Haifa U offering students new elective in ‘hasbara’

“Ambassadors Online” will explore coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and attempt to rectify alleged bias.

A man looks at a newspaper in Tehran R 390 (photo credit: Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)
A man looks at a newspaper in Tehran R 390
(photo credit: Raheb Homavandi/Reuters)
A new course elective at the University of Haifa aims to equip students with online hasbara tools to fight the increasing delegitimization of Israel.
Entitled “Ambassadors Online,” the spring semester class – the first of its kind – will explore international news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and attempt to rectify alleged media bias.
Though it does not offer university credit, the course will teach students about the main issues behind Israel’s delegitimization.
They will hear from Foreign Ministry officials and learn to use social networking sites to defend government policies on an ad hoc basis.
The four-hour program is the brainchild of Prof. Eli Avraham, who teaches communications at the University of Haifa and who felt the need to respond to what he said was an epidemic of anti-Israel media activity.
“There’s a lot of bias in the European and American media. We’re trying to ask why and how it’s biased and what we can do about it,” he said.
The syllabus for “Ambassadors Online” will concentrate on identifying what constitutes hostile or non-objective reporting.
Afterward, students will be encouraged to contact foreign media outlets to present an Israeli perspective and reframe the public narrative.
“We’re going to take every allegation against Israel and give [the students] advice as to what they can do,” Avraham said, from contacting editors to alerting Facebook friends of possible bias.
The students will participate in writing Wikipedia entries, publicizing hasbara (public diplomacy) talking points and confronting anti-Israel activists in online chat rooms. The class will also host workshops on news articles to outline bias and propose alternative narratives.
Course organizer David Gurevich, a PhD student at the university, described online forums as a target of pro-Israel strategy. He mentioned in particular one Wikipedia article on Israel’s security fence.
The official title on the Web page is “Israeli West Bank Barrier.” The website adopted the “objective” terminology after a long and heated discussion between pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian activists, according to Gurevich.
Without the participation of pro-Israel voices, public opinion can drastically sway in the other direction.
If we can contribute our side to the discussion, that’s very important,” Gurevich said.
“We are going to first of all give the students knowledge and tools to present the Israeli side online,” from uploading positive YouTube clips to speaking with interested third-party participants.
“Ambassadors Online” will invite speakers from the Foreign Ministry and the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry to discuss ways students can utilize online platforms to convey a pro-Israel message. Course lecturers include former Atlanta consul-general Reda Mansour; Miri Eisen, a former press adviser to the prime minister; and Neil Lazarus, an external adviser to the Foreign Ministry.
“The lectures of senior diplomats, scholars and media analysts will give us a theoretical background on issues from media coverage on Israel, through history of Israel, to main points today in the peace process,” Gurevich said.
Avraham, meanwhile, dismissed concerns of partisanship.
“It’s not a political course,” he said. “People will say that whenever you want to do something for Israel or present the narrative, it’s obviously political.”
But, he added, “it’s not Im Tirtzu” – referring to the right-leaning NGO. “We’re reclaiming the Zionist narrative.”
Gurevich agreed, saying that the class was academically based.
“We are not a political program,” he said.
“What we are doing is public diplomacy and having a dialogue with people abroad who misjudge Israel. We’re answering claims of defamation and delegitimization, people who do not recognize Israel’s right to exist as a democratic Jewish state.”
His decision to create the course was inspired by a Foreign Ministry lecture.
“During the summer, I heard an official from the Foreign Ministry talk about how they started an official Twitter [account] for the state,” he recalls. “Suddenly, they had interaction with the public abroad. I said to myself, if officials can do it, then we students can definitely be unofficial ambassadors for Israel.”