I have given a lot of talks to Jewish groups on making the case for Israel, and there’s only one constant: people in the audience who think they have the argument that can, once and for all, obliterate the anti-Israel position.
With 25 years of experience, I’ve tried them all. Rest assured there are no silver bullets. And those who tell you differently underestimate how difficult it is to alter a viewpoint, particularly one on the political left.
Why is the negative view on Israel, increasingly common on the left, so stubbornly resistant to our arguments?
Simply put, it’s the power of narrative. A narrative is a storyline that purports to explain the world. People may watch something on the news and discuss it with friends, but don’t invest the necessary time and effort to understand the various perspectives and nuances.
Once they form an opinion, they can be remarkably pigheaded. Once communities make up their minds, they tend to cling even more fiercely.
It’s hard not to be critical of people who buy into simplistic narratives, but we’re all susceptible. Most of us know next to nothing about the conflict over Cyprus. Nevertheless, it would be easy to hear a bit of propaganda from one side and buy into a simple explanation of a very complex situation.
What’s harder to explain is why such simplistic views are so difficult to change.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
Most people don’t have first-rate minds. Indeed, most people try to minimize what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance”; they are motivated to reduce contradictions. When presented with contrary evidence, they justify and deny. When those pre-disposed to disliking Israel are presented with an “iron clad” argument that Israel is right, they generally dismiss it.
Narratives exist in the minds of communities as well as individuals, making them much harder to break. Social psychologist Irving Janis coined the concept “groupthink,” which he defined as “a mode of thinking that people engage in when they are deeply involved in a cohesive in-group, when the members’ strivings for unanimity override their motivation to realistically appraise alternative courses of action.”
A social activist involved in progressive causes will likely resist changing her mind about Israel, not just to minimize her own cognitive dissonance, but to minimize the dissonance in her progressive community.
During a recent focus group on Israel held at a liberal arts college, several students expressed comfort at being in a community of like-minded individuals.
They relished the ideological cohesiveness. It’s a rare individual who will defy his own community, let alone break from it and make “ex-friends,” as writer Norman Podhoretz did when he became a neoconservative, parting ways with other notables on the left.
Some in the pro-Israel community believe that simply fashioning a narrative about Israel’s liberal values, or alternatively the Arab world’s embrace of extremism and fascism, will overtake the anti-Israel narrative.
While we should do our best to advance a coherent narrative, we shouldn’t delude ourselves that our arguments will singlehandedly upend the anti-Israel view. The anti-Israel narrative is supported by a powerful community of players and interests, including 21 Arab States and 56 members of the Organization of Islamic states with seats at the UN and representation in international forums. All of this is supported by an extensive network of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and sympathetic figures in media, government, academia, and culture producing fields. Together, they set the terms of the discussion on the left.
It’s much more likely that the anti-Israel narrative will be negated by a significant global strategic shift, such as major war, demographic changes affecting European elites, or an end to oil dependence. Such a watershed could potentially transform the entire intellectual landscape, and drastically affect perceptions of Israel.
In the meantime, there are other methods at our disposal. We can create long-term ties with fence sitters on the left. In 2004, the Presbyterian church voted for “selective divestment” from companies doing business in Israel, which they later repealed. Presbyterian pastors who had ties to rabbis were much less likely to support divesting from Israel than their peers. They were part of another community outside their church, and didn’t want to anger their Jewish friends.
We can engage the left in ways that don’t ask them, at least immediately, to reject their whole narrative. Addressing the complexity of the Arab-Israel conflict and highlighting Israel’s longing for peace will likely be more successful than offering an entirely different storyline that holds Israel completely in the right and the Palestinians in the wrong.
These may seem like less than revolutionary approaches to remedying Israel’s standing, but they are far more likely to succeed in making those on the left less one-sided. Absent a major global shift, that may be the best we can hope for right now.
David Bernstein is director of The David Project, a nonprofit organization seeking to educate and inspire strong voices for Israel.