DC-based command center fights Israel’s war of ideas

Facing coordinated and sophisticated opponents of Israel in cyberspace, The Israel Project is shooting back

Josh Block (standing), president and CEO of The Israel Project, with staff in the Washington, DC office, in December 2014. (Ben Zehavi/The Times of Israel)
Josh Block (standing), president and CEO of The Israel Project, with staff in the Washington, DC office, in December 2014. (Ben Zehavi/The Times of Israel)

WASHINGTON – Josh Block is a frenetic, sharp-tongued, non-stop PR machine with a preternatural ability to spit out facts and figures that bolster the case of the Jewish State. Since 2012 he has been the president and CEO of The Israel Project, a Washington, DC-based pro-Israel organization that has grown to mirror his personality: it is a fast-paced, single-minded war room pumping out pro-Israel memes, fighting Israel’s detractors in cyberspace, conducting polling and research, and helping to arm what Block calls “a pro-Israel social media army.”

To equip this virtual militia, The Israel Project has a rapid response team dedicated to producing infographics, videos, and other shareable products that are suited to modern channels of communications. During Israel’s summer 2014 war in Gaza, its infographics, like the Timeline of Hamas Terror, were ubiquitous across social media platforms.

Block says the rise of social media and online journalism in the past decade has transformed the way influence in Washington is wielded and the pro-Israel community has been too slow to respond.

“A decade ago, the megaphone to the people was the press,” he says. “But nowadays, the people are the press. Users of social media are not just consumers of information – they’re producers.”

Block says the anti-Israel community is taking advantage of this “transparency revolution” more quickly, and in a more sophisticated way, than Israel’s defenders.

‘How does something so false and ridiculous like the idea that Israel is an apartheid state become something that the US Secretary of State uses as a lazy aphorism?’

“Israel’s detractors have built a very sophisticated ecosystem that produces an echo chamber effect,” he says. “They’ve built a system that can build and sustain a meme – a group of ideas that become a cultural fact. For example, how does something so false and ridiculous like the idea that Israel is an apartheid state become something that the US Secretary of State uses as a lazy aphorism?”

The way it works, he says, is that the interconnected “self-referential network” of anti-Israel bloggers introduces a piece of information online, and then moves it across the system closer to the mainstream, where it will get “laundered” by the UN, an NGO, or think tank. Eventually, Block says, even the most vile and absurd accusations against Israel will be considered legitimate discourse.

In Washington parlance, it’s called “framing the narrative.”

The Israel Project's Timeline of Hamas Terror (courtesy)
The Israel Project’s Timeline of Hamas Terror (courtesy)

Public relations guru Steve Rabinowitz knows how to frame a narrative. A former communications staffer in the Bill Clinton White House, Rabinowitz is a veteran PR consultant with past ties to liberal groups like J-Street and the Reform movement. His current clients include many of America’s leading Jewish organizations.

“The pro-Israel community has been very successful at lobbying and politics,” Rabinowitz says. “We’ve made great investments in think tanks and organizations that promote Jewish identity and continuity, but we’ve dramatically underappreciated and underinvested in the tools and infrastructure necessary to win the war of ideas in the digital age. The ground is shifting under our feet and if we’re too slow adapting to the new ways of fighting the war of ideas, we cannot win.”

This focus on winning the war of ideas in the digital space is why TIME Magazine called The Israel Project “Israel’s most effective media advocacy organization.”

Mission overhaul

Some critics believe The Israel Project’s narrow focus on winning the news cycle inside the Beltway has come at the expense of its original raison d’etre: building and supporting a pro-Israel community around the world, not just in Washington. Others, though, hail its new focus and its continued effectiveness. Rabinowitz, for instance, says he “can’t help but be impressed with what The Israel Project has accomplished in the past year and a half under Block’s leadership.”

The organization was co-founded by Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, Margo Volftsun, and Sheryl Schwartz in 2003. Mizrahi served as its president and CEO during its successful first decade, during which time it built programs in French, Arabic, German, Spanish, Mandarin, Russian, Hindi, and Chinese to affect global perceptions of Israel.

Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi presents Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a plaque, August 2011. (Photo credit: The Israel Project/via JTA)
Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi presents Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a plaque, August 2011. (Photo credit: The Israel Project/via JTA)

Mizrahi was particularly motivated by scaling up The Israel Project’s work in Europe, often citing the dangerous rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel propaganda on the continent.

Much of its global operations are now shuttered, with the exception of its Arabic-language program, following a decision by its board “to get back to basics” before the installation of Block, a former AIPAC spokesperson, in 2012.

“It is simply impossible anymore to focus only on the US and ignore the rest of the world,” says Alexander Pevzner, who founded the Israel Project’s China program before it was shut down. “The TIP Board naturally has a right to decide the strategic direction of the organization, but, obviously, I believe that discontinuing the China program was a big mistake.”

Pevzner’s initiative, now called the Chinese Media Center, has a new home at Rishon Lezion’s School of Media Studies of the College of Management and Academic studies, Israel’s largest school of communications.

Laura Kam (courtesy)
Laura Kam (courtesy)

The Israel Project’s erstwhile Latin American outreach program, too, continues its work independently as Fuente Latina under the guidance of its founder, Leah Soibel.

The mission overhaul also saw the departure of senior staffers, including Global Operations Director Laura Kam, Research Director Meagan Buren, and Communications Director Alan Elsner. All former employees signed non-disclosure agreements preventing them from discussing their time at The Israel Project, but when Elsner accepted a position at J-Street, he told the Jewish Press he was “ideologically better-suited” to the group.

Block has been described as Mizrahi’s “polar opposite” when it comes to temperament. Mizrahi publicly refrained from criticizing reporters, electing instead to deploy facts and work behind the scenes with the media to correct misinformation. By contrast, Block has a history of openly quarreling with journalists and those he deems on the wrong side of the Israel issue.

In 2012, Block publicly blasted a progressive Washington think tank and website for using terms such as “apartheid” and “Israel-firsters” (people who put Israel’s interests above America’s), calling these positions “borderline anti-Semitism.” He has also called J-Street “a gnat” in the Israel debate and “a fringe organization with no credibility.”

Mizrahi, the founder and former CEO, said it would be inappropriate to comment on The Israel Project’s latest direction, saying that “every CEO needs to find their own voice and way.”

‘The organization lives at the intersection of policy, politics, and public affairs’

The Israel Project relies on private donations and has a $7.5 million annual operating budget, about nine times less than AIPAC. Block says the group has tripled its donor base this year and added 100,000 new email addresses.

Block’s two most prominent hires are Omri Ceren, a political blogger and doctoral student based in Los Angeles, and David Hazony, Ph.D, a conservative Israeli-American writer who edits The Tower Magazine. That site, along with the The Tower blog, is where The Israel Project formally inject its ideas into the Israel debate.

“TIP’s publications are unique and credible,” says Mark Dubowitz, an expert on Iran sanctions and executive director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a non-partisan Washington think tank. “The organization itself lives at the intersection of policy, politics, and public affairs. It is more necessary now than ever and, if it didn’t exist, someone would need to invent it.”

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, calls The Israel Project, “Incisive, timely, accurate, fair, to the point, and always relevant and on message.”

“The Israel Project is passionately committed to Israel and the Jewish people,” Cooper says.

Beyond the Beltway, The Israel Project is also hoping to make an impact on college campuses, where some of the most vicious public relations battles between Israel’s supporters and detractors are raging.

New Hillel president Eric Fingerhut (photo credit: courtesy)
New Hillel president Eric Fingerhut (photo credit: courtesy)

“There is lots of wonderful, passionate pro-Israel work out there, and everybody has an opinion on what is the best response to the various anti-Israel diatribes we encounter,” says Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life.

“But no one except The Israel Project focuses exclusively on pro-Israel messaging, particularly responses to false and misleading anti-Israeli messages, and the ability to spread their responses through appropriate social media. They do the necessary research, testing and vetting of messages, to make sure we get it right. Plus, they respond quickly and are great partners to work with,” says Fingerhut.

Evaluating TIP’s impact

It is more difficult to evaluate the impact of a strategic communications firm than, say, a lobby, because you can’t point to the number of bills passed or lawmaker meetings held. Nevertheless, Block claims to have affected over 100 stories in The New York Times this year, 99 in the Washington Post, and 75 in the Associated Press.

He says The Israel Project helped facilitate interviews with the family and friends of the Americans kids killed fighting for the IDF in Gaza this summer and notes that he and his team were in Vienna for the P5+1 nuclear negotiations with Iran in order to develop and deepen relationships with Western journalists.

The Israel Project's attempt at 'framing the narrative.'  (courtesy)
The Israel Project’s attempt at ‘framing the narrative.’ (courtesy)

In 2013 The Israel Project thwarted plans by the Newseum in Washington to honor two Palestinian cameramen killed by Israeli forces while covering the conflict for Hamas-run Al Aqsa TV. The Newseum sought to include the men on a memorial for fallen journalists, but relented when a coalition of critics, spearheaded by The Israel Project, publicly chastised them for the decision.

As Anti-Defamation Director Abraham Foxman said at the time, “It is a dark day when members of a terrorist organization advancing their agenda through murderous violence are honored as part of a tribute to journalists killed in the line of duty.”

Another fight The Israel Project took on in 2013, and won, was over the US State Department’s decision to honor a young Egyptian woman who faced death threats after standing up to Egypt’s powerful generals in court over the forced “virginity tests” of 17 female protesters detained in 2011.

The problem? Samira Ibrahim also had an expansive social media record of blatant anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism.

Hamas strategy via The Israel Project. (courtesy)
Hamas strategy via The Israel Project. (courtesy)

Among her tweets was one posted on September 11 that was quickly deleted: “Today is the anniversary of 9/11. May every year come with America burning.” She also called the Saudi royal family “dirtier than the Jews” and favorably quoted Adolf Hitler: “I have discovered with the passage of days, that no act contrary to morality, no crime against society, takes place except with the Jews having a hand in it.” After a suicide bombing in Bulgaria killed five Israeli tourists and a local bus driver, Ibrahim tweeted that it was “a very sweet day with a lot of very sweet news.”

When The Israel Project discovered Ibrahim’s social media stream, it worked with groups like the US Holocaust Museum to urge the State Department to withdraw Ibrahim’s invitation, which it did.

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