In April, Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry launched a program training high school students to boost the country’s image online. However, as global awareness grows of Israel’s human rights violations, the government is turning teenagers into its own personal troll army to combat the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement’s efforts on social media.
Disguised as an academic initiative preparing students for the public diplomacy field, the program, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), will operate as a pilot for two years and begin in September. In the first year, it will target 10th graders and then add 11th and 12th graders in its second year.
According to the MFA: this “task force of teenagers…will respond to the public relations and propaganda of radical elements, with extreme ideologies against the State of Israel and antisemitism in general.”
The ministry did not respond to MintPress News’ inquiries about why it targets high school students or how much funding the project will receive.
Instead of shifting the status quo, Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace (FMEP), told MintPress News that the program is just another futile attempt by Israel and its lobby to dissuade criticism. Friedman continued,
This is consistent with the longstanding talking point of much of the U.S. pro-Israel leadership and the Israeli government, which says, ‘Don’t worry about what we’re doing. Worry about how you’re going to sell it.”
Rather than look inward, Israel is instead trying to shift outside perspective. “The answer to criticism of Israel for its policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians isn’t to examine those policies and change them. It’s to do a better job changing the subject to things that are positive about Israel or de-legitimizing the critics,” Friedman said.
David Miller, a British sociologist and expert on propaganda, explained that Israel is taking this approach as its reputation across the globe sours.
“Israel has been poisoned internationally for many years now,” he said, adding,
Israel is at a point of great weakness. They see that themselves — ministers and ex-heads of Shin Bet [Israel’s security agency] are unsure if Israel can last. And so it’s a desperation because they realize that the tide of opinion is against them.”
The MFA’s new program is part of a long string of hasbara initiatives the government pushes. Hasbara, which means “explanation” in Hebrew, is an Israeli government policy aiming to justify the state’s actions to the world. One of hasbara’s defining traits is weaponizing antisemitism to gaslight its critics and circumvent accountability.
In 1974, the Ministry of Hasbara was established, with Shimon Peres (later to become Israel’s prime minister and president) as its head. The ministry was disbanded in 1975, but hasbara remains a core part of governmental policy. Today, the MFA is responsible for coordinating hasbara efforts.
Both the public and private sectors are deeply involved in the practice. In addition to the MFA, the Israeli army’s spokesperson division, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and privately-funded organizations operating abroad like StandWithUs and Christians United for Israel are all tasked with disseminating pro-Israel propaganda.
More recently, the MFA revived its hasbara project, now entitled Voices of Israel, which aims to combat BDS with a four-year budget of 100 million shekels (roughly $27 million). This funding could be doubled through matching private donations.
Educating the masses
Targeting the education sector has been a significant part of the strategy. Through organizations like Hasbara Fellowships, students visit Israel and learn how to spread Israeli propaganda on their college campuses. In addition, StandWithUs uses lawfare tactics to quell Palestinian solidarity activism at universities in the U.S. Each year, the Jewish Agency sends thousands of Israeli “Schilchim” or emissaries to schools, universities, and other youth institutions around the world to promote Israel.
Miller explained how hasbara’s efforts abroad target not just teenagers and university students but children as well. “There’s a big effort to indoctrinate kids from really as young as four in the U.K.,” Miller said. This new program isn’t the first time the Israeli government has tried to recruit teenagers for its hasbara efforts.
In 2015, Israel’s Education Ministry mandated all high school students undergo a hasbara course before traveling abroad on school trips. Rights groups slammed the class for espousing racist ideas about Palestinians and Arabs.
In 2007, ORT (science and technology sector) Israeli high school students, in conjunction with the MFA, created a website to educate their peers in other countries about Israel. As part of the initiative, MFA employees regularly instructed students on hasbara methods.
Dwindling support for Israel
Despite decades of Israel pushing propaganda worldwide, hasbara has been relatively ineffective. As Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer wrote, the hasbara is not a productive solution to Israel’s foundational problem (i.e., brutally occupying an entire nation). No amount of diplomatic deception is going to hide these facts.
“The basic attitude of the Western media has not become more forgiving or friendly toward Israel – if anything, the opposite is true,” Pfeffer wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. “And even if the budgets were increased tenfold and a university founded to educate battalions of hasbara warriors, it will never work.”
FMEP’s Friedman emphasized that Israel’s attempts to change the narrative were unsuccessful. BDS has not been eliminated. Instead, actions in support of the movement have grown across the world. Calling Israel an apartheid state has become mainstream as international organizations have declared it such. And public opinion in favor of Israel has waned in the U.S.
Yet Israel seems adamant about pumping millions into propaganda rather than reversing its policies. And so, in the face of increasing criticism, Israel’s decision to create a youth task force opposing BDS appears as a feeble, last-ditch effort to salvage it’s worldwide standing.
Feature photo | Illustration by MintPress News
Jessica Buxbaum is a Jerusalem-based journalist for MintPress News covering Palestine, Israel, and Syria. Her work has been featured in Middle East Eye, The New Arab and Gulf News.