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University students make case for Israel

by Princella Smith, Israel Hayom Newspaper   Israel Hayom Princella Cartoon

Americans and the rest of the Western world are surrounded by negative news concerning the Gaza conflict.

The situation is undeniably grave, but what continues to fascinate me about Israel is the unyielding resolve of its residents to live without fear and to remain on and fight for the land that is theirs.

As an American having only been on Israeli soil for a few months, my observation of the Israeli spirit is as much of an education for me as the time I spend in classrooms at the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya as a graduate student in the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy.

One such example of this spirit is the work of IDC students over the past few days.

Since the start of the recent conflict, IDC students have created a “hasbara” operation on campus headquartered in an information “war room” — a term that is more familiar to Americans.

“Hasbara” is a Hebrew term for the positive alternative to negative propaganda — particularly in reference to media and press coverage of Israel. Another term for this is public diplomacy.

It is no secret that Hamas and other radical Islamist organizations have become very effective in reaching mass audiences via social networking sites such as Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. Who better to combat these efforts than a group of young people whose generation has been largely defined by the Internet and social networking?

“Israel Under Fire” is a Facebook group created by the Israeli government’s Public Diplomacy Ministry with the help of volunteers on Nov. 15, 2012. IDC students have largely taken over the group and garnered more the 18,000 members, with an online conversation rate of more than 27,800 people talking about it daily, as tracked by Facebook.

The group has engaged students of the Raphael Recanati International School (RRIS) on IDC campus and asked them to create letters in their individual languages and to share updates on what is happening in Israel with their friends, contacts, and their countries’ media and online blogospheres. They have devoted their Twitter and personal email accounts to the dissemination of constant “rapid-fire” updates minute by minute.

Jonathan Davis, vice president of external relations at the Interdisciplinary Center and head of the RRIS, said, “The added value of the RRIS at the IDC is that we have students from over 80 countries who speak 22 languages. Hundreds of them are on Twitter and Facebook redistributing good information through social media. They are making a huge impact in their home countries when they make the case for Israel mainly because they are speaking in their own language and touting their own views.”

Certainly, the students have made quite an impact around the world — so much so that their efforts grabbed the attention of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who joined them and other university groups via video conference this week, commending their efforts.

Prior to Netanyahu’s video conference, Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Minister Yuli Edelstein personally visited IDC’s hasbara war room accompanied by IDC President Uriel Reichman.

Reichman, who had recently returned from a meeting with President Shimon Peres, expressed praise from Peres. Beaming with pride, Reichman addressed the students with a patriarchal tenor: “Nobody could do this other than IDC. No one could reach out to entire world, speaking in multiple languages on behalf of Israel. We are happy to help the country at this time. The knowledge of what you are doing has reached the president of the country. I would like to express to you the personal thanks of President Peres. He conveys his greetings and gratitude for the work that you are doing and wishes to come and see you soon. … You have to understand [that] you are doing something of great significance. Altogether, what you are doing is enormous.”

Edelstein appeared visibly impressed by the wall charts, graphics, rows of computers, and the operation led by the IDC Student Union.

The students have established advocacy centers in 62 countries so far. They have produced and translated fact-checked information available via an online public dropbox in more than 20 languages, including Arabic, Armenian, Chinese, Croatian, Danish, Dutch, English, French, Georgian, German, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Italian, Korean, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Spanish, Swedish, Tagalog and Turkish.

Edelstein told the students of a different emotional feeling in Israel and around the world than in previous conflicts. “I want you to understand that this time is really different. For the first time in Israel, you hear satisfied people talking about the war. I call what you are doing public diplomacy — not communication. I know that you could be somewhere else eating pizza and drinking cola, but instead you are here making a difference in the world. If all ambassadors, generals, and other officials would take your information and use it, it would work.”

I asked the minister to elaborate on his statement for Israel Hayom. In the 75 seconds that I had with him he had a lot to say, but this sentence brought it all home for me: “The concept of Israel’s actions has changed in several countries. Volunteers, students, and young people like the ones here at IDC give us hope that the conflict will be over.”

The IDC Student Union is also directly assisting operations to host families and individuals from southern Israel, providing them with safe havens in Herzliya. It hosted a “fun day” with over 400 children from the south, enabling them to play games and enjoy food from McDonald’s and Kyoto restaurants, which sponsored the event.

Indeed the word “hope” has taken on a new meaning for the young people of IDC as they have epitomized the spirit of hope that then-Senator John F. Kennedy spoke of 52 years ago at the Zionists of America convention in New York: “Israel was not created in order to disappear — Israel will endure and flourish. It is the child of hope and the home of the brave. It can neither be broken by adversity nor demoralized by success. It carries the shield of democracy, and it honors the sword of freedom.”

Princella D. Smith is an American freelance contributor for Israel Hayom. She was a communications staffer to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and has also served as a communications director on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. She is currently a graduate student at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy & Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel.