Haifa U course teaches web hasbara strategies

Eli Avraham

A new course at the University of Haifa will teach students how to use new media to reclaim Israel’s narrative from its detractors.

Eli Avraham, a senior lecturer at Haifa U’s communications department who leads the program, said when false claims are made about Israel, such as labelling it an apartheid state, people need to be equipped with knowledge and tools to speak out against those claims.

“The main idea is that this is about how to use the new media to reclaim Israel’s narrative and promote Israel’s point of view,” Avraham said.

“I’m an expert in public diplomacy during crises – what kinds of strategies countries can use to restore their image after a crisis… With the knowledge that I’ve accumulated over the years in public diplomacy, I can help somebody.”

The course, titled “Ambassadors Online,” is free and not accredited. It was designed for students, whether they’re acquiring a PhD or an undergraduate degree, who want to learn how to combat anti-Israel bias in the media.

Avraham explained that the four-hour-a-week program was initiated and co-ordinated by students who were eager to learn about hasbara.

“I’m from the communications department, and my students told me that it’s not fair that the only students that can study a course about Israeli hasbara belong to the communications department,” he said.

One of his doctoral students, David Gurevitz, took the lead in approaching the dean of students, the student union, and the university’s Comper Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism and Racism, all of whom agreed to support it.

“A ministry spokesman can issue an official statement. But we, as students, can make personal connections and speak as a primary source. As young people living the Israeli reality, we have a real chance to influence people,” Gurevitz said in a statement.

About 50 students applied to take the course, but only 30 were selected, Avraham said, adding that he was thrilled with the level of interest and never anticipated turning students away.

The course, which teaches students how to write and edit Wikipedia entries, maintain a pro-Israel Facebook page, write balanced, factual blog entries, and challenge anti-Israel views in chat rooms and forums, requires that students speak and write in English well.

“The interview was in English, because they need to be able to write their Facebook and Twitter messages in English. We hope they’re going to be in touch with people all over the world, so English is needed,” Avraham explained.

The students will also hear from expert guest lecturers, including Reda Mansour, the former Israeli consul general in Atlanta, as well as Miri Eisen, the former foreign press adviser to the prime minister, and Neil Lazarus, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs external adviser.

“We teach them about history, about what really happened, about public diplomacy… and how to understand your audience,” Avraham said.

He added that during the first class, held last week, he gave a lecture on how American and European media cover the Middle East conflict.

Not surprisingly, when students heard about the course, some expressed concern that it might be sponsored by the Israeli foreign ministry, or that it would push a right-wing agenda.

“I don’t have an agenda. I’m not supporting the right. I’m not supporting the left. What I’m saying is that there is a lot of knowledge out there, and we can do better,” Avraham said.

Next year he hopes to present the course entirely in English in order to accommodate international students who might be interested in it.  He also has ambitions to develop a program that can be taught though centres for Jewish studies at universities around the world.