If you walk into a library and, in a loud voice, ask for a burger and fries, you won’t get too far — even if you ask again in a softer voice. According to David Dabscheck, deputy managing director of the Israel Action Network, this is exactly the situation many Israel advocates find themselves in when they offer messages about Israel to those who are “anti.”
“To do advocacy, if you’re serious, means going out and speaking to ‘vulnerable’ groups and offering the messages that will convince them,” he told an audience of more than 50 people at an Israel advocacy training workshop convened by the Community Relations Committee of MetroWest and Central NJ on March 18 at the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
He defined the “vulnerable groups” as those who an advocate believes potentially can be convinced to support Israel. The approximately 22 percent of people who comprise the core audience of Israel advocacy — the Jewish community, evangelicals, conservatives, and people over 65 — need no convincing, and 8 percent of people are “unreachable” and are “against Israel, no matter what.”
The messages targeted for the vulnerable groups — which include adults under 35, liberals and progressives, and minorities — are not identical to those going to the “base,” he said. “Usually, campaigns aim at the base and keep reaching out to win an election. But in our case, the vulnerable groups respond to different messages. That means the messages that energize us, the base, do not work with them.”
He offered an example. “I love history,” Dabscheck said, “but the problem is, with this vulnerable group, that’s not what interests them. You need to focus on the future. They want to know how to resolve the conflict, not how we got here.”
Dabscheck’s presentation was preceded by two speakers who offered a more traditional message: Israeli Ambassador David Peleg, director-general of the World Jewish Restitution Organization, and Rabbi Elliot Mathias, executive director of Hasbara Fellowships and chair of the CRC’s Step Up for Israel campaign.
Peleg focused his remarks on “the campaign to delegitimize Israel,” as he called it, touching on arguments about Israel as an apartheid state (“It’s a conflict between two national movements with political issues…. It’s definitely not an issue of discrimination”) and on the notion that if the Palestinian issue were solved, the conflicts of the whole region would fall into place (“In our region there are many conflicts, some of a territorial nature, some of an economic nature, some related to issues of minorities. Each stands on its own feet and the solution to one will not affect the chances of a solution of another.”)
Peleg pointed to Israel as “an island of stability” in an unstable Middle East, and to the democracy that enables young people to stage the tent protests of last summer and that keeps the judiciary separate from the rest of the government.
Mathias provided guidelines on countering misinformation and false accusations, placing critics of Israel into three general categories: those who portray Israel as an occupier, who claim that Israel uses excessive force against Palestinians, and who depict Israel as a racist country.
During the second half of the workshop, participants engaged in role-playing that placed them in a number of challenging scenarios. Among the situations depicted: engaging with civic leaders who support a nationwide effort against American military aid to Israel, engaging minority leaders who are exposed to propaganda that Israel is an apartheid society.
Dabscheck reinforced that the most effective advocacy offers not just information, but a story that tells why the advocate supports the cause, why the vulnerable group is included, and what can be done right now.
He pointed out that there are studies that offer evidence on what those stories should include, what themes are convincing to vulnerable groups, and which generally lose out to the criticisms outlined by Mathias.
What works to win advocates for Israel, he said, is reinforcing that Israel needs a partner for peace and relating stories of individual Israelis as separate from the government. What works, he said, is telling the story of Israel as a place for people who have overcome challenges and created a free and tolerant society that welcomes immigrants despite its struggle for survival.
“We have to make it personal,” said Dabscheck. “If people learn about the human face of Israel, we create understanding in the most vulnerable groups, and then they are not strangers to Israel when they hear the allegations against Israel.”