In her daily Instagram posts, Israel’s top beauty and lifestyle influencer Ashley Waxman Bakshi is now layering her own take about the Middle East conflict onto her tips about blush and eyeshadow.
The Canadian-born social media star recently took on the topic of the history of Gaza, while she filmed herself applying her own brand of AWB blush, eye shadow and brown lipstick.
“Israel won the war, Israel agreed to a partition, the Arabs did not, yadda yadda yadda, so Egypt, in the war, got Gaza,” Waxman Baskshi said on her Jan. 25 post to Instagram. “So, you want to call that ‘occupation’ of Gaza, I don’t know?”
The focus on selling Israel, alongside her empire of beauty products, is part of a new project supported by the Jewish State’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The government is hoping to combat the explosion of online hatred towards Israel and the Jews by harnessing a group of Israel’s top social media personalities who were already defending the country on their own platforms.
The group, including Waxman Bakshi, counts a combined following of 30 million viewers and subscribers including on YouTube and TikTok.
“We don’t work for the government. We’re not getting paid to do this,” Waxman Bakshi said in a recent interview with The CJN, adding that the Israeli government’s efforts until now have been ineffective.
Taking on the Hadid sisters
The issue came to a head for her in May 2021, when Israel and Hamas fought a two-week long war that was fought on the ground but also online: international celebrities weighed in with pro-Palestinian comments, including models Bella and Gigi Hadid, who liked a post that said Israel was not a country.
“When you have people like Bella Hadid with millions and millions of followers bringing out flat out lies, people who are indifferent start to form an opinion. And unfortunately, that opinion is very anti-Israel,” Waxman Bakshi said. “And the anti-Israel turns into antisemitic.”
More recently the group of Israeli digital media warriors swung into action when British actress Emma Watson, who played the role of Hermione in the Harry Potter series, posted a pro-Palestinian photo and comment on her account. Waxman Baskhi described how her WhatsApp chat lit up as they debated whether to respond, and if so, in what form.
“I have the power because I have my 300,000-something followers, so if I bring this up on my story, on my account, I can send all my 300,000 followers to go and post,” she said, describing one suggested tactic that quickly raised some alarms. “Because if you’re going to comment, it will raise engagement. The [Watson] post will get more reach.”
But in the end, the Wilfrid Laurier and York University alumnus felt that it was important to answer so they can try to reach people who haven’t yet formed an opinion about who is right and who is wrong in the Israel-Palestinian question.
“I think that if there’s enough educated people in the crowd that will go through the [online] comments… that say, ‘Listen, Emma, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Solidarity doesn’t mean blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, it can help to at least delay somebody forming an anti-Israel opinion in the short term.”
Waxman Bakshi’s path to becoming a more visible and vocal activist for Israel comes after 10 years as Israel’s first YouTube lifestyle content producer.
She vlogs about her makeup business plus she documents daily life in Israel with her four kids and her Israeli lawyer husband. The couple met after Waxman Bakshi finished university in Ontario and immigrated to Israel in 2006 to serve in the Israel Defense Forces.
Along the way she’s worked for the Ministry of Defense in Israel, and she completed a graduate degree in counterterrorism. That preparation, she feels, makes her even more qualified to fight the disinformation war on behalf of her adopted country.
“I had an entire course on extreme Islamic ideologies. So, I can understand better how everything has developed, and I can understand the geopolitical situation as well,” she said, acknowledging that most people don’t actually want to drill down that deep during debates. “The fact that I actually know these things and I’ve been taught it at an academic level gives me the confidence to go online and speak.”
Daughter of a Holocaust survivor
Coming up on Feb. 1, she’ll be a featured speaker on a U.S. Jewish National Fund event discussing the new Zionism, together with several other prominent activists. The online event is free and is the kind of work she hopes to be doing more of, as she transitions away from her YouTube channel, which is closing at the end of February.
Waxman Bakshi was the youngest and only girl in the family growing up in Hamilton, Ontario. One brother, Yishay, lives in Thornhill. A second brother, (Ron) Yaron is in Windsor. A third brother, Eitan, lives in Naples, Florida. Her mother, Claire, is a travel agent specializing in bringing Christian pilgrimage tours to Israel. She divides her time between Thornhill and Israel, staying for months at an apartment near her daughter in Herzliya.
Waxman Bakshi’s late father Hy Waxman was a child Holocaust survivor from Romania. The family settled in Hamilton, where she attended Hamilton Hebrew Academy and Jewish summer camps. It was only after returning from a Birthright trip to Israel that she first encountered Jew hatred and anti-Israel campus politics.
“There were literally huge rallies talking about apartheid and about this wall and segregation and comparing Israel to South Africa, and I was like, why is nobody on campus talking about why,” she said, referring to the barrier wall between Israel and the West Bank constructed after years of suicide bombings and terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens.
Waxman Bakshi began to advocate on behalf of Israel while studying at Wilfrid Laurier University, in Waterloo, and also later, when she transferred to York University to complete her degree. She recalls the tense atmosphere on the Toronto-area campus during those years.
“At York, things were like next level, it was violent. And I remember receiving threats and being afraid to walk to my car after a rally because I was afraid that maybe somebody on the other side of that rally would follow me.”
Death threats, lost followers
She channels her experience as a Canadian Jew not only to educate her wide audience around the world, including Muslims and Christians, but also Israeli Jews.
“Especially Israelis who were born here and the younger generation who don’t know what it’s like to really feel antisemitism, who don’t know what it’s like to live in a Jewish community when there’s a hostage situation in a synagogue,” she said. “They can’t understand how antisemitism even relates to the delegitimizing of Israel.”
Her unapologetic advocacy, including pushing back against artists who refuse to perform in Israel, comes with a cost. She’s lost supporters, and potential customers, which she calls “troubling and scary”. And she’s received death threats.
“Because I really do preach for tolerance within Israel for all religions, for many years, I did have a very large following from the Arab community here in Israel, and a lot of love because of that. And a lot of my Arab followers started unfollowing me or telling me that they were really disappointed in me for advocating for Israel,” she said.
“They see it that you cannot be pro-Israel but also in the same matter, be pro-equal rights for all civilians regardless of religion in Israel. And that’s exactly what I am because, especially being Canadian and being brought up on these values of multiculturalism and diversity and really respecting everybody’s backgrounds, religions and whatnot, I honestly believe these things can be completely possible in Israel.”
Waxman Bakshi has made sure her own children will be able to feel comfortable when they visit relatives in Canada in mid-February, “they want to see snow”. Like many expat Canadians who live in Israel, Waxman Bakshi speaks to them in English, at home, as well as in Hebrew. She also adores her iconic red Canada Goose coat, which got pride of place in her social media feed recently—even though the temperature was 20 C.
“I’m wearing it just so that I can pretend like it’s winter.”
“For me, it’s really exciting to be doing something with The Canadian Jewish News because I’ve been in Israel for 15 years, but I’m still so Canadian!”Ashley Waxman Bakshi
Q. What advice does Waxman Bakshi have for North American Jewish leaders who want to try their hand in the digital world to combat hate?
A. I would start by gaining knowledge, because we always have more to learn. And I can say that even I sometimes, when I’m listening to people from the other side speak, sometimes it makes me think like, ‘Oh, wait, maybe we weren’t. Okay, maybe something in history. There’s these numbers that come out that ‘So and so Palestinian villages were burned and this and that. And sometimes it makes you question yourself. Oh, wait, maybe we really did. Maybe we are performing a genocide against the Palestinians.’ But the more you educate yourself and the more you actually read history, you realize that it’s not true. Like the side that has been attacked over and over and over again: it’s us. Never go into a conversation or a debate about a topic that you don’t feel well equipped to handle, because you’ll lose.
The second one, I think, would be to speak from the heart. A lot of the times when you’re really just [about] facts, on the other side, nobody cares. So come with statistics. Okay. Tell me about Camp David and how they rejected and we accept it. We don’t care. But if you sit down, if you want to sit down, and for example, share a personal story. ‘I have been to Israel where I visited the site of So and so suicide bomb. I was afraid to walk down the street.’ I think one of the greatest things that I did during the conflict, one of the Hadid sisters put up a video talking about how racist it was that she was questioned so much at the airport when she landed in Israel. And so I put up a video saying, ‘I am a Jew, I am white, I am from Canada. And guess what, Hadid? I was questioned, too. I was asked where my Bat Mitzvah was and how was my connection to Israel. And I was asked all these because that’s reality. When you live in a country where any person could be a potential terrorist, that’s the reality you live in.’ And so when you sit down and you speak from a personal account or you say, my grandfather did this, so and so is a Holocaust survivor, I think that is really what changes the hearts and minds of the people watching.