How to talk to Jews about Israel

Quite a few years ago, I went to a meeting in San Francisco about Israel advocacy, sponsored by the ADL (when the ADL was still interested in Israel advocacy). One of the speakers suggested a form of triage: there are those that are strongly against us, those that are strongly with us and those that haven’t decided. Talk to the ones that are undecided, he said.

I decided to take his advice, and in particular I wanted to talk to the Jews in my own community who (I thought) simply didn’t have the information they needed to understand what was happening.

I failed, utterly, both in my personal appeals and via the media.

The media was less than helpful. During one of our wars, a local TV station asked to interview my wife and me, since our children lived in Israel. I talked to the pleasant reporter on camera for at least a half hour. I mentioned how Hamas fires rockets from populated areas, how Arab casualty figures are inflated, how Israel takes great care not to hurt civilians, and how the terrorism never stops. The reporter kept asking me “but aren’t you worried about your kids?” I deflected the question several times, but finally said “Of course I’m worried, who wouldn’t be?” Guess what 10 second sound bite appeared on the news program!

I tried to buy a day sponsorship from the local NPR station “in honor of the 1000 [or whatever the number was at the time] Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism since 2000.” They refused, saying that I couldn’t prove that there were so many victims. I provided names, dates and locations. They said that it was ‘too political’. I said it wasn’t political, it was factual and asked how it was different from the sponsorship they did accept “in honor of the victims of the Stonewall Uprising.” That’s different, they said. That was a matter of civil rights, not politics. Anyway, you can’t prove that there were so many victims.

The local newspaper sometimes printed my letters, all 200 words of them, and sometimes not. They rarely printed op-eds that I wrote. Meanwhile the ‘news stories’ that ran every day pushed the ‘cycle of violence’ line that presented the attempts to kill us as a squabble between two parties both at fault.

My personal approaches were, if anything, more frustrating. People were polite, but noncommittal. As time went on, I realized that they weren’t uninterested; rather, they sensed that my position wasn’t shared by many Democratic politicians, NPR and the New York Times. They suspected that I was influenced by Republican ideas or even becoming a Republican myself. I realized, in 1960s slang, that they were shining me on. Anything I said was tainted and could be ignored.

As time went by and Barack Obama became president and Israel more and more a partisan issue, it got much worse. Now it wasn’t the ‘cycle of violence’ anymore, it was ‘Netanyahu won’t negotiate and won’t stop building settlements’. The local Reform rabbi refused to allow a film critical of J Street to be shown in his building. The Jewish Federation, of which I was a board member, was increasingly nervous about programs related to Israel.

It soon became clear that there weren’t very many ‘undecideds’. There were those that were pro-Israel, those that were against us, and those that would not listen because being pro-Israel was out of their political comfort zone.

Last night I attended another meeting, also dealing with Israel advocacy, in Jerusalem. One of the speakers was the brilliant Evelyn Gordon, and one of the things she said was that maybe trying to convince the unconvinced – at least by means of logical arguments – didn’t pay, and we should concentrate on providing the facts and the ideological basis to support those who were already emotionally on our side.

Another speaker, young activist Alexandra Markus contrasted her campus experience of pro-Israel people reciting facts with the emotionally effective drama staged by Students for Justice in Palestine.

I immediately realized that they were right. One of the lessons gleaned from Jonathan Haidt’s insightful book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, is that our emotions are in the driver’s seat, and reasoning only comes along as a rider that helps us explain the choices our emotions have already made.

All those years in California, it turns out, I was doing it wrong. That TV reporter understood that in order to make an impact on her viewers, she had to pick out the most emotionally powerful moment in her footage – even if it didn’t help my cause.

The Jewish woman who is emotionally invested in the ‘first black president’, who sees him as a father figure, who comments “I love this man” on a picture of him in Facebook,  is not going to hear me when I list the ways that Obama has damaged Israel and helped her enemies. She is not likely to listen when I bore her to tears by explaining the basis in international law for Jewish settlements across the Green Line. Her President said they were ‘illegitimate’ and if she is anything, she is loyal and patriotic.

What I should have said to her (instead of “armistice lines, 4th Geneva Convention, blah blah”) was something like this:

You are a loyal person, but what are you loyal to? Your ancestors came out of slavery in Egypt, were thrown out of Judea by the Romans, scattered across the world, lived in ghettos, paid jizya to Muslim kings, were burned in the ovens of the Holocaust, and now the Jewish people, your people have finally become sovereign in their historic homeland, and you side with this mediocrity from Kenya instead of them?

And to the Jewish students cowering on their campuses in fear of black and Arab students, I would say this:

You are not ‘privileged white colonizers’, you are an ancient people, the most ancient around. Where is your pride? Nobody has the right or the power to define you. Learn your language and speak it among yourselves, practice your krav maga and deter them from harassing you. Learn the truth about your homeland – and make it your goal to join your people there.

The best thing that pro-Israel American Jews can do is to exemplify Jewish pride, self-respect and self-reliance (like the Jewish state itself). Trying to be ‘Americans of the Mosaic persuasion’ is not a good strategy, as Jewish students are discovering. They should act like Jews, representatives of the people whose roots are in ancient Judea.

They will be accused of ‘dual loyalty’ – a misnomer, because the accusation is that their loyalty to the Jewish people and state is greater than that to America. It can’t be avoided, because they are required to be loyal to their people.

That is the basic contradiction of Diaspora life. If you like living in America, you can decide to live with it. Or you can make aliyah.

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3 Responses to How to talk to Jews about Israel

  1. nanhum says:

    Very well said but you lost me here: “and you side with this mediocrity from Kenya instead of them?” We know he is not from Kenya so that demonstrates ignorance, and “mediocrity” is a value judgement that does nothing to persuade the listener. You will immediately put off the listener and anything said before or after will fall on deaf ears.

  2. IRAB says:

    The listener who is, “put off”, by any reference to the kenyan muslim promoter of (alleged) Islamic exceptionalism as anything, BUT that, isn’t going to, EVER, be moved to extend fairness to the rights of Israel to exist free from Islamic violence, (Islamic violence, which of course, the kenyan muslim promoter of (alleged) Islamic exceptionalism claims does not exist)!
    Nope, those robots are boiled frogs who crossed over to the dark side long ago. I don’t waste MY time trying to reason with them. Mr. Rosenthal makes reference to them in a manner that is far more kindly, and erudite, than the manner in which I refer to those who remain silent and look the other way as Jews are murdered by barbaric savage MUSLIMS!!

  3. traderjoe91 says:

    There is no issue of dual loyalty; there is simply no duality in the matter at all! America and Israel – one people may be more polite, another more pragmatic and tense, and so on, like Californians are different from southerners – but so long as America is fueled by the values of my Jewish ancestors and the heritage they bequeathed to us in western civilization, then I have no issue with dual loyalty. If America is guided by Jewish values, and I am guided by Jewish values, and Israel is guided by Jewish values, then there is no duality in the matter but just arbitrary semantics of the nominal variety. I have an Israeli and American passport but there is no difference aside from that matter of bureaucratic documentation – being American, being Jewish/Israeli, is not something which contradicts at all.

    There is no contradiction to the diaspora life so long as the post-Modernist “intellectual” and his or her ideas doesn’t rein supreme here in America; when that day inevitably comes, as I fear it will, then I no longer really live in “America” – the America founded by, fueled by, and colored by Jewish values for so long until the recent decades. I am proud to be an American because I believe America is a country developed, in a long historical process, by the core tenets of my Judaism. When America is no longer colored by the fruits of my ancestral Judaism, then my loyalty to Israel will not rise above my loyalty to America…there simply won’t really be an “America” as we conceive of it today. My loyalty to Israel will simply be the “leftover.” It will rise “above” my loyalty to America only in the technical sense that my loyalty to America was only ever predicated on American loyalty to Jewish values. It is only in that sense, in that potentiality, where my greater loyalty to Israel may be actualized – in the event that my reason for allegiance and loyalty to America simply evaporates by prevailing opinions.

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