Rhetoric – Solutions

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Language

Israel’s friends face a rhetorical challenge.

For whether our opponents embrace BDS or some other tactic, anti-Israel forces deploy rhetorical strategies specifically designed to shut down rational debate.

On the one hand, they use evocative images of war (hard soldiers, frightening weapons) and its consequence (the wounded and dead) to play off the emotions of others whom they understand to be caring and empathetic.  But since the BDSers themselves are totally lacking in such empathy (despite their constant declarations of their own virtue), they are impervious to similar emotional appeals.

At the same time, they are devoted to avoiding their critics’ arguments by either ignoring them completely or finding some kind of verbal trick to give the appearance of being engaged in dialog while actually avoiding genuine discussion at all cost.

Faced with such opponents, pro-Israel activists generally look to two different styles of counter-campaign which I will categorize as positive and negative.

Positive campaigns try to create positive images of Israel with programming and events that highlight the Jewish state’s contribution to high technology, medicine and agriculture or stress the country’s liberal credentials by showcasing its democracy, free press and strong support for gay and women’s rights.  They may also include calls for dialog with Israel’s foes, even those firmly in the BDS camp.

Negative campaigns eschew this approach, preferring to fight fire with fire.  “If the Israel haters want to throw dead bodies in our faces,” they presume, “then we can match them gruesome picture for gruesome picture.  And if they want to toss around the Apartheid label, they’ll have to defend themselves against the fact that the entire Arab world is one vast sea of religious, gender and sexual Apartheid.”

Both approaches have their plusses and minuses (which I discuss at various points in this review of strategy and tactics and plan to return to as a subject of discussion over the summer).  The key point is that whether we are running positive campaigns in order to inoculate a campus against anti-Israel rhetoric, engaging in dialog (if only directed at marginal BDS supporters who don’t necessarily want to fall into a sociopathic movement), or fighting fire with fire regarding attacking our foes, it is vital that we keep our goals in mind as we select strategies and tactics best suited to achieve those goals.

But returning to rhetoric, we also need to start leveraging persuasive techniques that have proven effective for at least 2500 years.

For example, when the boycotters trot out their endless lists of accusations, notice how they try to personalize each and every one with names, dates and stories so specific that the common reader will more readily accept them as true (why, after all, would someone lie in such detail?).

The fact that they use such detail to cover their lies (such as those BDSers in Olympia who claim to have personally witnessed Israeli soldiers shooting Palestinian children in the head, or to have personally received hundreds of death threats from enraged anti-boycott Jews) does not mitigate the fact that the detailed stories re-enforce an emotional appeal.

And when emotional appeals tied to specific named individuals are put into service of a just cause and a reasonable argument, they can be even more powerful (just ask Gilead Shalit).

Applying this to so-called “positive campaigning,” which of these two statements will stick with you longer?

* Within days of a devastating earthquake striking Haiti, Israel had flown 220 doctors and set up a state-of-the-art mobile field hospital, providing rescue and health services to thousands of people; or

* Six year old Jessica Hartelin had good reason to believe her life was over after days buried under rubble caused by Haiti’s recent earthquake.  But she didn’t count on courageous local residents pulling her to safety, or on the skill and dedication of Israeli doctors who had set up the only mobile field hospital in the country in order to give local Haitains like Jessica the chance at life.

In the first statement, Israel helps thousands while in the second it helps only one, and yet the personalization of the story gives the second statement far more rhetorical power (reinforced, not diminished, by the fact that credit for her rescue is given to both Israel and Jessica’s Haitian neighbors).

And if we look at “going on the attack” (especially if that attack is directed to the highly vulnerable target of the BDSers themselves), do you get more rhetorical ”bang for the buck” from one of my long-winded analyses of legal issues behind (for example) the Olympia Coop boycott, or from these two simple sentences:

“Tibor Breuer, a resident of Olympia for nearly thirty years, was surprised to learn that the coop he had helped build with his own hands had unilaterally instituted a boycott Israeli goods, choosing to make a political statement he doesn’t agree with and was never asked to discuss.  And when he did push to make the boycott a genuinely democratic decision, the word back from the coop board (which boasts that decisions within the organizations are consensus based) could be boiled down to: “tough” and “didn’t you get the memo?”

Again, making this a story of a named individual fighting an uncaring institution (one which speaks with the voice of distant corporate decision makers) is far more powerful rhetorically than long statements of facts (our usual way Israel’s defenders respond to its accusers).

Stories and other rhetorical strategies and devices are powerful persuasive tools which can be used for good or ill.  As such, we should not be queasy about using them to inform and convince, just because our opponents user them to deceive and manipulate.

So in addition to making sure our students are knowledgeable about Middle East history and are armed with facts before heading off to college, it might not be the worst thing to also send them into the world with a copy of Cicero in their book bag as well.

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