Israel Hits Hasbara Jackpot


The more defiant Israel is, the more the people love Israel.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, Israel – following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s controversial visit to Washington in May – has never been more popular in the United States. Netanyahu’s support was particularly strong in the social media – Twitter, Facebook and blogs – that mostly are the province of a young demographic, previously thought to be beyond the reach of the “establishment” Zionist community.

The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, using new technology that allows it to scan “more than 48,000 blog posts and 430,000 posts on Twitter or Facebook,” found “many of those [posts] expressing support” for Israel, agreeing with Netanyahu and taking President Obama “to task for suggesting that peace in the region would be best achieved by creating a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders.”

Pew noted that in the week following Obama’s May 19 speech on the Middle East, “fully 55 percent of the conversation on blogs… has been in favor of Israel… while 19 percent has been in favor of the Palestinians and the creation of an independent state,” with 27 percent neutral. On Twitter and Facebook, the mood was 60 percent pro-Israel, 20 percent pro-Palestinian and 20 percent neutral.

ADL National Director Abe Foxman told The Jewish Week that the Pew study “isn’t surprising and shouldn’t be surprising. If you examine the CNN poll of last week, these numbers are consistent with general attitudes in the United States vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians. This is very much in sync with those findings. Social media is not an aberration from the norm. It only shows that the conventional wisdom is not correct, that young people are indeed supportive of Israel, and that they are comfortable in openly expressing their support across the social networks.”

The CNN poll, taken in the week after Netanyahu’s visit, found that 67 percent of Americans had greater sympathy for Israel, to only 16 percent for the Palestinians. The 67 percent for Israel was Israel’s best showing in the last half-century.

To put those numbers in perspective, in June 1967, after the Six-Day War, the Gallup poll (whose polling was included by CNN to establish long-term trends) found 56 percent of Americans sympathetic to Israel. Support was down to 47 percent the month of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, sinking to 37 percent just one month after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat made his groundbreaking trip to Israel in 1977, rising to 64 percent in 1991 when hard-line Yitzhak Shamir was prime minister but falling to 42 percent in 1993, just weeks after Prime Minister Rabin agreed to the Oslo peace accords. Netanyahu explains why Israel can’t buckle to peace process pressure, and the American people are at 67 percent.

Exactly one year ago, Peter Beinart’s essay in The New York Review of Books (June 10, 2010), “The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment,” charged that most young Jews, aside from the Orthodox, were increasingly alienated from Israel and Jewish organizations, such as AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, that were supportive of Israel’s government. The alienation supposedly was driven by the sense that Netanyahu’s Zionist values were “antithetical,” wrote Beinart, to the “human, universalistic Zionism” that appeals to the young.

Young liberal Jews, said Beinart, were turned off by those who spoke of the “Auschwitz borders,” and Likud’s alleged “obsession with victimhood” that had Netanyahu insisting on numerous security conditions before he’d agree to further withdrawal from the territories. This, wrote Beinart, “lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular young.”

Beinart was asked by The Jewish Week how his thesis holds up in light of the Pew survey of almost 500,000 social media posts, the majority not only supporting Netanyahu but comprised primarily by “America’s secular young.”

“It’s interesting if social media users are more sympathetic to the Israeli government,” replied Beinart, “but doesn’t change the fact that the bulk of evidence shows distancing among younger American Jews as a whole.”

Netanyahu’s visit to Washington – when his widely publicized rebuttal to Obama’s peace plan was described in the media as everything from “rude” to “defiant” to “Churchillian” – was initially feared to be a hasbara disaster, hasbara being the Hebrew word for public relations, or the winning of hearts and minds.

Netanyahu’s defiance was depicted as cold and intransigent by The New York Times in two headlines, “Netanyahu Responds Icily To Obama’s Remarks,” and “Netanyahu Gives No Ground.” The Times explained away Netanyahu’s popularity in Congress to “elections coming up next year,” with congressmen “eager to… secure backing from one of the country’s most powerful constituencies, American Jews.”

But Jeffrey Goldberg, in his Atlantic blog, explained that the all-powerful lobby argument “always struck me as wrong, not because AIPAC isn’t powerful, but because [people] don’t seem to understand what makes a powerful lobby group powerful. The most powerful lobbies, over time, are those that lobby for causes that are already popular among the American people.”

Goldberg asked Walter Russell Mead, editor of The American Interest, about “this phenomenon,” and Mead replied: “Full-throated support for hard-line Israeli positions is a populist position in American politics…. It is a foreign policy idea that makes elites queasy,” but what Netanyahu demonstrated was that, aside from Jews, he has “the backing of the American people.”

Nevertheless, until now, despite that support on Main Street, Israel had yet to win over the support of the blogs, Facebook and Twitter. In the past year, reaction to three major news stories about Israel met negative or negligible reaction in the social media.

In the days after Israel intercepted the Gaza-bound flotilla, killing nine aboard a Turkish ship, Pew’s New Media Index (May 31-June 4, 2010) determined that “a majority of bloggers expressed outrage over Israel.”

When five members of the Fogel family were murdered (March 11), the massacre didn’t make a blip in the general blogosphere, the Fogel killings getting less attention than a story about a 103-old man who rode a tricycle for his health.

When Palestinian security forces opened fire on Jews near Joseph’s Tomb (March 24), wounding three and killing one –Ben-Joseph Livnat, a 25-year-old father of four and nephew of a cabinet minister – the reaction on blogs, Twitter and Facebook was so below the radar as to be no reaction at all. This despite the concern, in the peace process, regarding access to holy sites (such as Joseph’s and Rachel’s tombs) in the event of an Israeli withdrawal.

Therefore, Netanyahu’s ability to energize support for Israel in the social media’s previously unfriendly terrain is all the more remarkable.

The surge generated by Netanyahu – in Israel as well as the United States – was somewhat buried in certain newspapers that disapproved of Netanyahu’s political position. The New York Times, for example, headlined, “Israelis See Netanyahu Trip as Diplomatic Failure.” It was only after a dozen paragraphs establishing “failure” before the Times acknowledged an Israeli poll showing “Netanyahu’s popularity rose slightly after his Washington visit,” without telling us that poll’s numbers. The very next day, Haaretz gave those numbers: “Dramatic 13 Percent Rise In Support For Netanyahu After Congressional Speech.”

Curious, a “dramatic 13 percent rise” in one paper, is to rise only “slightly” in another.