Sitting in a classroom at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, a group of some 30 North American undergraduate students watched a news flash broadcast on the aggressive behavior taken by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement on US campuses.
As the report concluded, the students, on a two-week organized trip by the Zionist Organization of America, huddled around computers brainstorming social media campaigns to defend Israel in the wake of the report.
“We should focus on how BDS is harming Palestinians – proof that peace works with cooperation not with separation,” one group of students concluded.
Another opted for a “fun facts about Israel” approach.
The exercise, though it could have easily been real, was in fact only a simulation in a “virtual situation-room,” run as part of the IDC Public Diplomacy Program, a joint venture of the IDC and Israeli American Council.
“There is a new war that is taking place on social media,” Yarden Ben Yosef, who initiated the situation room, recently told The Jerusalem Post
The Public Diplomacy program aims to combat the BDS movement and the delegitimization of Israel through uniting a global community of pro-Israel activists on social media in a coordinated effort to inform and influence people on Israel.
As such, the program, which just wrapped up its first year, provides a unique academic initiative for IDC students, engaged and dedicated to the “positive branding” of Israel.
As part of the program, students conduct research, create original content and distribute pro-Israel materials to organizations around the world via social media outlets. In addition, the program runs a virtual situation room which trains student groups in Israel and in the US to develop effective social media campaigns to counter BDS.
“These are students who are very dedicated to the project, whenever they have free time they take part,” he said. “We also have thousands of volunteers who participate though they are not physically at IDC.”
The idea behind the virtual situation room and the public diplomacy program stemmed from the success of the IDC Student Union situation room launched initially during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and again during Operation Protective Edge in 2014.
“I sat in class and realized that during Operation Pillar of Defense a new front had opened which was hate of Israel on social media – the understanding that this is a new kind of war and the knowledge that we at IDC had students from over 80 countries meant that we had to do something,” Ben Yosef explained.
During the war, the situation room provided factual information about the situation on the ground to people around the world, as well as countered the misinformation and lies about Israel and the IDF being disseminated on social media sites.
Through its efforts in 2014, the situation room recruited 670 volunteers and was able to reach some 40 million people in 35 languages in over 100 countries.
“At the end of the operation [in 2014] we realized that something unique had happened – we found that we were able to mobilize hundreds of people to engage in hasbara for Israel in an effective and organized way because we were all working together,” he explained.
“We realized that if our activities are so successful and effective then we have the responsibility to continue them not only during war but also during our [daily] routine.”
Ben-Yosef said that during the 2014 Gaza war “it was clear that our enemy was Hamas.”
With the end of the war, however, he said “our enemy was not so clear.”
The situation room had to reevaluate its objectives and restructure its hasbara efforts.
One result was to turn its attention towards the BDS movement, expanding its activities to reach and recruit US student activists.
“IDC has the know-how and the IAC [Israeli American Council] has the power to expand this initiative all over the world to ensure that anyone who wants to help Israel will be able to,” he said.
Through this partnership, the virtual simulation room has to date trained over 1,200 students in the US and Israel, Ben Yosef said.
“Once a month we fly to the US to run a simulation room for students on campus and now during the summer months we are hosting many visiting groups at the IDC,” he explained.
In addition, Ben Yosef said that the program is continuing to expand and is set to launch in the coming months an smartphone application that will enable any person from anywhere in the world to join in the hasbara efforts.
Danielle Israel, an instructor in the situation room, told the Post
that the aim is to recruit “as many people as possible to take part, to be a part of something bigger to make a difference all over the world.”
According to Israel, the aim of the training program is to “raise awareness that we must operate within social media and also to explain the methodology and the specific tools that are critical.”
She explained that the idea is to develop a “sense that we should all work together,” noting that the public diplomacy program works with all the major organizations fighting against BDS, providing them with material and content to disseminate on social media.
“We learned from the situation room during the war, from our successes and also from our failures,” she said.
“When you take 500 or 1,000 volunteers and they are all doing the same task, this has a much greater impact.
Ari Zohar, a student at Loyola Mary Mount University, who was participating in the training session, concurred, telling the Post
that he tries to do his part in countering misinformation on campus.
“There are not a lot of anti-Israel organizations from the student body on campus,” he said. “So I go to other campuses and inform other people about Israel.”
Zohar served as a lone soldier in the IDF prior to enrolling for his undergraduate studies in history.
“There are a lot of rumors and stereotypes that students hear about Israeli soldiers,” he said. “On campus other students have come up to me and asked me if I’ve killed babies.”
Zohar said that he feels the need to educate and inform his fellow students whenever he can about Israel and dispel the misconceptions and stereotypes often her in the media.
“Because I am a student and they can identify with me, I’m able to explain to other students that Israel has a very ethical and moral army,” he said. “Once I get to those students in the middle and can make a personal connection they can relate and start to listen to what you have to say.”
He said that the training session at the IDC helped him learn and hone skills in “diplomacy and engagement.”
“They elaborated on ideas that I already knew and helped me dial in and expand on them and relate it to campaigning on campus.”