When people think of Israel’s assaults on Palestinians, what often comes to mind are soldiers, separation walls, bulldozers, rockets and drones.
All this has assured Israel’s military dominance but it also has become a public relations disaster, spurring among other things the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which now threatens Israel both economically and politically.
Recognizing this, Israel and its affiliated lobby groups around the world have been waging a counter-attack.
Zionists are having to think of new, more subtle ways to defend the occupation and dispossession of Palestinians. A new battlefield has opened up in an unlikely place: BuzzFeed, the fast-growing soft news website that rose to prominence by disseminating videos of cute animals, but now has pretensions to serious journalism.
A group called reThink Israel has paid for eleven articles on BuzzFeed in the last two months. The content of the articles — all written in the typical BuzzFeed “listicle” style — is at first glance relatively harmless and apolitical.
One is headlined “12 Neighborhoods That’ll Stop You In Your Tracks.” It features photos of trendy neighborhoods in such cities as London, Montreal and Melbourne, along with “Tel Aviv, Israel” and “Haifa, Israel.” Another article promises readers “12 Sounds From Israel You’ll Soon Be Obsessed With,” and then there is “17 reasons Jaffa is the Brooklyn of Israel.”
Casual readers would be forgiven for thinking these lists are compiled by a journalist.
However, a small byline saying “reThink Israel, Brand Publisher” betrays that these articles are “advertorials.” This is a word used in the media that means an article that is placed by an advertiser but styled to look like editorial or journalistic content.
BuzzFeed calls it “sponsored content.”
Although such articles erase the supposedly bright line between journalism and advertising, the practice has become increasingly common as other streams of media revenue dry up.
Last year, The Atlantic published an advertorial for the Church of Scientology but quickly removed it and apologized to readers following scorn from the public and journalists.
The episode prompted the satirical website The Onion to produce a spoof advertorial headlined “The Taliban Is A Vibrant And Thriving Political Movement.”
Although companies often advertise in this dubious manner, for political groups to do so is rare.
ReThink Israel claims not to be a political group. Its website says “you won’t see any stories about religion or politics on this site.” Using a narrow definition of politics, this is true. However the lack of politics in the content is itself part of a political strategy to promote Israel as a “normal” and appealing country rather than a violent occupier of millions of Palestinians.
The financier of reThink Israel is the American casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson.
At Yeshiva University last October, as reported by Philip Weiss for Mondoweiss, Adelson described reThink Israel as as “an NGO for hasbara” — the Hebrew word Israel uses to describe its official outreach and propaganda.
He added: “We’re going to provide information, propaganda if you will. We also say that we’re cool. The beaches are cool, the clubs are cool.” Adelson wants Israel to be “cool” to distract young Americans from Israeli policy.
Adelson’s views on the Israel and the Palestinians are extreme. At the same Yeshiva University event he notoriously said “there is no such thing as a Palestinian people” and called for the United States to threaten to fire an atomic bomb at Iran.
In 2012, he switched from funding the Democrats to the Republicans and is now widely viewed as the most influential donor vetting potential Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential election.
Adelson has justified his party switch on the grounds the Republicans are more pro-Israel. He also has major influence in Israel itself, where he owns several newspapers and is an important supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Adelson’s influence and extremism were apparent when New Jersey governor Chris Christie, a possible 2016 Republican contender, apologized to the billionaire for using the term “occupied territories” to describe the West Bank.
Yet for all the money he has poured in to propaganda efforts, including reThink Israel, even Adelson has his doubts. Last October he said, as quoted by Mondoweiss:
“Hasbara’s not going to work and my cavalry coming over the hill really isn’t any cavalry. But with my lifetime experience, I think it’s very difficult to try to convince somebody when they think … I’m such a bad guy I have no right to do that. I occupy somebody else’s territory, I torture them … we created apartheid. So you can’t get really very far when somebody thinks all these bad things of you.”
Adelson’s observations can be expanded to apply to Israel’s other efforts to soft-sell its image: pinkwashing — portraying the country as LGBT-friendly — and greenwashing — selling Israel a protector of the environment.
Perhaps in Adelson’s doubts there is an inkling of a realization that Israel doesn’t have an image problem, but a reality problem that a few articles in BuzzFeed are not going to fix.
Joe Lo is a 23-year-old freelance journalist living in London who tweets at @joeloyo.