Taming the Wild West of the world wide web

In recent years, demonizing Israel online has increased thanks to the BDS movement. Here are the organizations working to combat that.

BDS Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
BDS Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
When it comes to spreading hate on the Internet the rules against such vitriol are few and far between. But dedicated, pro-Israel activists have decided to take matters in their own hands, defend Israel and hit Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) operatives where it hurts the most: rendering them ineffective in the social media landscape. Below is a snapshot of conversations The Jerusalem Post had with organizations leading this fight online.
‘The strategic messaging hub of the pro-Israel community’ Lior Weintraub, The Israel Project VP & director of Israel office In Lior Weintraub’s eyes, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions operatives are already losers.
“When people read about BDS in the media, they get the sense that the delegitimization campaign is winning. But it’s not, it’s losing in a big way,” The Israel Project’s vice president and director of its Israel office, argued.
“Our main message is twofold,” he said. “First, that they aren’t about peace, but about hate and bullying. Every time they reveal their true face, we make sure everyone knows about it. Second, that they fail much more often than they succeed. They are on the defensive. With the help of a very wide and large coalition of organizations in Israel and the United States, these BDS activists are finding it more difficult to operate.”
TIP VP Lior Weintraub
TIP VP Lior Weintraub
To fight against the hate spewed by BDS, TIP uses a methodical, multi-pronged approach, using professional tools and working as a strategic hub for the whole pro-Israel community, sharing messages, research and expertise with a wide variety of organizations to make the entire community much more effective. From its Tower Magazine, to a vibrant social media presence (boasting two billion Facebook impressions in 2016) to its seasoned team of communications professionals, TIP prides itself on being advocates of Israel in a tactical and calculated way.
“We are the only ones applying the tools and methodology of a political campaign, such as polling, message testing and micro-targeting, when it comes to educating people about Israel,” he said, adding that he has 20 years of communications experience under his belt including four as chief of staff and spokesman of the Israeli Embassy in Washington.
Their strategy is a two-pronged one: Highlight everything Israel should be proud of – achievements that boost the Jewish state’s place in the world and reinvigorate Jewish pride – while exposing the true nature and failures of the BDS movement.
In other words, the idea is to draw attention to Israel as the home of innovation, culture and tikkun olam and expose the seedy underbelly of BDS.
“We highlight the fact that instigators and leaders of BDS expose their real face when they reject the legitimacy of Israel. This is not a peace-seeking movement. This is a movement that wants to wipe Israel off the map,” he said.
The controversy surrounding singer Matisyahu’s performance at a Spanish music festival two years ago is an example of TIP in action. The organization frequently posted in its social media platforms outrage that boycotters expelled the Jewish reggae musician from performing.
The backlash was so vociferous, that organizers invited the singer back to perform within a week.
That is not to say that pro-Israel groups are always on the ball when responding to such matters, especially when it comes to the country’s image.
“An image problem is a strategic problem,” he said. “An image problem is crippling to Israel’s soft power, its ability to promote its interests in the international community, and also it has a direct influence on Israel’s security when it comes to defending itself in a volatile and violent region.
In many places, we have lost our narrative,” he lamented.
A game plan that understands that the pro-Israel community is a diverse one capable of emphasizing the variety of the good Israel does is crucial to formulating a powerful and positive narrative, he says.
“Being able to work together as a community in order to promote what we care about and the good things that we’re doing is a strong message we should carry in the most forceful way, because it happens to be the truth,” he added.
‘Turning a boycott into a ‘win’ for Israel’ Michael Dickson, executive director of StandWithUs-Israel, Some think that when faced with an inane or ludicrous accusation, it’s best to not dignify it with a response. But ultimately, ignoring a bully rarely works, which is why StandWithUs believes BDS aggressors must be addressed head on.
“We believe it is important to counter the propaganda efforts of BDS so that their lies do not exist in a vacuum, unanswered,” SWU executive director Michael Dickson said. “Unless it is totally minor and unnoticed, we counter boycott attempts with equal vigor.”
Michael Dickson, executive director of StandWithUs-Israel
Michael Dickson, executive director of StandWithUs-Israel
The SWU philosophy to combating BDS is to beat them at their own game by turning a boycott into a “win.”
For example, when BDS operatives propose a boycott of Israeli goods, SWU responds by entreating people to buy those goods in droves.
“We have done this to great success on many occasions, and the result is often that instead of boycotting, the product that BDS are campaigning against sells more than ever,” Dickson boasted.
As for the campaign online, SWU was an early adopter of the social media landscape as a battle ground. With its ubiquitous presence on Facebook and Twitter operating in 18 languages, SWU is a big draw to the pro-Israel crowd – with 105 million visits to their Facebook page a week alone. And, indicating they are able to shake up the BDS establishment on its home turf, its Arabic social media account was dubbed the “most dangerous for Arab youth to view,” Dickson said.
“Rather than allow social media to be a platform for BDS to amplify their lies, we utilize it to reach people around the world and to keep close tabs on their actions,” he said.
That is to say, the fight is not easy one. “Israel finds itself under attack like no other country,” Dickson lamented.
“There is a sustained, well-funded effort to defame the world’s only Jewish state. For BDS, it is less about what Israel does and more about the fact that Israel is.”
Founded by Roz and Jerry Rothstein and Esther Renzer 16 years ago, SWU is an independent organization with 18 offices worldwide and an Education Center that hosts tens of thousands of visitors who participate in their education programming. While SWU is a strictly independent organization that does not receive government funding, it does work closely with other organizations to spread its message. Specifically, the Jewish Agency – where it works with its Campus Fellows, a shlihim (emissaries) program – and a slew of Jewish youth organizations like Bnei Akiva and BBYO.
“These partnerships and synergies take place week in, week out with schools, shuls, Federations, non-Jewish groups and beyond,” he said. “This is a fight we must fight together The media monitoring organization focusing on ‘accuracy and truth’ Aviva Slomich, international director of campus programs, CAMERA In many ways, CAMERA was prophetic in its mission to counter BDS in a widespread manner considering the media watchdog organization was founded in 1982, well before the BDS movement and social media even existed.
“Using social media to broadcast campaigns and messages can be very significant. We take it very seriously. We want to be proactive, not reactive,” Aviva Slomich, international director of campus programs at CAMERA, said.
Specifically, nefarious campaigns calling for violence against Israelis or the delegitimization of Israel can be particularly harmful, especially when those messages are seen by impressionable students on college campuses.
CAMERA has been an active on campuses for over a decade, however, in 2011 it established its Emet for Israel program where where they “help students create independent Israel organizations on campus to help normalize Israel and proactively educate about Israel on campus,” Slomich explained.
Currently operating on 70 campuses, the organization not only focuses its energy on universities where the messaging on Israel is problematic and negative, but also on universities where the talk about Israel is completely nonexistent.
The program arms students with the facts needed to defend Israel in public forums. The program’s success hinges on students’ articles in college newspapers that defend Israel and counter pro-BDS messages on campuses.
These articles are often picked up by major media outlets giving the original message exponential exposure.
“These articles live forever. You have no idea the reach you can get with one article,” she marveled.
Ironically, in an environment that prides itself on “safe spaces,” “Jewish students feel antagonized on [college campuses]. It happens all the time. Jews and Zionists feel targeted and excluded and on the outside,” she said, specifically pointing out Linda Sarsour’s visit to Dartmouth University in May. Sarsour has gained notoriety in the pro-Israel world for her anti-Israel statements and, at Dartmouth, a CAMERA student activist openly confronted her on her statement that feminists couldn’t be Zionists.
“[Sarsour] attacked the student for being a white male.
We put the video online and it went viral. She had no response to [his] specific questions,” she recalled.
That said, it’s no easy feat to defend Israel on campus these days and CAMERA acknowledges that. As such, CAMERA teams up with many other pro-Israel organizations like IDC’s ACT.IL program, SWU and the AEPi Jewish fraternity network on campus.
“[These students] are taking a huge responsibility to educate their peers and come up against their professors or other students. We want to be there as their support system,” she said.