(March 28, 2022 / JNS) The crux of a recent webinar from CAMERA, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis, focused on how to respond to anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric in social and professional situations.
When such comments come from someone you know, “it can be a very unsettling, painful, startling experience,” said Jonah Cohen, communications director at CAMERA.
He notes that anti-Semites will try to “seize the moral high ground” and make it appear that siding with Israel or Jews is to “side with the enemy.” Or, he suggested, they may, in the course of normal conversation, use phrases like the “Jewish lobby,” “bowing to the Benjamins” or “politicians who support AIPAC,” the pro-Israel political action committee.
“It’s impersonating rational discussion. That’s why you might not know immediately why the words are making you uncomfortable, but your heart is breaking because something is not right,” he said.
In the webinar, Cohen suggested that people use the “Gadfly method,” which has been around since the time of Socrates, where the person listening to the charges challenges the speaker by asking questions and not confronting what’s being said.
In the case of anti-Semitic or anti-Israel comments, it may mean asking someone what “settler colonialism” is when they use it to describe Israel or whether they can define a “Jewish lobby.” It can also mean prodding someone about why they believe a certain position they hold is true.
The goal, he said, isn’t to debate them but rather to have them prove their points.
Cohen likens it to the approach of the bumbling detective in the 1970s TV show “Columbo.” “The suspects in their arrogance never see it coming and effectively hang themselves,” said Cohen, because “the person who asks the question controls the conversation, not the guy pontificating.”
‘There’s so much Israel hatred’
Rick Davis of San Diego, who participated in the webinar, said “one of the things that was a real ‘a-ha’ moment for me was when [they] talked about the rhetorical traps in social situations—when someone says something and we Jews feel it is our responsibility to educate someone who is anti-Semitic or anti-Israel.”
He found the idea of questioning the speaker particularly powerful, noting that Cohen took a “framework for discourse” that has existed for a long time and put it “into a context that is meaningful and specific.”
Still, he acknowledged, it can often be “a losing game.”
Fellow viewer Sari Steinberg said she attended because “there’s so much Israel hatred now, and I’ve come to accept that anti-Israel sentiment truly is just thinly veiled anti-Semitism.”
“Sadly,” she continued, “sometimes it comes from Jews—very often well-meaning, kind-hearted young adults who have been manipulated into thinking that Israel is a bad player, rather than seeing how incredibly moral Israel has been under extremely difficult circumstances with nearly constant threats coming from neighboring countries and terrorists.”
And while she found meaning in Cohen’s presentation, she said she wasn’t quite prepared to use it the first time an opportunity arose.
“As deeply as this approach resonated for me, I hadn’t integrated it yet when I responded to an email from an old friend who was goading me about my views on Israel,” she said. “Instead of asking what he meant by his statement, I took the bait and addressed his assertion head-on, only to regret immediately that I hadn’t heeded” her newfound advice.
“Next time I’m in a situation like that,” she said, “I’ll try to remember to stop and think about [the] presentation and ask a question instead.”
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