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Israeli Propaganda: What it is and How to Spot it

12 mins read

Editor’s note: Under normal circumstances, The Phoenix does not allow groups to publish letters as a collective and requires individuals to submit on groups’ behalf. The Phoenix has decided to make an exception to this policy on account of individual members of Students for Justice in Palestine individually being targeted online. We are a community newspaper and take our responsibility to protect community members very seriously. The Phoenix is completely unaffiliated with SJP and does not have a stance on the Sabra campaign.

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) is a chartered student organization committed to raising awareness on campus about the urgent political and humanitarian crises befalling Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel, and the diaspora as a product of Israeli/Zionist ethnic cleansing, apartheid, occupation, and settler-colonialism. On campus, we organize to end our college’s complicity in these systems of oppression through the Boycott Divest Sanctions (BDS) movement. The campaign to boycott Sabra products, newly reintroduced on campus, fits squarely within our economic activism work. 

Though most current students were not on campus during previous stages of the campaign to boycott Sabra, it has a long history. The original campaign to boycott Sabra hummus began in 2012, after which Sabra products were quietly removed from college shelves. In 2018, the campaign was relaunched when the college decided to reintroduce Sabra products. In response to the re-launch of the campaign, the college added an alternative hummus brand as an alternative for those who did not wish to buy Sabra. On Nov. 3rd, SJP once again relaunched the campaign, calling on President Smith to affirm the dignity of Palestinian life, recognize the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and de-shelve all current Sabra products and end their future sale at Swarthmore College. Recently, this campaign has been the target of attacks from outside of the college community. In this light, and especially given that this is not the first time Swarthmore students who participate in Students for Justice in Palestine group activities have been harassed or intimidated online, we believe it is necessary to provide the history and context of Zionist attacks on students who advocate for Palestinian liberation and oppose human rights violations. 

Israeli Propaganda: What it is and How to Spot it

In 2014, the Israeli army murdered more than 2,250 Palestinians in Gaza. Today in Silwan, the military is attempting to demolish a graveyard to build a biblical theme park. These examples of intense, state-sanctioned violence characteristic of Israel’s occupation of Palestine provide clear snapshots of the power imbalance between occupier and occupied, supported by structural inequities like Israel’s well-funded military. One would expect outrage in response, yet in the United States, since 2001, public opinion of Israel remains overwhelmingly positive. One reason is hasbara, the Hebrew word for “explanation,” which refers to Israel’s use of propaganda to whitewash and conceal its violations of international law, and which plays a critical part in Israel’s attempt to win the war of public opinion. Hasbara strategies range from using memes to exploiting search engine algorithms to promote a specific agenda. These strategies also cost money, and the Israeli government is willing to invest funds into these campaigns, offering paid hasbara fellowships, scholarships, and grants. The amount of money invested in these campaigns proves that hasbara is a priority for the state. 

Astroturfing and College Campuses: Whose community?

When hasbara is used to influence perceptions of a community’s support or opposition to policies relating to Israel, it becomes a form of astroturfing. Astroturfing is the attempt to artificially create an impression of widespread, grassroots support for an idea where little such support actually exists. The app Act.IL, for example, provides a gamified incentive structure for users to take part in predetermined propaganda campaigns by commenting, reposting, liking, letter-writing, and more. It claims to be a “people-driven, grassroots initiative,” but it was founded and is largely staffed by former Israeli intelligence officers and was developed in collaboration with the Israeli government. The app also received over a million dollars in funding from the Israeli government from 2017-2018. Its campaigns direct users from around the world to insert themselves into local conversations, creating an artificial sense of community opposition. In the past, the app has been used to pressure Stanford University to fire one of its student workers. Hasbara Fellowships use a similar gamified system to introduce Zionist pressure on campuses. The program’s $250 deposit can be refunded if participants earn enough ‘points’ by participating in activities like combating college Boycott Divestment Sanctions efforts, tabling on campus in support of Israel, and building relationships with “non pro-Israel” student groups. Effectively, Hasbara Fellowships pay students to influence their campus’ public debate from within. Act.IL and Hasbara Fellowships are just two examples of outside voices and money brought onto college campuses in order to shroud the opinions of real community members.

Close to Home: Hasbara at Swarthmore

There have already been examples of hasbara on our campus at Swarthmore. In the Spring of 2019, when Swarthmore’s Student Government Organization (SGO) voted on a resolution to divest the college’s endowment from seven companies invested in the illegal Israeli occupation, several members of SGO were contacted by right-wing journalist Joel Griffith. Griffith is a reporter for outlets including Fox Business News, National Interest, and The Times of Israel and contacted students by email and by phone call. At the same time, a Twitter account titled “Stop Hate at Swarthmore” doxxed students involved with the campaign by tagging them in public posts, labeling them antisemitic and hateful (the account has been suspended for violating Twitter rules). Another Twitter account, “Radical Alert,” tweeted the time and location of the SGO meeting to its almost 5,000 followers. These intimidation tactics caused many SGO members to refrain from engaging with the issue or making public comments anonymous for fear of their and their families’ safety. Ultimately, these tactics did not work in affecting the resolution’s passing, but they did leave many students shaken. 

A week after the relaunch of our Boycott Sabra campaign, Swarthmore students began receiving paid advertisements on sites such as Quizlet, Citation Machine, and the New York Times for a counter-petition entitled “Save the Hummus.” The petition falsely preaches that SJP’s campaign is antisemitic and that Israel is “a beacon of hope amidst a sea of tyranny.” Students from the 2020-21 SGO Executive Board, according to SGO members, started receiving emails from signatories of this petition with fake names like “FUCK MR BIDDEN” and “Joe Mama.” The paid advertising demonstrates that external money funds this propaganda. Additionally, in contrast to the SJP petition, which requires the signatory to demonstrate their connection to campus, the fake names and obscured identities betray this as another example of digital astroturfing. 

On Friday, Nov. 12, outspoken Zionist and verified Twitter user Eve Barlow tweeted the counter-petition to her 40,000 followers despite having no apparent connection to the college. It is unclear how Barlow found the petition, since she is not directly connected to our campus community. Her involvement, however, clearly demonstrates that this petition, or at the very least its minimal support, comes from individuals that are not a part of our campus community. 

Additionally, The Phoenix’s sole news article about the Boycott Sabra relaunch is littered with hasbara comments from individuals who were also not connected to the college. Editorial Board members of The Phoenix received emails stating that the article was bigoted and anti-semitic, and names were redacted from the original piece due to safety concerns.

Our Response: Join the Call to Boycott Sabra

It’s obvious that boycotting Sabra is, and has always been, about more than just hummus. Though the choice of whether or not to buy a specific brand of hummus might seem trivial, we launched the campaign with the belief that the actions we take have consequences. In this case, choosing not to buy or shelve Sabra sends a signal that Swarthmore will not support companies that finance groups with a track record of human rights violations. Clearly, our opponents don’t believe the choice to boycott Sabra products is a trivial one either. In the face of our clear and simple demand, propagandists from outside our college community have invested time and money into attempts to derail us with false and racist accusations. We would not receive this kind of reaction unless our activism was truly bringing the Swarthmore community closer to achieving a BDS victory. We know the facts — the Golani Brigade commits acts of atrocity, and the Strauss Group, which owns Sabra, sends funds to the Golani Brigade. We will not be intimidated into silence. 

By buying Sabra products, Swarthmore College is funding apartheid. We are rightfully outraged and demand that our institution end its complicity with these horrors now. In the face of these hasbara campaigns to counter our petition, we will not stop organizing for a juster world. Swarthmore College, stop funding apartheid. Stop selling Sabra products. Sign our petition here.

5 Comments

  1. I certainly don’t doubt that Israel engages in propaganda to promote its interests and influence public opinion in its favor and was disturbed to learn about some of its activities re Swarthmore. But do we not think that a variety of pro-Palestinian groups – certainly forces that are well funded and exist primarily outside this campus – also engage in propaganda and seek to influence opinion in their favor?

    While I find the targeting of Swarthmore and its students by pro-Israeli actors very disturbing, I have to say that, if anything, the pro-Palestinian side are clearly the more successful propagandists on this campus. The proof is in the pudding in a sense: Look at the incredibly amount of attention paid to this issue at Swarthmore, vis-a-vis other instances of state repression and killings around the world. In the end, the reality is that as awful as the human rights record of the Israeli state might be, the scope of state repression is quite small compared to many other countries. This is depressing, but nevertheless true. By many estimates, more Uighurs are currently in Chinese concentration camps than the total population of the Gaza strip. In countries like Venezuela or Brazil, there are more people killed every year in extra-judicial killings by state security forces than the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza in 2014 or in the Second Intifada. By some accounts, the number of people killed since 2016 in the Rohynga genocide rivals the total numbers of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces since 1948. One could go on and on with more examples – Darfur, Yemen, etc. Yet we hear almost nothing about these awful instances of state repression on the Swarthmore campus and certainly nobody is trying to ban food products owned by companies that lend financial support to these states and their security forces.

    Why do Burmese, Yemeni, Sudanese, or Brazilian lives seemingly “count less” on the Swarthmore campus than Palestinian lives? There are likely numerous factors that contribute. But one is clearly a very successful propaganda campaign that has convinced members of the Swarthmore community to prioritize this issue, and these lives, over other issues and other lives.

    • People on campus do talk about all of these instances of state repression. SJP themselves hosted an event which highlighted the ways in which violence in Palestine is related to state violence around the world. If you aren’t actually concern trolling and actually care about organizing a boycott, or a divestment campaign, there is literally nothing stopping you from making a group with your friends and working together to raise awareness of this issue, or from organizing against state violence.
      Also, supporting Palestine lives is not taking away from supporting anyone else fighting state violence, you are creating a false scarcity. Furthermore, all struggles against state repression are linked.
      I think you are projecting the fact that people in your immediate circles apparently don’t talk about these things onto the entire campus, and blaming SJP for some reason. You wouldn’t complain about an ALS awareness campaign “taking away attention” from cancer. People are capable of caring about many things at once!

  2. May I ask the editors the difference between “individually being targeted online” and Zionists or pro-Israel people or even objective researchers commenting on the Arab-conflict-with-Israel being collectively targeted?
    I am no longer a student so all this is rather strange and difficult for me to grasp. It would seem that targeting a group possesses the potential of harming many more people, and probably a lot not guilty of anything, rather than singularly targeting. And is “targeting” the term used to describe pointing out someone’s errors, misrepesentations and/or misleading falsehoods?

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