Dozens of young journalists, including at least one working for the BBC, are in Israel this week for a government-backed junket designed to give them “a more positive attitude” toward Israel’s policies.
The journalists are attending the Media in Conflicts Seminar (MICS) at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya (IDC Herzliya).
Now in its fifth year, the seminar is the brainchild of the advocacy group StandWithUs.
The Media in Conflicts Seminar is “hasbara for foreign media personnel, diplomats and youth from all over the world,” according to the website of Israel’s Ministry for Public Diplomacy (which was recently absorbed into the prime minister’s office).
Hasbara is a Hebrew word that literally translates as “explaining” but is used specifically to describe government propaganda and outreach efforts to gain support for Israel’s policies.
According to the ministry, the Media in Conflicts Seminar specifically targets non-Jewish Europeans.
Those attending this year include Zahra Ullah, a broadcast journalist with BBC Wales1; Indre Anskaityte, a radio journalist from Lithuania; Rachel Dzanashvili, a freelance contributor to Fox News; Tomas Halasz, a photographer from Slovakia; Joseph Shawyer, a staffer at the Bethlehem-based Ma’an News Agency; Mariana Granja, a reporter for Agence France Presse; and Gayatri Parameswaran, a contributor to Al Jazeera and Radio Netherlands.
George Hale, a senior editor for Ma’an News Agency, confirmed that Shawyer was attending the seminar. However, Hale told The Electronic Intifada in an email that Shawyer was doing so “in a personal capacity, not on behalf of Ma’an.”
Hale added that Shawyer is “not a member of the news team.”
US journalist Anna Lekas Miller was accepted to attend, but announced on Twitter on Sunday that she was denied entry to Israel. Afghan journalist Mirwais Jalalzai reported on the MICS Facebook page that he was denied a visa as well.
The Electronic Intifada asked Felix Gaedtke, who lists MICS 2012 as professional education on his resume, if MICS organizers disclosed to him their funding from and affiliation with the government propaganda ministry. He replied “I don’t remember what the organisers told us about the funding for the seminar.”
MICS published lists of participants and speakers for 2009 and 2010 on the IDC Herzliya web site. Past participants can also be seen in videos posted to the MICS YouTube channel.
“The purpose of the seminar is to find young journalists who will work in the world of media, as well as those who aspire to be ‘opinion makers’ in their countries, and to put them through workshops about media coverage of conflict zones,” organizers stated in a fundraising appeal.
According to its official website, the Media in Conflicts Seminar includes “A 5-day fully subsidized stay in Israel (Not including airfare)” and a “strategic tour of Jerusalem and the conflict areas.”
It also boasts that “participants develop skills to face the challenges of conflict reporting, create a priceless professional network and experience the world’s most covered conflict zone.”
In addition to seminars on “terrorism,” and military and political topics, the participants meet Israeli political leaders, academics and senior Israeli journalists.
Past speakers are a who’s who of Israeli political and military echelons, including Avital Leibovich, who became notorious as army spokesperson during the 2008-2009 invasion of Gaza, and former Minister of Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein.
This year’s seminar will be addressed by Israeli foreign ministry spokesperson Ilana Stein.
The organizers have touted the success of previous seminars, claiming, “The impact of MICS is evident in [the participants] subsequent media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Ties to the government
The Media in Conflicts Seminar bears the hallmarks of Israel’s strategy to fight “delegitimization,” laid out in 2010 by the Reut Institute, a think tank with military-intelligence ties.
In an influential report, Reut recommended that Israel “maintain thousands of personal relationships with political, cultural, media and security-related elites and influentials” around the world.
A 2009 press release says the project is “Approved by the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora.”
A 2012 report by Molad, the center for the renewal of Israeli democracy, includes an appendix that identifies the Media in Conflicts Seminar as part of the government’s “hasbara apparatus.”
The Molad reports notes, referring to MICS, that “the Minsitry of Public Diplomacy organizes a yearly seminar, in cooperation with the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzeliya, for members of the media and senior journalists from Europe to develop personal, intimate relationships that encourage a more positive attitude towards Israel’s foreign and domestic policies.”
Conceived by StandWithUs
The Media in Conflicts Seminar was conceived by the StandWithUs Israel Fellowship recipients in 2009.
StandWithUs is the multi-million dollar US-based anti-Palestinian advocacy group that works closely with the Israeli government.
A press release and an email newsletter published in 2009 by IDC Herzliya identify Taly Gerber, an artillery Instructor in the IDF Field Intelligence Unit, Nuphar Schwartz and Sharon Savariego as the main organizers of the first seminar.
The total cost of the Media in Conflict Seminar in 2010 was 150,000 shekels ($41,600), of which 80,000 ($22,000) was paid by the Israeli government and the rest by StandWithUs, according to an official Ministry of Public Diplomacy budget.
IDC Herzliya: hotbed of government propaganda
The Media in Conflicts Seminar claims that it is a “student initiative” at IDC Herzliya, and the unsuccessful online fundraising campaigns can perhaps be seen as an effort to lend authenticity to this claim.
In fact, IDC Herzliya students are heavily involved in state propaganda efforts, and the seminar is only one example.
IDC Herzliya itself is an Israeli academic institution that has become synonymous with an annual conference attended by military and political leaders who have often used it as a platform for racist and belligerent statements.
One perk of attending the Media in Conflicts Seminar is access to the annual IDC Herzliya conference.
And as Yara Sa’di reported for The Electronic Intifada last month:
IDC Herzliya’s Ambassador Club is a year-long program for more than two hundred students from thirty countries run in partnership with StandWithUs. The program includes lectures on media, economy and history in order to “arm the students with the latest surveys and data and to teach them how to present the Israeli narrative” in North America and Europe. At the end of the course, each participant receives “an accreditation endorsed by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” according to the StandWithUs website.
Last November, during Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, students there set up a “war room” to “send out messages in support of the attack on social media websites like Facebook and Twitter.”
IDC Herzliya would therefore appear to be the ideal model for the recently revealed “covert” effort to recruit students at all seven Israeli universities into a social media propaganda program run out of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Media in Conflicts Seminar is no place for journalists
Given the clear government backing and propaganda goals of the Media in Conflicts Seminar, it is inappropriate for any media organization seeking to maintain its credibility reporting on Palestine and the Israelis to allow its staff to participate in this junket.
After publication of this post, Zahra Ullah changed her LinkedIn profile and Twitter profile to show that her affiliation with BBC Wales has ended. At the time the post was published, her Twitter bio stated clearly that she was a “broadcast journalist currently working at BBC Wales.” ↩