When It Comes To Israel, One Conversation At A Time

Two weeks ago, as Israel was defending itself from relentless rocket attacks launched from Gaza by Hamas, a Minnesota woman stood in line at a store. This is what a man standing nearby said to her:

“How about those Jews bombing Gaza? You know the Jews own the bomb companies so every time they fire a missile the Jews make money.”

The woman was a bit stunned to hear this from a complete stranger while standing in a line. Yet, she was able to reply without missing a beat:

“My heart goes out to the Israelis and Palestinians. Thank God, we’re not being bombed. What would we do if terrorists, like Hamas, moved into Toronto and started firing missiles at Detroit? We’d do the same thing, we’d defend our country.”

The man nodded in agreement, and this got him to start thinking. She could hear the wheels turning in his head and pretty much ended the conversation. Who knows if he had thought of this situation as Israel defending her people? Who knows if his ideas had ever been challenged in a compassionate, intelligent and calm way before?

This anecdote is a true story, shared with me via email, written by a woman who attended a “Challenge of Peace” presentation by the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas. Because of what she learned from the program, she felt prepared to respond to anti-Israel rhetoric when she heard it.

I am sharing this not to boast about our work, although I am justifiably proud of the exceptional work done by a dedicated group of JCRC volunteer speakers who have made well over a thousand presentations at churches, schools, synagogues and civic groups since 2002.

There is a bigger point to be made and it is this:

All of us have the power to influence thinking on Israel within our own small sphere.

A recent study of American attitudes about Israel, conducted by Brand Israel Group, led by Fern Oppenheim and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, revealed that some 60-70% of Americans can be swayed on the topic of Israel, if the messaging is appropriate (more about that in a moment). The very strong pro- and anti-Israel segments (22% and 8% respectively), despite their high level of activity, are a minority. That leaves a large number of Americans who may have limited knowledge about Israel and for whom it has not been a high priority issue.

You don’t need a Ph.D in Middle East Studies to be effective, but you do need to know how to respond in a way that has a chance of being heard. Here are some suggestions, based on the extensive experience of JCRC speakers and recommendations of the Israel Action Network:

  • Always acknowledge shared concern for both Israelis and Palestinians.
  • Acknowledge that both sides have suffered.
  • Share your own frustration that peace has been so difficult to achieve.
  • Personalize: why does Israel matter to you? The heartfelt and sincere answer to this question has power.
  • Speak of “Israelis” more than “Israel” to help people identify with the human beings who live there. Try to show how Israelis feel — aching for peace, vulnerable, forced to defend themselves, doing their best in a tough situation.
  • Broaden the conversation: Israel is not only a story of conflict. Israelis — Jews, Christians and Muslims — have built a fair and decent society, rooted in the democratic values, tolerance and foundation of human rights that we as Americans cherish. The entrepreneurial spirit of the people has built a creative, vibrant country, deserving of the nickname “Start-Up Nation.”
  • Ask “Is it fair that…?” Americans have a deeply ingrained sense of fairness. Yet movements such as BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanction) seek to isolate Israel lay all the blame and punishment on one side.

A lengthy conversation will enable you to touch on most of these points. A short encounter, like the one the woman had in the store, will allow you to touch on only a couple points. But because she sympathized with both Israelis and Palestinians and then asked the question, “What would we do?” (a close cousin to “Is it fair?”), she gave the man something to ponder. And no matter what that man ended up thinking, he cannot “unhear” the reasonable, personal and honest challenge that was posed to him.

While it is a very good thing to be able to respond to a stranger’s comment, as this woman did, the most effective conversations about Israel take place between people who are connected to each other in some way: friend, neighbor, colleague, relative. Experience has borne out the understanding that those with an open mind about Israel are most influenced by people who that person already knows and trusts. Simply put, if Israel matters a great deal to you, it will matter at least a little bit to people who care about you. When Israel is front page news and your neighbor or carpool buddy asks you about it, it’s because they want to know what their friend thinks, and in that moment you have much more influence than any talking head on TV.

Mark Twain said it best when he remarked, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth puts its pants on.” The staggering amount of dishonesty, bias, and plain ignorance regarding Israel offer endless opportunities for conversation. No, not a conversation with the unpersuadable 8%, but with the 60% or more who can be reached.

You don’t need to have all the answers. If you can balance passion and compassion, the factual and the personal, and do it all with calmness, intelligence and respect, your message will not be easily dismissed.