Beyond Hasbarah: Harnessing Our Technological Edge to Strengthen Communities on the Front Line

By Daphna Kaufman

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi’s important piece in this publication (“An ‘Iron Dome’ Needed to Protect Jews in Europe”) addresses the acute challenge that Jews in Europe are contending with. With the tide of the assault on Israel’s fundamental legitimacy rising, many in local Jewish communities describe an onslaught of hostility. This threat is manifesting in sharp spikes in physical attacks on Jews.

Mizrahi urges philanthropists to focus on hiring top strategic communications experts to win hearts and minds of European opinion elites. This without a doubt should be a central component in an urgently needed concerted effort to fight back.

But much more is needed. First, the people who are leading the fight back against the delegitimization campaign – those at the forefront of vulnerable communities across the Jewish world – face multiple challenges that each requires a unique and tailored response. Second, the means of responding to their challenges increasingly require the contributions of technology experts, in addition to experts in fields such as strategic communications. Leveraging the abundant technology know-how in Israel and across the Jewish world is key to compensating for our vast numerical disadvantage in the battle for Israel’s global standing.

The Internet in general, and social media in particular, have contributed to exponential growth in the delegitimization campaign. In the face of this, strategies focused on messaging crafted by experts and disseminated by institutions and organizations have limited traction in an ecosystem populated with social networks, virtual communities, and extreme diversity. The challenge is to develop methodologies to be able to penetrate, with messaging and for other purposes, often protected and niche internet-mediated worlds.

Thus, there is a need for better technological tools – such as advanced data mining technologies, big data analysis tools, and strategically operated response networks – that will make the fight against the BDS Movement and Israel’s delegitimizers far more effective and efficient. And doing so requires harnessing the best and most creative minds in Israel and across the Jewish world.

These tools can be adapted to the diverse needs of communities on the front lines of this challenge. Leaders we speak with work on engaging hearts and minds, but also, for example, on identifying the catalysts of the campaign – those individuals that organize drive boycotts, protests, and other forms of delegitimization. This is important for gathering intelligence as well as for developing strategies to discredit or otherwise neutralize the activities of these individuals and organizations.

Organizations and individuals fighting against delegitimization understand that the delegitimization campaign is global and systemic. They recognize the need both to understand the ‘forest’ beyond their local ‘trees’ and to create mechanism for strengthening our own global systemic offensive. Absent an overarching picture of the common strategies and collaborations that can create such a powerful offensive, these communities are at a major disadvantage.

Other needs voiced by community members include methodologies for tracking the effectiveness of their responses. For example, do we have any reliable information indicating what has worked best in combating campus divestment challenges?

To respond to these needs, the Reut Institute, through its C-IDEA initiative and with seed funding provided by the UJA Federation of New York, has committed to launching the Israel Legitimacy Hackathon, with the purpose of significantly improving the toolbox available to the coalition of pro-Israel groups operating around the world to contend with Israel’s delegitimizers and enhance Israel’s legitimacy.

We will identify real needs of people who are fighting for Israel’s legitimacy ‘in the trenches,’ and create inter-disciplinary teams of activists, thinkers, and technology experts – programmers, infrastructure experts and cyber professionals – that will work together to address the articulated challenges. This process will culminate in a three-day event to be held in the coming months in Israel, which will bring together the teams in order to create and present working prototypes of their ideas. The aim is for the best prototypes to be funded and scaled for widespread use among Jewish and pro-Israel communities.

There is much work to be done. And, with major events such as the UN Gaza Panel report bound to continue to roil communities, time is of the essence. Let’s begin by identifying the needs and bringing together the best and the brightest to utilize all available tools to secure Israel’s fundamental legitimacy and to ensure the security and prosperity of our family of Jewish communities around the world.

Please register to learn more about the Israel Legitimacy Hackathon.

Daphna Kaufman is the Director of Policy and Strategy at the Reut Institute.