With content viewed more than 220 million times in 2017, Israel is using social media to change the way the Arab world perceives the Jewish state.
Israel’s Arabic Language Digital Diplomacy team is changing perspectives about Israel in the Arab world and is creating greater possibilities for peace in the region, one post at a time.
In Cairo, Egypt, Yonatan Gonen, the head of the Arabic Language Digital Diplomacy team at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs recently spoke to a group of diplomats and Egyptian journalists about Israel’s growing success in sharing its story with millions in the Arab world through social media.
This success can be measured by the more than 1.5 million Arabic speakers from 22 Arab countries, who follow Israel in Arabic on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, with content viewed more than 220 million times in 2017.
In the last year alone, the number of “Israel in Arabic” Facebook followers has grown by more than 47 percent.
Before social media, encounters between the Arab public and Israel were rare and few, as many Arab countries do not maintain diplomatic ties with Israel. However, today, the Arabic Language Digital Diplomacy team shares Israel’s message of diversity, peace, and coexistence with millions of Arabs around the world.
Diversity and Culture Over Conflict
Israel in Arabic shares information related to current political and security developments, but its main purpose is to use social media to share a side of Israel that is seldom shown in the Arab world.
“A large portion of the Arab public perceives Israel as a country of conflict,” Gonen noted, “but Israel is an amazing country with incredible diversity, a rich culture, and an innovative spirit. This is the real Israel and the Israel that we share with our followers.”
Israel in Arabic achieves this goal by providing followers with a wealth of information and video content, covering a myriad of aspects of Israeli history, politics, culture, and society.
The Digital Diplomacy Arabic Language team uses a number of creative and interactive approaches to share content with users, including infographics, videos, photographs and caricatures.
By focusing on topics such as Israeli cuisine, music, and innovation, Israel in Arabic portrays Israel in all its vibrancy.
Having a Positive Effect
The material is having a positive effect on the way Israel is perceived, Gonen says, referring to the countless messages his team receives advocating for more cooperation between Israel and Arab countries, specifically within the fields of innovation and technology.
“We receive messages on a weekly basis from entrepreneurs and high-tech enthusiasts from different Arab countries who are interested in learning about Israeli startups and opportunities to collaborate with these startups,” he said.
The Israel in Arabic team also opens a window to Israel, by highlighting the human face of Israeli society. Israel in Arabic frequently features the personal stories of Israelis from a large range of religious and cultural backgrounds, celebrating Israel’s diverse population.
Gonen notes that most of Israel in Arabic’s followers “have never spoken to or met an Israeli and are encountering Israelis for the first time through the content featured on our platforms.”
These digital encounters are an important and meaningful step in establishing mutual respect between Israelis and Arabs and can serve as building blocks for creating peace in the region.
Content that Resonates with the Arab World
While the Israel MFA maintains more than 800 online channels in 50 languages, the Arabic language team faces a complex and diverse set of challenges that differ from many of the other channels. One of these challenges is sharing Israel’s story with a population that has been traditionally hostile towards Israel.
The Arabic language team has created content that shares Israel’s perspectives through elements and themes that resonate with the Arab community.
As an example, Israel in Arabic frequently uses caricatures, a medium which is very popular in the Arab world, to convey Israel’s position on a variety of political issues. One caricature, which referred to Hamas’ indoctrination of Palestinian children, became so viral, that the terrorist organization shared and responded to the caricature via their official Twitter account.
These kind of posts are created by Israel in Arabic’s small team of editors, reporters, translators, and graphic designers, who are fluent in Arabic and have a deep understanding of Arab culture and society.
Many of the team’s members come from families who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries. Linda Menuhin, the team’s senior consultant, was born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, and immigrated to Israel at the age of 20. The team’s personal connection to the Arabic language and culture, allows them to create engaging and unique content that appeals to a large range of followers.
Bridging the Gaps
Israel in Arabic aims to bridge gaps between Israel and the Arab world by emphasizing the religious, linguistic, and historical roots that have connected Jews and Arabs for centuries.
One of the most successful examples of this is a series called Din and Hassan in which Din a Jewish Israeli, and Hassan a Muslim Israeli, teach Arabic followers Hebrew. The series was created after the team received numerous requests from individuals interested in learning Hebrew.
Israel in Arabic also focuses on the deep influence that Arabic culture has had and continues to have on Israeli society. The Israel in Arabic channels frequently feature Israelis who grew up in Arab countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria and maintain fond memories and cultural ties to their countries of origin.
“Our content which discusses Israel’s Iraqi-Jewish community has created a vibrant dialogue between our Iraqi followers and Israeli’s with Iraqi roots,” noted Menuhin. “As a result of Israel in Arabic’s activity, both sides have discovered the significant contributions of Iraq’s Jewish community throughout the ages. It is no surprise that 30% of our Facebook followers are from Iraq and maintain positive attitudes towards Israel,” she added.
Direct Dialogue with Millions of Arabs
One of the main goals of the Israel in Arabic channels is to create an open and direct dialogue with millions of Arabs around the world and communicate Israel’s desire to live in peace. Social media has completely revolutionized Israel’s ability to communicate with millions of Arabs around the world and to speak directly to the Arab public.
One of the main principles that guide the team is the importance of maintaining an open, free, and vibrant dialogue with followers.
“We spend a large portion of our day responding to comments from users who share perspectives or ask questions about content that we post. These responses allow us to have honest conversations with followers from dozens of Arab countries and to clarify many of the misconceptions about Israel that are treated as fact in the Arab world,” Gonen explained.
The team’s efforts to engage followers have had a profound effect on their success at reaching millions of Arabs around the world. Comments on posts generate more comments, which then appear on additional news feeds, allowing Israel’s message of peace to reverberate in the Arab digital sphere.
From Social Media to Mass Media
Israel in Arabic’s success has traveled well beyond the confines of Facebook, earning frequent coverage within the Arabic media and attracting the attention of government officials across the Middle East.
“Media outlets within the Arab world discuss materials posted on our channels on an almost daily basis,” Gonen shared. He also cites an increase in important Arab decision makers, including members of government, political officials, and journalists who follow Israel in Arabic on Twitter and respond to content posted by the Arabic language team. Many of these individuals have large followings on Twitter and play an important role in shaping public opinion within the Arab world.
Another sign that points to Israel in Arabic’s success at sharing Israel’s story with the Arab public are the responses from radical organizations who have taken notice of the Arabic language team’s activity. Hamas recently posted a message on its official website warning Gaza residents against liking the Israel in Arabic Facebook page and to be wary of the “new ways” that Israel is using to “bring down residents.”
Gonen views these kinds of responses as a measure of his team’s success. “These warnings demonstrate that Israel is reaching millions of Arabs around the world and slowly dispelling the myths and falsehoods about Israel. We want to show the real Israel, the Israel that provides medical care to wounded Syrians and Palestinians, and social media is helping us achieve this goal.”
With more views, shares, and likes than ever, the Israel in Arabic team continues to harness the power of social media to reach millions of Arabs around the world and create greater possibilities for peace in the region. It is Gonen’s hope that these encounters “transcend digital boundaries and create more opportunities for genuine dialogue and reconciliation between Israelis and Arabs on the ground.”
(With files from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs)
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