How to win a debate with an Israel-hater

How does a pediatrician from Northern California end up writing a book about advocacy for the Jewish state?

By MIKE HARRIS
May 31, 2019 09:37
How to win a debate with an Israel-hater

The cover of ‘Winning a Debate with an Israel-Hater’ by Dr. Michael Harris, published by Shorehouse Books and available on Amazon. (photo credit: MIKE HARRIS)



The story begins in 2003. At the height of Arafat’s terror war, America was preparing to invade Iraq. “Antiwar” movements developed in major US cities, many of them led by an extremist Marxist group called International ANSWER (“Act Now to Stop War and End Racism”). It was a highly ironic name, as a major part of ANSWER’s platform was hard-core “river to the sea” anti-Zionism, and support of Hamas and Hezbollah. And those of us in the San Francisco Bay Area saw how ANSWER was pushing that agenda at every opportunity. The antisemitism on display at their rallies wasn’t an undercurrent – it was an incoming tide. (If you’d like to see what some of this looked like, it was well documented by a photographer who goes by Zombie, at www.zombietime.com.) 

By early 2004, a group of grassroots pro-Israel activists came together and formed San Francisco Voice for Israel, which later became the nucleus of the Northern California chapter of StandWithUs.


As one of the founding members, I participated in many counter-demonstrations against ANSWER – not in support of the Iraq War, but in support of Israel, especially during the Second Lebanon War when ANSWER organized openly pro-Hezbollah rallies. We spoke with passersby, we prepared flyers to hand out, and we recruited more and more people. I also started giving talks to local Jewish communities about what was happening in Israel and out in the streets, and this led to a troubling discovery: many supporters of Israel simply didn’t know how to respond to the lies being promoted by ANSWER and other anti-Israel groups. 
It’s not that the information wasn’t available: Alan Dershowitz had already published The Case for Israel, and Mitchell Bard’s Myths and Facts was available online. Rather, many people found it too time-consuming, or too daunting, to use these valuable resources.


After Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012, I felt that I needed to do more. And then I had an epiphany. A friend had given me a book of political humor entitled How to Win a Fight with a Conservative by Dan Kurtzman (who also wrote the companion book How to Win a Fight with a Liberal). This is what was missing – a short book on how to tell Israel’s side of the story, but with some satirical humor added for the age of social media. Three years later, the first edition of Winning a Debate with an Israel-Hater was published.


How do I define “winning?” You’re not going to have people holding up signs to score your debating finesse. (What? Only a 6.5 from the Russian judge??) You’re not going to get a medal for your performance from the International Zionist Conspiracy (at least that’s what they instructed me to say). And you’re not going to get a member of the local branch of Students for Justice in Palestine to step back and say, “Whoa! I never thought of that! You’re right,” before slinking off in utter mortification. But even if you can’t earn a decisive victory, you don’t want to be afraid to engage and challenge anti-Israel activism. Perhaps you’ll get the haters to think twice, but even if you don’t, you have an opportunity to reach the same audience that they’re trying to recruit. And doing so with the facts and satirical weapons offered throughout the book will give you a strong advantage in this clash of ideas.


What you might accomplish is getting a fair-minded person who is listening to the exchange to think more about what you have to say. You might get them to realize that the steady drumbeat of misinformation from the other side might not reflect the reality of a complex ethno-religious conflict that is over a century old. You might even get them to engage in conversation with you, to ask you some genuine questions, and to reconsider some of what they have heard. Why does this matter? Because the more that Americans learn about this conflict, the more they side with Israel. A Gallup poll taken in August 2014, during the middle of Operation Pillar of Defense, showed a striking correlation between reading and hearing about the conflict – even just on social media! – and support for Israel.


Now that you know why to engage, you need to know how to do it effectively. After reviewing the essential points of the history of the Jewish people in the Jewish homeland, I discuss how you can use the same debate techniques that are used by professional spokespeople on TV or radio – and how to avoid unforced errors that weaken your argument. 


I also provide a field guide to the people I refer to as PIDS: People With Israel Derangement Syndrome. It’s a term that has been used online for at least a dozen years to refer to those with an irrational, irredeemable hatred of the Jewish state. I’m not referring to those who are critics of specific policies of the government of Israel, but rather to those who don’t believe that there should be such a thing as “the government of Israel.”


The bulk of the book provides the details needed to refute many of the false charges leveled against Israel: “apartheid,” “settler colonialism,” and why the claim of a “right of return” for endless descendants of Arab refugees is a fiction. It is vital to understand how the veneer of “human rights” is used to hide the jargon of jihad behind the language of liberalism.


For those who have been engaged in these discussions, it becomes obvious quite quickly that the goal of the PIDS is not reversing 1967, but rather relitigating 1947. How do you expose that to others who might be listening? Put them on the spot by saying: “I support genuine peace between the Jewish State of Israel and a future Arab Palestine. What about you?” Anti-Israel activists can’t even pretend to support that, because the true goal of their activism has never been the creation of a Palestinian Arab state, but rather the elimination of the Jewish one. (A note to my friends on the right: we all know that this isn’t happening until a Palestinian leadership arises that will say to its people – in Arabic – that they accept living in peace alongside the Jewish state; nor is it a justification for pressure on Israel to make unilateral concessions.)


It is also critically important for supporters of Israel to understand the current incarnation of anti-Zionism, which is the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement. From its origins in the ironically misnamed “UN Conference on Racism” in South Africa in 2001, to the specific demands enumerated in the BDS Call, its goal is the end of Jewish national existence in any part of the Jewish indigenous homeland.


But to challenge the assertion – so often repeated in the media – that BDS is about “Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians,” you have to be able to show what is under the “human rights” mask that BDS supporters wear. It’s not hard to do: there are a plethora of statements in which they admit their objective, such as the one made by a student government official at the University of California at Davis after the passage of the BDS resolution she introduced there in 2015: “Hamas and Shari’a Law have taken over UC Davis.”


Finally, I address the dramatic changes in US policy towards Israel that have taken place since Donald Trump became president – moving the US Embassy to Israel’s capital, cutting off aid to the Palestinians that is used to underwrite salaries for terrorists, and most importantly, removing America from the ill-designed JCPOA – the unratified “Iran nuclear deal.”


While many American supporters of Israel have jumped aboard the Trump Train, there are also many who agree with those decisions, yet oppose almost everything else that he has done. Supporters of Israel need to tread very carefully during this next presidential election season. The more strongly a particular policy is identified with Trump, the more negative response it may receive from those who might not care a lot about it, except that “Trump supported it, therefore I oppose it.” (Also see under: the exact same phenomenon when Obama was president.) 


Given that the Israel-haters loathe Trump and his pro-Israel policies, they will happily try to manipulate opposition to those policies into a centerpiece to all anti-Trump activism. The most obvious example of that is the Women’s March, whose leader Linda Sarsour has declared “Palestine” to be “the social justice cause of our generation.” We can’t afford to have that be a major piece of anti-Trump campaigning.


My goal is to empower, enlighten, and hopefully entertain. So next time you are confronted with anti-Israel activism, you’ll be armed with the facts – and the techniques to apply them with skill and confidence.■


Dr. Mike Harris is a longtime Israel activist and educator in the San Francisco Bay Area, and author of Winning a Debate with an Israel Hater, (https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0999412795), a handbook for activists written with some satirical humor as well


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