JERUSALEM – When Linda Menuhin fled Baghdad for Jerusalem, she never imagined that 40 years later she would be helming key Israeli public diplomacy efforts directed at the country of her birth and the wider Arab world.
As a moderator of the Arabic-language Facebook pages and social media platforms run by Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Menuhin has become an ambassador of sorts – but one who operates from a digital outpost.
Interacting daily with residents of Arab countries, connecting them with Hebrew teachers and medical experts, and providing information about Israel, Judaism and the Jews who once lived among them, Menuhin said her goal is to show “the common values we share and the similarities between us.”
Israel has no formal diplomatic ties with most Arab countries. Though it has signed peace treaties with Jordan and Egypt, people-to-people interactions are rare. Yet shifting regional interests, including a shared concern about Iran’s growing influence in the Middle East, have removed some barriers, leading to tentative hope that Israel can one day find acceptance among its regional foes.
There has been a burst of high-profile engagement in recent years, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to the Persian Gulf state of Oman, the opening of synagogues in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and the participation of Israelis in commercial and sporting events hosted by Arab countries.
The emergence of social media accounts run by the Israeli government and individual initiatives are part of that trend, and they have drawn the attention of millions in the wider region who are furious with but also curious about Israel.
“This is another way for Israel to engage with the Arab and Muslim world,” said Foreign Minister Israel Katz, who visited Abu Dhabi in July and has pushed a regional rail line that would connect the gulf states to Israel’s Mediterranean ports.
Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, said the region was in a “transitory phase,” including “a growing portion of young Arabs who are no longer afraid to talk to Israelis.”
Rabi said that roughly 60 percent of the Middle East’s population “is under 30, and they are much more curious than their parents about the outside world.”
“For years, iron-fisted dictators in the Middle East sold their people the merchandise of Israel being to blame for their own hardships,” he said. “Today, most people know that Israel is not the problem.”
In Israel’s Foreign Ministry, Menuhin is part of a team of 10 producing content for two Arabic-language Facebook pages, Twitter and Instagram accounts and a YouTube channel. Collectively, the platforms draw about 10 million viewers and followers from across the region each week. Many of the uploaded videos have gone viral.
Avoiding politics and the thorny issue of Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian territory, the Arabic-language digital diplomacy department, the second-largest in the Foreign Ministry, showcases Israeli life and culture.
Among some of its most popular uploads is a jaunty video of two young Israelis, one Jewish and one Arab, comparing similar words in Hebrew and Arabic. Another asks Israelis about the Arab countries they would most like to visit – if the opportunity should ever arise.
“Jews have become extinct in the Arab world, people no longer have Jewish neighbors or friends they can ask questions, so this relationship has to happen on social media,” said Rabbi Elhanan Miller, who manages a Facebook page and a YouTube channel about Judaism in Arabic.
Miller’s People of the Book initiative has a sizable following, with nearly 100,000 tracking him across social media platforms. Through live videos and animated shorts, he shares information on Jewish traditions such as Shabbat and kosher food. More recently he has started to include interviews with Jews from Arab lands living in Israel.
“There’s a nostalgia, especially in Iraq, Egypt and even Syria, for a time when they were multiethnic and pluralistic societies,” Miller said.
Hind Hazim lives in northern Iraq and is an avid follower of Miller’s posts.
“For me, it’s an authentic source,” she said in a telephone interview. “People who live in the Arab world do not get clear information on social media, mainstream media or in books about Jews or Israel.”
Hazim said the situation used to be different. “At the beginning of the 20th century, it was normal to have Jewish friends and neighbors, but now we are separated from them. I don’t have the chance to talk to them face to face.”
In Saudi Arabia, blogger Mohammed Saud has caused a stir by openly forging ties with Israelis on social media. Earlier this year he made headlines, and history, by documenting his visit to Israel and even meeting with Netanyahu.
“For years I heard completely different things about Israel and the Jews,” he said in an online exchange with The Washington Post. “Since there are no Jews in Saudi Arabia, I had no one to ask, or anyone to find out what was really going on between Jews and Muslims.”
Saud said that after a visit to the United States, he realized that Jews were “not our enemies.”
“The conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, is about fighting for territory, there is no religious matter, and Jews and Palestinians must reach an agreement between them,” he wrote.
For Menuhin, who smuggled herself out of Iraq when she was 20, and whose father was later abducted and most probably killed by Iraqi authorities, the new lines of communication with the Arab world are nothing short of an “earthquake.”
“I remember when I grew up in Iraq, Israel was viewed as a small country with no legitimacy. People said it would die out and all the Jews would be thrown into the sea,” she said. “I am glad to see there is growing recognition in the Arab world for Israel.At the end of the day, do not look at the harvest you reap but at the seeds you plant. We are planting the seeds, and I am sure this will only grow.”