For Americans, Israel is a country — not a cause

A friend in Israel recently handed me a copy of “After the Ball: How America Will Conquer its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the ’90s,” a book that offers strategies, including marketing concepts, for changing popular culture from one that was primarily antagonistic toward LGBT people to being more accepting. My friend suggested that the pro-Israel community in the US take a page out of the gay rights activists’ playbook and attempt to fundamentally alter perceptions of Israel’s right to the land, in the same way that gay rights activists were able to change views on same-sex marriage and AIDS.

My friend’s suggestion reflects growing sentiment inside Israel’s political right that a more assertive and steadfast Israeli advocacy campaign can shift the terms of discussion in the US and the West, establishing Israel’s right to all the territories it currently controls. If Israel can successfully affect such a shift in public opinion, the thinking goes, then it will be seen as ready to give away something that it rightly owns rather than returning something it has taken from the Palestinians. Such a successful shift, they contend, would fundamentally alter the character of debate about the morality of Israel’s presence in and settlement of the territories.

A rights-based campaign would not likely generate much enthusiasm among Israel’s friends in the West. But even if it did, efforts to get the American public to buy into Israel’s claims to all the land would almost certainly fall flat (Note to readers: This piece is not about the morality of such a claim, pro or con, but about the limits of public discourse). The view that Israel should seek to make territorial compromise in return for peace is simply too ingrained in the imagination of the public, which will not be susceptible to the types of aggressive advocacy used by homegrown social movements to drastically shift the terms of discussion.

Once Israel put the territories on the bargaining table, it could not easily take them off. Israeli Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman writes of the phenomenon of “loss aversion,” in which the public’s moral rules are based on a set reference point – what was done before. In this case, the set reference point is the previous offers Israeli governments have made to Palestinians. Changing that reference point may well be an impossibly high hurdle.

To be sure, modern American history is replete with examples of highly ambitious and ultimately successful efforts to radically shift public attitudes, but such success stories invariably revolve around issues which Americans have a deep interest in one way or other and not on the rights of foreign countries to land. Major shifts in attitudes only occur when people have enough stake in an issue to devote the time and energy necessary to rethinking their views. They are domestic movements that rise out of credible claims of oppression or deprivation, or issues that impact the pocketbook or people’s sense of security and well-being. With the exception of Evangelicals, Jews, Arabs, Muslims, and far left-wingers, Americans are simply not sufficiently engaged in the Middle East conflict for such a drastic change in views to take place.

Indeed, surveys of American attitudes of Israel and the Palestinians reveal a high degree of indifference. Pushed to choose one side or the other, vast majorities will take Israel. But it’s not strong support. The pie chart of American public opinion shows about 22 percent strong support for Israel, 8 percent strong opposition, and 70 percent relatively indifferent with weak sympathies in favor of Israel.

By contrast, surveys on same sex marriage show a very high degree of awareness among Americans as well as strong feelings pro or con. Americans care about the issue because they may know someone gay, or worry that condoning same sex marriage will lead to a deterioration of the institution of marriage. Even those who don’t have a strong position care bout the issue, and many that do have a position care so much that they’re willing to reconsider their views.

Proponents of the rights based argument probably overestimate the degree to which Americans are interested in Israel. The average Israeli taxi driver or falafel stand cashier talks your ear off about Israel’s relationship with the Arab world. The average American taxi driver pays almost no attention at all.

Imagine, for a second, a large group of Israel activists holding up signs in the middle of a US city stating “All of Israel is ours.” Passers-by would either pay them no attention or think they’re kooks. A group of Native Americans protesting for more hunting land in Arizona, on the other hand, constitutes a credible claim against the people in charge. Those who currently possess the land have a major stake as well. While the average American may never hear about the dispute, those directly involved and the surrounding community care a lot. A sustained, highly effective campaign on the part of the Native Americans may eventually win the day.

The great American political theorist Charles Tilly defined social movements as “a series of contentious performances, displays and campaigns by which ordinary people make collective claims on others.”  Saul Alinsky, widely considered the greatest organizer in Modern American history, turned such contentious performances into an art form, threatening a “piss in” at Chicago O’Hare Airport. Alinsky planned to arrange for large numbers of African Americans to occupy the toilets at O’Hare for as long as it took to bring the city to the bargaining table. The threat alone was sufficient to produce the desired outcome. A settler piss-in to keep the land might work in Israel, but would appear beyond ridiculous in the US.

For the purposes of Israel advocacy, it is much more useful to think of Israel as a brand. Branding is an idea borne in realism and current tastes. In the minds of most Americans, Israel is much more like Japan or New Balance running shoes than it is same sex marriage or gun ownership. They care a lot less. Branding a country is an incremental process that attempts to move people within their current belief structure.

According to Ido Aharoni, Israeli Consul General of New York and a leading branding expert, the key to any nation branding itself is to “find out what (a nation) is good at and communicate that to relevant audiences.” Branding a nation is “putting a human face on a product.” Aharoni argues that it is important to build meaningful, relevant relationships.” Otherwise, “it is nearly impossible to improve the position of the country.”

Israel advocacy can succeed in favorably altering perceptions of distinct segments of the American public, but it won’t likely succeed in resetting the terms on the requirements for peace. For most Americans, Israel is a country, not a cause.

About the Author
David Bernstein is president and CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the representative voice of the Jewish community relations movement. Follow him on Twitter.