This week, some 60 social media experts from around the world gathered in Jerusalem to share tools and best practices for fighting efforts to delegitimize Israel online.
The event was the initiative of the Strategic Affairs and Public Diplomacy Ministry and drew people from Israel and 17 other countries, including Italy, the UK, the US, South Africa, India and Norway.
Each participant brought with them their own unique expertise and vantage point. Terri Levin, for instance, who traveled to Israel from South Africa, feels that coming from a country with a history of apartheid, she and her colleagues are best equipped to fight accusations of apartheid in Israel.
“The apartheid Israel analogy is very widely used here to incite aggressive behavior,” Levin told The Jerusalem Post Magazine ahead of the conference.
“Israel gets compared to an apartheid state, but we know for a fact that it isn’t. We see differences in all kinds of basic things, such as civil rights, sharing a bus and doing certain jobs. We can share some knowledge on that.”
Levin entered the world of new media and public diplomacy when joining the South African Zionist Federation and South African Friends of Israel last year after many years of experience in the advertising industry.
As the media liaison manager, Levin heads the communications and advocacy departments for these organizations across all the media platforms: print, TV, radio, online and social media.
The primary focus of the Federation is to foster connections between South African Jews and Israel.
“We monitor media around the clock and look at ways to reduce anti-Israel sentiment in South African
political, cultural and religious communities through education, advocacy and lobbying,” she explains.
Meanwhile, the South African Friends of Israel, which is an initiative of the Federation, aims to foster and engage communities of other faiths, cultures and ethnic groups outside the Jewish community with the idea of building a broader grassroots support network for Israel in South Africa.
The Christian community, Levin notes, makes up some 80% of the South African population.
“We are trying to create a united coalition to stand against misinformation and to promote a connection with Israel.” The network, she says, has grown to include hundreds of thousands of people who show their support for Israel.
The discussion is not just about their support for Israel, but also how Israel can help their communities and South Africa in general, as well as the biblical history of Israel, with which they already have a connection.
The skill of targeting certain audiences with the right messaging is one that Levin brought with her from the advertising world.
“Understanding who you are talking to and whether you are talking to them in the right way and giving them the tools they need – messaging is key,” she says.
To combat delegitimization of Israel, she continues, planning ahead is vital. For instance, she says, with an event like Israel Apartheid Week, she and her colleagues plan their strategies months in advance.
“We look for ways to encourage dialogue about communities and to always be approachable in a peaceful manner, because often anti-Israel lobbyists meet us with aggression and we don’t want to meet their aggression with aggression.”
One of the main challenges Levin faces is the perceived bias of mainstream media as well as the aggression of the anti-Israel lobby.
“Their life mission is to delegitimize Israel, so unfortunately the line between anti-Zionist and antisemitic beliefs is very thin.”
Neither the Federation nor the Friends of Israel group focuses on those who are staunchly anti-Israel but rather on those who are neutral or undecided.
“At least 80% of students on campus haven’t really formed an opinion,” Levin estimates. “We arm students with facts and dispel misinformation. We won’t convert those who are staunch anti-Zionists, but we try to talk to people who are amenable to hearing our messaging.”
Beny Racah, an Italian immigrant to Israel, wholeheartedly agrees with this.
“The people against Israel aren’t important,” he tells the Magazine. “For me, what’s important is the neutral audience.
“The people against Israel are 15%,” he believes. “We need to work on all the others. It’s not important to work against the extremists. When I did a campaign against them, nothing happened, but with those who are neutral there is a lot of engagement.”
Racah is the cofounder of Progetto Dreyfus (the Dreyfus Project) as well as the cofounder of the editorial network IsayBlog.com, a platform of 130 online magazines read by millions of users every month.
Progetto Dreyfus is a non-profit organization that works to fight antisemitism, fundamentalism and discrimination, using the 1894 Dreyfus Affair as a symbol of the fight against injustice and antisemitic prejudice.
The group started up during Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012.
“It was very frustrating reading the news. It was completely confused in the order of the facts,” he recalls. “So we thought it was time to give a small contribution to balance the information that was arriving from Israel to Italy every day.”
The organization has focused on building relationships with Italian journalists.
“It’s very important because they write about Israel and the conflict with the Palestinians. I think now they are changing their position.”
Sometimes Racah arranges visits for Italian politicians to Israel to show them life in the West Bank.
“I want them to understand that movements like BDS don’t work against Israel but against Palestinians,” he says.
For instance, he takes them to the Barkan Industrial Park in the West Bank.
“There are many industries there and many Palestinians working for them, and when they speak with them, the Palestinians tell them that they work, have the same salary as the Israelis and social benefits. People abroad create confusion and damaging propaganda,” Racah remarks.
The group works on both “internal” and “external” communication.
Internally, they give materials and infographics to members of the Jewish community.
Externally, they strive to be a point of reference for public opinion, spreading news, materials and tools.
They also contribute to Wikipedia and work on SEO to ensure their materials are readily accessible online.
Transparency, Racah stresses, is a vital aspect of their organization.
“Everyone knows who is behind it. It’s important for people to understand why we do this so journalists can use our material.”
Peter Fox, from the US, approaches Israel advocacy from a unique point of view, trying to build the connection between the Israel and US lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning communities. He is a volunteer on the board of young professionals of the LGBTQ group A Wider Bridge, which seeks to advance equality in Israel. Founded in 2010, the group is building a movement of LGBTQ people and allies, both Jews and non-Jews, who are committed to supporting Israel and LGBTQ Israelis. The group focuses on issues such as gay adoption and marriage equality.
Tel Aviv Pride Parade, Credit: Marc Israel Sellem
The group faces a particular challenge in the tendency for LGBTQ community members to align themselves with Palestinians and against Israel and its supporters.
“Over the past summer, we saw different instances of antisemitism in the gay community,” he tells the Magazine, pointing to the Chicago Dyke March from which A Wider Bridge members were expelled for wearing flags bearing the Star of David.
“They accused them of being supporters of Israel, which of course shouldn’t even matter; it should be pluralistic. To me that was really concerning to see that some corners of the far Left are really not that accepting of anyone who might have association with Israel – or maybe not even – because the flag was just the Star of David. The fact that that triggered them didn’t make sense to me,” he remarks.
“I believe strongly in free speech so even if it happened to be a flag of Israel, even if the disagree on politics, that’s pluralism which is what the LGBTQ community should surely stand for – supporting all sorts of people.”
A Wider Bridge is one of the few organizations that supports specifically both the LGBTQ community and Israel.
“I think there’s a really special to quality to that, to be part of marginalized groups,” Fox says.
He also sees it as a potential tool to connect between Israelis and Palestinians, via their LGBTQ communities.
“We accept the fact that people are like this from birth and that LGBTQ people exist in equal proportion everywhere in the world.”
The first time Fox heard of A Wider Bridge was in 2016 when a pro-Palestinian group was protesting an event they were holding, claiming that they were engaged in “pink washing” – the term used to accuse LGBTQ supporters of using Israel’s relatively progressive rights to veil issues related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At this week’s conference, Fox addressed the subject of why the LGBTQ community is becoming much more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel.
“The point I’m trying to make is that you shouldn’t have to choose one. You can be pro-Palestine without being anti-Israel,” he says.
Many people in the gay community feel that supporting Palestinian rights should be part of their platform, he notes, while you don’t see the same for other countries.
“This issue has been boiling for many years and that’s part of it, and anytime it relates to Jewish people. They start to conflate all these issues and they view Israel as being some sort of ethno-nationalist country that stole the lands of indigenous people.”
It’s such a complex subject, he opines, that for people with a superficial understanding of it, the Palestinian narrative is compelling.
“The irony of it of course, is that there are no gay rights in Palestine,” he remarks. This is one of the organization’s talking points – to highlight Israel’s unique position in the Middle East as by far the most accepting of the LGBTQ community.
“It’s easy for them to support Palestine and criticize Israel from afar, but if they actually had to choose, I don’t know many gay people who would choose to live in Palestine over a country that actually gave you a decent amount of freedom.”
Every year, the organization takes a group of mostly non-Jewish people to Israel for the Tel Aviv Pride Parade
to educate them about the country. Those who participate are generally indifferent to or on the fence about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like Levin and Racah, Fox believes most people do not have a fully formed opinion on the subject.
“So the people expressly supporting the Palestinian cause would not be interested or engage with us, but most people would. They might support the Palestinians but not have any vicious sentiment against the Israeli side,” he asserts.