Relations with Arab world, country’s global standing improve thanks to social media department deep within Foreign Ministry.
“I was born and raised in Tehran. We opened every school day reciting ‘Death to Israel, Death to the United States.’ For eight years we were trapped in Iran, trying to escape. Today, I interact with millions of Iranians on behalf of the Israeli government. I cannot put into words the thrill and satisfaction I feel.”
Sharona Avginsaz is one of Israel’s most important diplomats today. Though not an ambassador, consul or even attaché, she oversees the Jewish state’s most extensive and substantial link with the people of Iran as head of the Foreign Ministry’s Farsi Digital Department.
“We’re dealing with a hostile, enemy nation,” she tells The Media Line. “Our platform is the only way to be present there, to communicate with the Iranian public, to build a bridge to the people in Iran over the regime’s head.”
Avginsaz is part of a surprisingly small team of young, energetic and driven social-media experts operating for the past several years out of the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. Armed only with a computer, an internet connection, a deep sense of patriotism and complete fluency in Farsi or Arabic, this band of keyboard warriors has changed the landscape of digital diplomacy in just a few years.
Their hard work, usually done in the shadows, has come to light in recent weeks with the signing of the historic Abraham Accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Israel’s agreements to normalize relations with two Gulf states has thrown a spotlight on its Arabic diplomatic arm and made the digital team’s job more hectic and demanding – and that much more important.
200 Million Follow Ministry across Plethora of Platforms
“We were pioneers,” Yiftach Curiel, who heads the ministry’s overall digital department, tells The Media Line. “We were one of the first countries to open digital channels and today are one of the largest operations worldwide.”
Starting with a single Facebook page in Arabic in January 2011, the digital diplomacy team has since scaled up, steadily expanding in both size and reach.
Curiel’s department is spread over five main platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Telegram – while also currently running pilots in niche networks like Pinterest, Reddit, TikTok, LinkedIn and others.
“We’re the first ministry on many outlets,” he said, noting that Israel’s digital activity involves more than 800 unique channels in 50 languages, with about 10 million followers.
These include over 250 official channels at embassies and consulates, some 250 accounts of Israeli diplomats, as well as websites, headquarters accounts and more.
“We’re by far the largest official Israeli digital network,” he says.
Each month, the department reaches some 200 million people. In Iran alone, its social media pages get 5.5 million views every week.
Avginsaz notes: “We have a very successful Instagram page [with] 3.5 million people reached per week.” She adds that this platform is one of the few not blocked by the ayatollahs’ regime.
“Telegram is also very popular in Iran,” she says.
Avginsaz describes her regular workday as a mix between publishing posts in line with ministry strategy, reacting to events in Iran and Israel, and responding to messages from the platforms’ followers.
“Iranians are very thirsty for trustworthy information about Israel. I don’t try to hide controversial issues when they come up; we show the truth,” she stresses.
“We also emphasize Israeli culture,” she adds. “Homegrown Israeli technology attracts a lot of interest online. Medicine, music, the Jewish-Iranian diaspora in Israel. This is what Iranians want to discover.”
Dr. Yonatan Gonen is the department’s Arabic desk chief. Like Avginsaz, he is a veteran of the Israeli military’s intelligence branch. He knew from a young age that he wanted to communicate and come in contact with his Muslim neighbors.
“My entire life revolved around the Arab world,” he relates to The Media Line. “I grew up with it around me. I’ve always had a lot of friends from the Israeli-Arab population. So my dream was always to speak directly with audiences around the world, just get to talk about our everyday life, which is very similar to that of other people in other countries.”
Gonen describes his team as “very diverse,” comprised of Jewish, Muslim and Druse members.
“We want to publish content that exemplifies this diversity, which demonstrates Israel’s coexistence, innovation and contributions to the world,” he states, echoing Avginsaz.
The Arabic digital desk has webpages for countries with which Israel maintains diplomatic relations, such as Jordan and Egypt, as well as those with which it is officially in a state of war.
“Iraq, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon,” Gonen rattles off. “The activity and reactions differ from country to country, but surprisingly, citizens of countries that don’t formally recognize Israel respond much more positively than others.”
He offers a possible explanation.
“In the past, there were large Jewish communities that contributed a lot to the social, economic and political life in these places. And people there remember this,” he says. “Also, these countries [haven’t had any recent] wars with Israel.”
Thousands of Asylum Requests Each Day
Both Gonen and Avginsaz note one type of reaction that repeatedly crops up in their feeds and inboxes, sometimes thousands of times a day.
“We receive an avalanche of asylum requests,” Avginsaz reveals.
“Some of them even comment on posts in broad daylight, asking ‘How can I emigrate to Israel? Is my Iranian passport enough? I was imprisoned for political reasons and was just released, can you help me escape?’” she notes.
“We also had a very high-profile athlete in Iran who turned to us seeking asylum,” she says.
“In the beginning, I tried to answer each one [of these queries] personally. But now we just pass them on to the Interior Ministry. Unfortunately, I don’t believe there is much we can do for them,” she explains.
While the online reactions to Israel’s digital efforts have steadily turned more positive, there has been an abrupt change in the past few months following the announcement of the Abraham Accords.
“Every post about the [agreements] drew incredible numbers, which I honestly couldn’t believe at first,” Avginsaz gushes. “An average post can get 1,000 or 2,000 likes, but our posts about the peace accords totally surpass that, at one point reaching 40,000-50,000 likes on Instagram.”
Another recent change is the willingness of opinion leaders and well-known social-media personalities in these countries to echo and share ministry content.
“That’s one of the most important developments,” stresses Gonen.
“When it doesn’t come only from our accounts, it enables us to reach a lot more people. It comes also from their mouths,” he explains.
“We’ve seen this since long before the peace accords [with the UAE and Bahrain], in the Emirates, for example. We have seen people very close to the crown prince who share our content,” he states.
“This is really exciting,” he adds, “because only a few years ago, it would have been impossible.”
The impact of the digital team has not been lost on traditional Arab media outlets, which have been forced to cover some of the more viral content, including a ministry video showing Israelis discussing the Middle Eastern nations they would most like to visit. The clip has since garnered 20 million views.
A New Brand of Diplomacy that Works
Curiel believes the digital arena has proven so effective for the ministry because “it works well” with the Israeli ethos.
“As a generalization, Israelis are very creative,” he tells The Media Line.
“We don’t really like to follow rules that much. We like to do our own thing, so we give our diplomats the freedom to operate their own [social media] channels,” he says of envoys posted around the world.
This has not always been the case.
“We used to teach diplomats that you can never [afford to] get anything wrong because you’re representing your country. You have to check everything 20 times. You must be careful,” Curiel remembers.
This approach was rethought.
“Mistakes are inevitable; we should know how to minimize them and do damage control. But if we never make mistakes, it’s probably because we haven’t been pushing the envelope far enough,” he relates.
“This is an immediate medium. You need to be very quick, very reactive. You have to take chances,” he says. “We’re learning to do that even at [this] ministry, which traditionally is much more conservative.”
The ministry’s shift to a more relaxed approach has not been without its mistakes, the digital director admits.
“Sure, we have problems, probably on a weekly basis. It ranges from merely technical issues to more serious things,” Curiel says.
“A few weeks ago, somebody mistakenly logged on to a diplomat’s official account and posted something inappropriate. These things happen when you’re running your social media from your home,” he notes, referring to the limitations of the coronavirus period.
“We’ve also had incidents that have to do with people not realizing the boundaries between personal opinions and the role of the diplomat,” he says.
“When this happens in a private conversation, maybe nobody will ever know. When it happens online, it doesn’t matter if you delete it within a minute because somebody, somewhere has a screenshot,” he adds.
Another reason that digital diplomacy is a natural fit for Israel is the country’s high level of hi-tech expertise.
“We have in Israel many of the leading cyber and internet companies in the world today,” he says. “So we have that access. We put a lot of effort into meeting the right people here who can push us forward in our activities.”
Beyond the outreach of the Arabic and Farsi desks, Curiel believes digital diplomacy cannot be detached from traditional foreign relations, going as far as to call social media a “key activity” for diplomats.
“In the past it was kind of a hobby. [The diplomat] went about his usual ‘serious’ job of meeting people and writing cables and all that. And also, he had on the side a Twitter account,” he explains.
“Today, if you don’t have a digital strategy, you are not doing your job properly,” he states.
If an ambassador or consul once contacted 1,000 leading figures in the country of posting, today the envoy can interact with tens of thousands.
“He can get to know new contacts through social media. And at the end of the day, all of those 50,000 here and 50,000 there around the world add up to our capacity from headquarters to influence people,” Curiel says.
“This influence,” he goes on, “can range from ‘soft’ issues like tourism to the most hardcore – Iran, national security, nuclear issues. All those things today have a digital dimension.”
While Israel has been a leader in the world of digital diplomacy, it has not taken long for other countries to follow. Curiel’s department chooses to see this as an opportunity rather than a threat.
“We are today conducting ‘digital dialogues’ and provide training for [other countries’] ministries of foreign affairs,” he reveals.
“We are cooperating with a range of ministries,” he continues. “We are in very, very close contact with the State Department, but also with governments in Europe and Asia.”
He prefers not to get too specific, knowing it is a sensitive issue.
“All foreign ministries are heavily involved in digital activities these days. Some are in more preliminary stages, others are more advanced, but everybody is doing it,” he notes.
Israel’s Foreign Ministry also cooperates with civic groups and academic organizations.
“Last month, we had our third Digital Diplomacy Conference,” Curiel says. “We hosted 27 foreign ministries, Twitter representatives, participants from academia. We discussed policy, fighting anti-Semitism and hate speech. There is a whole range of relevant issues.”
We Want to Talk About What Unites Us
Beyond multilateral initiatives, professional considerations and national-security interests, the men and women operating Israel’s unique diplomatic arm say they are motivated by a higher calling.
“Our goal is to create a direct dialogue with people around the Middle East,” Gonen states.
“I’ve always dreamed of that. We want to break the conventional stereotypes and talk about what unites us,” he explains. “Our most viral content is always about the similarities between Islam and Judaism. That’s really nice to see.”
Avginsaz, who came to Israel from Iran when she was 13, agrees.
“We truly reach out in peace to the public, and the relationships created are immensely satisfying,” she notes. “You see some heart-warming comments.”
She remembers the indoctrination of her childhood in Tehran and the portrayal of Israel and the US as satanic enemies. While she does not recall being persecuted for her Judaism, she vividly recalls the torturous eight years during which her family, like all Jewish citizens, were denied passports and could not leave the country.
“My brother had already moved to Israel before the [Islamic] revolution [of 1979], and my parents planned to follow him with the rest of us when the regime suddenly changed,” she says.
“Every few weeks, some officer from the [Islamic] Revolutionary Guard [Corps] would come barging into our house, demanding to know where my brother was and why he hadn’t enlisted. My mother had to make up different excuses. It was horrible,” she relates.
Finally, in 1988, after claiming they were traveling to Turkey on vacation, Avginsaz’s mother managed to sneak herself and her children out of Iran and get to Israel.
“We escaped like refugees,” she remembers. “We weren’t even allowed to take a necklace with us because that was considered government property.”
Avginsaz’s father, who was forced to stay behind as collateral to ensure the family’s return, was imprisoned, later being released. He lost the family’s house.
“He hid out and eventually escaped through Pakistan, on camel and on foot, until he made it to Israel,” she tells her listener.
“The thing is, our story is not that extraordinary or unique,” she adds. “A lot of Jews escaped that way.”
Prior to the 1979 revolution, in which Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was overthrown and an Islamic theocracy installed, Iran enjoyed a warm relationship with Israel.
“I see thousands of young people who were born way after the revolution and don’t even know what it was like back then, saying they yearn for those times of peace and friendship,” Avginsaz says of her social media feed.
Several years ago, The Media Line conducted a special interview with members of Iran’s Jewish community. A recurring theme was the popularity of the now defunded Farsi radio broadcast from Israel Radio.
The show, a fixture for decades, was said to be the most important news source for Iranians of all backgrounds. There were reports that the even the supreme ruler was an avid listener.
“My parents would listen to it religiously even 30 years after immigrating to Israel,” Avginsaz says.
Earlier this week, the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, discussed the possibility of a new Farsi program on public radio. For now, though, the Foreign Ministry’s digital outreach remains the sole source of information from Israel for Iranians.
Avginsaz believes it is affecting real change.
“Sure, some responses will always be negative,” she concedes.
“Some of our followers support the ayatollahs’ regime. When it’s not just swearwords or racial slurs or trolling [in reaction], I do try to respond and create a dialogue,” she notes. “But the positive always outweighs the negative, by far. I would like to believe at least some of this is thanks to us.”
Gonen offers a tangible example of the ministry’s effect on public opinion in the Muslim world.
“In Iraq, it would have been impossible to find a lot positive responses toward Israeli outreach five years ago,” he says, estimating that 99% of all comments on the ministry’s local Facebook page – which has nearly half a million followers – are now positive.
“That’s because of our activity on social media,” he says proudly.
For the past decade, Israel’s Foreign Ministry has had to endure continuing budget cuts and downsizing. Past and present diplomats and senior officials have repeatedly voiced concern over the government’s alleged disregard for the ministry and its abilities.
Gonen insists that while navigating budgetary difficulties has been challenging, it hasn’t significantly hampered his department’s ability to operate.
“We survived this situation,” he says. “If we had had more money and manpower, we could’ve created more content, sure. But I think at the end of the day it depends on who is here,” he says of his colleagues.
“We really want to work hard and show the Arab world the true face of Israel. Sometimes we have to do it without the money. But we’re doing it for our country and from our belief that it’s extremely important. We just do our best.”