Steven Frank

The Ron Dermer Test

Many of us have spent the past few weeks advocating on behalf of Israel, explaining, defending, and, in some cases, apologizing for Israel’s recent actions in Gaza. Has it done any good? By laying out indisputable facts in a logical manner, has anyone convinced a pro-Palestinian supporter to sympathize with Israel’s position, much less support it? Anyone?

I have been at this for over 40 years, advocating on behalf of Israel, writing numerous op-eds, engaging friends and relatives and colleagues and strangers in a mostly civilized debate, and handing out dozens of copies of Alan Dershowitz’s “The Case for Israel.” And I must admit that I honestly do not think, in all that time, that I changed a single person’s mind.

Am I that bad an advocate? Perhaps. But I think a bigger part of the problem is the fact that people do not form their opinions on such emotional issues as the Israel-Palestinian conflict based on facts alone. After all these years, I am firmly convinced that, regardless of the facts, most people form their opinion on such sensitive issues based on emotions, their personal background, and the views of their social peers. Emotion plays the biggest role. In the present conflict, no matter how many times I point out that Hamas started this war, that Hamas may end it at any time, that Hamas is using human shields and firing rockets from schools and hospitals, etc., all pretty much undisputed facts, people just nod and say, “yes, but the pictures…,” referring to the tragic photos of injured civilians, particularly children, appearing nightly on the news.

Personal background is the next biggest opinion shaper. For young liberal Jews who want to escape the confines of their often claustrophobic upbringing and identity more with their African-American and gay brothers and sisters than their own Jewish brethren, this is an opportunity to do so. For Christian humanists, this is a chance to side with the “refugees” over the “European colonists.”

Peer pressure is an equally strong influence. If you are a liberal academician surrounded by other such kindred spirits who are demonstrating for “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” you know you will never have lunch in this town again if you side with Israel. If you are nice Jewish neighbor in the suburbs carefully tending your lawn so that it complies with strict neighborhood association guidelines, do you want to stand out from the crowd by “standing with Israel?”

However, I think that I, and perhaps you, have been defending Israel from a position of weakness. We have been trying to convince people with long, convoluted arguments and complicated history that Israel has a “right to defend itself.” But I’m afraid we have been fighting the wrong fight and asking the wrong questions.

Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, has been asking the right questions. The only questions that need be asked: “What would you have us do? What would the United States do?”

On NBC’s Today this past week, co-host Savannah Guthrie, began her interview with Dermer with this pointed question: “Again and again Israel has said it doesn’t target civilians, that, in fact, it goes above and beyond to minimize civilian casualties. And yet, we continue to see civilians die….How would you grade Israeli forces in terms of its stated mission of minimizing civilian casualties?”

Dermer didn’t apologize. He didn’t plead with Guthrie for sympathy. He shot back: “What do you think the United States would do if you had 200 million Americans in bomb shelters, you had 3,000 rockets fired at you from contiguous territory by a terror organization committed to your destruction who were using their own people as human shields?”

Guthrie then incredibly suggested that Israel was somehow responsible for Hamas using human shields: “Why play into Hamas’s hands? Israeli officials continually say this is a strategy by Hamas to rack up the civilian death toll and try to get the sympathy of the world. If that’s working, why would Israel play into that strategy?”

Dermer didn’t apologize. He didn’t beg for understanding. He shot back:
“Well, what would you have us do? You’re sitting in New York right now. Would you have us just allow you, in this case, if you were the citizen of the country, just allow you to sit in a bomb shelter day after day for three or four weeks, or would you want your government and your military to defend you? So what would you have us do? They are firing rockets, a hundred rockets at our citizens every day. We’re not going to live that way. No country should have to live that way.”

I think these are the questions we should be asking our friends and relatives. Let’s call it “the Dermer test:” What would you have us do? What would you want the United States to do ? If you were sitting in a bomb shelter with your children while hundreds of rockets were being fired into your city, what would you want your elected leaders to do? Would you tell President Obama: “please don’t do anything to protect us because we are afraid that if you do so, innocent civilians, including children might be hurt. We’ll just stay here in the bomb shelter indefinitely.”

Of course you wouldn’t. You’d be the first person on the street shouting “USA, USA,” and demanding that your leaders take whatever action was necessary to protect your family. And you’d be right to do so.

For a full view of the Guthrie-Dermer interview, see:

About the Author
Steve Frank is retired after a 30-year career as an appellate lawyer with the U.S. Department of Justice in Washington, D.C. His writings on Israel, the law and architecture have appeared in numerous publications including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Jerusalem Post, the Jewish News Syndicate and Moment magazine.