Rethinking advocacy

Make sure you can convince more than your own fans when you cheer for Israel.

July 4, 2013 14:07
Israeli flags.

Israeli flags 370. (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)

In the highly charged, emotional and biased world of political advocacy, “logical” is often defined as what makes sense for a few people who sit around a table and offer judgments about what other people should think – whether or not they really know anything about those they are trying to convince.

Many of those who see Israel through a narrow and focused lens often act like everyone else should as well. When it comes to Israeli hasbara, or public diplomacy, we see people and organizations whose heart may be in the right place, but whose logic is governed by what they would like to believe – and not what is actually supported by acceptable evidence and backed by impartial research. In fact, it is astounding how many opinions are offered that are devoid of any real evidence other than “Well, everyone knows that.”

So you will hear advocacy organizations consistently “defend” Israel and you will see hasbara messages that remind us that Israel invented the cellphone and that gays serve in the military. People will be urged to “tell the truth” and “just give the facts,” and will even admit that “Israel is not perfect” once in a while, but they’ll never specify where the imperfection lies. You will see pictures of beautiful people on a Tel Aviv beach, articles that point out all the great things that Israel does and emails with the subject line “65 reasons I love Israel.” And, we are told, these are the logical messages that will tip the scales of sympathy in Israel's favor.

Well, maybe yes – but most likely no. That's because what makes sense for some makes absolutely no sense for others, especially those the advocates are trying to influence.

Preaching to the choir is an old practice that makes people feel good, but does not necessarily have too much effect beyond the choir itself. Sending messages to friends about the “amazing” things Israel does or the “shameful” things Arabs do and urging them to circulate it to everyone they know will probably not change their already set attitudes, and will probably have little effect on people beyond their circle. That's because most of the people they know already feel the same way they do, and those who do not will not be persuaded by empty, self-serving and “root for us” rhetoric that almost never addresses the true concerns of those who question Israeli policy.

The one question that needs to be asked, but almost never is in advocacy circles, is: “How do you know?” How do you know that the approach you are taking, what you are saying, how you are saying it, is what will change the attitudes of those who feel differently than you do about Israel? The answer we often hear from practicing advocates skirts the issue by looking at Israel as a product to be sold and urging use of clever promotional techniques, much like the tactics a salesperson uses to get people to buy a product, as if that is what critically thinking critics of Israel would logically react to.

Science tells us that there are limits to one’s logic, which is why science also tells us that in order to be certain, you need to check things out. Checking things out means using objective means of collecting data and analyzing evidence, and not simply asking your Facebook friends what they “like.” Checking things out also means admitting you may be wrong and challenging potential or real donors for whom ideology rather than evidence guides philanthropy.

Take for example the issue of “poster wars,” the term applied to campaigns by pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli groups that take the form of public advertisements, often in commuter rail stations.

When one such poster depicted Israel as responsible for taking Palestinian land and creating a refugee problem, pro-Israel groups responded with their own ads. While it is clear that these campaigns cost quite a bit of money, it is less clear that they did any good for either side.

When a pro-Palestinian poster appeared last year in New York stations, one pro-Israel advocacy organization immediately responded by placing their own posters in these stations, which they claimed would “…make sure that Americans are not misled and persuaded to support enemies of peace, disguised as supporters of peace and justice.” That sounds wonderful, but exactly how did they know that a poster highlighting Israel’s technical achievements or showing the strong historical connection of the Jewish people to the land would persuade those who would think otherwise about Israel’s behavior towards the Palestinians? THAT QUESTION interested Dalia Leibowitz, a science student at MIT and a resident of one of the communities where the posters appeared.

Leibowitz went about answering the question in a direct but quite simple manner. She asked people who commute regularly about their reaction to the posters. Her findings? It appeared that most people did not even notice the posters and those few that actually did felt they made no difference in their thinking on the issue of Israel or the Palestinians.

Lack of accountability is not restricted to public campaigns by pro-Israel organizations.

Some of the more popular advocacy approaches and material disseminated and presented as educational are checkered with half-truths alongside misleading and one-sided information, which may confirm the beliefs of fans of Israel but do little to intelligently deal with the serious questions others may have.

Despite all the flag-waving, cheerleading and self-promoting messages in social media, no one really has a clue if what they are doing has made an impact unless it is independently measured, confirmed and replicated.

Take for example one such “educational” booklet that says it “empowers students with the necessary tools to counter misinformation about Israel.” But what if the booklet itself employs misinformation? In one example of an inaccurate claim, this much-promoted teaching tool says, “In 1922, in response to Arab pressure, Britain violated the Mandate and cut off 77 percent of Palestine, granted it exclusively to the Hashemites, and forbade Jewish settlement in what became Jordan.” The only problem is that this is not completely true. While Britain did in fact cut off the territory as part of the proposed Jewish homeland, and while it may have been a political move, it was also within their rights at the time to do so. Article 25 of the Mandate granted that right to Britain and they implemented it lawfully, passing it with the assent of the League of Nations.

In another somewhat disingenuous move, the booklet includes Israeli Druse in the definition of “Arab” when touting Israel’s treatment of minorities. Despite the fact that Israel recognized the Druse, by law, as a distinct and separate ethnic group, the impression is given that Druse are in fact “Israeli Arabs,” citing several Druse who occupy “high-level” positions in Israeli society as examples of the Jewish state’s enlightened approach to Arabs.

It is abundantly clear that many pro-Arab propagandists present distorted and misleading information as facts and make outrageous claims that are patently false. The use of “big lie” techniques is not without precedent in diplomacy, but basing a serious advocacy campaign on tendentious presentations may ultimately blunt the credibility of the sources that do so.

It could be that students themselves are beginning to see this as well.

In a study of over 100 randomly selected American students studying in Israel, they were asked to rank the credibility of a variety of sources related to common Israeli talking points. For example, they were asked to consider the statement “Israel is in no way an apartheid state,” and were given a number of different sources for the statement. They were then asked to rate how credible or believable the statement was, depending on the source of the information. The results may be surprising, but should be taken to heart. More than half this group of young, traditional and clearly pro-Israel students ranked the easily identifiable pro-Israel sources as less than “somewhat credible,” while ranking possibly dubious sources such as media organizations and human rights groups closer to “mostly credible.”

There is only one “truth” in advocacy, and that is the truth that can be verified. Until advocacy organizations stop the ritualistic and often juvenile cheerleading, and incorporate serious and impartial objective research into their activities, we are likely to continue hearing about Israel's “hasbara problem,” the “crisis on the campus” and the “need to educate” all those who think differently than we do, whether it is true or not.

What donors should instead insist upon is data, to demonstrate if there is a problem; if so, where the problem is; and if their contributions are doing anything other than making themselves feel good.

In other words, aim before you shoot and then verify that you hit your target.

So by all means continue to cheer for Israel.

But make sure you can convince more than your own fans.

The writer directs the Israel-Arab studies program and conducts research in political psychology at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Related Content

August 20, 2019
August 21 2019: Tlaib and Omar: Unwelcome visitors


Cookie Settings