Jacob Gimbel, like many American Jews, is still reeling from the social media posts he saw during May’s violence between Israel and Hamas.
“Social media started blowing up,” said Gimbel, 17. He never before saw such “widespread hating against Israel” on his Instagram feed, with some posts even being antisemitic.
The Phoenix teen took action and began engaging with people posting content he felt was factually inaccurate. Sometimes he personally knew them, like his classmates, and sometimes he didn’t.
“I made a point to go and talk to them about it,” he said. “There have been times I have been blocked or unfollowed by kids at my school, but the facts about what was happening was an important point I wanted to clear up with the people around me.”
Gimbel is an example of the “soldiers on the ground” in the United States that Israel needs more of, according to Hillel Newman, Consul General of Israel to the Pacific Southwest of the United States.
During a visit to Arizona with Jewish community leaders in late July, Newman said social media is a powerful tool in combating the “ongoing attack on the legitimacy of Israel,” and Israel needs the help of American Jews, especially young American Jews, to help counter misinformation.
“It’s not for Israel to do everything; there are some things that other people should do to support Israel,” he said.
Israel’s public relations campaign has “improved a lot” over the years, he said. During the conflict in May, “Israel released a tremendous amount of information,” including videos on social media in real time. But, he said, the content Israel releases on social media is limited to those following its social media accounts.
Jonathan Bar-El, consul for public diplomacy and spokesperson for the Consulate, oversees its social media and works with his public diplomacy team to “gather information from reliable sources, and decide what to release and on which platform.”
He noted the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s digital channels have over 10 million followers and a monthly reach of 200 million. During the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas, he said the Ministry’s channels reached an exposure of over half a billion people within 10 days. “The Israeli Consulate here in our region makes use of all relevant information.”
Gimbel agrees Israel is doing the best it can and is happy to do what he can to help protect it.
“With it being attacked from all directions, it’s our time to step in and help the cause,” he said.
But not everybody feels that way.
Antar Davidson, who lives in Tucson and has long been active in the Jewish community, thinks Israel could be doing more.
“It’s not just about showing your side anymore,” he said. “It’s about contributing to the mutual good and the general good.”
He’d like to see Israel’s PR efforts create new dominating narratives instead of reacting defensively and relying on the same messaging it has for years.
“I think it’s ridiculous that Israel is still using ‘Israel has a right to defend itself,’” he said. “It’s just a trope at this point. The situation requires a lot more nuance than just constantly going to the same line.”
Israel has many beautiful aspects that can be shared on social media, he said. It is a diverse country with people of all colors and faiths, and people live mostly in peace and work together to innovate in many sectors, in his view.
But instead of focusing on “innovation through human development” narratives, Davidson feels Israel focuses too much on those that “validate the military industrial complex.”
He said he feels like he is doing his part to build bridges and create what he wants to see by engaging with a variety of organizations as well as by bringing his perspective where he goes.
In the last year, for example, in his role at 4D Products & Services, he spearheaded the installation of an Israeli-developed water generator, Watergen, at Rocky Ridge Gas & Market in the Hard Rock community of the Navajo Nation.
“That was a model for me of creating relationships and building narratives that are focused around nonviolent, mutually beneficial relationships,” he said. “A macro narrative of peace is made up of millions of micro narratives.”
A recent Pew Research Center survey found, overall, younger American Jews are less attached to Israel than older generations. About half of Jewish adults under 30 describe themselves as emotionally connected to Israel, compared with about two-thirds of Jews over age 64.
Newman said it is a concerning trend, in part because young people get their information and news from social media.
“We try to spread the facts, but facts are complex,” he said. “It’s complicated to explain to someone why there is no peace with the Palestinians.”
It’s easy for someone to think that if Israel would give territory there would be peace, “so therefore Israel is to blame,” he said. “It’s a very catchy soundbite, but it’s untrue.”
Israel’s messaging directly impacts the perceptions of younger American Jews, said Debbie Yunker Kail, executive director of Hillel at Arizona State University.
For example, the words “pro-Israel” evoke “a binary concept when it’s a very complex situation with a long history,” she said.
When a Jewish college student hears those words it could leave them to believe that there’s a reason to be against Israel, or that by being pro-Israel somebody is inherently against something else.
Rabbi Michael Beyo, CEO of the East Valley Jewish Community Center, said he feels it is Israel’s job to better manage the battle of minds and hearts on social media.
“We’re going to do what we can, but we have problems here of our own,” he said. He’d like to see Israel partner with institutions like the EVJCC to increase Israel education and the connection between young American Jews in Israel.
“We need collaboration and funding, grants , so we can continue to educate our friends and neighbors about the importance of Israel, rather than us needing to raise funds from a community that is distancing itself from Israel,” he said. "Relationships are bidirectional. Where is the help from Israel, so that we can help Israel?” JN