Israel’s Borat Problem
Israel’s PR blunders threaten its exceptional status among American allies.
The Israeli-British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen is best known for a certain type of prank. Disguising himself as a foreigner with a topsy-turvy worldview—most famously, the Kazakh immigrant Borat—Cohen tries to see how much over-the-top absurdity his victims will indulge with a straight face.
On November 16, Cohen made a more serious plea. In a phone call with representatives of the social media company TikTok, he complained that the Hamas fighters were able to commit atrocities against Israelis because “they were fed images from when they were small kids that led them to hate.” Cohen warned that TikTok was allowing similar hatred to spread to Western youth.
For the past few years, the pro-Israel movement has been focused on a specific threat: young left-wing Westerners who believe that Israel is a colonial oppressor. During the current war, Western media has covered controversies in the same vein: academics who defend Hamas in the name of “decolonization,” protesters who chant for an “intifada,” and TikTok teens who defend terrorism. During the famous Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, protesters claimed that Native Americans and Palestinians are both victims of colonial genocide.
All this sound and fury misses a greater threat to Israel’s Western support. Poll after poll shows that Americans want their country to be a neutral mediator or call for a ceasefire rather than supporting Israel. The problem for Israel is not that the American masses blame Israel for Western colonialism, but the opposite. The American right and center, which once reflexively supported Israel as a core Western ally, are now beginning to see Israelis and Palestinians as two equally troublesome Middle Eastern peoples.
“There is no hatred like the Palestinian hatred of Israel and Jewish people, and probably the other way around also. I don’t know,” the Republican frontrunner Donald Trump said in a November 9 television interview. “You know, it’s not as obvious, but probably that’s it too. So sometimes you have to let things play out and you have to see where it ends.” He added that Israel “has to do a better job of public relations, frankly, because the other side is beating them at the public relations front.”
Cohen himself should understand what is happening. In 2018, he introduced the character Erran Morad, an Israeli intelligence officer. Throwing out terrorism-related buzzwords in a thick Hebrew accent, “Morad” convinced American politicians that arming kindergarteners was a normal Israeli practice.
The popular image of Israel has moved closer to that of Cohen’s character: a foreign conman with a strange affect, strange hatreds, and strange demands. Whenever an Israeli army spokesman claims to have found weapons hidden in Palestinian babies’ incubators, Americans may hear an echo of Cohen’s voice.
Those Americans are growing more jaded about Israel’s pleas for help. A Reuters/Ipsos poll shows that more Americans wanted their country to be a “neutral mediator” than an active supporter of Israel. Only 31 percent agreed with sending weapons to Israel, far fewer than those who support arming Ukraine. Around 45 percent believed that “the problems of Israel are none of our business, and we should not interfere.”
Israel’s supporters have long argued that Israel is a self-sufficient ally, one that (unlike Ukraine) does not need much Western hand-holding. Yet the possibility that Israel will require American intervention continues to grow. The Biden administration has already sent an increasingly large naval force to the Middle East—including two entire aircraft carrier groups. Promises of U.S. support seem to have encouraged Israeli leaders to try expanding the war into Lebanon. Rather than the West’s shield against a hostile world, Israel looks a lot like an albatross dragging the West into hostilities it wants no part of.
Just as Hamas’s televised brutality in the October 7 attacks confirmed to many Westerners that the Palestinian movement was hateful, Israeli leaders’ own apocalyptic messaging has convinced other Westerners that it is “the other way around also.” Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has struck a supervillainous tone, talking about the struggle between the “children of darkness and children of light” and citing biblical verses about the destruction of Amalek, which involved the slaying of “men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
Even the CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer, a former staffer for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, seemed taken aback by the callousness of an Israeli army spokesman who admitted to bombing the Jabalia refugee camp. Many pro-Israel mainstays were also shocked when Netanyahu himself bragged about sabotaging the peace process.
For sure, the trauma of October 7 has awakened a ruthlessness in Israelis that Westerners were not expecting. But part of the problem dates back much earlier. The aesthetics of Israeli nationalism have not only grown less liberal but also less Western. During race riots in Jerusalem and Huwara over the past couple years, Western audiences have been greeted to images of Israeli nationalists chanting “death to Arabs” and dancing to Arabic-style wedding music.
Israel is also no longer run by its secular Westernized elite, and no longer has a spokeswoman like Golda Meir, who knew how and cared to couch her animus towards Palestinians in the language that Western liberals preferred. Netanyahu has instead filled his cabinet with crooks and fanatics, some of whom are personally repellent and many of whom are culturally alien to Western audiences.
Attempts to “show Westernity,” in the words of a pro-Israel public relations memo, fall increasingly flat. Firing gender-reveal colors from the barrel of a tank and flying an LGBT flag over bombed-out ruins only draw attention to how abnormal Israeli society is by Western standards.
Israel’s public relations situation is shaping up to be the worst of both worlds. The left still sees Israel as the great white oppressor, and the young right increasingly sees Israel as another unstable postcolonial nation begging for aid.
American conservatives’ pro-Israel consensus was always difficult to square with their “America First” position against aid to Ukraine. These tensions came out into the open during the Republican debates in August, when candidate Nikki Haley said that “it’s not that Israel needs America, it’s that America needs Israel.” Even relatively mainstream conservative commentators accused Haley of taking an “America Last” position.
The war in Gaza has accelerated those contradictions. The over-the-top nature of Israeli rhetoric and demands has forced the question for conservatives who perhaps preferred to avoid talking about Israel. The right-wing commentator Candace Owens was accused of anti-Israel dogwhistles for writing on social media that “no government anywhere has a right to commit a genocide.” Although her original statement did not include any apparent reference to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Owens decided to take a public stance on the issue afterwards.
“People who have become more radical and extreme are perceiving a moderate stance as not enough,” she said in an interview with conservative talk show host Tucker Carlson. “I’m definitely not radical. My stance has not changed in terms of whether or not America should be involved in this conflict, whether we are talking about Afghanistan…whether we are talking about Ukraine and Russia.”
Carlson himself questioned why Americans were expected to have such an “emotional” reaction to a “foreign tragedy.”
One of Israel’s demands is particularly grating on the Western right. Israeli officials have been tossing around the idea of depopulating Gaza by forcing Palestinians to emigrate. The Wall Street Journal published a call by Israeli members of parliament for the United States and Europe to take in Palestinian refugees from Gaza, and the Jerusalem Post published an essay by Israeli intelligence minister Gila Gamliel echoing that demand. A leaked document from Gamliel’s ministry suggested Greece and Spain as destinations.
These suggestions show an understanding of Western politics about ten years out of date. Refugee crises in the Middle East and Central America have turned into enduring political headaches for Western governments. The idea that Israel would foist refugees onto the West also plays into the hands of outright antisemites, who preach that a Jewish conspiracy is behind Western demographic change. Such conspiracy theories have moved alarmingly quickly from the fringes to parts of the political mainstream.
Meanwhile, cynicism about Israel has filtered through to less politicized sections of the youth. A video parody of Israeli propaganda recently went viral. A man in a business suit says, to the backdrop of Israeli folk music, that “Israel is in trouble. Needs your help to fight off the Palestinians. All it needs is your parents’ credit card, the expiration date, and the three digits on the back.”
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Used to unconditional U.S. support, Israel has overplayed its hand. The Israeli strategy in Gaza threatens not only to export instability across the Middle East, but also to force the West to bear the costs of that instability in ways that alienate Israel’s core Western (and especially American) supporters.
For the center and the right, support for Israel used to be the obvious policy: a low-cost way to support the unambiguously Western side of a conflict. The costs now feel much higher, and the conflict much more ambiguous. The United States is unlikely to embrace Palestinian nationalism and sanction the Israeli economy. It may, however, pull back both its general involvement in the Middle East and its specific support for Israel.
Israeli leaders will then have to confront the tough choices that Western support has so far cushioned them from. That is the real danger for Israel—not being treated as an exception, but having to make do like any other state.