Did Israel’s Ynet publish an article containing a fabricated story to make it look as if Israeli social media users are succeeding in persuading Israel’s critics, gay ones in particular, to become its greatest champions?
Romeu Monteiro’s Tel Avivi conversion
A curious story was published on Ynet, the website of Israel’s Yedioth Ahronot newspaper, on 7 April. In Why I no longer hate Israel, Romeu Monteiro writes:
I’m a 22-year-old Portuguese gay activist and Ph.D. student. I’m not Jewish, Israeli or even religious, but I am a Zionist and strong supporter of Israel, and I want to explain why.
The article was published in Hebrew and English to much acclaim in the Ynet comment section, Facebook and Twitter.
Taking inspiration from The Diary of Anne Frank, Monteiro experiences the closet as if it is the secret annex where Frank hid, and this forms the basis of his identification with Israel.
By coincidence, the second intifada started in 2000 when Monteiro was the same age as Anne Frank. Here began Monteiro’s miseducation. He was “fed ignorance and hate by people who were … ignorant and prejudiced” against Jews and Israel, he claimed. The pervasive pro-Palestinian bias in every aspect of mainstream culture left him with a distorted understanding of the real true situation in Israel.
A Rachel Corrie tribute video?
To illustrate the depth of his confusion about Israel, Monteiro retells an incident from 2008.
I found myself criticizing Israel and the Gaza Strip blockade in a YouTube video about the death of Rachel Corrie. I got an answer from an Israeli commenter about my age, who wrote that there was no blockade, as several trucks were crossing into the Strip daily.
This greatly confused me and I asked him to present me with his arguments in defense of Israel. …
I read it all and, after verifying the information, I was convinced.
His conversion story strains credulity. In 2009, The Guardian wrote “YouTube comments are a hotbed of infantile debate and unashamed ignorance” save occasional wit. Yet Monteiro basically claims that a single YouTube comment opened his eyes and changed his life.
I’ve asked Monteiro to share the 2008 video and comment he wrote about, and though he acknowledged my request and said he would provide answers to several brief questions I had, I have not received any so far.
Israel’s always failing social media hasbara strategy
In his story, Monteiro is ignorant of the truth about Israel and asserts that his own biases lead him to oppose Israel and support Palestinians, but with the help of an Israeli social media user, Monteiro “became aware that [he] was making unfair judgments and spreading hate and false propaganda about Israel.”
This story just seems too good to be true. Indeed it has all the hallmarks of a deliberate hasbara – or propaganda – effort.
Social media hasbara projects never consider seriously the role of Israel’s violence in shaping public perception. Rather, on top of being ignorant and hostile to Jews, people have negative feelings toward Israel, according to Monteiro because they don’t know about “the massacres of Jews in Palestine before Israel existed, the wars of extermination, and the indoctrination for hate of Jews and Israel in the Middle East….”
But once Monteiro’s biases were exposed (by of all things YouTube comments!) he supposedly realized Israel is the greatest thing ever.
Monteiro’s op-ed also repeats now classic pinkwashing themes:
Israel is a democratic, tolerant, multi-ethnic, multi-religious, rapidly developing nation. A place I could live in free and more accepted than in my home country, and the only place I could safely set foot at in the Middle East.
Nevermind the multi-billion dollar LGBT tourism industry in the non-Israeli parts of the Middle East, Israel appeals to Monteiro’s multiculturalism. Though since Romeu Monteiro (who has used the name Romeu Moskowitz on Facebook) is “not Jewish [or] Israeli,” he may still find himself left out.
Curiously similar to earlier hoax
Less than four years after his alleged epiphany and conversion, Monteiro is publishing love letters to Israel in a major daily newspaper. His talking points resemble the best from StandWithUs, the Reut Institute, and the Ministry for Public Diplomacy (hasbara).
The credulous might believe that Romeu Monteiro was snookered by a sophisticated internet troll who perfected the social media hasbara tactics we’ve read about and witnessed for years.
However, the reality is more likely that Romeu Monteiro’s op-ed reflects hasbara messaging and is part of an organized effort.
The narrative he presents is curiously similar to last year’s gay activist on the flotilla hoax. As you may recall, in that case the Israeli actor Omer Gershon, pretended to be an American gay activist who wanted to join the flotilla to Gaza. But his naivete was burst when flotilla organizers supposedly rejected him for being gay. He then went online, and like Monteiro, discovered the “truth” which turned him into an enthusiastic supporter and apologist for Israel’s actions.
The fake video and the Monteiro op-ed reflect the mindset of their creators: that all criticism of Israel is based in ignorance and never in reality. That is why it is a fantasy.
Is Monteiro a Hasbara Fellow?
One of the questions I asked Monteiro is whether he is a Hasbara Fellowship recipient. If he responds I will update this post.
Here is what I sent him:
I’m a blogger for The Electronic Intifada. I read your article in Yedioth Ahronot (English) and I have a few questions about what you wrote. I hope you have a few moments to answer them.
- Are you a Hasbara Fellow, and if so, when did you join?
- You wrote that you made or appeared in a video about Rachel Corrie. Can you provide a link to it?
- Have you spent time in Israel?
Within the public listings of social media accounts linked to Romeu Monteiro on Facebook and Twitter, I found that Monteiro gives his attention to sources like the IDF Spokesperson, StandWithUs and the Consulate General of Israel in Philadelphia.
He also follows the activities of Israeli LGBT organization IGY and IGLYO, which cancelled its meeting in Israel last year in response to pressure from Palestinian queer organizations. He even lists Free Palestine for Oppression of Women, Gays and Christians and Gaza Gay Pride Parade 2012 among his favorite pages on Facebook, which cast a cynical light on his love letter in Ynet.
I wondered if Monteiro were a Hasbara Fellow not just because he likes their page on Facebook, but more importantly, he’s linked to Daniel Cohen the regional coordinator for the Midwest and the staffperson who oversees fellows at Carnegie Mellon University, where Monteiro is working on a Ph.D.
How does a person transform from a naive, misinformed anti-Israel 18 year-old gay activist who posts solidarity and tribute videos on YouTube to a social media activist who answers questions on Quora, plays threads on 9GAG, challenges Richard Silverstein and shares a timeline with Sharon Singer, the Director of Public Affairs & Social Media in the Israeli Consulate at Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs in just four short years?
More planted articles?
Monteiro’s article also bears a strong resemblance to A love letter to Israelis by Swedish blogger Kim Milrell published in Ynet on 21 March 2012. Milrell tries to explain and apologize for what he describes as Sweden’s ignorance and hostility to Israel. (Milrell has launched a project to collect love letters that he publishes at http://lettersfromisrael.com/.)
Monteiro innovates by mixing in some feelings of betrayal and indignation at the pervasive pro-Palestinian world media bias and foolishness of solidarity activists, a tactic that reminded me of Nicky Larkin earlier this year.
His article is the latest piece in a new series on YNet called the “I love Israel” project. Only “Pro-Israel bloggers” are invited to submit articles.
Curiously, at the bottom of Romeu Monteiro’s op-ed, Ynet writes: “Pro-Israel bloggers are welcome to send op-eds” and provides an email address.
Readers of The Electronic Intifada will know that Israel is constantly seeking ways to perpetuate its messages, but social media continues to be a difficult terrain because there are opportunities for the propaganda to be challenged and refuted.