Israel’s online presence has been engaging the zeitgeist. (Illustration/Forward)
Israel’s online presence has been engaging the zeitgeist. (Illustration/Forward)

Reeling from tragedy, Israel has a social media strategy — and it involves a lot of Harry Potter

This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.

Almost immediately after Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel Oct. 7, the country’s official social media accounts began posting horrifying pictures.

There was video of cars on fire, billowing black smoke near residential buildings; trucks with armed terrorists breaching a border fence. Soon, their were images of victims — young people and families, a half-naked woman on a flatbed — and then, video of President Biden offering support and photos of the Arc de Triomphe lit up blue and white. More than three weeks into the war, the accounts have started drawing on popular culture.

An Oct. 21 video of animated bears, narrated by Golden Globe-nominated Unorthodox actress Shira Haas, shows wolves abducting a cub; the storybook image fades away to show a human child behind bars, guarded by men with guns and then, photographs of Israeli child hostages. The video — told in the form of a fable, but featuring a disclaimer that says “Not suitable for children” — has nearly 3 million views on X and 39,000 on Facebook.

The celebrity voice and the gut punch of the children held captive didn’t land for some — many accounts called the video propaganda and some even argued how, in comparing Palestinians to animals in a fairy tale format, Israel was deploying a tactic used by the Nazis. (The video appears to be referencing Hamas terrorists as wolves, not Palestinians writ large.)

Melissa Weininger, an assistant professor of Jewish Studies at Cal State Northridge, said that using celebrities like Haas for hasbara, the word for Israel’s public diplomacy, is nothing new. What is novel is how unapologetic the campaign for public support has been.

“There’s no attempt to kind of disguise it as PR or whatever you want to call it, propaganda even,” said Weininger, who just published her book “Beyond the Land: Diaspora Israeli Culture in the Twenty-First Century.” Weininger believes the transparency about defending the Jewish State in public opinion is a “parallel argument” to the one that Israel must defend itself against Hamas.

Part of winning that battle is going beyond the Israeli public figures, whom, Weininger noted, had been producing their own videos and sharing their volunteer efforts online days after the attack.

On Oct. 15, the Israel account shared an image of a 12-year-old autistic child, Noya, “kidnapped from her home by Hamas terrorists,” dressed like a Hogwarts student, and appealed to author J.K. Rowling to “get her story out.” The following day, Rowling shared the post and commented, “this picture has hit home with me. May Noya and all hostages taken by Hamas be returned soon, safely, to their families.” (Tragically, Noya was found dead on Oct. 19.)

“This is a person who wrote a book about good and evil and it’s also mobilizing that discourse,” Weininger said of Rowling. “Although, of course, I think it’s interesting that in the English-speaking world, J.K. Rowling has really kind of become anathema because of her political views about transgender people.”

Harry Potter, and the connection to good and evil, was referenced more explicitly on Wednesday when Israel’s account shared an image of the series’ villain Lord Voldemort grimacing at a smart phone with the words “Hamas redefines evil” and invited users to “watch the evidence on”

Rowling and her books aren’t the only culture touchstones being invoked. Quentin Tarantino, whose wife is Israeli, was shown visiting troops on Israel’s “War Room” account and a spokesperson for the government recently posted IDF soldiers smoking cigarettes while music from “Inglorious Basterds” plays underneath the clip.

Even celebrities who haven’t said anything about the conflict have been drawn into the narrative.

Following reports that a bodyguard for Taylor Swift had rejoined his IDF unit, the Israel account posted on Oct. 19th tweeting at the pop star “we promise you’ll never find another like him,” a riff on her song “ME!”

“It’s making use of the popularity and the preexisting inclination to use these celebrities and certain songs and clips like that as memes,” Weininger said. “I guarantee you Taylor Swift is not going to wade into the Israel-Hamas conflict.”

But, enlisting her image, whether or not she knows she had an Israeli security guard, putting it out there “becomes this very powerful proxy battle of images and words.”

All of this maneuvering seems to have a clear goal in mind: winning over digital natives. As Swift’s Eras Tour movie shattered eight box office records, support for Israel among one of her core demographics, is flagging.

This month, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that Gen Z (about 11% of Swift’s fan base per a Morning Consult poll) and millennials (45%) think the United States should publicly voice support of Israel compared to 63% of Gen X, 83% of baby boomers and 86% of the silent and greatest generation.

“Israel might feel like it needs to appeal to that younger, diaspora audience and the reason for that is because they know that younger American Jews are much less likely to express knee-jerk support of Israel,” said Weininger

But that same audience is also most likely to be skeptical of online presences that try too hard, or too explicitly, to win public opinion, and are also more likely to find cultural references passé.

Is the campaign working? It’s hard to say, but judging by the cool response and derisive comments on many of the posts, Israel is, to many young people’s minds, guilty of a cardinal sin of the online era: being cringe.

This article was originally published in the Forward.

PJ Grisar
PJ Grisar

PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at [email protected].