Selling Israel to a liberal audience


Student, Prozdor
September 9, 2013

Far too often, staunch liberals withhold their support from the State of Israel because they feel that Zionism is inconsistent with their other views. As a liberal Zionist, I frequently find myself arguing with my liberal friends, trying to convince them that they can support Israel while also staying true to other liberal values. In this post, I will share some of the strategies I have found to be most helpful in swaying liberal people to be more supportive of Israel.

First, I find it’s very important not to come off as a radical. Many liberals associate Zionism with radical conservatives. Such people will be quick to write off even an educated and reasonable Israel advocate who brings up a right-wing argument, because it reinforces their preconceived notions about the Zionist movement as a whole. It is critical to stay away from religion (i.e., messianic arguments, the idea that Jews have a divine right to the land, etc.), because bringing up such points will only drive most liberals to believe that there is no political or historical defense for Israel, only misguided religious fervor (even though those religious points may be very significant in other types of discussions). Similarly, any sort of generalization is an instant turnoff. Far too many people who support Israel condemn Islam, calling the religion inherently violent or accusing its adherents of barbarism or conspiracy. Such remarks are not only hurtful in the way that any other negative stereotyping is hurtful, but they also do serious harm to the Zionist cause by associating Israel with indiscriminate hatred of Muslims.

Second, equating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, while a popular method among Israel advocates, is not the best approach with liberal audiences. While an argument for this association can be made based on the bias Israel faces in the UN and international media, the vast majority of American anti-Zionists (at least in my experience) are not anti-Semitic. I recently posted about Israel in a political Facebook group and received numerous anti-Israel comments. I found myself in a long debate against several left-wing anti-Zionists, which only ended when someone started attacking the Jewish people, accusing us of everything from controlling the international media to allegiance with the devil. Instantly, the entire tone of the discussion changed, and every one of my former anti-Zionist opponents turned against the anti-Semite. Their opposition to Israel was trumped by their disapproval of, and need to distance themselves from, anti-Semitism. Furthermore, some of the most effective anti-Israel organizations and activists are themselves misinformed Jews who are ashamed of and do not want to be associated with the Jewish state. Therefore, accusing all anti-Zionists of anti-Semitism is an unfounded and flawed strategy, and I would not advise it in a defense of Israel.

Third, another important tactic in advocating for Israel to a liberal audience is to focus on Israel’s efforts toward peace. Israel’s detractors have heard enough human rights comparisons between Israel and other countries in the region, and while those points can be effective (I happen to love such comparisons, because Israel’s liberal internal policies are a major part of what makes Zionism and liberalism such a natural fit), they are generally totally disregarded by people who consider Israel’s foreign policy to be conservative. Such human rights comparisons should usually be employed when coupled with points about Israel’s quest for peace throughout history. The very concept of the exchange of “land for peace” is a perfect representation of the conflict: Israel sees an inherent interest in peace, while her enemies will only accept peace in exchange for tangible rewards. If someone argues that the Palestinians don’t demand land so much as they do independence, the result of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005 becomes an important point: Israel has tested the idea of unilateral “peace for peace” (by giving up land instead of trading it) and was greeted only by rocket attacks in response.

There are other specific moments in Israeli history that demonstrate Israel’s commitment to peace. One such moment was Israel’s acceptance of the 1947 UN Partition Plan, which was far from an ideal offer for Palestinian Jews and was rejected by the involved Arab parties. Other examples of Israel’s commitment to peace include Israel’s 1967 offer to return directly to the pre-war borders in exchange for peace treaties with the belligerent governments (rejected by those governments), Israel’s acceptance of the Clinton Parameters at Camp David in 2000 (very nearly accepted by PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, who changed his mind at the last moment and instead led an intifada soon after), Prime Minister Netanyahu’s 10-month settlement moratorium in 2010 (bringing the Palestinian Authority briefly to the table before President Mahmoud Abbas withdrew from negotiations), and most recently Israel’s release of several Palestinian prisoners (including convicted terrorists who are responsible for the deaths of several Israeli civilians, a difficult concession) to bring Abbas to the table again this year. Mentioning these Israeli efforts is compelling for many liberals, whose anti-Israel biases often are based on the premise that Israeli actions have thwarted peace efforts to date.

Finally, it is helpful to note that liberals (including myself) tend to champion the underdog in any situation. To many liberals, the Palestinians are as much the “David” against the Israeli “Goliath” as are small businesses against giant corporations or the LGBTQ community against certain hostile straight majorities. However, the fact is that Israel is the “David” as often as it is the “Goliath” when viewed in the context of the broader Israeli-Arab conflict, or the even broader conflict between Israel and her enemies (including Iran, which is not Arab). Discussing the history and situation of Israel aside from the issues surrounding the Palestinians can change the way Israel is perceived, so that it is no longer seen as the oppressor but rather as a victim of the type that liberals are inclined to support. Israel was forced into military confrontations with Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, and Syrian armies, in addition to scattered Palestinian forces, from the start (in the War for Independence), and its existence has been threatened on multiple occasions since then by several armies, including in 1967 and in 1973. Even today, Israel finds itself directly threatened by Hamas, Hezbollah, Syria, and Iran, all of which have pledged to wipe the Jewish state off the map. Focusing on the wider reality of Israel’s predicament provides liberals with an image of Israel as “David”, rather than allowing the discussion to be based entirely on the Palestinians, since Israel’s relative strength in that area is unappealing to liberals on an instinctual level regardless of Israeli efforts toward peace.

Of course, the above point does not mean that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians should not be addressed. Most of Israel’s detractors will bring the conversation back to the status quo in the West Bank, and Israel’s supporters must be prepared for that discussion as well. I sometimes concede points regarding settlements (I personally don’t agree with much of Israel’s settlement policy). However, it is important to remember the similar settlements that were uprooted for the sake of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty in the years following 1979 and the settlements that were uprooted in Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, demonstrating that settlements are not actually quite as severe an obstacle to peace as they are often accused of being. With regard to other issues, the United Nations’ recognition of the state of Palestine can also work as an advantage to Israel advocates, as there is no reason that Palestinians in their own internationally recognized nation under the Palestinian Authority should need to have Israeli citizenship, which means that Israel should not have to afford such people the same rights as Israel affords its own citizens. That is why West Bank Palestinians are treated differently from Israeli citizens who live in the same area: because the former is under a different government. Arabs within Israel (Israeli Arab citizens), including those who live in territory annexed by Israel both after the War for Independence and the Six-Day War, who are thus not part of the PA’s state of Palestine, vote in normal elections, serve as judges in Israeli courts, participate in the Knesset, and function as any other Israeli citizens.

I hope that this post will help readers to become stronger, more strategic advocates for Israel when speaking to liberal audiences. Conservative arguments and tactics, and even many liberal ones, are not enough. I am hopeful that by keeping the above points in mind, regardless of personal views, we can increase the impact and value of advocacy efforts.

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