Author’s Note: The following is the first of an eight-part series. It is a work of thinly-veiled fiction. Which means that it is more true than most of what you’ll read on the subject, even if it’s not always, you know, totally technically factual.
There’s a good chance you know him. If you’ve been to AIPAC conferences, you definitely know him. If you work for Birthright, he’s kind of a legend. Even if you only posted a shrug-emoji once in the general direction of Bibi Netanyahu, or even just visited Twitter for a minute, to listen to the gossip, there’s a good chance you’ve come across Yonah. There’s a good chance, that is, that Yonah has found you.
Yonah is a hero of the hasbara, those brave mobile foot soldiers in Israel’s ever-deepening PR wars. Joining hasbara offered him something of the allure of joining the Hagana back in the 1940s, but without ever having to leave the comfort of his easy chair at the 7th Ave Park Slope Starbucks.
There were times that Yonah, as a young recruit, tweeted I Stand with #Israel so many times in one single morning that he, in fact, forgot to stand. And when he did, his legs were so stiff and cramped up that he’d have to limp around the Starbucks just to get himself ready to sit for another long afternoon of standing with Israel. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
I happen to know Yonah. Back in the day, we went to the same yeshiva, somewhere in the Midwest, nevermind where. Today we’re casual acquaintances. Facebook friends (but, really, who isn’t Yonah’s Facebook friend?). When I run into him, or his sisters, we catch up. Mostly I hear updates about him from mutual friends. And, of course, I see his meme work online, as we all do.
But who is he really? I’ve tried to piece together, for the record, the whole story of Yonah. Or, at least, one version of it.
Episode One: Yonah is Recruited
For as long as he could remember Yonah wanted to do hasbara, to defend Israel from its detractors, both those among the nations of the world and even from those, G-d help us, among the Jewish communities of the diaspora. In fact, Yonah especially wanted to work to defend Israel within the fractious Jewish communities of the United States.
That’s because Yonah listened carefully. He especially listened to his pal, Klein, because Klein seemed pretty up on the news and all that. And he asked the sharpest Talmudic questions of the rabbis. The guy knew his chefzas from his gavras, if you know what I mean. Klein also used to address political matters.
“Jews are the worst,” he used to tell Yonah. “They go to shul once a year maybe, and suddenly they’re experts on Israel’s security. If you want to know the truth, most of those Jews aren’t even Jews.”
Yonah, however, was very Jewish. Of this, he was certain. He prayed three times a day. Mostly he sat in the back of shul, cracking his knuckles and whispering with Klein. In shul, in the morning, he’d nod off, slouching so far back in his seat, that the tfillin on his head would go slack, and he’d only wake up once it slid down onto his shoulder.
Why was Yonah so tired? Because he’d stayed up late studying. Even during prayers, he would crack open a volume of the Talmud and hold his pinky over one single word for almost half an hour, his eyes narrowing in deep contemplation, ignoring all the prayers happening around him.
Yonah’s dedication to learning was second to none. But his success at it was another matter. In fact, many of his teachers believed him to be the very worst Talmud student in the entire yeshiva, and arguably the worst in recent memory. Often his rabbis just shook their heads in disbelief. They’d never seen anything quite like it. It was something special, almost a miracle, to be wrong so consistently.
And not for lack of effort or aptitude. On the contrary, Yonah managed passably well in his secular subjects. He was a perfectly average student in math and history. But when it came to illuminating the holy texts, he just seemed to always mangle everything.
Still, his nose was always in those books. Maybe he just loved the sounds of the words coming out of his mouth too much to bother with their meanings? Who can say? But in Yonah’s blundering, his rabbis saw a spark. They elevated him, as a kind of paragon.
During one lecture, Rav Chayyim himself pointed at Yonah, in front of the entire yeshiva, and said, “Here, right here, is a tremendous, a tremendous example for all of us. For me, even.”
Yonah had beamed that day. He didn’t think Rav Chayyim knew he existed, much less that he was admired by him.
But what had Rav Chayyim meant? How could Yonah, whose interpretations of the Talmud and its commentaries were so wildly incorrect at all times—implausibly incorrect, almost brilliantly creative in their ability to sidestep the basic meanings of words—how could this be an example for the other yeshiva boys?
The answer was simple: Yonah’s learning was pure. Here, truly, was learning for its own sake. So lacking in ego or ulterior motives was Yonah that he was cheerfully willing to be wrong at all times, and in every way possible. Thus Yonah was celebrated.
Nevertheless, Yonah got on everyone’s nerves. His lack of ego was taking up a lot of space. He spoke up too often and drained everyone’s patience. He was a nudnik. That he was so sincere in his 100% wrong ideas only made him more insufferable. His infallibly positive attitude only made it worse.
Like I said, I was there. It seems weird to admit it now, after he’s become such a hasbara all-star. But I distinctly remember that we, in the yeshiva, would roll our eyes every time his hand went up. We all knew that he was supposed to be an example, but this example was wearing us out.
Everyone’s luck changed one Thursday. That morning, there was big deal bris. Unannounced. Nobody knew whose bris it was, but it was clearly a big deal bris because it involved hot food. Shortly after the Torah was read, caterers appeared. These sudden unexpected black-clad visitors drifted in silently, like ninjas with spatulas. The yeshiva boys exchanged glances.
There were more good signs to come. Soon some non-religious people showed up, awkwardly asking if there were any extra yarmulkes around, before slinking toward the back walls of the yeshiva to wait for the bris to start. Among them were women in inappropriate dress. All of this could mean only one thing: this was going to be a big deal bris. And the food was going to be gala.
It didn’t take long before the smell of potato kugel drove people from distraction to something more like animal frenzy. The boys were peeling off their tfillin scandalously early, without a second thought, so ravenous were they to partake, and thereby fulfill the mitzvah of feasting at a bris milah.
There were all kinds of donor-types at the bris. One of these men, a certain Charles W., got to talking with one of the senior rabbis, Rav Shachter.
“Tell me,” said Rav Shachter, leaning in close to Charles W., “What is happening on these university campuses? I’m reading all kinds of things. Anti-Semitism on the left. These people going after Israel. Jews, even. Is it really true?”
Charles W. nodded gravely. He told the rabbi that it was all true. That it was even worse than was being reported.
“Don’t believe what you see in the New York Times!” the donor said.
“Of course not,” the rabbi replied. “But what can be done?”
Charles W. reassured the rabbi. He told him of the many counterefforts that had been launched.
“The real problem,” said Charles W., “is that Israel is terrible at hasbara. But we here in America know all about advertising, don’t we? We invented it! We can help. We must help.”
Resources were being allocated to defend Israel, he told the rabbi. The hasbara effort in the US was growing. It was becoming robust, Charles W. said. He himself had just written a nice check.
“Not too much, I hope,” the rabbi said, with a smile, and patted Charles W. on the shoulder. “The best investment in the Jewish people is still in the Torah.” He waved his hand around the yeshiva’s social hall.
Charles W. laughed in a way that made the rabbi fear that he may have overstepped. He immediately tried to correct the faux pas.
“Well,” he added, “if there’s anything we could do to help, please let us know. These are difficult times for klal yisroel.”
Charles W.’s eyes lit up.
“Well,” he said, “it’s funny you should say that. This organization, Tomorrow is Yesterday?… maybe you’ve heard of them?”
“The name sounds familiar,” the rabbi offered.
“They specialize. They’re a watchdog group that monitors anti-Israel activity within the culinary world. There are many questionable chefs out there.”
“That does sound very specialized,” the rabbi said, impressed.
“They also specialize in sharing information about what’s happening in Gaza.”
“What’s happening in Gaza?” asked the rabbi.
“Nothing! That’s just it.”
The rabbi stroked his beard.
“I see the problem, yes,” he said.
“Well, I sit on their board,” Charles W. continued. “They’re recruiting young people right now. And one of my stipulations, for becoming a donor, was that they need to bring in more religious kids to do hasbara. Brilliant, right?”
Charles W. slapped the rabbi hard on the shoulder, and continued.
“The religious – you, and me too – don’t get represented enough in these conversations. And we all know that yeshiva kids are the best out there. And they’re young! They know how to do this Twitter stuff.”
The rabbi nodded vigorously.
The truth? He didn’t like the idea of his students mingling with who-knows-who sending him late-night tweets from some college dorm room. The rabbi heard what went on. But was he going to mention this now, to this donor, and at a bris of this magnitude? Instead the rabbi tried to muster up some enthusiasm for the donor’s idea.
That is, until a thought came to him. And, just like that, his enthusiasm was genuine.
“Wait!” said the rabbi. “I’ve got it!”
The rabbi grabbed Charles W.’s arm, and whisked him away. In two brisk steps they arrived at the kugel table, where the yeshiva boys had congregated, preparing to fall upon the kugel, for seconds. They immediately stood when the rabbi materialized in front of them, and with a big shot donor.
One of the boys quickly slapped the shoulder of the one next to him, who was standing there with a tiny worn-out edition of the mishna in one hand, and a kugel plate in the other, gently mumbling to himself, too busy blissfully misunderstanding most of the words he was reading to notice the esteemed personages now standing before him.
“Yonah!” the rabbi said, “there’s someone here I want you to meet.”
Yonah startled. He immediately threw his kugel plate down to the floor, to free up his hand to shake with Charles W.
Everyone laughed. And Yonah, too, after a second, joined them in laughing. That is how Yonah first entered the world of hasbara.
With the big shot donor’s help, Yonah was placed in Tomorrow is Yesterday, which turned out to be a small, airy boutique pro-Israel outfit in midtown Manhattan that looked like something between a software start-up and an upmarket salad chain. After Yonah signed a bunch of papers, he was ushered into a large conference room, and shown a short film about the history of Tomorrow is Yesterday.
He learned about Tomorrow’s founder, Itzik, shown first in old photos from his bar mitzvah in Rehovot, then in grainy field footage of him, in full battle gear in Jenin in ‘02, chatting with another officer about optimal positions to place a sniper. Then the film showed Itzik, in 2006, a bit thicker, and dad-soft, with a large, shiny bald head, standing at the head of board meeting.
The narrator of the film explained that, after a career as a military GPS man, Itzik created PSoft, a company that cornered the then-rising field of penis recognition software (PRS)—useful particularly in the mid-aughts for dating and hookup sites in their effort to police profiles that were becoming clogged up with agreement-violating dick pics. (With some software updates, it eventually could also instantly, and with surgical precision, eliminate these unwanted members, or, at least, the images of them.)
Having sold his PSoft patents for undisclosed tens or hundreds of millions, Itzik became a vintner in the Galilee. Today he owns one of Israel’s only Michelin five-star restaurants, on the foothills of the Carmel, a favorite hangout of the country’s illustrious. But, more important than success, as Yonah learned from the film, Itzik has the greatest gift of all: watching his two daughters grow up in the countryside, riding horses, and learning the names of flowers.
As Yonah would later learn, Itzik was no longer the owner of Tomorrow. He’d given it to his hard luck sister and her American brother-in-law, who was a laid-off lawyer in Silver Spring, so that they could flip it quickly, which they did: they sold it to a nice Christian man from Ohio, bringing in some cash to help pay their mounting Jewish day school tuition debts. Tomorrow had really begun to flourish after the sale.
When Yonah first arrived there, Tomorrow is Yesterday was regarded as an emerging player in pro-Israel media circles. In particular, the field captain of Tomorrow is Yesterday, a zealously devout Baptist and ex-US Naval pilot named Conrad, had earned a reputation as something of a rising star. Conrad had had a pretty good run at Tomorrow. Then again, the bar was fairly low. The previous head was finally let go when an event to “show that pro-Israel students are part of large, inclusive movement” couldn’t manage to fill up a medium-sized booth at a local diner.
But Conrad had significantly raised the level of initiative. Tomorrow’s social media became a model of efficiency and savvy. Conrad had done some intelligence in the Navy. He understood propaganda. He studied late night talk show writers’ rooms and borrowed some ideas. With a fat budget, provided by unnamed midwestern donors, he poached some of the rejected comedy writers from those writers’ rooms.
But he always kept his eye on the prize: actual media coverage. With his war stories and wit, he personally cultivated a number of journalists, turning them into assets or, as he called them, “buddies.” He managed to convince one of his buddies, an editor at a Bloomberg, to refer to Palestinians killed by Israeli snipers as having “passed away.”
But by the time Yonah arrived, things had been slowing down a bit for Conrad. He hadn’t seen any big bumps in months, and he was beginning to worry he’d lost the touch.
Yonah was told to share a desk with an energetic Aussie named James who would train him, and serve as something of a supervisor. James’s own job description, he told Yonah, involved “sharing the truth of Israel: that it’s a mad, fun place, and very safe.” This job meant that James, an ex-surfer, posted pics of people on beaches, of sexy soldiers in tight uniforms fondling rifles, of sunsets, of the music scene and the lives of tech innovators, and especially of Israel’s foodie culture (“It’s multi-ethnic,” James told Yonah. “I didn’t know that. A lot of people don’t.”)
While James’s job involved sharing news about how safe Israel is, Yonah’s job was to share news about the dangers that beset Israel.
“How Israelis, every day, have to put up with the threat of annihilation. That kind of thing.”
James sensed that Yonah wasn’t entirely getting it. He elaborated.
“So, if there’s a big volleyball competition in Tel Aviv? I handle that. And if there’s a stabbing in Jerusalem, that’s all you. And if there’s no stabbings that day, you push out a thing on Iran or something.”
James suddenly remembered something.
“You see him,” he said, pointing to a very long, skinny man with long knobby fingers tapping on a keyboard, his exhausted eyes locked on his screen, and his massive headphones cutting him off from his surroundings.
“Don’t talk to that man,” James said. “Don’t say a word to him. Ever.”
Yonah watched the long man’s long skeletal fingers dancing slowly over the keyboard, as though of their own volition.
“What does he do?” Yonah asked
“Just don’t say a word to him,” James replied. “Don’t even look at him.”
This all seemed simple enough to Yonah. For his first task, in his new job sharing news about the dangers facing Israel, Yonah found a story about attacks against migrants in Tel Aviv. “Don’t tweet that,” James told him. Another story, about the uptick in domestic violence in the country, was also rejected. James was losing his patience.
“Violence against Israelis,” he said.
“Aren’t they Israelis, though?” Yonah said, peering back at the domestic violence news story, confused.
“It doesn’t matter,” James replied.
By the end of his first day in the office, Yonah was on strict orders to post nothing but standard-issue I Stand with #Israel replies to posts on Twitter. And when he managed to mess that up, too, he was told to just hang out in the Farm Space.
In the Farm Space, he could look at – look but not touch – the thousands of self-operating phones that covered the walls, almost from floor to ceiling, in long rows, and that neither slumbered nor slept in their pro-Israel posting activities.
Yonah did as he was told, and did it for hours. He stared deep into those endlessly scrolling and self-posting phones, mesmerized.
Eventually Conrad found Yonah there in the Farm Space, lost among the rows.
“It’s like a casino, isn’t it?” Conrad said. “Go home, brother. You learned a lot today. But tomorrow is not today. Tomorrow, you come ready to roll.”
As Yonah shuffled out of the office, James scowled at him. Most of the other staff had begun to ignore Yonah. But that, of course, would all change soon enough.
Avi Steinberg is the author of The Lost Book of Mormon (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday).