I have often heard that “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” I used to interpret this to mean that I must be mindful of my comments, as my tone could alter the way it’s received. After a recent trip to Israel, however, I have found a new perspective on the phrase—the believability of a statement is judged not by the credibility of its argument and its factual basis, but rather on the confidence with which it’s expressed. When someone brazenly declares something as truth, self-doubt seeks to embrace those who are less confident on the opposition. This attests to the human tendency to value charm and charisma over facts and evidence, a realization I experienced this past February.
Over President’s week, I embarked on a trip to Israel with 34 other high school seniors through the Write On For Israel program. Having spent the last two years attending monthly seminars, hearing from speakers on all sides of the political spectrum and delving into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, our Write On cohort was elated to enhance our knowledge through first-hand experiences in Israel.
During one of our eight days in Israel, we visited Roots, a non-violence center for dialogue on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In theory, I was infatuated with Roots—an initiative to promote open discourse and the exchange of ideas, while discouraging violence. When the actual dialogue ensued, however, I learned two things: (1) That the manipulation of facts feeds into the hatred that leads to violence in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and (2) whoever said knowledge is power was incorrect; influence is power.
The program began with us hearing from Rabbi Shaul Judelman, the “representative” of pro-Israel advocates. He essentially promoted coexistence, saying that from the sea to the river the land is Israel and from the river to the sea the land is Palestine. This was a message our entire class was on board with—coexistence is the only viable option for each nation’s existence.
Afterward, Noor A’wad, the “representative” of Pro-Palestinian advocates, spoke to our class. He shared his family’s experience throughout the conflict, beginning in 1948. Aside from him qualifying Israel as an “occupation” in 1948 (in the conversation of occupation, almost nobody alleges Israel was occupying before 1967), his speech followed along the lines of Shaul’s: coexistence is the only viable option for each nation’s existence. It was when we began the Q&A session that things took a turn.
We excitedly posed questions to Noor, hoping to gain an understanding of the “moderate” pro-Palestinian narrative. Unfortunately, Noor could provide us with no such understanding. When asked about Palestinian textbooks that promote violence and terrorism against Jews and Israelis, Noor evaded the question and claimed that Israeli textbooks promote similar violence, alleging that “it’s equal” with incitement in textbooks.
When I asked Noor about Hamas monetarily rewarding terrorists and incentivizing terrorism against Israelis, he justified it. He told me that “[Palestinians who kill soldiers and civilians] are not terrorists,” but freedom fighters against a brutal occupation. When I asked him about terrorism specifically against civilians, he again dodged my question and said they are battling Israel’s brutal occupation. He told me that Hamas does not incentivize terrorism and that payments made to those who murder Israelis are similar to “paying for unemployment in a family.”
When we later heard from Palestinian youth, they expressed their sentiments that the recognized terrorist group Hamas is “similar to the Israeli Defense Force;” they are both a people’s military. All of these claims were shocking to hear, even more so that they were falsely presented as “moderate” and “their perspective.”
Two days later we heard from Professor Nafez Nazzal and his son, Rami Nazzal. Their speech followed in a similar tone as Roots—they promoted coexistence and highlighted the need for nuance with every aspect of the conflict. Similarly to Roots, when we began asking questions, their true beliefs were exposed.
We learned that Israel’s security barrier, created during the Second Intifada to prevent mass suicide bombings, “is not doing anything for security” and terrorists will get around it regardless. This statement was made while disregarding the 90 percent decrease in victims after the barrier was built. When we asked for the statistics backing up their claims, we were told that “numbers don’t matter.” The question and answer session was shorter than Roots, but held the same climate: don’t look at the facts, look at me.
Had I not been invested in the history, the complexities or the facts of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, I would have believed them. Had my program director not insisted they supply facts to defend their claims, I would have believed them. Had my Write On class not opposed their statements with legitimate facts, I would have believed them. They all spoke with eloquence and assertiveness, a confidence they seemed accustomed to. On its face, their claims seemed to make sense, but a cursory look at the facts would reveal their allegations were completely unsubstantiated.
Reflecting on those experiences sent chills down my spine. How many minds were tainted because of their convincing falsehoods? How many people left their dialogue with an attachment to fallacies on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? How many more people will continue to mistakenly take their words as truth? I could never know and I would never know. What I did come to learn was the danger of flagrant fallacies masking as truth.
Since then, I have developed an appreciation for factually supported arguments and ideas. I urge everyone to locate the basis for their ideas and the foundation for their facts. In today’s day and age, we must reverse the status quo—we must evaluate each statement by what is said, not how it’s said.
Sruli Fruchter is a senior at Davis Renov Stahler Yeshiva HS For Boys and a member of the Write On For Israel class of 2018.