This isn’t your grandparents’ political environment. Today, pro-Israel advocacy faces seemingly insurmountable challenges. That’s why it’s important for the younger generation to learn how to harness social media to spread positive messages about Israel to their peers.
Last week, 400 bright, skilled, and highly motivated student leaders gathered at the 2023 Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) National Leadership Summit (NLS) in Washington, DC. There, they got to dive deep into both the opportunities for pro-Zionism and the threats they face when advocating for Israel on social media.
Social media has changed the tenor of communications the world over, particularly for young people. I was honored to have the chance to participate in the Summit by training many of these exceptional rising advocates in the “Toolkit for Defending Israel Online” that was developed by my organization, the Tel Aviv Institute, which partners with ICC. Social media represents a vital skill set for ensuring the survival and success of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.
New technology can prove transformational in quite a short amount of time. Facebook was founded in 2004, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010, and TikTok in 2016. Yet today, any organization failing to engage seriously on these platforms risks losing its relevancy fast. Social media captures some of the interpersonal power of direct engagement by the people you know and trust – but with the potential reach of mass media, with the possibility of a successful post going “viral.”
Making the most of these sites requires insight and forethought. As I shared with NLS participants, being an excellent online communicator requires building up your personal brand, and understanding what makes you and your message unique.
How to engage on social media
With underlying algorithms aimed at mass engagement, falling into a category that is too niche can derail an influencer’s effectiveness. How do we strike the right balance?
It begins by comprehending that we are engaging with a global audience, not only an American or Western one. While there are upsides to that, it means that you are dealing with users – who may view, like, or comment on your posts – that, in many cases, come from countries or cultures where overt antisemitism has long been outré in the core democracies and may still be a potent force.
Antisemitism has had a dark resurgence in the 21st century through online organizing and outreach; Jewish and pro-Israel actors have no choice but to ensure that our presence on social media, to counter this ancient evil, is robust in response.
During the May 2021 conflict between Israel and Hamas, for example, anti-Israel trolls from Malaysia launched a cyberbullying campaign where they hacked into the social media accounts of major players in the pro-Israel space. They also spammed private citizens and public officials on WhatsApp and effectively locked their accounts.
ONE MALAYSIAN hacking group called DragonForce Malaysia hacked a university recruitment network system in Israel and stole the personal information of hundreds of thousands of Israeli students, leaking their names, phone numbers, home and e-mail addresses, while urging followers to harass them and try to block their accounts.
We know this movement as the Malaysian Troll Army, and as Emily Schrader has written, “[t]his isn’t just “hacktivism” or cyber[-]bullying, it’s war – and it has profound consequences.”
We can’t respond by matching the vitriol and ugliness of our enemies. Instead, we must rise above, elevating the level of the discourse.
Some of the student activists I met at NLS have used the diversity of their experiences to reach out to new allies to explain the pro-Israel perspective to a broad audience.
Others have connected to the international Indigenous People’s movement by proudly explaining that Jewish people are one of the world’s land-based indigenous people and are deeply connected to our ancestral home, Israel, by our ancient faith and traditions, which originate in the specific agricultural cycle of our homeland.
Jewish and pro-Israel students have been their own best advocates when radical anti-Israel forces have tried to push them out of public spaces.
When nine affinity groups at Berkeley Law School, including Women of Berkeley Law, adopted a bylaw banning any speakers who support the State of Israel, Berkeley Law’s Jewish Students Association and student leaders Milton Zerman, Charlotte Aaron, and Hannah Krutiansky helped lead the resistance against this effort to create what have been called “Jew-free zones” on that campus.
The 2023 NLS conference showcased a new era of pro-Israel advocacy driven by phenomenal student leaders navigating the challenges of the digital age. Participants were keenly aware that leveraging these platforms requires a well-grounded realization of personal branding and a balanced approach to engaging diverse audiences.
I was inspired to meet 400 remarkable pro-Israel torchbearers who draw on wisdom and inspiration from those who came before us, and exhibit the enduring resilience and spirit of the Jewish people. They are brave in the face of digital threats.
Through strategic and principled communication, we can ensure that the voices of the Jewish people, and the State of Israel continue to resonate in today’s rapidly evolving world.
Students who care about Israel are encouraged to join the vibrant community of champions, supporters, and ambassadors on social media dedicated to making a difference, shaping the narrative, and standing united in the face of challenges, thereby spreading the values and knowledge that will strengthen Israel’s place in the world for generations to come.
The writer is a digital influencer; senior fellow and co-founder at The Tel Aviv Institute. He has appeared as an expert on Jewish issues on four continents, over 500 college campuses, BBC, Sky News, TEDx, and countless Shabbat dinners. He was named in Algemeiner’s top 100 people positively influencing Jewish life in 2018 and 2021, the top 50 online pro-Israel Influencers, and Top 50 LGBTQ+ Influencers.