Why Israel’s emissaries should stop trying to reason with millennials

Millennials are the largest living generation. After the Netanyahu speech, an Ipsos poll found that a staggering one-third of these 18- to 34-year-olds would back a boycott of Israel.

UCLA STUDENTS walk on campus (photo credit: REUTERS)
UCLA STUDENTS walk on campus
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2015 address to the US Congress wasn’t the tour de force of Charles de Gaulle’s “Appeal of 18 June,” the two speeches shared at least one thing in common. Their respective rhetorical triumphs were battered by Petain’s and Obama’s realpolitik conquests on the ground.
Netanyahu’s speech was also a case study in what Israel’s diplomats, representatives, ambassadors, politicians and self-appointed emissaries should not do when addressing millennials.
According to the US Census Bureau, millennials are the largest living generation. After the Netanyahu speech, an Ipsos poll found that a staggering one-third of these 18- to 34-year-olds would back a boycott of Israel.
A 2016 Brand Israel poll presented an even bleaker picture.
In an effort to reverse millennial disaffection, Israel’s spokespersons have spent the past several years rehashing a corpus of logical but unpersuasive talking points. Over the same period of time, Wal-Mart, a reviled retailer, was overcoming its own appalling ethos and successfully reconnecting with millennials.
Around 2010, Wal-Mart, a company with revenues greater than Israel’s GDP, decided it could re-engage millennials despite its displacement of over 400,000 US jobs, fines for violating a landmark Clean Water Act and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act, using Asian sweatshops, child laborers and Chinese prisoners to manufacture its products, selling meat produced in unimaginably inhuman conditions, and egregious wage and workplace discrimination against women. While millennial support for Israel was simultaneously dropping to record lows, by 2016, Wal-Mart had transformed itself from demon to darling.
With small retailers pecking at it like angry hens on one side, and alliances between the likes of Amazon and Google bullying it from the other (there are noteworthy parallels to Israel’s geo-political reality), Wal-Mart decided to convince millennials that it was the underdog in this milieu.
The idea of Walmartyrdom was pretty far-fetched, but this brazen audacity proved its canny acuity in an epic battle for millennial hearts and minds.
Instead of defending its record with a litany of true but tired talking points, in 2010 the company set out to soften animosity by committing $2 billion to combat hunger. However, what followed was not about a lot of do-gooding. It was a relentless appeal to the core of the millennial value system – self-interest. Against hardhearted rivals, underdog Wal- Mart promised to deliver cheaper stuff at lower prices. Lewis Laska of the Wal-Mart Litigation Project spoke resignedly of the “good will” Wal-Mart generated. And by August 2014, Phil Wahba acknowledged in Fortune that “It’s hard to think of the world’s largest retailer as an underdog... that is exactly what Wal-Mart Stores is.”
By establishing itself as underdog and exploiting consumer self-interest, Wal-Mart had transformed its image. A 2016 Business Insider poll rated the company as millennials’ 7th favorite brand, a full 89 spots above the venerable bookseller Barnes & Noble.
The appeals of Israel’s spokespersons are failing not because the facts they introduce lack social, ethical, or moral merit. They are failing because they are not connecting to millennial self-interest. Legions of PhDs, diplomats, scientists, fundraisers, advocates and politicians are going to have to abandon their well-reasoned, articulate, empirical arguments and accept, as Elizabeth Kolbert pointed out in a recent issue of The New Yorker, that today there are new scientific explanations for “why facts don’t change our minds.”
Few anti-Israel activists are more attuned to Kolbert’s thesis than British Human Rights Campaigner Peter Tatchell. On November 27, 2015, Tatchell faced off at the Oxford Union against a giant among Israel’s spokespersons, Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz’s logic, his articulate, nuanced, structured, factbased arguments bounced off Tatchell’s assertions, avowals and declarations like rubber balls on a tennis court.
Tatchell did not attempt to justify rockets, explain bus bombings, rationalize knifings, lament human shields as a tragic side-effect, excuse hostage taking, defend internecine warfare, or give reasons for endemic corruption in the Palestinian Authority. What Tatchell argued, and what won the assent of the millennial audience, was that Israel “as the occupying power with the biggest economy and military and with nuclear weapons – Israel has the moral responsibility to take the lead in ending the occupation.”
Dershowitz’s sometimes inspiring reasoning fell upon deaf ears while the beleaguered underdog carried the day. When the underdog triumphs, good is served. And when the underdog’s triumph obliges millennial self-interest, a la Wal-Mart, then “really good” is served.
As Harry Truman observed, underdogs want to be relieved of their status as quickly as possible. Jews, struggling for millennia to get out of that suit, have enthusiastically embraced top-dog status and have not been timid about displaying its trappings. Unfortunately, at least in the eyes of millennials, top-dog status comes with a diminution of moral authority. By failing to disavow Israel of Tatchell and his cohorts’ assertions that Israel is an 800-pound gorilla, Dershowitz’s ability to gain assent for his arguments is as hopeless as that of the cadres of Israel’s level-headed statesman who routinely hand Tatchell and every boycott activist in the world the keys to the millennial kingdom.
To the millennial world-view, it is preferable to ignore an underdog’s toxicity rather than embrace a top dog’s tenacity. There is tolerance for a knife wielding terrorist, but none for a defensive bully. In its desire to win over millennial audiences, the impeccable, fact-based, well-reasoned arguments of Israel’s spokespersons neglect millennials’ perception of Israel, do not promote their self-interest and ultimately fail to influence millennial thinking.
The author, who received his PhD in rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley, is president of the New York based consulting firm Net Communications Corp. and can be reached at [email protected]