The Biggest Mistakes Pro-Israel Advocates Make #4: How to Not Look Like A Total Jerk


It’s Tuesday. We’re Tuesday People.

But, though I am a Tuesday Person (I was even born on a Tuesday) I am nowhere near as nice as Morrie Schwartz, at least not while doing Hasbara, because sometimes being nice is really hard. Raise your hand if you never called someone a nasty name in a debate, either online or in real life. I see no hands raised. Case in point.

I don’t think I know a pro-Israel advocate who hasn’t lost their marbles, threw off their kid gloves, and thought, “no more Mr. Nice Guy/Girl!” at least once. There are, after all, some pretty rabid antisemites and nutcases out there. However, the more seasoned, prominent pro-Israel activists I know are very professional and seldom if ever lash out at their opponents no matter how fed up they are. And when closed-minded nitwits refuse to listen to anything you have to say because, for example, you’re not their friend so they won’t trust you over their friend who is saying the opposite of what you are (or who claims his cousin’s best friend’s sister’s husband’s aunt’s house was destroyed in Gaza and she was only given five seconds’ warning to grab all her belongings so how dare I deny her lived experience), or because to them the fact that the Palestinians are the underdog and the Israelis are victorious necessarily means the Israelis are the oppressors of the Palestinians, sometimes you have to know when to quit. Case in point illustrating what not to do: calling people closed-minded nitwits. To their face, anyway. You can vent all you want when you go home to your husband or your best friend or your local Zionist World Domination Planning Committee meeting.

(As an aside, if someone accuses you of denying their lived experience, send them a link to the IDF protocol for Gaza (if you are Israeli) or this IDF article about their protocol. Tell them the truth: that, assuming what they said is true, those who do [insert their IDF demonizing “anecdote” here] are breaking the rules of the IDF and, if caught, are severely punished. Give them an example – a news article – of when an IDF soldier got in trouble for something similar)

When you start to feel like you’re talking to a brick wall despite your best efforts, when you start to realize that too much is at stake for the person you’re talking to should they decide to change their opinion for them to ever consider doing so, you need know when to stop what you’re doing. I even have friends whom I’ve been friends with since high school or earlier who are anti-Israel because they fell for the “Social Justice” anti-Israel rhetoric in university hook, line, and sinker, but they’re still my friends. I just gave up talking politics with them because I knew I would never get anywhere (not for lack of trying, through) and that any further attempts would only create friction between us. I have other friends who were more open-minded whom I was successfully able to convince. So your mileage may vary, but you have to know that when there are sparks – the first signs of a flame war on both sides – you sometimes have to put out the fire and just leave the building, otherwise you just burn down with it and all you’ll be left with are ashes.

If you don’t, it’s extremely easy to get frustrated, and frustration, especially when these brick walls are saying deeply offensive, antisemitic things, often leads you to do things you wouldn’t do otherwise, things that don’t necessarily feature you or the Zionist Movement in the best light. You get more with honey than you do with vinegar. But don’t beat yourself up over failing to convince them, remember you can’t win ’em all.

What NOT to do: Ad hominem, as it can easily devolve into this [not a real conversation].
#4. Using ad hominem without explaining why.
Ad Hominem is a Latin term that is literally means “to the man,” and is usually a device used by people who suck at arguing, want to intimidate despite a weak argument, or have run out of ideas. Figuratively, it means insulting the person talking to you rather than the things they are saying, effectively discrediting them and telling them that everything they say is going to be wrong because they are [insert insult here]. This removes their incentive to even bother talking to you or listening to what you have to say, prematurely ending the debate with an automatic loss for you. What’s the point of doing Hasbara if you’re going to keep shooting yourself in the foot by calling your opponent a name, implicitly informing them that no matter what they say you won’t listen? The answer is, there is no point. It’s a complete waste of time!

Knowledge is power, but with great power comes great responsibility. Meaning, when you’re representing the Jewish people, don’t be a jerk, because it makes the rest of us look like jerks. This advice is often the hardest to follow because it can be so tempting to call someone ignorant, stupid, or an “asshat.” As true as those insults may be, they don’t work; in fact, they are counterproductive. Think of the last time your mind was changed by someone who belittled you for being ignorant, called you an idiot or a bad person, or talked down to you. I might just be speaking for myself but I can’t think of any examples. When someone disrespects you, it is human nature to tune them out and not take them seriously as they are not taking you seriously by calling you those names. So as counterintuitive as it seems, be patient with them. Instead of saying, “You’re wrong!” or “You’re so ignorant!” explain exactly why they are wrong and what facts in particular are missing or misunderstood. Insult the ideas, not the people, but still let them down gently. For example:

THEM: Israel has made Gaza an open-air prison in order to abuse and control the Palestinian people and limit their self-determination.
Wrong Answer: That’s totally wrong! What are you, an idiot?
Wrong Answer 2: Where did you get this info? The propaganda machine? Pick up a damn history book!
Right Answer: It’s interesting you say that, because there are some missing pieces. Did you know that Israel dismantled all Jewish settlements in Gaza in 2005 and withdrew fully from the territory, and that there was no blockade at the time? Gaza had autonomy and held elections through which Hamas came to power, and from 2005-2009 thousands of rockets were launched into Israel from Gaza. That is why the blockade exists, and the UN has found that it is a fully legal blockade.

The use of insults doesn’t only apply to people – sometimes it can apply to groups. For example, many people have their facts so wrong that they get alienated if you use the word “terrorists” to describe Hamas. They see it as us delegitimizing the Palestinians’ elected government and undermining their desire for statehood. That’s why it’s so important to show, for example, why Hamas are terrorists before actually calling them terrorists. Same goes for any derogatory term, like “murderers”, “Nazis”, “fascists”, etc. By the same token, if you absolutely must call someone a name, first depersonalize it, then explain why you chose that particular name. For example, instead of saying “you’re so ignorant!” say, “That’s actually a very ignorant thing to say. Here is why….”

If you call someone a name, they won’t listen to anything you have to say afterward because you sound like a jerk that doesn’t care about what they have to say. Even if you don’t care about what they have to say because you know they’re wrong, their education is wrong, their sources are wrong, or they have an obvious agenda, you have to at least pretend to care. No matter what, ad hominem is rude, and if you’re rude, don’t be surprised to get rudeness in return.

04/21/2015: Part 1 – How to Flip the Emotional Switch

04/28/2015: Part 2 – How To Not Be A Wuss

05/05/2015: Part 3 – How To Actually Know What You’re Talking About

NEXT WEEK: Part 5: How to Win Over the Next Generation

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Lex is a trained comedy actor who is Montreal’s second-favourite export aside from poutine.

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