'We hope to introduce the Arab world to the Jews'

Jewish nonprofit AJC puts ‘significant investment’ in new Arabic media platforms

Joining StandWithUs, American Jewish Committee launches social media and series of explainer videos on Thursday in new outreach efforts to increase ties with the Muslim world

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Logo for the new AJC Arabic-language video series, 'An al-Yahud,' or 'About the Jews.' (courtesy)
Logo for the new AJC Arabic-language video series, 'An al-Yahud,' or 'About the Jews.' (courtesy)

The 114-year-old American Jewish Committee launched a new series of brief Arabic-language video explainers about Jews and Judaism on Thursday, along with new Arabic language social media platforms. The launch comes on the heels of increased Jewish-Muslim outreach efforts, including a high-profile, unprecedented AJC-organized visit to former Nazi death camp Auschwitz by Muslim World League head Mohammed al-Issa and a group of Islamic clerics.

“This new initiative offers us an unprecedented opportunity to reach those in the Arab world who may never have a chance to meet a Jew, including the many millions of young people who may be curious to hear a Jewish perspective on the subjects they encounter on social media,” said AJC CEO David Harris in a statement.

The video series — called “An al-Yahud,” or “About the Jews” — will focus on “various aspects of contemporary Jewish life, Jewish history, and current issues of importance to the Jewish people,” according to the AJC announcement. It will be disseminated by social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, where, the Jewish nonprofit hopes, discussions will ensue over the material.

“AJC has long been a pioneer in fostering closer ties between the Jewish and the Arab and Muslims worlds. We view this project through the lens of that tradition,” AJC’s Managing Director of Global Communications Avi Mayer told The Times of Israel on Thursday.

“Through the project, we hope to introduce the Arab world to the Jews as we see ourselves, through a variety of ways and topics,” Mayer said. But the videos are not meant to be preachy, rather “informational,” he said, and springboards to deeper conversations.

Its target audience is the greater Arabic-speaking world, with a special nod to youth. Basically, said Mayer, “Anyone who has access to the internet and is interested in learning more about the Jews as they see themselves.”

The first video, released on Thursday, explains the origins of Judaism and Diaspora Jewry through quick narration over cartoon animation. The second video will be released in mid-February and will cover the history of Muslim-Jewish relations.

In its attempt to foster open discussions, the topic of Israel is “part of the conversation,” said Mayer, but is not its emphasis.

The AJC’s Arabic-language video explainers and social media platforms join other similar efforts propagated by the Israeli government, the IDF’s West Bank-based Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT), or one sponsored by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. But another Jewish nonprofit, StandWithUs, entered the Arabic-language field six years ago.

Michael Dickson, the executive director of StandWithUs Israel said the pro-Israel advocacy group began its Arabic platform in July 2014, partly in response to Operation Protective Edge, which saw 50 days of land and air combat in and over the Gaza strip after a rain of some 250 rockets had fallen on nearby Israeli towns and kibbutzim.

An Iranian ‘stands with Israel’ during the July 2014 Operation Protective Edge. (Courtesy StandWithUs Facebook page)

Dickson said that in response to a call by the nonprofit for people around the world to send in passports and write on their hands that they stand with Israel, the organization received hundreds of submissions from Muslim countries, including Iran, as well as from the Palestinian Authority.

“That campaign propelled us forward because we got hope from it. The response was so big and we saw a growing response to everything that we were posting [in Arabic] that it gave us hope,” Dickson said.

StandWithUs Israel executive director Michael Dickson (Jared Bernstein/via Jewish News)

“Our motto has always been, since we established the organization in 2001, that education is the road to peace. We began by facing towards the Western world and it became clear that we had a voice that would resonate with the Arab world too, and so that is something that we decided to invest time and effort in,” he said.

A quick look at a few of the latest StandWithUs Facebook posts and videos show that the site is resonant. A recent video on Egyptian Righteous Among the Nations Dr. Mohamed Helmy garnered some 183,000 views, and, according to statistics shared by Dickson, the post itself reached over 326,000.

قصة طبيب مصري أنقذ أسرة يهودية

تعرفوا على قصة البطل المصري "محمد حلمي" الذي كرمته إسرائيل لإنقاذه أسرة يهودية من المحرقة النازية (#الهولوكوست).

Posted by ‎قف معنا بالعربية StandWithUs Arabic‎ on Monday, January 27, 2020

Dickson said StandWithUs Arabic has 227,902 followers on Facebook. The organization’s other Arabic social media platforms are newer, but at time of writing, there are 6,370 followers on Twitter and 2,339 on Instagram. The breakdown of who is engaging with the platforms is fascinating: Some 30% of its Arabic-language engagement comes from Egypt, which is followed by 16% from Iraq, and 14% from the PA and Gaza. At the bottom of the list is Saudia Arabia, with 2%, and Tunisia with slightly less.

“We get a lot of positive messages in direct messaging, in the inbox of our Facebook page,” said Dickson.

Unlike the AJC, which focuses on Jewish, but not necessarily Israeli positions and attitudes, Dickson said the focus of the SWU initiative is “to give Arab voices a true perspective of Israel and to give pro-Israel Arabs a space to comment and engage.”

“Our content utilizes systematic messaging stressing key themes over and over again, including that Jews are indigenous to Israel and we make sure that the Arab audience understands that Israel is not going anywhere. We also use the platform to focus on the corruption of Hamas and Palestinian leaders and the short-sightedness and hypocrisy of anti-Israel Arab leaders in the Middle East.

“We utilize the different social media platforms too in our approach to different audiences, for instance, on Arabic Instagram we focus on Arab youth,” said Dickson, lauding the work of his Arabic-language team.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee (courtesy)

The Arab world is vast, but the AJC has a long history of interfaith and Muslim-Jewish relations on the community leader-to-leader level, as well as the governmental level.

“For us, the single most important inter-religious challenge in the 21st century is the transformation of Muslim-Jewish relations,” said the AJC’s Harris.

But there may be obstacles along the path of reaching grassroots Arabic-speaking populations, especially youth. The AJC, however, is optimistic: Mayer said the organization is investing “significant sums” in boosting its visibility on all its new platforms to ensure its message reaches its massive potential audience.

“By harnessing the power of social media, we will seek to directly engage hundreds of millions of Arabic-speakers in the Middle East, in North Africa, and across the globe, laying the foundation, we hope, for deeper ties between Jews and Arabs in the future,” said Harris.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed