Talking to American Jews about Israel

Part of my job — not my paying job, the one I do for the sake of shamayim — is to talk to my Jewish friends and try to explain why the existence of a Jewish state is essential for all Jews, wherever they live, why a good relationship with the US is essential for Israel, and why the support of American Jews is in turn essential for such a relationship.

I meet a lot of resistance, which is unsurprising when you consider that if you leave aside Arabs and other Muslims, the worldwide movement to end the Jewish state is disproportionately led by people of Jewish descent. Here are some of the reasons it can be tough to be a Zionist in America:

The politicization of Israel

My job recently got a lot harder because of the introduction of Israel as an issue in Republican-Democratic politics. President Obama (for multiple reasons that I won’t go into here but have written about at length) is no friend of Israel. His administration and informal advisers also lean toward anti-Zionism, some of them pretty sharply.

The Republicans have noticed this, and have made a pitch for Jewish votes. So now, any discussion about Israel becomes a discussion about Obama vs. Romney.

That is very unfortunate, because Jews are still overwhelmingly liberals, and criticism of Obama’s attitude and policy toward Israel is understood as “Republican propaganda.” Many liberal Jews seem to think that ‘Republican’ means ‘right-wing’ means ‘fascist’ means ‘Nazi’. Even if they don’t go that far, some of the social and economic positions of today’s Republican party are anathema to liberals.

The universities

The difficulty is even greater with academics or those who would call themselves ‘progressives’, to distinguish themselves from mere liberals. In their case I need to overcome the post-colonialist worldview, in which Israel is treated as a Western colonial power, oppressing the third-world Palestinians. This makes Israel the bad guy from the beginning, and excuses almost any degree of Arab violence as “resistance to oppression.”

Many Jews have university degrees, which means that they have been exposed to this ideology during their intellectually formative years. Since the 1960’s, the concept of academic freedom has come to mean permissiveness toward political activism, even radical activism, in the classroom.

Media bias

Liberal media, like the New York Times, MSNBC, NPR, the Huffington Post, etc. almost invariably slant their reporting in an anti-Israel direction. Progressive media, like Pacifica Radio, simply present the Arab or Iranian line, repeating accusations of Israeli wrongdoing as fact and ignoring or whitewashing violence against Israelis. If you watch or listen to this stuff all day, it sinks in.

The effect of the media is amplified by the ‘information bubble’ phenomenon: because it simply feels good to have one’s opinions confirmed, people seek out media that confirm their opinions. So liberals listen to NPR and conservatives to Fox News. They choose friends with like ideas for political conversations. Living in an ideological information bubble reinforces their views. It’s a positive feedback loop.

The human brain

Jonathan Haidt, in his excellent book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, explains some of the reasons why it is so hard to change a person’s mind about ideological issues. One is that political opinions stem from moral intuitions that are primarily emotion-based, not the result of rational argument. These emotion-based moral intuitions happen immediately upon perception; only later does a person come up with arguments to justify his belief. Reasoned arguments work against other arguments, but don’t touch the underlying intuitions.

Haidt uses an analogy of a rational rider on an emotional elephant. The rider can try to influence the elephant, but mostly he comes up with reasons to explain the direction the elephant chooses to go.

How many times have you heard “I grant your facts and understand your reasoning, but I just don’t see it that way?” That’s the elephant talking!

Another reason is confirmation bias. Psychological research has shown over and over that humans have a tendency to focus on evidence that supports their beliefs and ignore evidence that challenges them. This is why scientists sometimes stick to discredited theories despite clear evidence against them (luckily for us, other scientists work hard to find disconfirming evidence for theories that they oppose).

What can be done?

Here are a few lessons:

It will never be possible to disconnect Israel from US politics, but soon the election will be history. The focus should always be on policies, not personalities. And it is a poor idea to mix Israel with other issues. I once read a persuasive article about why Obama’s policy was anti-Israel, which closed with a negative remark about Obamacare. Stupid.

It is important to be in touch with what is happening on campuses, oppose egregious politicization of supposedly academic activities, and fight to prevent the resources of universities from being used for anti-Israel purposes. Arab and Iranian interests fund departments and programs to serve their interests; Zionists should do the same.

There are numerous organizations opposing bias in the mainstream media. It’s also necessary to develop alternative media, but strongly partisan approaches will not be effective because of the information bubble phenomenon.

Finally, involved arguments about (for example) Israel’s rights under international law are less effective than appeals to fairness, Jewish self-determination, etc.

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2 Responses to “Talking to American Jews about Israel”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    As so often happens in my reading of ‘FresnoZionism’ this piece more clearly articulates a central point I had only vaguely understood i.e. “Jews are still overwhelmingly liberals, and criticism of Obama’s attitude and policy toward Israel is understood as “Republican propaganda.”

  2. juvanya says:

    Perhaps I can help the elders with my personal experience. I used to be a socialist atheist Jew (I identified as both and intended to raise my kids Jewish and expose them to the practices and holidays). Now I am a libertarian Jew. I guess I could say I am semitheist. I dont consider that important right now. I have always been a Zionist, much to the annoyance of some of my socialist friends and their friends, a few of whom became more pro-Israel thanks to me.

    Since then I have made friends on both sides, infiltrated antiIsrael groups, and for a time became apathetic about hasbara, but still very much pro Israel. One of my most recent experiences just this week is a very obvious Jew, lets pretend his name was Sam Gold. He called one of the state politicians a “Zionist shill”. I didnt respond because I have vested interests in his clique that I need to maintain and it wouldve been futile at the time. I argue enough on other issues. I cant fight the ground war for Zionism right now. Its tiring.

    What he represents is a divergence I only noticed when experiencing Judaism with the Orthodox community. While 5-6 million American will check off Jew on a sheet of paper, many of them are fully assimilated. They may or may not have been bar mitzvahed (an unimportant ceremony in my book, but representative of upbringing). They certainly did not do much other than Passover and Hanukah. Maybe it was Hanukah and Christmas. They werent dragged to synagogue every Rosh Hashanah and never let out on the playground like I was (please dont do this, its a huge gamble that can crush Jewish spirit). They werent sent to Hebrew school. And so on. They werent immersed in much Judaism, or so I think. Ive never asked assimilants, but thats the feeling I get talking to Jews who embrace Judaism in college and never had any prior experience. If you arent part of the community, what motivation is there to support it? If you arent a Jew really, how can you feel threatened by Nazis or antizionists?

    What is the solution? Im not sure really. I know that the on campus advocacy groups are stemming the tide at best, but they have no idea how to fight rhetoric. Many of them are socializers. Many of them have classmates in the Muslim groups. Many of them are just the weak Jews who have no will to fight. The 6 million that just walked to their deaths several decades ago. I cant do everything. I cant infiltrate and lead groups. I cant advocate and not advocate. I cant be everywhere. But I do have an idea that I think works.

    Straight up advocacy is a very brutal and long fought war. It can take months to convince someone to support Israel. What is there to support when its always “kills arabs, takes land” on the news? You cant just say “its all a lie”. No one responds to that even when you prove it. Drudgery does work. But who has the insane patience like me to drive into someones head that Israel is not evil? Not many. Instead, trick the assimilants into becoming Jews. Be warm and welcoming. Show them what Judaism is all about, the community they can join, the benefits they get. Dont make it all a party, make its serious and fun—seriously fun. There is a program that I did called Maimonides Leaders Fellowship run by Meor. They bring lecturers to talk about Judaism. These are very stimulating to most people who can be convinced to attend the first night. There are also two required shabbatons that are without exception extremely popular. Ive no doubt that anyone who goes in comes out any less Jewish. I know it has done this to me. I saw the beauty of the community, the wonder of Shabbat, and I wanted to be a part of it. It was all free of charge and you even get a $300 stipend upon completion.

    Now some Jews cant commit to all Shabbat every weekend, but it will make them more receptive to it. It will make them more Jewish. When all their new friends are going to Israel, they will want to also. Without ever mentioning Israel to them, chemical changes will occur in their brain. Curiosity will pique them and they will research Israel on their own. That is the strongest way to persuade. Trick someone into wanting to learn about your view without ever mentioning it.

    These projects need to be continued. Once someone is made a semiobservant, or at least conscious Jew, its hard for them to be antiIsrael. Once they take a trip there, wander around, see the absolute lack of violence, they will wonder what they see on TV. Thats the key.