Imagine that you are an emergency responder. Ninety-nine percent of the time, you deal with fires. Therefore, you have become highly skilled with your fire hose. In fact, you’re the best in town.
One day, the emergency alarm sounds, and off you go toward the disaster, fire hose in hand. But this time it’s not a fire. This time, it’s a flood. And there you stand, holding your fire hose.
This is the situation our kids will find themselves in if the only tools in their Israel advocacy toolbox are talking points. Specifically, how do you respond to anti-Israel messages that are designed to hit every emotional button?
In these situations, the “lawyerly” case will be, at best, useless, and may make matters worse.
For this reason, a few months ago I invited teens in our Israel Leadership Fellows program to my home, in order to acquaint them with the kind of narrative they are sure to encounter on campus. We watched “Five Broken Cameras”, a 2011 documentary by Palestinian Emad Burnett and Israeli Guy Davidi. The film is a gritty, first hand account of protests in the West Bank village of Bil’in, a village affected by Israel’s security barrier. The film portrays Israel in a terrible light and packs a powerful emotional punch.
After the students watched the film, I asked them to share their initial impressions. While some students railed against the lack of context in the film and the one-sidedness of the narrative, all of them were disturbed by the violent images of the IDF that they had seen.
I asked them this question: Imagine that a friend of yours sees this movie, then comes to you a few days later and says, “I saw ‘Five Broken Cameras’. How can you possibly be pro-Israel?”
How would you respond?
Next, I showed them this excellent article from CAMERA, which took a critical look at the film, its lack of context, noting “…the changing attire worn by both the protesters and the soldiers in different frames. This is evidence that the film editors joined together footage from separate demonstrations to make it appear as one event.”
Furthermore, “By combining frames of soldiers responding forcefully to violent demonstrators with frames of peaceful protestors beating a retreat, the film editors create the impression that the Israeli soldiers initiated the violence rather than in response to stones hurled at them by demonstrators. ”
I told the students that it’s important to understand how film can be manipulated, to see what happens when essential context is missing.
Then I asked them: Will the information in this article be a helpful first response to your friend? Or would it be like taking a fire hose to a flood?
I continued: How can you respond to an emotional reaction in a way that opens the door to further conversation? And I don’t mean conversation with the radically anti-Israel crowd. Rather, how do you engage on a tough, emotional topic with your open-minded, well-intentioned, often progressive peers?
You will need to respond in a way that empathizes—sincerely—with an emotional reaction, while sharing enough of your own perspective to leave room for further conversation.
One way to do this is the “A-B-C” method outlined by Hasbara Fellowships.
“A” stands for “answer”, that is, responding directly to what the person said. “B” stands for “bridge”, a statement that leads to “C”, a message that you want to communicate.
Working in pairs, that is what the students practiced. For example:
A: A movie like this reminds me that there is a lot to be sad about, a lot of tragedy in this conflict.
B: I hope for a better life for everyone in the region, and pray for the day that…
C: security barriers between Israelis and Palestinians will no longer be needed.
Far from being a calculating or phony response, these are words on which all decent people should be able to agree.
Films like “Five Broken Cameras” raise many complex issues–for both sides–which can only be grappled with upon deeper reflection. However, we will never get to that stage of the conversation if our first response to an emotional challenge is a dry recitation of talking points or a defensive inability to deal with complexity.
Israel is big enough to withstand the scrutiny. We need to be able to handle it too.
Finally, if we truly want to get to a deeper level of conversation we must know how to listen, really listen. Without interrupting.
After Operation Protective Edge, in the summer of 2014, I was quite concerned about how the war between Hamas and Israel appeared to some of my Christian clergy friends in the community. So I met with a few and asked them.
Each person started off looking ill-at-ease, guarded. I could see that they were weighing their words. I offered a few “A-B-C” statements, but mostly I just asked them to tell me more about how the events of the summer had looked to them. It was not easy to hear.
Then an amazing thing happened, and it happened each time. The longer the person talked, the longer I listened, the more sympathetic and fair toward Israel his or her perspective became. Eventually, they asked me questions too, which created an opening to share my point of view. They listened to me as respectfully as I had listened to them. Did we reach complete agreement? No, but I did not expect that. Did we end in a much better place than we began? Without a doubt.
Our kids must head off into the world armed not only with deep knowledge about Israel, her wonders, and her challenges, but also with exposure to the harsh, anti-Israel messages they are bound to encounter.
Most of all, they must know how to listen and how to keep the doors open to conversation. Sometimes it’s time to put the fire hose away.