To counter anti-Israel sentiments, says Rabbi Elliot Mathias, the Jewish community must put out a positive message rather than simply refute the claims of critics.
“It doesn’t matter who wins the debate, but who controls the message,” Mathias told a crowd of 50 gathered Feb. 15 at the South River offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County. “If you are on the defensive you have already lost the argument.”
The founder and director of Hasbara Fellowships, a pro-Israel campus advocacy organization, Mathias previously addressed college students at a program organized by the Israel Task Force of the federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council.
This time the task force invited him to deliver his message to adults.
The program was the last of four recent Israel advocacy programs held throughout the community and just weeks before the annual “Israel Apartheid Week,” held on college campuses as part of the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaign the first week in March.
JCRC chair Philip Cantor said the sessions were designed not only to raise advocacy awareness, but to also to help transmit the need to build a connection to Israel.
“I would like you to think about broadcasting this message to a small community — your own family, your children and grandchildren,” he told the gathering. “They are part of a generation that has not known a world without Israel.”
Cantor also said the federation was preparing to embark on a “huge campaign to engage our children” in developing a strong affection for Israel.
Mathias said that trying to convince those who are virulently anti-Israel to change their attitudes is “a waste of time.” However, many in the middle who may still have open minds can be effectively swayed by stressing positive messages: Israel wants peace and is willing to give up part of its ancestral homeland to get it; the country has no partner for peace among the Palestinian leaders; and Israel is a Western ally, a moral, democratic country with respect for human rights.
Mathias said most claims against Israel that can be debunked easily are offshoots of three myths: Israel is an occupier, it uses excessive force against harmless Palestinians, and it is a racist society where Arabs are treated as second-class citizens.
He cited polls showing that 70 percent of Americans support Israel (compared to only 5 percent who support the Palestinians). Many of those supporters, however, believe peace will come “if only Israel didn’t occupy the land.”
“Many people believe there was a state called Palestine and a people called Palestinians that the Jews took over,” said Mathias. “If someone says to you, ‘Israel stole the land from the Palestinians,’ your response should be, ‘Jews have had a continuous presence there for over 3,000 years. Even though the Jewish people are the native people to the land it doesn’t mean others can’t share it.’”
'Human rights model’
Other messages to be stressed are that the Jews who made aliya in the latter part of the 19th century generally purchased their largely uninhabited tracts of land from their owners in what was then a province of the Ottoman Empire. In 1947, the United Nations voted to partition the land into Jewish and Arab states, a plan that was immediately rejected by the Arabs.
Gaza and the West Bank only came under Israeli control as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel defended itself against its Arab neighbors.
Israel’s defenders must also get across that it has always been willing to make “painful sacrifices,” including dismantling settlements in contested land, to achieve peace.
“Probably the most pernicious myth is that Israel is a racist country where Arabs are second-class citizens,” said Mathias.
He called Israel “a model of human rights” in a region of the world characterized chiefly by oppressive regimes. Its more than one million Arab citizens — comprising 20 percent of the population — have freedom of religion and speech, receive universal health care, and serve in the Israeli Knesset and on the country’s Supreme Court. Arab Israeli women are protected from gender discrimination.
And even though under Israeli control Palestinians have seen their standard of living, life expectancy, and literacy rates rise, they do not have the same rights as those living in Israel because they are not citizens.
“The issue is one of nationality,” said Mathias, “not religion.”