DUBLIN — An advertising campaign in the Irish city of Cork urging people to visit Israel was defaced almost immediately on its unveiling by anti-Israeli activists. The ad campaign, which featured colourful images of Israeli society with the slogan “Visit Israel,” was overwritten with the slogan “Boycott Israel” and other messages critical of Israeli policy. The vandalism was clearly well organized and photos of the defacement were posted on the Internet and the Facebook page of the Cork Palestine Solidarity Campaign.
The original ads were placed by a growing advocacy group for Israel in Ireland called Irish4Israel which campaigns against the often vocal anti-Zionist sentiment in the country, and which has been robust and relatively successful in its advocacy efforts. The Irish4Israel group has already organized a Love Israel rally in Dublin’s city center, in front of the iconic General Post Office (venue of the 1916 uprising against the British), and has been active on social media in defence of Israel.
The poster campaign was actually the result of a partnership between two pro-Israel organizations on opposite sides of the Atlantic. It was funded by Blue Star, a San Francisco-based pro-Israel advocacy agency, which teamed up with Irish4Israel to raise funds for the advertising campaign in Cork, Ireland’s second-largest city. The money was raised over the St Patrick’s Day period of late March and went towards producing and putting up billboards with positive messages about Israel on bus stop shelters near University College Cork.
Ireland’s reputation for having a vocal anti-Israel lobby was a big factor in BlueStar’s response to Irish4Israel’s request for a partner on the project. The organization has done other collaborative projects in Europe, but Ireland represented “one of Europe’s most challenging countries for Israel” said Blue Star in its fund raising letter. The Irish Government has been especially critical of Israel in an EU context and Irish activists are very involved in international protests against Israel and in the Palestinian territories.
However, such a perspective is not generally shared by the wider public in this island nation which is mostly indifferent to foreign issues.
Jonathan Carey, executive director of Blue Star, said they were impressed with the Israel advocacy work Irish4Israel had already been doing, and with how quickly it has developed. “We get a dozen emails daily from around the world with requests for assistance or partnering, but Irish4Israel stood out as a serious group and the kind we’d like to work with,” said Carey.
Irish4Israel was founded in 2010 by Barry Williams, a non-Jewish student at University College Cork, and mostly uses Facebook as its main platform for communication and organizing. The group has 2,500 members on Facebook, with most of them under the age of 35. Members are encouraged to sign petitions and write or call media outlets and politicians to protest anti-Israel coverage and rhetoric. The group also encourages “buycotts,” where it encourages consumers to go out and buy Israel-made products, in retaliation for calls for boycotts of such goods.
Despite the calls for boycotts, Israeli goods, especially fresh herbs and vegetables, continue to be prominently stocked and sold in the big supermarkets.
Clearly, there are no winners in the battle for public opinion about Israel in Ireland. The rising articulation of pro-Israeli sentiment shows battle has been taken up against the pro-Palestinian lobby, who for years had a relative dominance in debate and in media coverage.
The Israeli Embassy in Dublin has also been very active and last week it held a large reception in the capital to celebrate Israeli Independence day, with a stirring performance by Mary Byrne, the Irish singing star who rose to fame on TV’s talent show the ‘X Factor’. Byrne, like many Irish Israel fans, spent a long spell on kibbutz when she was younger.
“The reception was packed, and Mary wouldn’t’ stop singing!” quipped one observer.
Significantly, for the first time the Independence Day reception was not picketed anti-Israeli activists, proof perhaps that the battle for opinion is now being fought out elsewhere, on social media — and in night time raids on bus shelter ad campaigns.