NEW YORK – In the midst of escalating tensions and stabbing attacks, thousands of pro-Israel Internet users have taken up the fight to tell Israel’s side of the story to social media, as they often do in times of crisis.
Last week, the organization StandWithUs, which has close to 800,000 followers on Facebook and describes itself as a grassroots education movement dedicated to informing the public about Israel, achieved a combined post reach of 100 million on its page.
But educating about Israel is far from being an easy business; it means facing opponents – such as the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement and those equating Israel to an apartheid state – who push their own image of Israel forward in many public forums, including college campuses across the world.
Shahar Azani, the executive director of the StandWithUs northeast region office, joined the organization in the beginning of 2015 after serving in the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, New York, Los Angeles and Nairobi.
According to him, the recipe to effective Israel advocacy, or “outreach” as he prefers to call it, includes two crucial ingredients: relevance and creativity.
“The biggest risk to advocacy is kishke diplomacy,” Azani told The Jerusalem Post. “When we tell people what we want to tell them and not what they need or want to hear, I think that is a huge problem. And it’s not easy to overcome, because it’s a natural instinct: You are hurting and you want to let it out.”
“We need to ask ourselves: How can I make Israel relevant to my target audience?” he explained.
Back in his days at the Israeli Consulate in LA, in February 2009, Azani was invited to speak at UCLA. It was shortly after Operation Cast Lead.
“Of course we wanted to explain Israel’s situation, but February is also Black History month,” he said.
Azani reached out to the Kenyan consul-general in Los Angeles, whom he knew from his time in Nairobi, and asked her to join him. They focused their UCLA talk on the relationship between Israel and Africa.
“This is in my view an exemplary event because it addressed a need; it was built on the local needs and ideas and relevance. We chose the topic to be an issue that was discussed on campus at that time, and we made sure it was an event that wasn’t an Israel standalone event, but, rather, Israel standing side by side with someone else,” he explained. “There was also a universal message of hope.”
According to Azani, when approached with the topic of Israel, most college students and people in general may feel that they are being indoctrinated and fed propaganda. This is why he says that taking the “back door” and not necessarily talking about the conflict with the Palestinians may be the best tool.
“The first problem we need to avoid is having a reactionary advocacy movement,” he said. “We will fight the fight, but at the same time we will make sure not to limit Israel to the boundaries of our enemies, because Israel is not a counterreaction to the existence of a Palestinian narrative. Israel is a country on its own.”
“If you only talk about Israel through one prism, you will have lost so much,” Azani told the Post.
StandWithUs indeed tries to promote Israel through different aspects of the country, such as fashion, technology or even environment, while always linking them to what is relevant for the target audience at that time. The goal is in fact to “humanize” Israel and put a face on what people hear about it in the media.
“We want to let people know we are not machines, we’re not cyborgs, we are not only this sophisticated technological and security empire, we are human beings just like them,” he said.
“We share the same values, we share the same hopes and fears.”
Yet every time Israel is engaged in a military operation or security crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes international headlines, analysts and experts hold panels and discussions about Israel’s image problem.
Azani, however, does not agree that Israel has lost the media war.
“We look at the Palestinian advocacy and we think they are so successful in conveying their narrative, and we are not,” he told the Post. “But we need to look at the long-term goal. Our narrative is not one of victimhood. Our narrative is one that strives to create a vital, viable, successful country with a breathing economy that attracts people.”
According to him, Israel’s long-term goal is not to prove to people that it is right but, rather, to show them the country and encourage them to interact with it.
“It is true that Israel doesn’t invest enough budget into the Foreign Ministry,” he said. “We should have an empowered Foreign Ministry that is actually being funded to get the word out and engage with the community.”
Azani also pointed out that more financial means also will attract more well-trained people to lead the campaign.
“Luckily for us, the fact that we have StandWithUs and other organizations can somehow cover up for the loss.”
However, in times when the Israeli- Palestinian conflict exacerbates public opinion of the country, speaking about the Israeli fashion scene or Israel as the “Start-Up Nation,” Azani said, is not an effective approach.
“It is about the struggle to tell Israel’s story, to erase the thought that somehow Israel is to blame for what’s happening from people’s mind,” he explained. “We want people to understand that when Mohamed Merah executed three kids and a teacher in front of a Jewish school in Toulouse, he had the same mind-set as the 16-yearold Palestinian who comes from Givat Ze’ev with a knife to stab an 18-year-old Israeli.”
Azani added that beyond advocating for Israel among the non-Jewish community across the world, the Jewish community itself is also a big part of the StandWithUs target audience.
“Israel is not an integral part of everybody’s life, and many Jews haven’t even been to Israel,” he said. “People don’t see anti-Semitism to be so close, or at least they don’t feel it in their everyday lives, even if it does exist.”
“So we ask ourselves: How can we make our youngsters today still feel Israel is relevant for their lives?” he told the Post.
Azani stressed that StandWithUs is not a political organization, and all of its activities are conducted “under the banner of education.” It strives to “build the pro-Israel community of the future.”
“We teach that every interaction is an opportunity, and you should use it well,” he said. “Contrary to what people tell us, Israel does not contradict the notion of social justice: Israel and social justice go hand in hand.”
“Israel and fun and smiles go hand in hand,” he continued. “And even though we face a difficult strategic situation, this doesn’t mean we lack any of the traits that allow us to build bridges with other communities.”