– by Asa Winstanley
An investigation by The Electronic Intifada has revealed that the online publication Israel21c is hiring students as “digital ambassadors” to plant its stories in online discussion forums and social media without revealing that they work for the publication.
Israel21c is part of propaganda efforts aimed to improve Israel’s image and distract from Israel’s occupation, abuse and massacres of Palestinians.
An ad for the position (published in full below) was contained in an email obtained by The Electronic Intifada. It stipulates that each “ambassador” must engage in “significant conversations” online, making a note of them and reporting back to Israel21c staff.
Posing as a student interested in this internship, The Electronic Intifada spoke over the phone to a publicist responsible for recruitment.
He explicitly confirmed their intent to use deceptive methods.
Sam Bialosky of the public relations consultancy Miller Ink said, when posting their stories “you wouldn’t directly reference that you’re interning for Israel21c.” Bialosky made it clear to The Electronic Intifada’s undercover reporter: “that would sort of defeat the point of posting it.”
Miller Ink is the agency responsible for much of Israel21c’s press.
“We’ll send you the posts … we’re basically going to tell you what to say … and you’re going to have to send this out to people that you know,” Bialosky clarified, stipulating that “you’re going to be limited in your ability to tailor it.”
Israel21c is a publication dedicated to running fluff pieces about the alleged wonders of Israeli technology. The goal appears to be that such stories will distract attention from Israeli atrocities and help to market Israel as an attractive technology hub.
“What would be your job is to push that article out on social media,” Bialosky explained: “point to this sort of article on a community website, on a message board. Sort of a – ‘oh hey,’ you know, ‘you should look at this, here’s some good information on that.’”
Bialosky clarified that the goal of the program was not just to plant stories in the tech media, but in other specialist press too: “when a story about autism pops up … we’d like for that article to pop up on, say, I think its Autism Daily Digest.” This was possibly a reference to Autism Asperger’s Digest, a magazine about the neurodevelopmental condition.
“There’s a specific community that, they have an autistic child, that they get emails and we’d like for an Israel21c article to be on that … It helps broaden our reach,” he explained. “Medical innovations are, you know, it’s a different emotional interaction.”
Israel21c did not reply to an email requesting comment.
Headlines currently running on Israel21c’s website give an idea of the spin: “An Israeli technology just made the world safer,” “Israel – where fashion and technology meet,” a story about Hebrew University’s commercial arm titled “50 years of bringing brilliant ideas from lab to market” and “The maverick thinker behind Iron Dome” – the US-funded missile system which Israel claims is capable of intercepting rockets fired by Palestinian resistance factions in Gaza.
Israel21c claims on its “About” page that it has “placed more than 10,000” such stories in the press around the world, including the BBC,The New York Times, AP, Reuters, CNN and Al Jazeera, “as well as top blogs, Huffington Post, Treehugger, MedGadget and Gizmodo.”
The website was established at the end of 2001 by Zvi Alon and Eric Benhamou, two Silicon Valley executives. A 2002 profile defined the problem it sought to face: “If Americans find the conflict depressing and boring, and want to watch a positive story they can identify with, Zvi Alon, Eric Benhamou and their friends in Silicon Valley aim to provide it.”
The email was sent to the Hillel by Sam Bialosky.
“Please find attached a part-time paid internship opportunity with ISRAEL21c. We are looking for smart, passionate college and graduate students,” wrote Bialosky.
In the ad, applicants are asked to send a resume to Miller, along with a short writing sample.
“We are looking for students in college or graduate school who are passionate about ISRAEL21c’s Mission, and excited to share its content with their networks and others on social media and beyond,” it states.
Successful “digital ambassadors” are to be paid a stipend of $600 in exchange for between two and three hours per week over a six-month period. A “launch conference” for this, the “second class” of ambassadors, will take place in September in Los Angeles.
Miller Ink, contracted by Israel21c for this task, states on its websitethat it services include “social media campaigns” and “media messaging.”
In the above video presentation, Miller himself talks about his “digital engagement” PR work with Israeli21c and how it aims at “changing hearts and minds” about Israel “one conversation, one story, one person at a time.”
He also talks about his time as a speech writer for Israel at the UN. He relates how in 2012, during the Palestinian Authority’s bid for UN recognition of Palestine as an observer state, the overwhelming majority of delegates were against Israel’s obstruction of that process.
He says he started thinking about ways to change the conversation: “what I really relied on a lot of the time were stories, personal narratives of Israelis who are doing amazing things that others could relate to.”
Israel21c is “one of the most comprehensive, interesting resources today for stories about Israel beyond the conflict,” he says.
With Israel coming under ever-increasing criticism for its human rights abuses and war crimes against Palestinians and other Arabs, changing the subject is a common tactic for Israel’s PR flacks and official propaganda or hasbara efforts.
Attempting to shift the conversation over to Israeli technology in this way is sometimes dubbed “techwashing.” Similar tactics include “greenwashing” – the effort to market Israel as supposedly environmentally friendly (something Israel21c is involved in too) – and “pinkwashing” – the effort to market Israel as LGBT-friendly and progressive as well as a welcoming destination for gay-male sex tourism.
The main point about such cynical strategies is that, even were these stories all true, it would not in any way mitigate Israeli atrocities, such as its most recent round of slaughter in the Gaza Strip.
According to UN figures, between 7 July, when this attack began, and 26 August, when an ongoing ceasefire was announced, Israel killed 2,104 Palestinians, at least seventy percent of whom were civilians – including 495 children.
Such basic facts mean that “techwashing” is ultimately a losing strategy – a desperate act for desperate propagandists. But even on their own terms, many of these stories turn out to be exaggerated.
The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah documented one example of this in his most recent book The Battle for Justice in Palestine (147-50). Israel21c has been involved in promoting an Israeli solar energy company called BrightSource.
In 2010, the company received $1.3 billion in loan guarantee funding from the US government, and was even promoted by President Barack Obama in his weekly video address.
Although Obama promoted the company as an American success story, it turned out that “the lion’s share of the high-tech career opportunities BrightSource was advertising were located in Jerusalem” (The Battle for Justice in Palestine, 148).
Despite the hype, a stock market flotation had to be abandoned hours before it had been due to begin in April 2012, due to doubts about the firm’s prospects. It turned out BrightSource was using an antiquated, mirror-based solar technology that has been eclipsed by other solar power technologies in which Israel lags.
As has been well covered by The Electronic Intifada, Israel has set up several initiatives for the spread of hasbara (or propaganda) online in recent years. The latest of these is the “Hasbara war room” at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private university.
The inaccurately-titled Israeli propaganda group HonestReporting has a similarly-titled program to Israel21c’s “digital ambassadors” – their “digital diplomats.” The purpose of that course is to train people in “using the power of the Internet to fight Israel’s new war … of public relations.”
HonestReporting’s managing editor is Simon Plosker, a reservist who serves in the Israeli army’s spokesperson’s unit.
The Electronic Intifada has also exposed outright forgeries and fakes spread by pro-Israel propagandists online, most recently the video of a “child firing an RPG on Gaza Beach” which was actually from Libya.
While there is no indication that Israe21c is involved in concoting such outright forgeries, the way it boasts about how it has “placed” its fluffy, feel-good tech stories in the mainstream media represents a more subtle form of propaganda.
It is notable then, that Israel21c seems to be more the work of America’s Israel lobby, rather than being an initiative of Israeli government agencies or Israeli institutions.
Israel lobby funding
Israel21c is registered in the US as a 501(c)(3) – a tax-exempt non-profit organization.
Its information returns filed with the Internal Revenue Service show it to be registered in San Francisco, in an office only a five minute walk away from the Israeli consulate.
The forms also show they have an office in Israel, with registered operating expenses of $131,307 in 2010 and $129,484 in 2011.
Between 2008 and 2012, Israel21c raised a total of $3.2 million in revenue. The forms disclose that between 2010 and 2012, $347,099 of this was in “government grants.”
Israel21c did not reply to an email asking which government departments had given this cash.
An analysis by The Electronic Intifada of information returns mentioning Israel21c reveals that one of their biggest seed donors in 2001 was The Feldman Foundation based in Dallas, Texas.
This group donated $120,000 to Israeli21c between 2002 and 2004.
In the same years it was funding Israel21c, the foundation also gave tens of thousands of dollars to other Zionist organizations, including, The Israel Project, Project Interchange (which sends influential Americans, especially policy chiefs, on trips to Israel) and the New Israel Fund. It also gave $33,000 to The Jerusalem Foundation to support Pisgat Ze’ev, an illegal Israeli settlement in east Jerusalem.
The biggest donor to Israel21c has been the Jewish Communal Fund, which manages $1.2 billion for its various philanthropic clients.
Donations to Israel21c via the fund totaled $220,160 between 2008 and 2010.
Backed by major AIPAC donors
Another generous donor to Israel21c has been a foundation controlled by Susan Wexner. HLMH gave $168,224 in 2008. Wexner has also contributed more than $850,000 to StandWithUs, a stridently anti-Palestinian propaganda group that works closely with the Israeli government.
Israel21c’s Board of Directors is stacked with former and current American Israel Public Affairs Committee personnel. Most notably, these include Israel21c’s president, Amy Friedkin, who was AIPAC president between 2002 and 2004.
Another donor to Israel21c, The Goodman Family Supporting Foundation, also gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to AIPAC and to its affiliates the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the American Israel Education Foundation from 2009-2011. It gaveIsrael21c $20,000 in the same period.
Israel21c’s staff of four North American and British editors seem all to be based in Israel.
One editor, Karin Kloosterman, has long been an editor for the Israel greenwashing blog Green Prophet.
Not likely to succeed
In 2012, the National Union of Israeli Students launched a similar program to spread Israeli propaganda online. That scheme offered Israeli university students $2,000 to spread pro-Israel propaganda online for five hours per week from the “comfort of home.”
American Israel lobby groups now seems to be emulating the strategy.
But such schemes are unlikely to gain much traction. As Palestinian doctor Belal Dabour showed in a recent article for The Electronic Intifada, in the war of narrative on Twitter, “so far it seems the Palestinians are winning.”
Ali Abunimah contributed research and analysis.