Kasim Hafeez, a British Muslim and former Islamist who is now a proud Zionist who stands with Israel, will land in Israel this week for #DigiTell, a gathering of 100 pro-Israel bloggers and social network managers from all over the world.
“We are bringing together those who have fought this year against anti-Israel and antisemitic hate-writers and those promoting the boycott campaign against Israel,” said Ido Daniel, senior director for digital strategy for the Strategic Affairs Ministry, the ministry running the #DigiTell seminar. “We are opening our doors to the influencers and social media activists for Israel who are fighting our fight every day.”
Hafeez is among the most interesting and unlikely participants. He grew up being exposed to radical anti-Western, antisemitic and anti-Israel ideas on what he describes as a daily basis. During his teenage years, Hafeez embraced a radical Islamist ideology and became very active in the anti-Israel movement.
But in the early 2000s, he came across Alan Dershowitz’s book, The Case for Israel.
“I was so convinced that I was right, I bought the book and read it to essentially read the ‘Zionist lies' for myself,’” he told The Jerusalem Post. “I was presented with ideas and arguments I had never come across in all my years of being anti-Israel. While I did dismiss them all as lies, I did however want to reassure myself that I was right.”
So, he read a few more books.
“I began to see a lack of factual argument on the anti-Israel side, a lot of rhetoric and emotion but little fact,” he said.
Hafeez began a period of “research” that lasted almost two years and culminated in his being torn: on the one hand he couldn’t accept that his hatred of Jews and Israel was wrong, but on the other hand, nothing was validating it. In 2007, he traveled to Israel for the first time, “hoping to have the nightmare scenario and see apartheid and racism to reaffirm my hatred.”
“Seeing the reality, meeting the people, talking to Arabs and Jews, I realized that I was wrong and, ultimately, fell in love with Israel,” he said. “When I got back to the UK, I felt obligated to just tell the truth. How many minds had I poisoned with lies I believed while never having set foot in Israel?”
As Hafeez began to speak out, he no longer felt safe in the UK.
“To live constantly looking over your shoulder is no way to live,” he said. “But ultimately... you can’t allow bullying and intimidation to scare you into submission. I’ve dealt with threats and hostile campuses, and it won’t stop me from speaking the truth. In fact, that climate makes it even more essential to speak the truth.”
Today, Hafeez works for Christians United for Israel (CUFI) and said that the organization has a digital reach of millions, which it uses to mobilize individuals to action for Israel.
The ministry’s Daniel said the two-day seminar, which will run from March 12 and 13, is meant to engage people like Hafeez with others in the same space and provide them with new tools and best practices for telling their stories on social media. Around 100 participants are coming from 17 countries, with a heavy focus on participants from Europe, he said.
Each of the participants is independent and receives no ministry funding. Rather, it is more like a support group.
“They receive a lot of hate for what they do [for Israel],” said Daniel, noting that the #DigiTell concept was founded one year ago this March for that reason. “We would like to empower them in the way that we can.”
Jackie Goodall, the founder of the Ireland Israel Alliance, seconded Daniel’s sentiments. She said people in the pro-Israel social media space have been labeled "hasbara trolls," a nasty term that those who are anti-Israel use to try to shame and intimidate.
“They are trying to say that we are some kind of undercover operation, that it is not legitimate to so support the State of Israel,” she continued. “These people make us out to be Nazis, when all we are doing is standing up for the State of Israel and trying to combat BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement).”
Goodall came to Israel for the first time in 2003, and said she, like Hafeez, was “very surprised to find a modern, vibrant, democratic country that is very diverse in terms of its ethnic population: Jews, Arabs, working together.”
Then, she learned about the BDS movement and became aware of the hatred being spewed against Israel by various individuals and organizations on the web.
“I thought, ‘This is not true, this is not the Israel I know and love,’” said Goodall. “So, I decided to do something about it.”
She recently launched her organization, which reaches around 200,000 people per month in Ireland. The organization is looking to expand its YouTube, Facebook and Instagram presence to reach even more individuals.
Goodall said Ireland is perceived as one of the most hostile countries in Europe toward Israel. The Irish parliament is working to pass a law criminalizing commercial activity by Irish citizens within areas of Israel over the pre-1967 lines.
“We believe this legislation is immoral, discriminatory and illegal,” Goodall said, explaining that Ireland cannot act alone on this matter because it is part of the EU’s single market, and as a result it must abide by its policies.
The European Union has labeled but not banned Israeli products produced over the pre-1967 lines. Passage of the bill would put Ireland in breach of EU law and would open it up to legal action from the EU, including monetary fines that could cost Ireland millions of Euros.
In protest of the legislation, the Ireland Israel Alliance gathered 100 pro-Israel activists in Dublin for a rally in February. The group erected a stand to sell chocolate, wine and other products made in the West Bank. They took pictures of those who purchased items holdings signs that read, “We are Irish citizens, and we also buy products from Judea and Samaria.”
“We stood there for two hours and no one had a negative comment,” Goodall said. “Many people did not even know about the anti-Israel legislation.”
She told the Post that she believes Ireland’s BDS community is small, but loud, active and organized, which gives the impression that most people in Ireland hate Israel and are against it. She said she hopes her group will help combat that perception.
Hafeez said he believes the struggle for Israel is “one of the most important struggles of our time.”
He said that with the rise of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment, it’s easy to become fixated on the negative. That the #DigiTell network exists is a testament to the diverse group of individuals working toward a shared objective.
“Israel is not just a Jewish cause; it is a cause for anyone who values truth, freedom and human rights,” Hafeez said. “If those values mean anything to you, then you cannot be silent.”