If they were right, I’d agree, but it’s them they know not me.
These closing lyrics from Yusuf Islam’s (formerly Cat Stevens) Father and Son epitomize one of the major failures of traditional Israel advocacy and why more young people are failing to reach their peers who have begun to question their support of the Jewish state.
Adoringly and pejoratively known as Hasbara, this defensive method of articulating Israeli history or government policy is based on the idea that critics will abandon their unsympathetic positions and adopt favorable ones once the situation is explained to them. Yet for all the millions of dollars invested over the past decade training young people to win hearts and minds, we continue to see greater confusion and hostility among the next generation.
To highlight the principal failure of this methodology and why Jewish organizations trafficking in it desperately need to upgrade their approach, let’s consider the intense debate over gun control following the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida. Proponents of gun control attempted to convert skeptics by providing information validating their own perspective as to why it’s in the best interest of the United States to modify laws governing firearm possession. So, what happened in the days and weeks ahead – after being exposed to a tidal wave of invalidating information, did millions of gun control cynics awake as Second Amendment abolitionists? No, they didn’t.
Now let’s shift the focus to Israel. When we hear someone claim that occupation is the source of the conflict, what is the fight or flight response expressed by Israel advocates when this falsehood challenges their existential sense of reality? The “fight” causes denial, justification or explanation of alternative causes refuting the other’s view, while the “flight” causes withdrawal from the conversation when ignorance or frustration become too uncomfortable to bear. The former tells the other person you don’t care about their concerns, while the latter suggests he/she is on the right track; both reinforce their current position.
This scenario reflects an honest but lethal error advocates make when attempting to engage in persuasion. They presume people share the same values, experiences and interpretations which led them to form their own opinions, and therefore attempt to persuade as if they were persuading themselves. Essentially the thinking goes: I’m a moral and rational person, so if it matters to me, it must matter to them; if it convinced me, it must convince them. I’m going to hammer the square peg into the round hole until they see it the way I do. But that’s the problem – this is not about you! It’s about the people you are trying to reach, and you cannot effectively influence them until you understand and prioritize what is important to them.
Asking open-ended questions is an incredibly powerful tool in advocacy, but it’s so underutilized because of our meager attention spans and unquenchable thirst for validation. Spending the majority of your time listening to someone else’s views rather than speaking about your own can pay huge dividends. Firstly, consider this as a form of intelligence gathering. Information is the ultimate currency in this world and knowing who you are talking to will better inform which points resonate in your dialogue. Secondly, why crack open a safe when someone is willing to give you the combination? Feeling heard and acknowledged in today’s society is increasingly rare and we all desire more of it. The more pleasant exchanges you provide for that person the more opportunities they will offer to talk about this subject and the higher quality information you will acquire. And thirdly, building a rapport as someone who exhibits empathy and interest in what they have to say results in a greater willingness for them to hear and recognize what you have to say afterward. Give and you shall receive.
Like much of our political discourse today, the current dynamic surrounding the conflict is zero-sum in nature and dismisses the slightest deviation from dogma. If we want young Jews and the majority of the general population sitting on the fence to be sympathetic toward Israel in its perpetual quagmire, we need to treat their thoughts on the matter, however misguided, as an asset in our conversations, not a liability.