Michael Gerbitz of North Woodmere, L.I., is the founder of United with Israel, a grassroots movement that seeks to spread positive news about Israel through social media.
A graduate of the Hebrew Academy of the Five Towns and Rockaway, Gerbitz, 49, became involved in pro-Israel programming while president of the Jewish Student Union at Binghamton University. After graduation, he developed a successful software company and in 2007 moved with his wife and nine children to Ramat Bet Shemesh, Israel. In November 2010, he started a United with Israel page on Facebook (facebook.com/unitedwithisrael) that now has 1.2 million fans.
Q: Where did you get the idea for the group?
A: I have a passion for technology and Israel and I wanted to mesh the two together. Hasbara [Hebrew for positive public relations efforts about Israel] is a dirty word because it failed. I don’t believe it can be effectively done by the government. There is a limit to what a government is able to do because people perceive government messages as propaganda.
Why do you believe your message gets through?
The cost effective tool to communicate any message is to have it go from friend to friend. People trust their friends more than any government, more than any media source. Social media has created a way for people to be exposed to content in a soft, non-confrontational way that is more legitimate in their eyes.
How did you communicate this?
I recognized that the best way to sell products from Israel was to sell Israel itself. The best example is a company that sells art made from the remains of Kassam rockets fired into Israel [from Gaza]. Now we have the message that there are Kassam rockets landing in Israel and the Jewish people took something that was destructive and turned it into something beautiful – making all sorts of art, primarily metal roses.
Tell us about your 1.2 million Facebook fans.
The number of fans has been increasing pretty consistently by about 60,000 to 70,000 a month. They are in over 100 countries. There are some in Arab countries and we have some Iranians. Since Iran banned Facebook, they go through a proxy from other countries.
Sharing is very important because then we turn those 1.2 million direct contacts into a quarter of a billion people who are just one click away.
Do you believe you have made a difference?
Of course, because we get thousands of e-mails from people all over the world who thank us for sending them updates five times a day. They tell us they love sharing the great information about Israel. And that is our formula for reaching the people in the middle — people who are ignorant or uninterested about Israel.
What is the content of your messages?
We send them interesting stories about Israel — how the technology of Israel and its medical advances impact the world. And we also combat the lies of how Israel is terrorizing the Palestinians. We teach the truth about Israel in a simple, light and often entertaining way.
What was the most unusual feedback?
Someone in Tanzania who was so thrilled with our site that he wanted to start a similar operation in Tanzania to support Israel.
Do you get a lot of hate messages?
A lot. We get a lot of Arabs who are anti-Israel and who try to shut down the site or take over the Facebook page. They post all kinds of nasty videos and comments.
Are you more about advocacy or education?
We’re both. You can’t become an advocate if you are ignorant, so we educate by teaching them the facts. And we empower them by giving them the tools to advocate in a pro-active way — by taking action to make a difference. For instance, when the Palestinians were pushing for a self-declared state at the United Nations, we got a petition together with 100,000 on-line signatures and sent it to President [Barack] Obama.
Which of your postings created the most buzz?
A story about a small startup Israeli company that was working on a very unique cancer vaccine. The company got inundated with hundreds of thousands of phone calls. And we got hundreds of thousands of hits on our website (www.unitedwithisrael.org) within a few days.