The tech-savvy Middle Eastern nation of Israel has a problem on its hands. As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu supports settlements in the Palestinian West Bank, which are deemed illegal under international law, Israeli parties are emboldened by support from the United States. Much of that political sway hangs in the balance as Israel’s current administration loses favor with young American voters. Brand Israel Group surveys reportedly found only 57 percent of Jewish college students supported Israel’s “side” in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict by 2016, a dramatic drop from earlier surveys based on perceived human rights violations.

So Israelis devised a data-oriented solution. The Israeli newspaper Haartez recently uncovered a plan by the government to create a database of around 350,000 Jewish college students in the United States for outreach campaigns. This initiative was originally spearheaded by Mosaic United, which is partially funded by Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs.

Within days of receiving critical media coverage, the project was suspended. Gizmodo reported Mosaic United invited tech companies to bid on the project before it got put on hold. The database would have included detailed information such as personal interests and local community activities, to help create targeted social media campaigns.

This project has sparked social media backlash and even prompted Jewish education expert and former Hillel International president Avraham Infeld to resign from the Mosaic United advisory board. But anyone who is surprised by these diplomatic tactics doesn’t understand how the Jewish education ecosystem actually works.

Jewish college students Students protest the possible land for peace deal outside the international press center at Shepherdstown College during peace talks between Israel and Syria on January 4, 2000. Photo: Sven Nackstrand/AFP/Getty

The truth is, the Israeli government has long sponsored politically motivated programming for students, such as subsidized trips to Israel through organizations like Birthright. University campuses are often seen as the front lines of Israel advocacy, where community programming is used.

Many Jewish organizations, such as the Jewish Federation in San Francisco, have hosted organizations with the explicit purpose of strengthening American Jews’ cultural ties to the modern state of Israel. Although some Jewish educators reject the automatic association between Israeli nationalism and the Jewish community's historic connection to the region, the Israeli government routinely offers funding for local community-building coupled with programming that promotes Zionist ideals. 

However, the new difference that left Infeld flabbergasted is the idea of a digital database where Jewish students’ personal information would be listed and auctioned off without consent. Just because a student goes to a Hillel potluck and indicates she likes vegetarian food doesn’t mean she wants to be targeted by eco-friendly political messages about Israel.

The Ministry of Diaspora Affairs is headed by Israeli parliament member Naftali Bennett, the Jewish Home Party politician who supports controversial settlements. These issues are divisive even within the Jewish community. Public debates about these issues outside the community can often lead to an anti-Semitic atmosphere.

“I had experienced a crushing fear. I was scared to go to a lecture,” University of Minnesota student Leora Eisenberg wrote for Forward. “Once I had said publicly that I was afraid of their protests, I was suddenly no longer a human.” The New York Times reported Students for Justice in Palestine has been known to force Jewish students to leave the lecture hall and demand Zionists be "expelled" from campus. 

Israeli government lawmakers have already attracted criticism back home for proposing a database of Israeli citizens who support divestment or sanctions against Israel. Now applying the same concept to the Jewish Diaspora may have just exacerbated Israel's diplomatic problems.