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How to make the case for Israel

Attention should be focused on uninformed/disinterested and liberal/progressive students.

College campus. Credit: Pixabay.
College campus. Credit: Pixabay.
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

Unless you work for the government of Israel, you are not obligated to defend every Israeli action. You are entitled to your own beliefs. However, Jews, especially, must understand that the opinions they express in public are often misconstrued as reflecting the attitude of “the Jews.” Many of Israel’s detractors use their Jewish identity to misrepresent their views as reflecting a consensus in the Jewish community or of Israeli Jews.

When expressing a personal stance, it is essential to consider the objective. If you want to gain notoriety, be the Jew who publicly criticizes Israel. In journalistic parlance, this is a “man bites dog” story and, therefore, newsworthy, whereas a Jew who supports Israel is as enjoyable as a report of a dog biting a person.

The argument is often made that since Israelis are openly critical of their government and society, American Jews should feel equally free to express their views. But America is not Israel. Most Israelis have had a similar education, experienced the nation’s tragedies and triumphs, and served in the military. They have a common narrative, and, with rare exceptions, their expressions of disapproval are in the spirit of improving their nation rather than delegitimizing it.

When speaking in a group that shares your love of Israel, it is acceptable to bring up qualms and concerns about Israeli politics and society. The audience probably has a similar background in terms of knowledge about Israel and shares your desire that Israel becomes a better place. We need to give people the opportunity to “wrestle with Israel.”

However, when speaking to a general audience, you cannot assume that people are well-informed. Some listeners may be only interested in hearing Israel’s flaws and using them to demonize it rather than comprehend the nation’s complexity and hope for its advancement. If you criticize Israel in this environment, your message is more likely to be misinterpreted, and you may unintentionally reinforce negative attitudes about Israel. The audience may be unaware of Israel’s positive attributes and will walk away with the idea that “even the Jews” believe that Israel is underserving of support.

In those general audiences, the goal should be to contextualize issues. It doesn’t matter if you think settlements are an obstacle or a stimulus to peace, that judicial reform is needed or a threat to democracy or that a two-state solution is possible or impossible. You should be able to explain why Israelis have the views that they do on these issues so your peers will have a better understanding.

No matter how convincing you are, remember that you cannot convince everyone, and it is sometimes not worth trying. As George Orwell said about anti-Semites: “To attempt to counter them with facts and statistics is useless and may sometimes be worse than useless.”

But we can target our approach.

On campus, the student body is divided roughly into four groups:

  • ardent supporters of Israel
  • ardent opponents of Israel
  • uninformed/disinterested students
  • liberal/progressives

Which of these groups should you concentrate on?

Focusing on supporters of Israel is preaching to the choir. Sometimes, it is good to energize the base, but this is not the group that needs to be educated or convinced.

Debating opponents of Israel is typically a waste of time and energy. No matter how persuasive your arguments are, you are not likely to change their minds. So, unless you are a masochist who enjoys verbal jousting, the only reason to engage this group is if other students—open to your arguments—are within earshot.

Most attention should be focused on the uninformed/disinterested and liberal/progressive students. The former will likely be more open to discussing the issues and hearing your perspective. The latter is a more challenging group that may start with a more critical attitude towards Israel but may be convinced to be more supportive of Israel if they are better informed and approached from a social-justice/human-rights perspective.

One other general comment about advocacy: Persuasiveness is not synonymous with volume. Many of Israel’s detractors believe that shouting is a substitute for an argument. Try not to be drawn into shouting matches; the best response to someone yelling is often to speak more softly. Be the voice of reason, not bombast.

When making the case for Israel, consider using the P.E.E.R technique:

Peace: In most debates, the side that comes across most for peace wins. Every other word out of your mouth should be peace. Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in the hope that this would bring about peace. Israel built the security fence to protect the lives of Jews and Arabs so they could live in peace. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze settlement construction for 10 months at President Barack Obama’s request, hoping the Palestinians would enter peace negotiations. Peace, peace, peace. This is not propaganda; it is what every Israeli craves.

Empathy: For many years, pro-Israel advocates would focus on the evils of the Arabs. This turns off most students who dislike hearing negative attacks on others and reject generalities about, for example, “the Palestinians.” It is more effective and accurate to acknowledge the other side has valid points and to express sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. This, too, should be in context. For example, the Palestinians in the territories certainly have difficult lives and part of that is due to Israeli actions, but it is also because the Palestinian Authority does not permit freedom of speech, religion or press, or recognize women’s rights or gay rights. Most Palestinians might wish to live in peace, but unfortunately, they have not had a leader with the vision and courage to negotiate an agreement to coexist with Israel. While I understand the suffering of Palestinians, can you acknowledge the pain of Israeli terror victims?

Emotion: Too often those making the case for Israel recite historical facts and dry statistics that may be accurate but do not have an emotional punch that conveys to the listener what it is like to be an Israeli. For example, you can talk about the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza, which sounds severe and may win some sympathy but is not as powerful as case studies of the impact of those rockets. For example, ask your audience to imagine hearing a siren and having just 15 seconds to find shelter to hide from an incoming missile. What if you have an elderly parent or a sibling in a wheelchair? How do you get them to safety? Nine-year-old Tzahar is a resident of Sderot. He is deaf and cannot hear the Code Red alarm; as a result, he has been injured twice by rocket fire.

Rhetoric: Israelis often face impossible choices, and it is easy for outsiders to criticize their actions. Force people to put themselves in Israel’s position and ask what they would do differently. You have a problem with Israel’s reaction to Hamas firing rockets into Israeli homes, parks and kindergartens? What would you do if someone shot bullets through your window daily? You say few Israelis have been hurt by the rockets; what if the shots didn’t hit anyone in your house? Would you sit back and let your neighbor keep shooting at you, or would try to stop them?

Using the P.E.E.R. method might not convince everyone to agree, but you will persuade some people and become a more effective advocate for Israel.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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