random people on the street do not know the ends and outs of rhetorical tropes involving Israel or Israeli society.
But if you ask someone somewhat more engaged "What does 'hasbara' mean?", they'll probably give an answer that is something like "propaganda". Hasbara is Israeli propaganda.
Of course, that's not actually accurate. The Hebrew word "Hasbara" translates to "explanation", not propaganda. Now to be sure, it's a particular type of explanation -- a justificatory explanation. Explaining to someone the physical processes by which the moon revolves around the Earth is not hasbara. Explaining to your skeptical spouse why your cable bill is so much higher this month (you bought a big boxing pay-per-view), that would be hasbara.
But right from the get go, this mistranslation should alarm us. There's something very revealing, after all, about a world where Jewish "explanations" are literally heard as "propaganda". All this time we've talking about antisemitic tropes where Jews deceive, manipulate, or hypnotize the world -- and "hasbara" fits right into that.
When people talk about how this argument is "hasbara" or how back in the day they had been subjected to a ton of "hasbara", they're saying more than that they disagree with an argument or that their views have evolved. They're saying that the argument was dishonest or manipulative, that they've learned to recognize the string-pulling. Even when it's Jews doing it, the rhetorical power of dismissing something as hasbara stems almost entirely from antisemitic roots: these Jews are the bad Jews, the manipulators and spin-doctors; I'm an honest Jew who not only sees through the lies, but recognizes the Jewish pattern when I see it.
Ultimately, the way "hasbara" is used is almost always an effort to degrade Jewish claim-making. It relies on tropes of Jewish manipulation and insincerity; it literally collapses, in the Jewish case, the distinction between explanation and propaganda.
For those reasons, I don't really use "hasbara" much myself (at least not unironically), even when speaking of right-wing arguments defending various Israeli actions that I find utterly ridiculous. I've made an effort (not wholly successful) to remove it from my vocabulary. And so if you go through my archives, I mostly use it either (a) ironically, to refer to people dismissing Jews as "hasbara shills" or (b) in literal reference to Hasbara Fellows on campus.
The existence of Hasbara Fellows offers up a new dimension on this discussion. Most obviously, Israel is not the Empire from Star Wars; it does not give its own actors self-consciously evil names like "Death Star" or "Avarice". So the fact that it uses the term "Hasbara Fellow" is a pretty strong hint that the word itself does not have an intrinsically malicious meaning. It'd be like sending off "Deception Fellows" to campus -- who would do that?
On the other side, promoters of calling out "hasbara" might contend that they are referring to something specific -- official Israeli governmental efforts to cast Israel in a good light and foment positive dispositions towards the country. That's hasbara (and that's, literally, what Hasbara Fellows are for). So it can't be wrong to call it by its name.
One problem with this is that the term hasbara is not limited in application only to Israeli government speakers. Pretty much any Jew who speaks in a remotely apologetic tone for Israel -- no matter their capacity or connection to Israeli governmental actors -- can and will be accused of engaging in hasbara at one point or another. If anything, the government linkage serves more to expand the scope than to limit it: Jews who sound "hasbara-ish" will typically be accused of being outright Israeli governmental agents -- because who else would spout hasbara other than someone on the Israeli payroll?
But the larger problem is that we already have a term for states seeking to present themselves in a good light and make people feel positively towards the country: public diplomacy. Now, to be sure, public diplomacy is motivated -- the "explanations" it will give regarding questionable state conduct are in service of a diplomatic end; they aren't the pure dispassionate appraisal one might get from a wholly disinterested scholar. Obviously, anyone who is listening to acts of public diplomacy should listen with a critical ear.
But there's nothing wrong with public diplomacy per se, it's an unremarkable fact of everyday statecraft. And so the real function of "hasbara", as its used in public discourse, is to take something normal and mundane and delegitimate it by slapping a scary-sounding foreign word onto it.
Public diplomacy is a fact of life, you handle it by not shutting down your critical facilities. Hasbara is something undefineably more nefarious -- we don't know exactly what it is (the fact that the average person probably has no idea what the words means helps, rather than hurts), but it sure sounds scary. Any country can engage in public diplomacy (hell, any country can engage in propaganda), but only Israel can do hasbara. It's another way of exceptionalizing Israel and suggesting that nothing it does can be analyzed through "normal" processes -- we need new and special words, new and special concepts, new and special standards to accurately assess anything it does. And, I'd suggest, it's implicitly orientalist as well. It is the foreignness, the mysterious impenetrability of the word hasbara, that gives it such power.
Is it fair to say that there are arguments made by Israeli government defenders which strike me as ludicrous, bad-faith, or just impossible to take seriously? Of course -- I can think of a half-dozen examples instantaneously. And so I can understand the desire to have a pithy word which just puts those arguments in their place. "Hasbara" can fill that niche nicely.
But really, what we do get by keeping "hasbara" in our vocabulary that we wouldn't otherwise have? When Rep. Ilhan Omar apologized for her "hypnotize" tweet -- and I give her credit for that -- it was striking to see how many people rushed in to condemn her for the apology. They were insistent that Israel really does "hypnotize" the world, that hypnosis is the best way to describe how it is that Israel ever persuades anyone of anything. In effect, they really do believe that all Jewish "explanations" for Israel are naught but propaganda.
In this way, the main utility of "hasbara", as a term, isn't to enable us to call out bad-faith arguments when they appear. The main function is to suggest that the entire sweep of the discourse is bad-faith, manipulative or hypnotic. It's not that this argument is a bad argument; the entire discursive sphere about Israel (or more specifically, the Jewish and non-explicitly anti-Zionist contribution to it) is defined by manipulation and deceit. Hasbara, we might say, is a structure, not an event -- it's not a discrete set of bad arguments we reject as failing the smell test, it's the entire state of the world where Jews endeavor to bend reality into unreality.
That sort of outlook just can't be sustained -- at least, not in a way that is compatible with the fair inclusion of Jewish voices in deliberative arenas. The fact is that there are certain words and terms which have genuine usefulness but which do far more damage than good, and whose use is consequently not justified. For me, "self-hating Jew" is one such term -- I understand the desire to put down Jews whose public persona seems entirely dedicated to slamming other Jews, but the degrading, marginalizing character of "self-hating Jews" is just too harmful to justify its usage -- and so I don't use the term.
The more I think about it, the more I think "hasbara" falls into the same boat. And so I think it's time that it gets retired as well.