By David Miller, Paul Salvatori and Marion Fernando
Hasbara is a Hebrew term that literally means “explanation,” but in Zionist terminology denotes public relations or propaganda. A ministry of Hasbara was established in 1974 with Shimon Peres (who later became Prime Minister and then President of Israel) at the helm.
It was disbanded in 1975, but hasbara has remained a vital Israeli policy that has been front and centre each time Israel has been involved in a major conflict – including the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, the 1987 intifada (uprising) and the 2000 or second intifada.
‘Horizontal, hip’ propaganda
The evolution of hasbara has been a topic for a wide range of Zionist bodies in addition to the former Hasbara ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These include government created and run groups as well as a whole host of think tanks, lobby groups and Zionist movement outfits.
One key venue for the development of international hasbara strategy has been the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism – a group set up in 2000 which has held periodic conferences in Israel and elsewhere.
At a 2009 conference, the working group on “Delegitimization of Israel: ‘Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions’” argued that the “fight” against BDS ought to be “Horizontal, Hip, and Hysterical.”
The strategy included “some central coordination” via a “war room.” The “war room” is a coordinating space first trialled at Reichman University in Herzliya (formerly known as the Inter Disciplinary Center), the only private university in Israel.
The idea behind a war room was formed in the aftermath of the 2006 Lebanon war, and was put into practice as part of Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 via a collaboration between the university, the foreign ministry and the lobby group StandWithUs, which has been funded by the Israeli government.
But this coordination by and with the government was to be camouflaged and hidden by a “grassroots” strategy so that the hasbara campaign would be portrayed as independent of government, even though it was not.
“We must not forget,” the working group noted, “the importance of the netroots in combating BDS. The fight needs to be horizontal not hierarchical — what we used to call ‘grassroots’ empowering college students to get involved using their skills, their media, their networks to push back.”
The working group went on to explain that “the fight should be ‘hip,’ rooted in the language and mores of the 21st century, presenting an updated, exciting, relevant celebration of modern Israel.”
Among the ways to do this was to market female sexuality and to fully enter the world of social media. Both began at the same time, at the behest of Israel’s New York Consulate.
‘Lad mag’ IDF photo shoot
One of the earliest ventures was the 2007 photo spread “Women of the Israel Defense Forces,” a feature of four beautiful young women who had served in the IDF in men’s magazine Maxim. The feature had been encouraged by the Israeli consulate in New York. The campaign was partly paid for by the American-Israel Friendship League and Israel21C. Both these pro-Israel groups are funded by Zionist foundations in the US and elsewhere.
The feature was introduced by Maxim as follows: “They’re drop-dead gorgeous and can take apart an Uzi in seconds. Are the women of the Israeli Defense Forces the world’s sexiest soldiers?” Four members of the occupation forces were featured and they were identified only by first names.
Yarden said “target practice was her favourite activity.” She added, “I loved shooting the M-16… And I was good at hitting the targets.” She then joined Aman, Israel’s military intelligence corps.
Nivit said “My job was top secret… I can’t talk about it other than to say I studied some Arabic!”
A third participant was Gal: “I taught gymnastics and callisthenics… The soldiers loved me because I made them fit.” Gal is referred to as a “former Miss Israel,” and is of course Gal Gadot, now a film star and celebrity Zionist propagandist.
Israel was reportedly so pleased with the issue that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs held an event celebrating its publication, complete with an appearance from Gal Gadot.
Gadot’s career subsequently took off to the extent that she was retained by luxury and consumer brands such as Gucci, Revlon, and Reebok. In 2016, she played Wonder Woman in the Hollywood film of the same name. One observer wrote, “I’m saddened to see a narrative franchise I’ve loved from childhood sullied by direct immersion in anti-Palestinian bloodlust.”
“Israel is keen,” reported the Guardian “to sell itself as a western country with beaches and nightclubs rather than a country full of religious zealots which has been in a permanent state of emergency since its creation.”
As another example, in 2016, VICE ran a photo project, which was obviously cleared by the IDF, that included a series of portraits shot by a former Israeli soldier, which it described as an "intimate series" depicting the soldiers' "defiant femininity.”
The social media strategy
Another hasbara campaign involves the IDF’s social media strategy, which launched in 2007 with MySpace and Facebook. The Guardian attributed that policy to David Saranga, then Consul for Media and Public Affairs at the Israeli consulate in New York. Saranga is now the head of Digital at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Tel Aviv.
The next element focused on Youtube from 2008, “when they started posting footage of air strikes on their official channel.” Later, the IDF branched out to other social media including Flickr, Instagram and TikTok.
The IDF launched a Flickr account in 2010. Amongst the collections of images is a “Women of the IDF” album which was created in 2018, and features female occupation forces personnel almost exclusively in uniform.
The account titled “Hot Israeli Army Girls” was splashed all over UK tabloid press along with multiple shots of the “hot” women. The account is now defunct, but since then the IDF joined Twitter via the @IDFSpokespercon account in October 2018.
The IDF’s TikTok account was launched in 2020. By 2021, it had “garnered more than 90,000 followers.” Today it has some 373,300 followers.
In 2021, Rolling Stone magazine dissected the IDF’s use of TikTok to post what were called “thirst traps” — defined as “an action, image, or statement designed to solicit sexual attention.”
As Alainna Liloia wrote the same year: “Israeli propaganda on social media emphasises the beauty and femininity of female soldiers to distract from the violent crimes Israel is committing against Palestinians.”
Ministry of Strategic Affairs
Hasbara and the campaign against BDS specifically became the responsibility of the Ministry of Strategic Affairs (MSA) in 2015. The ministry’s director general, a former intelligence officer, made it clear that its work “stays under the radar.” Gilad Erdan – a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — was at that time both strategic affairs minister and public security minister.
In 2017, Erdan explained why the MSA used front organisations: “Most of the ministry’s actions are not of the ministry, but through bodies around the world who do not want to expose their connection with the state.”
Nonetheless, a key element of the strategy was publicly linked to the MSA via Erdan’s own efforts in promoting an app, Act.il, which encouraged users to post “desired messages” on social media. A leaked internal report claimed that the app had 15,000 “online volunteers” from 73 countries. There was also an associated campaign website 4IL. Erdan himself launched the app at a rooftop party in New York in 2017. As the Electronic Intifada put it he did “his best ‘down with the kids’ act by donning a DJ’s headphones.”
Posing for the cameras with him was model and former Miss Israel Yityish “Titi” Aynaw. The footage of this embarrassing affair is still available on Youtube.
Perhaps one explanation for this might be found in the suggestion that Hasbara should be “hip.” Nevertheless after The Electronic Intifada and other publications exposed Act.IL’s activities, the group “took measures to obscure its links to the Israeli government – all while claiming to be a grassroots ‘student initiative’.”
One of the ministry’s websites that was set up in 2017 – named 4IL – promoted the Act.IL app. At first, the site’s home page displayed the ministry’s small logo at the top. But then, it moved to the bottom, where, as the Electronic Intifada reported “it is easy to miss.” After that, all mention of the Act.IL app was removed from the site.
One common aim of these campaigns has been to encourage fantasy images about Israel. Recent guidance for pro-Israel activists by lobby group Israel Under Fire has emphasised avoiding getting dragged into discussions about the conflict overall and instead sharing concerning or pleasing images of “hostages” or of the IDF respectively. The guidance does note that images of the IDF ought to be “humane.”
Images are never neutral
Israel is capitalising on the notion that images always make us feel a certain way. Sometimes good, other times bad.
An image of a beach sunset, for example, can make us feel calm, and at ease. On the other hand, an image of a car accident can make us feel afraid and sad for the victims.
The only way not to be affected by an image is to not see one at all.
French philosopher Roland Barthes alludes to this when he states, “The Photograph is violent: not because it shows violent things, but because on each occasion it fills the sight by force.”
Accordingly, images take up a significant portion of our field of experience the moment we perceive them. Depending on what is presented in the images, we may experience various emotions with more or less intensity. But even when we turn away from the images, we still feel something, some residue of our original encounter with it that will take time to fade and perhaps never completely.
Given that images are not neutral, it’s no surprise that bad actors like Israel can use them for nefarious purposes. This is seen where it, via sexualized female influencers on social media attempts to drum up support for the IDF.
More specifically, it does so through making the IDF “desirable” by associating Israel with the influencers in question. This, in significant part, relies on the “physical attractiveness bias,” in which visually appealing people are deemed to be “good” or “virtuous.”
Exploiting this bias, Israel tricks audiences into thinking that the IDF is good because the influencers, visually representing the IDF, are also good — on account of their beauty.
This can and is being counteracted by images that are currently coming out of Gaza, often from residents of Gaza themselves, who are — by way of photos and video — exposing the horrors the IDF is inflicting on defenceless Palestinians.
Such images allow us, in contrast to the influencers, to see the truth about the IDF — that it is a violent force that destroys human life. Images of Gazans in peril also bid us to think deeply about what we’re seeing.
American writer Susan Sontag similarly observed: “Images (of suffering) cannot be more than an invitation to pay attention, to reflect, to learn, to examine the rationalisations for mass suffering offered by established powers.” She added:
“Who caused what the picture shows? Who is responsible? Is it excusable? Was it inevitable? Is there some state of affairs which we have accepted up to now that ought to be challenged? All this, with the understanding that moral indignation, like compassion, cannot dictate a course of action.”
Though Sontag is correct in maintaining that images of suffering “cannot dictate a course of action,” they, as she herself points out, upset us. That, combined with how such images call us to interrogate what we’re seeing, is a necessary first step to doing something constructive.
We are witnessing this internationally right now, as great numbers of people are demonstrating, in the streets and elsewhere, in solidarity with the Palestinian people and against the suffering they’ve been forced to endure at the hands of Israel.
Unlike the influencers, the demonstrators are pointing to the criminality and injustices perpetrated by the IDF, and demanding that it stop doing so.
That may not be alluring or “hot” in the way the influencers are, but it does involve something — on the part of the demonstrators — that’s much more commendable: the courage to say no to power, in this case, Israel’s.
Protesters may be further emboldened to do so by the images coming out of Gaza, which are strong reminders about how Israel — in attacking innocent Palestinians — is ultimately threatening our shared humanity.
The social media influencers
Your average social media influencer goes about their day posting cutesy photos of a service or product accompanied by likewise lighthearted captions. Maybe a string of emojis is added to enhance the typical upbeat, cheerful, carefree tone of this, not at all indicating or suggesting support for the ethnic cleansing of a particular population.
Take the same formula but add modern warfare into the equation and you have IDF members like Natalia Fadeev, perhaps more recognisable by her social media name Gun Waifu on Facebook, Youtube, X (formerly Twitter), and Instagram.
Fadeev, a Russian settler colonist in the IDF, isn’t the only one. There are others, including the likes of Orin Julie, a competitive shooter, influencer, shooting instructor, and activist for gun and women's rights, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Israeli influencer culture intertwined with militarism is not a new concept, and as more footage exposing the brutalities of Israeli bombardment and assault comes straight out of Gaza, it seems like social media is now another battleground for the IDF and its supporters to conquer.
Whether it’s military-associated or not, this type of content is meant to appeal to those outside the immediate conflict, according to Dr. Jessica Maddox, an assistant professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media at the University of Alabama.
“It’s designed to sway opinion and get people on their side by appealing to emotions — be they the shock and horror of witnessing war, or aspirational envy that the military influencer ‘looks like a nice, cool person’,” Maddox said.
As journalists in Gaza expose their daily realities through matter-of-fact posts, and global media continue to cover deaths in the besieged enclave, pro-Israeli accounts seem to be working to counter this with TikTok and Instagram content that distracts from the realities on the ground.
It has become a longstanding tactic for countries to use influencers and influencer strategies to sway public opinion. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the grounds for one other example.
Maddox told TRT World, “This is often done by making the country in question or under scrutiny appear ‘not as bad’ or ‘hostile.’
She continued, “Countries using influencers put a human face on conflict, but it is a strategic human face that functions as a form of soft power in order not just to show that the country under scrutiny doesn’t deserve it, but that they are likeable, imitable, and aspirational.
“In other words, countries using influencers don't just try to counteract information as propaganda, it sets the country or military in question up as something to be desired. Influencer culture is all about appearing desirable, and military and propaganda influencers are no exception,” she said.
This extends to seemingly non-IDF digital creators. Content creators on social media in wartime environments, even those not associated with the military, use “apps as a form of witnessing” to show what is going on in that particular part of the world.
In the case of pro-Zionist content, for example, this could be through solidarity messages with Israel, or other forms of social media posts that neglect the Israeli government’s genocidal rhetoric.
However, Maddox added that it is worth keeping in mind that what is being shown is a “personalised, opinionated side to the conflict” and “understanding power between aggressor countries and victimised countries is essential”.
“Non-IDF creators can speak out against the Israeli government, but many also speak in its defence.” So how is the Israeli strategy holding up when it comes to social media representation and support?
From making a mockery of detained Palestinians by playing children’s songs and pretending to be detained or blindfolded to making fun of people in Gaza and their dire, life-threatening living conditions, and more, the most effective anti-Israel propaganda is being posted by Israelis and the IDF themselves.
More and more are waking up to the disinformation that attempts to dehumanise Palestinians and justify Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government’s ongoing brutal assault, which has left more than 22,000 Palestinians dead and wounded at least 57,035.
The way it is playing out on social media, according to Maddox, is that people, particularly the younger demographic, “skew overwhelmingly in support of Palestine.”
“So much so that the TikTok app had to put out a statement saying their algorithm is not programmed to be anti-Israel,” the digital media technology professor said, adding, “The youth just overwhelmingly support Palestine.”
As Maddox puts it, “While I’m sure this digital strategy is working for some, this is an issue that can’t be reduced to 280-character posts or sixty-second videos.”