December 4, 2023

Fighting the Battle for Public Opinion, One Story at a Time

Sapir Ganz Eldar ’23, vice president of Israel-is

Like thousands of Israelis vacationing abroad before the start of the academic year, Herut Davidson ’23 planned to fly home the morning after Simchat Torah. But when her flight was cancelled with the outbreak of war and she found herself stranded in New York, she was determined to find a way to help her country from afar.

“If I couldn’t volunteer on the home front,” says Herut, “I decided I’d fight in the war of ideas.”

Fortunately, as a former member of the Israel-is team, she already had the tactical training.

Israel-is, a grassroots and apolitical initiative, works to improve Israel’s image overseas by means of the country’s “other” army: young Israel travelers, and more recently, social-media influencers, too. It was already mobilizing its forces when Herut called, offering to head into the thick of battle: American college campuses.

“Within days of the Hamas attack, anti-Semitic groups in communities and especially universities across America began denying or justifying the October 7th atrocities in an effort to shift the narrative,” explains Sapir Ganz Eldar ‘23, vice president of Israel-is and former classmate of Herut’s at Shalem. “Because these groups are helped by a sympathetic media, they’re able to wield enormous influence on an uninformed public. We knew that our approach would be critical to making people understand what Hamas really did. And when they understand that, they’re more likely to support Israel’s response.”

The approach to which Ganz Eldar refers—what Israel-is calls “P2P,” for “peer-to-peer”—emphasizes creating direct connections with Israelis through real stories and experiences, whether through content on social media, by means of delegations, and even informal meetings, such as the sort that more than 500,000 Israelis have on their post-army tiyul (trip) each year. In fact, it was during one such tiyul that Eyal Biram, Israel-is’ founder and president, realized through his interactions with people abroad just how negative are much of the world’s perceptions of Israel. He returned home with a radical idea: improve Israel’s image through the Israeli people themselves. After joining forces with the IDF, which offers soldiers seminars on reentering civilian life in the months prior to their release, Israel-is was born in 2017.

Six years, nearly 30 employees, and tens of thousands of volunteer ambassadors later, Israel-is (meant to mean both “Israelis” and “Israel is”) has shaped positive perceptions among Jews and non-Jews in America, Arabs in the UAE, and even, after September’s devastating earthquake in Marrakech, the citizens of Morocco.

“We sent a delegation of Israeli volunteers to help with search and rescue operations, provide needed equipment, and distribute food and supplies. Our being there was the best hasbarah of all,” Ganz Eldar explains, using the Hebrew term for public diplomacy, which translates as “explaining.” Israel-is’s innovation, she insists, is precisely that it makes explanations unnecessary. Instead, people can base their feelings about and impressions of Israel on real Israelis whom they’ve met and like.

“Traditional advocacy organizations train experts to craft specific messages and deliver them in specific ways,” she says. “Israel-is says, the most effective factor in shaping opinion is often the spontaneity and authenticity of a real interaction, based on shared interests and values. It’s forging the human connection. Likewise, in responding to Israel’s war of survival, we knew that while facts and history lessons were important, they weren’t going to move people or make them change their minds. But the stories of victims or hostages—those might.”

Herut Davidson ’23

To that end, in the weeks since the October 7th massacre, Israel-is has organized non-stop sessions, both virtual and in-person, with American Jews to provide them with the evidence and tools they need to refute pro-Hamas propaganda and support Israel’s position in their own communities. It has run workshops that teach young Israelis how to create and share English-language content that shows Israel’s humanity, morality, and remarkable resilience, and ensured that people in positions of influence—including politicians, intellectuals, and celebrities—hear directly from the families of hostages, to ensure that their plight is not forgotten.

And thanks to Shalem College, Israel-is was also—for the first time—able to go as far as California.

“When Herut reached out with her offer to help, I told her, ‘Israel is going to need your voice in Los Angeles and San Francisco. We’ll find a way to get you there,’” recalls Ganz Eldar. That way ended up being a phone call to Odelia Yatzkan, Shalem’s vice president for innovation and alumni relations, who welcomed the opportunity to partner with two graduates on an Israel-advocacy initiative. With the college’s support, Herut met with the Jewish communities at Stanford and Chapman Universities, with students at Jewish high schools such as Shalhevet in Los Angeles, and with Israeli ex-pats at Israeli American Council (IAC) in San Francisco, Los Angeles, even San Diego. She also held virtual advocacy-training sessions for Israel supporters of all ages, replete with tools for sharing a pro-Israel message and standing strong in the face of hate.

And everywhere, she insists, she was met with overwhelming love and support.

“I was struck by how much the Jews I met with in California saw themselves as part of Israel’s story. They told me, ‘We think about you all day, every day. You’re always on our minds,’” says Herut, who adds that their days looked just like those of their brothers and sisters in Israel: going to demonstrations, volunteering, and raising enormous sums in support of soldiers and victims. One congregation even filled up a plane to DC to take part in the Israel rally.

“The Jewish community there has a critical role to play in helping us win this war. Almost everyone there is part of circles that include non-Jews, more so than in New York. This means that when they post about Israel on social media, for instance, they reach people who may not be knowledgeable about Israel, who only know what they read on the news. The potential for impact on public opinion is enormous,” Herut says.

Reflecting on her experience from her hotel in Mexico City—“we were already so far West,” Herut says, “We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to come here, too”—she adds that while “we all saw the atrocities of October 7th, we’ve also seen the incredibly supportive response on the part of our Jewish brothers and sisters and even our non-Jewish friends around the world. That’s part of the real story of Israel, too. It’s a beautiful and hopeful one,” she concludes, “and I’m glad I can help share it.”


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