Hasbara Handbook: 7 Basic Propaganda Devices

Preface: As part of our ongoing effort to expose propaganda techniques, we are posting the propaganda section of the Hasbara Handbook: Promoting Israel on Campus, originally leaked by Wikispooks. It is more than a decade old, as it refers to PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who passed away in 2004.

Propaganda is used by those who want to communicate in ways that engage the emotions, and downplay rationality, in an attempt to promote a certain message. To effectively present Israel to the public, and to counter anti-Israel messages, it is necessary to understand propaganda devices.

This article applies a list of seven propaganda devices to the Israeli situation, and by doing so allows an understanding of some of the ways in which public opinion is fought for in the International arena.

Name Calling

Through the careful choice of words, the name calling technique links a person or an idea to a negative symbol. Creating negative connotations by name calling is done to try and get the audience to reject a person or idea on the basis of negative associations, without allowing a real examination of that person or idea. The most obvious example is name calling – “they are a neo-Nazi group” tends to sound pretty negative to most people. More subtly, name calling works by selecting words with subtle negative meanings for some listeners. For example, describing demonstrators as “youths” creates a different impression from calling them “children”.

Those opposed to Israel use name calling all the time. Consider the meaning of the word ‘settlement’. When applied to Gilo, a suburb of Jerusalem over the disputed 1967 borders, the word ‘settlement’ creates the unfortunate impression that Gilo is located in the middle of the West Bank, and occupied by religious and political extremists (the image many people have acquired of settlements). That’s how the media and opponents of Israel use name-calling. Other examples include referring to the ‘war crimes’ of Ariel Sharon, talking about ‘invasion’ of the West Bank when an army unit enters territory under PA sovereignty in order to find terrorists, and so on.

Name calling is hard to counter. Don’t allow opponents the opportunity to engage in point scoring. Whenever ‘name calling’ is used, think about referring to the same thing but with a neutral connotation.

Glittering Generality

Simply put, the glittering generality is name calling in reverse. Instead of trying to attach negative meanings to ideas or people, glittering generalities use positive phrases which the audience are attached to in order to lend a positive image to things. Words such as ‘freedom’, ‘civilization’, ‘motherhood’, ‘liberty’, ‘equality’, ‘science’, and ‘democracy’ have these positive associations for most people. These words mean different things to different people, but are used to gain the approval of an audience, even when they aren’t used in their standard ways. Consider the use of the term ‘freedom fighter’, which is supposed to gain approval for terrorism by using the word ‘freedom’. Or, consider why it is so beneficial to bring home the point that Israel is a democracy.

Israel is a Western democracy in the middle of the Middle East. It stands for freedom, equal rights for all, it is a civilized country whose opera, ballet, and world-class universities ensure that Israeli culture is very advanced. These points can be made again and again, so that listeners in the West associate the country with positive concepts, and come to side with Israel.

Enemies of Israel will be keen to cast doubt on Israeli claims to be democratic, to guarantee freedom for all, and so on. In place of these ‘glittering generalities’ favourable to Israel, they will associate Palestinian behavior, including terrorism, with terms like ‘anti-colonialist’ and ‘freedom’.

Combating the use of ‘glittering generalities’ requires undermining the use of a positive term. For example, if a Palestinian speaker claimed that Palestinian terror is only carried out to gain freedom, it might be worth asking if “freedom means killing young children and leaving their parents to bury them?”


Transfer involves taking some of the prestige and authority of one concept and applying it to another. For example, a speaker might decide to speak in front of a United Nations flag, in an attempt to gain legitimacy for himself or his idea. Some of the symbols that might be used in discussing Israel might include the Israeli flag, or Star of David; Islamic symbols, which might lend a militant speaker the apparent support of Islam, even when what they are saying goes against mainstream Islamic beliefs; non-denominational prayer, which gives a sense of religiosity to a speaker even when his message is not ‘religious’; and the national symbols of a speakers’ own country – such as the American flag – which create the impression that the speaker is presenting ‘American values’.

Palestinian groups notoriously attempt to enlist the symbols of the international community to transfer support and legitimacy. Arafat and the UN flag is a sight we are all accustomed to. These efforts can be undermined by trying to enlist the same symbols, or more powerful ones, first.


Testimonial means enlisting the support of somebody admired or famous to endorse an ideal or campaign. Testimonial can be used reasonably – it makes sense for a footballer to endorse football boots – or manipulated, such as when a footballer is used to support a political campaign they have only a limited understanding of. While everybody is entitled to an opinion, testimonial can lend weight to an argument that it doesn’t deserve: if U2’s Bono condemned Israel for something that it didn’t do, thousands would believe him, even though he was wrong.

Plain Folks

The plain folks technique attempts to convince the listener that the speaker is a ‘regular guy’, who is trust-worthy because they are just like ‘you or me’. Often politicians present themselves as being from outside the standard ‘political cliques’ and above political bickering, and then call for tax cuts to help the ‘regular guy’. More often than not these politicians are multi-millionaires financed by large corporations, but the plain folks technique allows them to obscure that fact by presenting their ‘common’ characteristics.

Support for an alleged underdog in a certain situation can often be part of a ‘plain folks’ agenda. Critics of Israel can paint the Palestinian people as the underdogs, and Israel as an ‘oppressor’ of a weaker people. This sort of populist position can best be combated by shifting blame for the Palestinian predicament away from Israel and towards Yasser Arafat. As the famous saying goes, “Yasser Arafat has never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. Point out that the reason Palestinians are still stateless is because their leadership have, tragically and repeatedly, sought war instead of peace, and turned down offers of land for peace.

Care must be taken when adopting populist positions. There are some ethical boundaries that ought not to be crossed – for example tapping in to general anti-Arab feeling, or Islamophobia. Remember that Israel can be supported without resorting to mass generalizations or racism.


When a speaker warns that the consequences of ignoring his message is likely to be war, conflict, personal suffering, and so forth, they are manipulating fear to advance their message. Listeners have deep-seated fears of violence and disorder which can be tapped into by creating false dichotomies – ‘either listen to me, or these terrible things will happen’. Listeners are too preoccupied by the threat of terrible things to think critically about the speaker’s message.

Fear is easily manipulated in a climate that is already steeped in fear by the threat of global terror. Arab and Islamic fundamentalist terror has been responsible for 1000s of deaths in the West, and has threatened to bring the entire world into deep economic recession. Nobody wants to face physical risk, or financial ruin. Fear can be successfully utilized by pointing out the consequences of terror. Reminding people that terrorists have, in the past, operated throughout the world makes the threat vivid and immediate.


Most people, when in doubt, are happy to do what other people are doing. This is the bandwagon effect. People are happy to be part of the crowd, and subtle manipulators can play on this desire by emphasizing the large size of their support. Although it is reasonable that people are given a chance to find out how many other supporters a speaker or movement has, often it is possible to create the impression of extensive support – through gathering all supporters in one place, or through poorly conducted opinion polls – in an attempt to persuade people who are keen to follow the crowd.

Remember that playing with perceptions of numbers supporting a cause can be problematic if this means that genuine supporters become complacent.

Palestinian activists’ success at creating the impression that they have enormous support is hard to counter. The most obvious and most effective response is to try and seem even better supported. Otherwise, simply start to deal with the issues, especially using ‘plain folks’ techniques, to gain support that is committed, and not just jumping on the bandwagon.



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