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How to friend an Israeli soldier

March 12, 2011 10:01 P.M. (Updated: March 15, 2011 11:14 A.M.)
By: Charlotte Alfred
"We sent the press release to people that dislike us, that's why I sent one to you," 24-year-old Israeli soldier Nisman drawls casually down the phone.

So far, so cordial, I think.

I interviewed the founder of website Daniel Nisman, originally from Cleveland, Ohio, and a former special forces operative in the West Bank and continuing army reservist.

The site, conceived in October 2010 and officially launched in February 2011, has social networking-style profiles of eleven Israeli soldiers, who answer questions from the public, and publish some online.

It was founded by three twenty-something contemporaries at an Israeli college, who "had a very intense army experience in 2004-7," Nisman says. All operated in the West Bank, and two of them in the 2006 Lebanon war.

'Take Our Challenge – Ask Us Anything' the site exclaims.

Branding itself as an "online dialogue initiative," the soldiers disparage the approach of Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, which gives Israeli forces a forum to talk about discomfort with their army experience.

'We're a dialogue project'

"Breaking the Silence and Friend a Soldier are totally different," Nisman assures. "Breaking the Silence is a one way forum, pushing an agenda. We're a dialogue project, we don't set the topic, if its pizza, that's the topic, if Libya, that's the topic. [Breaking the Silence] tell you what they think, and that's where it ends."

One question to Friend a Soldier asked whether the soldiers like beer, so Nisman will be comforted that no triviality will go unturned. (The answer was yes.)

So, what type of dialogue is the site facilitating, and with whom, I ask him.

"Right now the site caters to people who want to know what we think," Nisman says. "We figured start with a Q&A, maybe a chat room in the future."

But does the Q&A format really give an opportunity for a two-way conversation, rather than just more 'talking at' people? The website talks about making 'personal connections.'

Sometimes people write back after their answers, Nisman explains, but not the majority, about one in ten. "I'm friends with a good amount of people on Facebook," he notes.

The site says it targets those critical of Israel, and in particular its "Arab neighbors." How are they planning to reach Palestinians, I pose, when it all takes place in English, save one Spanish-speaker?

"It is an English website in the end," Nisman says. "We're considering translation into Arabic, but we're taking time as this is the beginning. It’s a long and strenuous process."

Arabic answers will be available, Nisman says "when the day comes when an Arabic-speaking IDF soldier wants to join [the list of profiles]."

"Some are motivated to tell their story. Like the Druze populations, and Bedouins, and Muslim citizens serving in the police."

How would Arabic-speaking soldiers be recruited, I ask.

"We will wait and see. We will not do outreach," he comes back.

'The goal is to reach Palestinians'

Probed on how the audiences he regards important will be engaged, Nisman elaborates their outreach to date.

"We’ve posted in [Facebook] groups from different political spectrums, and through Twitter … We went to Palestinian advocacy chat rooms and campus websites that are very anti-Israel in English speaking countries."

Most of the questions are from English-speaking countries, he says.

"The goal is to reach Palestinians," he affirms. "Whether Palestinians will accept it and use it, it’s up to them."

Yet Jewish website 'ShalomLife' quoted British-Israeli site co-founder, Josh Mintz, saying it is because of apathy and disbelief regarding 'hasbara' (Israeli government sponsored advocacy) internationally, that they aim to be "digital ambassadors." Their Facebook page states that they are "looking for dedicated IDF veterans with a credible service to serve as digital ambassadors in the fight against Israel's de-legitimization." The tone suggests another focus, and one that also speak English.

Could their diplomacy goals be in tension with their claim to give just "truthful, transparent" answers?

This is "not an issue," Nisman says.

"I believe in the goodness of my country -- although I wonder what are you thinking in Bethlehem when I say this -- take the Israeli Declaration of Independence or our judicial system … I wouldn't have gone to the army if I didn’t believe in them."

He continues: "I’m a patriot, I believe in the idea of this country, it's my country and I have nowhere else to go. There are people around the world that have this misconception, and if these unfactual [sic] things they think about us persist, it will be the end of us."

Further, Nisman sees diplomacy in Israel as fundamentally different to that of other nations.

"People's diplomacy in Israel is different to that in China -- or actually not China -- but Japan or South Korea. For them diplomacy is 'come visit, spend money here.' For Israel, you're saying: I'm not the things you think I am, I'm a legitimate state, we haven't done the things you say we have."

Some of this strategic thinking enters into the site's approach. "It must be modest so people don’t think of it as propaganda," Nisman explains of their use of online tools and simple web design.

"We also have no budget," he adds.

There is an online facility to give donations through the site. What has been the uptake, I ask Nisman.

"We’ve received offers, but not on a large scale. Fundraising has not been a successful part … We want to raise money to do advertising," he says.

Who do you expect to be interested in funding the site, I put to him, and would you accept donations from any individual or organization.

"We're trying to be independent, so I don't think we’d accept organizational donations. Some offers [of donations] were rejected."

He reasons: "I’d like to think [donations] would come from anyone who believes in what we're doing. But obviously I'm from Israel so most have come from around here.”

'Humanizing the dehumanized'

I wonder how the soldiers see the people they want to 'dialogue' with. The site's slogan, previously ‘humanizing the dehumanized’, now ‘behind every uniform -- lies a human being.' suggests expectations were low. Uncomfortable with discussion in online forums about the Israeli army, they "want to take away from all this hate," Nisman says.

The founders believe they are meeting an information gap. In one article about the site, the soldiers state that people in countries 'unfriendly' to Israel can only get an unbiased and truthful picture of Israel through the internet. "You just need to look at an Arab paper, with cartoons of Israelis with swastikas posted all over them," Nisman explains.

Propaganda is also a problem with Palestinians, Nisman says, especially in Gaza "where they are indoctrinating young kids."

Regarding perceptions of the Israeli army in the West Bank, Nisman is a little more circumspect. "Let's face it, some kinds of abuse happens at checkpoints … but from what I see on the internet and what people pass through emails, I think [in the West Bank] there is still glorification of militants, naming streets after them … I don't think the next generation is being educated for peace, and in Gaza its much worse.

"But in Israel, Arab schools here don't teach that stuff," he continues, "so nothing is black and white."

Feedback on the original idea echoed these perceptions. The main criticism they faced, he says, was "can we actually appeal to people who hate us. They said, you'll never be able to get them onto your site, you'll never be able to convince them you're a human."

Publicity for the website has heralded their ability to answer questions such as 'do you kill babies?' from people who have poor information about Israel and Jews. How have the questions they received fit with their expectations, I asked.

"You learn about what kind of people support you," Nisman explains, "like people in India, who are fighting Pakistan, say they support you. People from Turkey, obviously given past events, don't support you ... It's never surprising when we get [no support] from the UK or France. As an Israeli you are never surprised to find out that someone hates you. We're like, 'You don't think we're the worst thing in the world!'"

"Surprisingly lots of people from the Middle East ask respectful questions," Nisman says. “We get hate mail from Western campuses … People from Qatar, Kuwait, ask what we think about peace. I didn't expect it to be like this -- I never really thought that would be such a trend."

Could the 'humanization' the site espouses be starting to work in reverse, however unintentionally, by changing the outlook of the soldiers themselves, I find myself wondering.

Which question really made you think, I ask Nisman.

A question to another soldier from Jewish man in the UK, he says, was 'When was the last time you did something nice for a Palestinian?'

"Now I have when given the chance," he asserts. "I never participated in any of the things you hear about.

"Then I started thinking, what is my role as a soldier when we have effective control over Palestinians in the West Bank? I thought to myself, 'but in the end my role as a soldier is to carry out orders according to the IDF code of conduct, to execute government policies.' As an individual, I’d like to do nice things, but I got back to reality."

He adds: "I could tell you all the times that I smiled and gave candy to a Palestinian. But for what? It wouldn’t be the reality of what a soldier is supposed to do."

I’m interested in questions Nisman doesn't have a clear answer to. The site was dreamt up, he says, when thinking "boy would I love to get in touch with a Hamas fighter: I wish there was a site like that, I would have a lot of questions." Nisman was quoted in Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post saying, "We would never see a website like this of Hamas rocket-launching squads."

So, what questions would you send to the imaginary, I ask.

"It depends … If they're one of these guys who goes to the field and shoots rockets -- and they do know what they're doing, they have Google Earth -- I'd ask first, why shoot at Sderot, why not at an army base, how do you feel when you do that?" he says.

"I know the answer, but I'd also ask why have you involved your civilian population? Why do you do things that will cause collateral damage? Why put weapons in mosques? I could tell you the answer -- so Israel will bomb them -- but on a personal level I'd ask, 'what goes through your head?'

"I'd also ask what do you do for fun? I don't know ... maybe he'd say I love this western movie, we'd find things in common."

Maybe it is premature to look for signs that they are listening, rather than just talking. But the Friend a Soldier project could start to look a little more like dialogue, if they are ready to let the conversation go two ways, and are committed to interacting with who they claim to be reaching out to.

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