Social media videos are shaping viewers' beliefs on Israel

TikTok and Twitter videos bring images of Israel-Gaza conflict home to American Jews.

Shira Hanau/JTA & Arutz Sheva ,

Israeli apartment building hit by rocket in Ashkelon
Israeli apartment building hit by rocket in Ashkelon
Edi Israel/Flash90

For some Americans watching the escalating violence in Israel and Gaza in recent days, the most striking image from the conflict came in a video of Israeli men at the Western Wall, singing and dancing as a fire, set by Muslims on the Temple Mount, burns outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Others can’t look away from videos of Iron Dome, Israel’s missile defense system, which shoots rockets out of the air mid-flight, lighting up Israel’s skies like a fireworks display.

Both images have gone viral as Israel and Gaza descend into the most intense conflict since 2014.

As in past conflicts between Israel and Gaza, social media has emerged as a battleground, far from the actual fighting, for activists on both sides to trumpet their opinions. But perhaps more than in any previous conflagration with Gaza, social media has enabled those outside of the region to see what’s happening almost in real-time. And activists across the spectrum have recognized the power these images have to shape the narrative on the ground.

Tasha Kaminsky, a nonprofit consultant and frequent Twitter user, who is also an anti-Israel activist, said the videos make it harder to look away from what’s happening. Kaminsky’s current name on Twitter is “#SaveSheikhJarrah,” a hashtag used by anti-Israel activists protesting the potential eviction of Arab squatters from a Jerusalem neighborhood. The Arabs have not paid rent to the Jewish landowners in forty years.

“It’s one thing to read a story…but to see it is a very different experience,” she said. She pointed to the “availability of video in a way that’s so easy to consume and the immediacy of seeing that in real-time” as something that made the conflict’s costs more apparent.

To Sara Hirschhorn, a visiting professor of Israel Studies at Northwestern University, the video of the fire showed the limitations of social media. She felt it suggested that the men at the Western Wall were responsible for setting the fire, even though Israeli police confirmed it was started by fireworks lit by Arabs and burnt a tree, not the mosque.

“That’s sort of an act of disinformation that is troubling. It’s being tweeted as, ‘Here are ultra-nationalist Jews jumping up and down and dancing and singing as Al-Aqsa burns in the background,’ and it’s not what’s happening in that photo,” she said.

From his home in Jerusalem, Avi Mayer, a prominent pro-Israel advocate on Twitter, agreed that social media was playing a more important role than ever in helping people outside of the conflict see what was happening.

He pointed to social media posts about an Israeli driver who hit an Arab on the sidewalk outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Security footage released later showed protesters pelting the car with rocks before the car ran onto the sidewalk and hit the Arab. The Israeli driver was also injured in the incident and was interviewed by Israeli media with a bandage on his head and a bloodstained shirt. Mayer felt such videos provided necessary context.

“I actually think that is a benefit that we have that we didn’t have previously,” said Mayer, who is managing director of global communications for the American Jewish Committee.

But he also worried that people might take the wrong lessons from the videos of Israel’s Iron Dome system successfully shooting down rockets coming from Gaza. The videos could lead viewers to believe that Israel was not at risk of serious harm from the rockets. One video that emerged, for example, shows Iron Dome’s fireworks-like display set to the Star Wars theme song.

“It sometimes paints a misleading picture,” Mayer said of the Iron Dome. “It’s not a panacea. Quite a few rockets have managed to get through the system.”

Some footage “has not been interpreted in the way that Israeli hasbara has hoped,” Hirschhorn said, referring to pro-Israel activists. But she added that people should focus their attention on the actual war — not on the Twitter battles it has inspired.

“There are no stakes to be had on social media,” she said. “The stakes are for people in their bomb shelters tonight or who lack one on the Palestinian side.”