Dispelling the hasbara fog

Steve France

Mondoweiss  /  October 2, 2023

A new guide seeks to disarm and counter “Israelspeak,” the web of misleading clichés and tropes that have driven Zionist narratives deep into the American consciousness.

A Guide to Clarity in Conversations About Israel
by Alex McDonald
156 pp. Great Tree Publishing, $12.95

Someday, maybe quite soon, Americans are going to start asking more questions about Israel and Palestine. When that happens, activists need to be ready. Especially at this time of growing doubts and division among Israel’s supporters, we need to generate conversations that help awaken them to its racist reality.

Until quite recently, I would have said that I was doing what I could to hasten the day when such conversations would abound. Not that I seem to have had great success in awakening people to the importance and urgency of equal rights for Palestinians. Too often, I see a faraway, uncomfortable look in the eyes of those I hope to enlighten. My sense is that other advocates also struggle to widen the circle of understanding beyond the “choir” of the already convinced.

Now, however, I see that my approach to advocacy has lacked focus. Rather than try to tell individuals the truth as I know it, I should first ask them how they view Israel and Palestine — and then listen carefully, even empathetically. Rather than instruct, I should ask probing questions based on key facts on the ground, and in the history, that reveal the inconsistencies inherent in the concept of Israel as a “Jewish and democratic state.”

You could call the new approach “Don’t tell. Ask.” It is carefully laid out in a small book, self-published in 2021, titled When They Speak Israel: A Guide to Clarity in Conversations about Israel by Alex McDonald, a longtime Quaker activist and advocate for full, equal rights for Palestinians, including the right of refugees to return.

A Texan, McDonald was raised to accept without question the Israeli narrative. However, some years back, well into adulthood, he bumped into a disconnect that puzzled him: Israel’s “security fence” supposedly was all about keeping Palestinians out of Israel and away from Israeli civilians. Yet it was being built deep inside the West Bank, swallowing up lots of Palestinian land – and putting more Palestinians, not fewer, on the Israeli side. He pulled on the “loose thread,” ran into more inconsistencies, and before long, became an unabashed anti-Zionist, and critic of U.S. complicity. 

His change of mind was profound, he says, “like in The Matrix,” the 1999 action/sci-fi movie in which taking the “red pill” breaks the spell that deludes most of the characters, thus revealing the hideous truth that their world and their very lives are mere illusions. But McDonald was in for another reckoning. As he went about trying to awaken his friends and family to the truth about Israel, they let him know “they wanted to end those conversations or stop reading my emails and writings.” He found himself in the ranks of Palestinian solidarity activists whose efforts to enlighten people rarely are welcome.

Searching to understand this deep resistance to criticism of Israel led him to identify a phenomenon he calls “Israelspeak,” meaning the web of misleading clichés and tropes that have driven Zionist narratives deep into American minds and conversations. Like taking the “blue pill” in The Matrix, which makes characters believe that their totally simulated lives are real, Israelspeak deludes listeners, often by tapping into unspoken narratives and emotions.

Activists for Palestinian human rights are all too familiar with Israelspeak.

McDonald’s book lists many of its gambits and comebacks. “Doesn’t Israel have a right to defend itself?” (or a “right to exist?”). Also, “Your view is unbalanced,” “Why are you singling out Israel?” “We should support the only democracy in the Middle East.” “When Israel gave Gaza to the Palestinians, they responded by shooting rockets at Israel,” and the always-lurking accusations and insinuations of anti-Semitism.

McDonald responds to Israelspeak with a two-step process: First, connect with listeners by becoming a good listener yourself. Find out the specific beliefs and reasoning that underlie their support for Israel and distrust of Palestinians. This step might seem like normalization – which Jonathan Kuttab has defined as conversations that “bring Jews and Arabs together under highly controlled conditions apparently aimed at promoting co-existence without truly addressing or challenging the underlying injustice.” McDonald’s approach, however, goes far beyond this first step.

Step two of the process gets trickier. Now the goal is to gently but firmly raise facts, that reveal Israel’s racism and ask how such facts square with the notion that Israel is fair to Palestinians. In Matrix terms, you clarify which particular blue pills (unsound facts, beliefs, and logic) underlie your conversation partner’s Zionist position and then offer the appropriate red pill antidotes.

Here, for example, is how to neutralize and, indeed, “turn around” the following bit of Israelspeak: “Why are you singling out Israel for criticism” (in a world full of other governments that violate human rights)?

First, confirm that your partner “knows that Israel is a human rights violator,” which actually is implied by the Israelspeak question itself; (2) clarify that you do in fact criticize other violators; (3) ask if they shield violators other than Israel from criticism; and finally, (4) ask why they single out Israel for protection. As always, you must be clear that you oppose all forms of racism, including anti-Jewish racism, and are not “pro-Palestinian,” merely “pro-equality.”

It’s enjoyable to see how McDonald dissolves hoary Zionist barbs in a gentle but persistent rain of refutation and contextualization. In effect, the book provides a splendid parade of “gotchas.” However, McDonald rules out the gotcha attitude. No matter how tempting to activists, any snarkiness damages the chance for a productive exchange. He is intent on sincere, respectful conversation with Zionists and their sympathizers, as long as they, too, speak in good faith. He counsels readers not to waste time with people “who are conscious of Israel’s racism yet support the state nonetheless.” In his opinion, that still leaves many potential interlocutors, because “most Zionists are good people,” who sincerely oppose racism but have been taught that support for Israel is justified — if not a solemn moral duty. They have yet to realize that Israel initiated and actively engages in racism and human rights violations.

McDonald realizes that it may take some time for supporters of Israel to fully accept that Israel is racist to its core. They may go through something like the “five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance,” he writes. Advocates ought to have empathy without wavering in their own stand for equality and human rights.

“Your conversation partner may be confused or may realize they have been bamboozled” by the false framing of Israelspeak, he notes. “Give them time and space. They are facing a very difficult situation. … Good friends tell their friends bad news in a loving way.” But they keep telling the news, namely, that the only way to real peace is equal rights for all.

What McDonald is urging is a sort of “Copernican” reorientation in how to open the minds of individuals and small groups. He is urging that our discourse should revolve around the person to whom we are speaking, not around ourselves, or around the information we are trying to impart, key though it is. In a way, the focus of the conversation isn’t so much on Israel as it is on the other person and exactly why she or he doesn’t see the glaring inequities of Israel’s rule over the Palestinians. So, while you are “loving” the person to whom you are speaking, you must be tough enough to confront them.

Considering my own experience, I realize that my approach has often been too timid and too aggressive. I’ve tried to demonstrate my knowledge of the relevant history and current circumstances. I have focused on the other persons’ statements in the abstract, not as their sincere, though mistaken, beliefs. Most dismaying, my desire that the person before me will come to understand how racist Israel is toward the Palestinians doesn’t get directly expressed but remains hanging in the air between us. I have assumed that it is conveyed implicitly, but the person-to-person connection isn’t there for me to state it directly and personally.

To use McDonald’s approach takes effort. The steps are simple but, as in a dance, they need to be smooth, precise, and made in the proper sequence. Still, they promise to make advocacy less stressful and frustrating. One of McDonald’s most refreshing insights is that “We [critics of Israel]don’t have to prove our story. We just need to ask them to explain theirs” in the context of prominent, undeniable facts such as the starkly racist language of Israel’s Basic Law of the Nation-State, the brutally invasive Separation Wall, strong government support for West Bank settlers and impunity for settler violence against Palestinians, Israel’s systematic detention of minors under military law, among others.

McDonald’s method also frees advocates from a need to gain encyclopedic knowledge of Palestine. In fact, he warns against getting caught up in murky factual questions that take up precious time and are impossible to resolve. Stick with major facts. “Most people you talk with about Israel will know that it gives Jews preferential treatment and discriminates against non-Jews, especially Palestinians,” he says. “The easiest example to highlight is citizenship. Only Jews have a right to citizenship within 48 hours of arriving in Israel.”

Asked what difference he has experienced in using his new approach, he says, “The big difference is I’m no longer defensive about the anti-Semitism accusation since I have internalized the fact that I stand for equality for all and against discrimination against anyone. If the issue comes up, I ask how standing for equality discriminates against anyone.”

The greater ease that he now feels is the key: “My goal is to make you feel more comfortable in having these conversations,” he writes, “and to highlight … the logical flaws in the messaging you may often hear concerning the Israel-Palestine situation.”                            

Steve France is a retired journalist and lawyer in the DC area