The voice of Israel on Twitter

The official Israel Twitter account – like Israelis themselves – is not lacking in personality.

(photo credit: Courtesy)
The official Israel Twitter account – like Israelis themselves – is not lacking in personality.
When Israel was hit with a heat wave last month, the @Israel Twitter account tweeted a screen shot of a weather app showing 34° centigrade (93.2 ° F) and the message “Hey COVID 19, trust us. You don’t want to stick around for an Israeli summer” plus emojis of a sun, a hot pepper and fire.
When restaurants opened up, @Israel wondered what to eat first, with tantalizing photos of hummus, shakshuka, sabich and an Israeli breakfast spread.
“Update, it’s 12:41 and we have successfully completed our mission. All four dishes were delicious [by the way],” a follow-up tweet read.
Yet another showed beautiful views from around Israel under a pink-red sunset glow referenced the movie Mean Girls with the message: “On Wednesdays, we wear pink.”
There are also some more traditional messages, such as an @Israel tweet featuring a video about a one-minute breathalyzer coronavirus test being developed by researchers at Ben-Gurion University, and a couple of days later, an explanation of why Jews celebrate Shavuot.
The woman behind the tweets is Tamar Schwarzbard, 29, the Foreign Ministry’s Head of New Media. Schwarzbard moved to Israel from New York six years ago, and is already the official voice of Israel on social media.
SCHWARZBARD’S JOURNEY began in Brooklyn, where she grew up Modern Orthodox in a strongly Zionist home, with Holocaust survivor grandparents.
“It felt natural to want to move to Israel,” she said. “I decided after college that it was the right time and moved to Israel.”
Schwarzbard moved to Israel six years ago. During her studies at Hebrew U for a master’s degree in communication and journalism, she answered an ad for a student position at the Foreign Ministry and began working in its digital media department. Three years later, she moved up the ranks to become head of new media.
“It sounds really cliché, but I never thought I would be in this position. It feels really special,” she said.
A benefit of the position is that Schwarzbard has been able to use the language and cultural advantages of growing up in the US while being in a mostly-Israeli environment that allows her to integrate better as an olah.
“I feel comfortable with making mistakes in Hebrew from time to time...I think that’s a sign that I integrated. I worked hard forcing myself to speak Hebrew even when it was uncomfortable and learning not to take no for an answer. It’s very Israeli; it feels good,” she said.
Schwarzbard is in charge of the Foreign Ministry’s new media accounts, working closely with Israel’s embassies around the world to help them formulate their own online strategies. She’s responsible for the Foreign Ministry’s podcast, for creating and presenting in videos, as well as Facebook and Twitter in English, and helping with other languages, as well.
Schwarzbard called the job “the perfect balance to be able to use my talents and background and an environment that allows me to be creative and edgy.”
And that’s where the funny tweets about the weather or food come in to play.
“The Foreign Ministry as a whole understands that, to reach young people, we have to make Israel relevant to them. Most people in the world don’t know about Israel, what we stand for or what our values are. We are trying to reach young people, especially millennials,” she said.
Last month, @Israel did an “AMA,” which stands for “ask me anything,” in which questions ranged from matters of war and peace or whether someone should have falafel or sabich for lunch.
“There was a bizarre range of questions,” Schwarzbard asked. “Being able to respond with memes, GIFs and song lyrics makes Israel more relevant to young people. They might not be familiar with Israel’s story, but they’re familiar with pop culture references.”
Earlier this year, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Schwarzbard brought a different twist to the AMA format. The Foreign Ministry had Miki Goldman-Gilad, an Auschwitz survivor and one of the investigators on Adolf Eichmann’s case, take over their Twitter account. The name of the account was changed from Israel to Michael “Miki” Goldman-Gilad (#161135), and the photos were switched from an Israeli flag and the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City to ones of the survivor.
Schwarzbard tweeted Goldman-Gilad’s story, in his own words, for him, along with photos. Followers were encouraged to ask questions, and Schwarzbard relayed them over the phone. Goldman-Gilad told her what to answer.
“The younger generation is really not familiar with the kinds of stories we grew up with, and we tried to find a way to make those stories relevant for young people,” she said.
Schwarzbard said she especially enjoys engaging with the public, whether it’s wishing people happy birthday who ask for it, or answering questions from people, even if they have very few followers.
“Being able to connect to our followers and that personal touch has set us apart from other Foreign Ministries,” she said. “Our goal is to make Israel relevant and share Israel’s story.”
ANOTHER PART of the Foreign Ministry’s digital diplomacy is its Arabic and Persian social media channels, which briefly turned Schwarzbard into a viral video star in the Arab world.
Schwarzbard features in many videos on the Foreign Ministry’s social media accounts, but one in which she and her coworker Sapir Levi shared words that are similar in Arabic and Hebrew garnered over five million views and was shared by a member of the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi’s inner circle.
“It’s interesting to see what love we get from areas of the world where you wouldn’t expect it,” she said.
But, of course, running an official Israel Twitter account means she does not only get love. There are plenty of Internet trolls, too.
“It’s crazy that we can post a picture of hummus and someone can respond with the most radical comment, or pictures of bloody children from Syria,” which they claim are Palestinians attacked by Israel, she said.
The Foreign Ministry considers whether and how to respond to many of these tweets. Their policy is to draw the line at antisemitism. They do not respond to those tweets, and report them to Twitter in order to try to fight the phenomenon.
“We have Israeli chutzpah. We don’t try to hide from people who have criticism,” Schwarzbard said. “I definitely respond to trolls to make the point that we’re not afraid and we’re proud of who we are.”
To the many Israelis and supporters of Israel who seek to defend it online, Schwarzbard recommends honesty: “Don’t be afraid of criticism. Israel is not a perfect country. It is great and has a lot to share with the world, and its imperfections make it unique. Be balanced, be honest, be unafraid. You’ll always get flack.
“Sometimes I’ll tweet the most pareve, non-controversial comment and people will find ways to blow it out of proportion,” she added. “You can’t be afraid of that. As long as you’re telling your truth, then you know you’re helping Israel.”
Schwarzbard said it is unfortunate that many people “think Israel is a place of conflict, but that’s just a small part of Israel’s story. Israel is a place of culture, of values we try to share with the world every day and a place that wants peace with its neighbors.”