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The Biggest Mistakes Pro-Israel Advocates Make #8: How to Socially Engineer a Debate like a Boss

social engineeringAnother Tuesday, another Hasbara Blog.

I can hear the sighs.

Yes, there’s more. Yes, Hasbara is complicated, to the extent that it’s like a science, and an interdisciplinary one at that. It requires psychology, sociology, history, political science, and so on. Some of the lessons here are boring but necessary, others are fun and also necessary, but we need all the pieces to complete the puzzle and get a good picture of what we are up against and how to tackle them.

I can see many of you glanced at the title of this post and thought, what on earth is social engineering? As a proud computer geek, I figured I would use an analogy that is closest to home to describe the way in which we can persuade the other side to at least consider our points of view. In the hacking world, social engineering is how hackers manipulate the gatekeepers of highly sensitive information in order to facilitate their hack. A good example of this is the snafu involving the twitter handle @N being stolen via social engineering.

Instead of hacking someone’s twitter and stealing their handle, you’re hacking into their brain and stealing their side of the story.

I know that sounds creepy and probably came out totally wrong. If so, I’m sorry. I can promise you there is no literal brain surgery involved in this operation.

As I’ve discussed in previous installments, the major strategy of the Palestinians is to hijack causes people care about and relate them to the Palestinian cause to get people to care as much about the Palestinian cause as they do about their pet cause.

Of course, as the pro-Israel side that is already disadvantaged by sheer numbers of true anti-Semites in the world, we need to take it a step further.

We need to show that we do share progressive values with the West. Since it’s true, this won’t be too difficult. The difficult part is figuring out precisely which values to highlight and how, as that differs from person to person. In the last installment, we discussed how to read a room and categorize people to learn about their background, what they value, why they believe what they do, so that we can unpack and dissect that, as well as probe them in a way that causes them to question how they fit their anti-Israelism within the framework of their own values. That is the first part of social engineering.

The second part is a bit more complicated. As my freshman English professor loved to say, “God is in the details.” What are the details? The details are in how we disseminate our message. Even once we’ve found the person, worked up the courage, placed them in a category, learned about their values and motives behind their stance while befriending them in a non-political way, there is still one missing step before we can flip their emotional switch. Whether this step succeeds or fails lies entirely in the delivery.

This crucial step, which as a scientist I would call the “rate-limiting step” (I am sure all my fellow biologists and chemists here are nodding in agreement), involves the initial broaching of the subject of Israel. Typically this happens when you notice a friend of yours being swayed in the anti-Israel direction, but other times this can happen when the pro-BDS student you befriended begins to post pro-BDS propaganda. First impressions are the most important, so how you jump into that argument can make or break your shot at persuading them.

First off, you absolutely cannot appear to be what I call a “knee-jerk Zionist”. In other words, the second you see an anti-Israel post, having an emotional outburst about how they’re all terrorists and human shields and liars and biased and paid off by Saudi and Qatari money.

Sure, all of the above may be true, but being a bull-in-a-china-shop “knee-jerk Zionist” destroys your credibility right off the bat. Immediately, you sound like someone who didn’t do their research, who didn’t bother to form a thoughtful viewpoint or draft a calculated response. You sound like an emotional wreck, the type of person who falls prey to emotional propaganda. The dogmatic type of person who believes the bias he or she was raised with without question. I’m sure everyone has a friend like that – the friend who shares everything they find that is shocking, alarming, conspiratorial, or otherwise, before they find out it was a hoax. You sound like a crazy anti-vaxer who reacts emotionally and excessively to stuff they read without doing their research.

Don’t get me wrong – the bull in a china shop approach has its place – when preaching the choir. If you want to rev up an army of angry old Jewish folks, this kind of alarmism is exactly what works. However, as I’ve discussed in previous installments, it’s mainly a waste of time, time that we should be focusing on converting the unconverted or persuading those who are already loosely “pro-Palestine” for what you believe are good intentions, reasons compatible with Western progressive values.

I can promise you that no matter how right you are, if you come at neutral, on-the-fence or loosely pro-Palestine folks like a bull in a china shop, they will stop listening. You will have branded yourself as a raving lunatic. Most importantly, you will have branded yourself as “biased to the other side.” If someone thinks you’re on the opposite side, they will immediately tune you out, out of a subconscious loyalty to their present affiliation.

So how do you approach them? First of all, you need to grab their attention. Flip their emotional switch first, but don’t overwhelm them or sound over the top. Second, you need to apply some of the famous Carnegie principles to influencing people – most notably, making them believe it’s their idea. In order to do that, you have to get a good idea of what their idea would look like. You would have to make them believe that you are on their side, on the same page in order for them to get confused as to where your idea ends and theirs begins. You have to essentially read their minds.

Sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? Well it’s just plain socializing 101. It’s human nature to aim to predict how someone would react to a certain thing we say before we actually say it, fully aware that different people react differently to different things. We just have to word things in a way that they would be receptive to. In a way they want to hear. In a way that affirms and embraces their values and beliefs.

I see people attempt this, but more often than not, they fall flat, become unrelatable, and tune their conversation partner out. How? By making this mistake:

Mistake #8: Not acknowledging the points you do agree on

This mistake can be very difficult to avoid, because 1) the first impulse most people have when they hear something they disagree with is to immediately fire an opposing counterargument right back at them and 2) more often than not, debating becomes more about winning and less about finding the truth.

As I said above, in order to get someone to listen to you, you have to make them feel like you’re on their team, that you’re supportive, and share the same interests and goals. As someone who would call yourself a liberal or a progressive (in other words, prizing Western values), that’s actually not as hard as it sounds, especially since it’s not difficult to prove that the Palestinian side is only pretending to share those values, when in fact they revile them.

Even when you’re not dealing with a Western-minded person, it’s not impossible to make them think you’re on their team. After all, I don’t think I’ve ever met a person I disagree with on absolutely everything. A lot of people want the same things – peace, justice, human rights, freedom, dignity, etc. – but have a different idea of what they mean and how to achieve them.

The first thing you must do at all times is acknowledge the humanity of the other side in order for them to acknowledge the humanity in you. I know that sounds esoteric, but what it really means is to see them as a person rather than a monolithic “enemy,” and treat them as such. This doesn’t mean you have to actually change sides, this means that you have to listen to what they have to say so that they reciprocate the cues and listen to you. Listening also helps you formulate a better counter-argument, taking more of their talking points into account. Discussions are ineffective if they are one-way streets. As I discussed in Installment 4, if you zone out or heckle them, you appear very closed-minded, and they will thus reciprocate by also being closed-minded, or more so than usual.

I can promise you that even if you’re debating the most virulent antisemites, that there’s something you can agree upon. For example: Palestinians deserve human rights. Who wouldn’t agree with that? They’re human! An important rule of psychology, as I discussed earlier, is that if you appear to be “on their team,” they are more likely to take your ideas seriously. As such, in any debate, it’s important to first outline what you do agree with as opposed to starting off with what you don’t agree with (the latter being a defining characteristic of “Knee-Jerk-Zionism”). Starting off the debate with a foundation of compromise, respect, and conciliatory behavior, even if the opposition is someone you have no respect for at all like Gideon Levy, a man who feeds off the admiration of our enemies for going against his people, is the key to having them take the rest of your ideas seriously.

Here are two sample scenarios:

Example 1:


The Israelis are denying the Palestinians basic human rights!


Denied by their own people!! Israel did NOTHING wrong!


I definitely agree that the Palestinians’ basic human rights are being denied and that this is something that should be addressed. Can you explain how you think the Israelis are denying the Palestinians basic human rights?

In this example, you posed a question that requires them to think carefully about their position. Later on in this article, we will go over a scenario where such an argument is destroyed step by step, in the gentlest way possible (but without compromising our Zionism at all, because contrary to popular belief, being conciliatory doesn’t require that!)

Example 2:


Are you against a two state solution?


A two-state solution can’t happen! Why are we even having this pointless conversation? The two state solution argument is moot because the Palestinians don’t want a two state solution, they want to take over the whole territory and refuse to settle. Anyone who understands an iota of Arabic or anything about the culture knows that any kind of compromise, for the PLO, is losing face. If you give them a finger, they will take a hand and try to destroy Israel with their newfound autonomy. Case in point: Gaza 2005.


In theory, I am all for a two state solution! I sincerely hope one day we can reach a point where this can be done with peace, security, and mutual recognition. Personally given the type of governance the PA has, I’m not confident it can happen in the near future, however.

As you can see, you’re starting off with something you think they will agree upon. How do you figure out something they’ll agree upon? By listening to their initial argument/premise and extracting common values from it. As I touched upon earlier, of the most tried and true methods of persuasion, introduced by Dale Carnegie in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, is to make them feel like your argument was their idea. That is the holy grail of Hasbara. Starting off each argument with something you both agree on makes it easier to get inside your head and follow your thinking. If you start your idea with their idea, it’s easier for them to conclude that your whole argument was at least an extension of their idea.

Another example, broken down step by step:


  • Palestinians deserve human rights.
  • We all know that they are suffering from atrocious human rights abuses as multigenerational refugees.
  • We both know that because of the Wall, Palestinians are suffering from economic disadvantages when compared to Israelis.
  • Israel’s behavior is definitely not perfect when dealing with the Palestinians, especially on an individual level since soldiers are people too and often bring their biases and immaturity with them. Most of them are men aged 18 to 21 after all.
  • Of course we cannot justify those occasional abuses of power, but they are not condoned by Israel and punished harshly.
  • Although the Israeli government is hardly a model of uncorrupted perfection, the PA government is extremely corrupt and living richly while the Palestinians are suffering.
  • Israel is providing them water and electricity which they have not paid for in years.
  • Hamas in particular is spending all its money on rockets and weaponry to destroy Israel when they should be feeding their citizens and giving them a better life.
  • They are teaching them a curriculum that is training them up to hate Israel with a violent passion, and encourages martyrdom and murdering Israelis. For example, many streets, parks, and monuments are named for suicide bombers who killed a lot of Israelis.
  • They are making no attempt to protect Palestinians with bomb shelters and the like. Instead, many say they are using Palestinians as human shields, making them out to be martyrs for their cause, in other to gain world sympathy. With the culture of martyrdom, this is something they are made to feel proud about.
  • Meanwhile way less Israelis die because the Israeli government is spending billions on bomb shelters on every block, and the Iron Dome, which shoots down rockets. I’m sure if the PA put all that aid money – the largest amount received per capita in the world – to good use they could also invest in an iron dome.
  • I know the situation is not ideal for the Palestinians but is it really Israel’s fault?
  • Can we think of a better solution to what we have now that will help boost Palestinian human rights while keeping Israelis safe?

At the beginning, you start out with the points you probably agree upon. This starts you off on the right foot and allows them to take you seriously as a nuanced thinker who isn’t a bigot and has listened to the Palestinian argument in the past and taken home some aspects from it. This makes them feel that you are open-minded and on their team, which boosts your credibility.

You even start to concede some of the small problems to them, such as the occasional abuses of power by IDF soldiers. But wait – there’s a twist! You say that this behavior is not condoned by Israel! You have just snuck a pro-Israel argument into a very human rights-centric pro-Palestinian argument, proving that being pro-Israel and pro-Palestine are not mutually exclusive.

Then you slowly start to turn it around on the PA’s head. Yes, the Palestinians are suffering. Yes, that’s horrible and shouldn’t happen. But here’s what the PA is doing, which is not making their situation any better.

Eventually you round out the argument in a more conciliatory manner, and finish it with an open-ended question, which makes you look open-minded and makes the argument interactive enough for you to carefully point out flaws in their logic and education.

That, my friends, is intelligent, thoughtful Hasbara. It is not one-size-fits-all; rather, it is tailored to the individual at the receiving end.

But this guide is not over yet! Stay tuned for future installments that discuss other general pitfalls we may encounter and how to prevent them.

Not caught up yet? Click HERE to see the rest of the Hasbara Guide!

About the author

Picture of Lex


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


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