Category Archives: Advocacy techniques

Israel through a New Frame

Famous picture frame around peephole from Friends TV show.I’ve recently written about the issue of conceptual framing and how Israel finds itself trapped inside a frame in which its neighbors’ actions never matter – only the Jewish state’s actions count. It is therefore always the Jews who stand accused.

Given the practical nature of this blog I’d now like to address what can be done to get out of this bind. When an audience is presented with pro- and anti-Israel frames, how do we make sure it will be the truthful one that they accept?

Why is one frame accepted and another rejected?

Whether the subject is Israel or anything else, the public are often presented with competing conceptual frames. Conceptual frames are the parameters of a discussion – what is included and what is excluded; what is considered relevant and what is considered irrelevant. What makes one conceptual frame win out over another? What makes one “stick” in the public consciousness and the other not?

Let’s consider two competing conceptual frames.

  1. Apartheid wall: Israel has built a reincarnation of the Berlin Wall through the middle of illegally
    occupied Palestine, separating Palestinians from their fields, work and families. Within it, Israel has created a ghetto like the one that Jews were confined within in Warsaw.
  2. Security barrier: In a reluctant response to a campaign of suicide bombings (148 over eleven years resulting in 1,565 deaths) Israel adopted a non-violent approach to protecting her citizens by creating a barrier (mainly of chain link fence) to keep the terrorists at bay.

At first glance, which of the two is more likely to draw in an audience? For someone who knows little or nothing of the facts, it is the first one that appeals.

Even though it is short on information, it is long on emotion and values. Furthermore, it assumes important parts of the argument as givens: there is a country called Palestine, it is occupied by Israel, and the occupation is illegal Also, note how it positions itself as part of a wider narrative that the reader already agrees with. Who isn’t against Nazism and the oppression of the former Eastern Bloc regimes? Who could possibly support apartheid?

In contrast, the second frame appears anemic, despite enumerating a horrifying number of murders. Its language lacks emotion, and it is light on values. Apart from a passing reference to non-violence, it does not connect to any wider narrative; neither does it assume much as a given.

Immediately we begin to see why one of the two frames is more likely to “stick” than the other. Each of them plays the part of a building block in its own larger narrative about Israel and the Middle East. The first one, however, plays a part in an even larger, overarching narrative about human rights and justice. Although the second one could be improved by doing more to engage the audience’s emotions, that wouldn’t alter the fact that it is almost totally cut off from any overarching narrative.

Let’s try to understand this key issue; the significance of narrative.

Story time

When individual conceptual frames fit into a larger structure, they create a “narrative.” This is a way of making sense of a complex myriad of facts by attempting to establish a story that they tell. Events in North America and Britain in the second half of the eighteenth century were so numerous as to defy categorization, but we group some of them into a structure called The American Revolution. This story has a beginning, middle and end, as well as clearly recognizable characters with motivations. It may even have a moral (the Triumph of Freedom over Despotism). It is made up of a number of interlocking conceptual frames (“No Taxation without Representation,” “The Boston Tea Party,” “Crispus Attucks,” “The Shot Heard Around the World,” etc.). And we can link this story with other ones (The French Revolution, The Special Relationship between the US and Britain) and even categorize it as one of the original genres of literature (comedy, tragedy, epic, etc.).

On one level we know that reality is more complex than a story, but on another level we are sure that history is not “just one damn thing after another.” The narrative is a meta-truth above and beyond the mere list of facts of which it consists.

True stories and fiction

The critical thinker will always be willing to test the story against facts. The narrative of the American Revolution is widely accepted as true (even by the British!). In contrast, there was a widely shared narrative in interwar Germany that the German army had not been defeated on the battlefield in World War I, but had only lost because it had been betrayed at home by capitalists, communists and Jews. It was called the “Stab in the Back”. It can be demonstrated to be counter factual by (among other key events) the entry of the United States into the war. It’s an example of a clearly false narrative. Yet huge numbers of Germans continued to believe it, contributing to the rise of Nazism
and World War II.

Between these two extremes are narratives that are harder to verify or falsify. Was the British Empire a vast conspiracy of colonial exploitation, or a mission to bring the blessings of civilization (including cricket) to the less fortunate? Perhaps both, perhaps neither, but rather something else entirely.

What’s the story of Israel?

Anti-Israel advocates have a story to tell about Israel. It’s a story of racism, expulsion and apartheid. It is a dramatic story, not least because it contains a striking dramatic element: “the persecuted turned persecutor.” Of course, it is a demonstrably malicious fiction. The fact that it is self-evidently a false narrative, however, hasn’t stopped it from becoming the dominant narrative about Israel in some surprising parts of the world.[1] The biggest triumph of anti-Israel advocates has been the acceptance of their narrative even by those who oppose it; that is, refuting the anti-Israel narrative has become the major content of the discourse of advocates for Israel.

Of course, the anti-Israel narrative needs to be demolished,[2] but even more importantly, it needs to be replaced with something better.

Since a narrative is made up of a series of interlocking frames, simply changing an individual frame alone won’t destroy the narrative as a whole. And it’s not enough to develop individual, accurate pro-Israel frames because unless can be placed into a larger narrative, they will be left as free-floating and unappealing.

Let’s learn a lesson from Israel’s enemies; the first step to achieving dominance for our narrative is to enunciate it clearly and repeat it incessantly. We especially need to present it when there is no counter-narrative in place. We have become so used to having to respond that we sometimes forget that it’s preferable to initiate. So, to use a modern idiom that tells us a lot about how people think: What’s the story about Israel? Here are some elements of the pro-Israel narrative.

Israel is a triumph of justice

Unjustly exiled from their homeland, the Jews struggled without cease to return. It took 2,000 years for the world to see the justice of their cause and let them go home.

Israel is a beacon of hope

The rest of the Middle East is an almost complete desert of freedom. The Jewish state is not only proof of the determination of the Jewish people to live as free citizens of a democracy, but is the one place in the region where over a million Arabs can live freely as well.

Israel shares the values of free nations

Just as _____ (fill in the name of your country) has a free judiciary, so does Israel. Free elections? Israel too. Governments criticized by the citizens? Israeli national sport!

The world must not abandon the Jews again

Within living memory the Jews came close to annihilation. Anti-Israel advocates say that the Jews should learn from that experience and stop “persecuting” others. Run that by me again? Surely the lesson from the Holocaust is one the non-Jewish world should learn: don’t stand idly by while the Jews’ existence is threatened.

The Jews are the canary in the mine shaft

And even if you haven’t learned the lesson of the Holocaust regarding your responsibility to the Jews, learn the lesson of your responsibility to yourselves. The evil forces in history might start on the Jews, but they never finish with them. What threatens the Jews today will threaten you tomorrow.

Internalizing the false narrative

My last blog post generated more discussion than any previous one (largely thanks to Elder of Ziyon). I chose not to approve one critical response because I thought it was too important to be relegated to the comments section. It reads (in part):

With regard to the conceptual frame: David, I have
news for you – in the eyes of the world we are the thief who has to
give back what it took from the others. There is no room for nuance in
today’s public diplomacy. Is that frame untruthful? Not exactly, not
enough in any case to take us off the hook. Because our hands are not
clean, as a matter of fact they are really very dirty. We are in a
homeland that is a homeland to other people as well, like it or not,
and we have to share it, which we don’t particularly want to. And as
long as we don’t we’ll be challenged, rightly so. Glad you try dealing
with it but as long as our hands are as dirty as they are, it’s a
losing proposition. And you know it.

The writer is a veteran immigrant with a distinguished record of public service, both military and civilian, and a prominent position in public life. It’s impossible to dismiss such a person as a “self-hating Jew.” Yet even such a person, with the gifts of a good intellect and an advanced education, has internalized the false narrative to a frightening degree. Although accepting that the anti-Israel narrative is “not exactly” truthful, he is left with the position that it is essentially true. The story is that Israel is a country whose “hands…are really very dirty.” As long as we (Israel) don’t share our homeland with another people, we will remain “in the eyes of the world…the thief who has to give back what it took from the others”; it’s right that we should be viewed that way and trying and oppose it is “a losing proposition.”

For a man of undoubted courage, who has done so much to serve his people and country, to so completely surrender to the false narrative, is evidence of how pernicious this narrative is and how vital it is to destroy it and replace it with the truth.

1 One hundred fifty million citizens of EU countries agreed with the assertion that “the Israeli state is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians,”

2 In a future blog post, I will show how to destroy a false narrative by exposing its internal flaws.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advocacy strategy, Advocacy techniques, Uncategorized

The silence of (and about) Mohamed Abdel Karim Dar

"Suspected collaborator" dragged through streets of Gaza behind motercycle.

Hamas Justice System at Work

I was in the UK recently and spoke for Jewish students at St. Andrews University in Scotland. Within days of me being there, a charity ball they had planned was forced into hiding by threats to the hotel that was hosting it. The “crime” of the students? Raising money for the JNF and the UK branch of Friends of the IDF.

In the controversy that followed, I posted a comment that described the protestors against Israeli charities as “anti-Israel”. Someone else asserted that such groups are not “anti-Israel” but “pro-Palestinian”.

Are they? Is there a difference between these concepts, or are they the same thing? And does it matter?

Positive vs. negative

As a student activist in the UK more than three decades ago, I (like all my peers) was up against a group called BAZO (the British Anti-Zionist Organization). This fringe group would be worthy of no more than a nasty little footnote in history[1] except for one amusing recollection; the group had such a negative image that its acronym briefly became a synonym for being unhinged. (“What’s wrong with him? He’s acting all BAZO!”)

BAZO exemplified an era in which enemies of Israel were at least frank about what they wanted: the denial of the national rights of the Jewish people that had been championed by the Zionist political movement and concretized in the rebirth of the Jewish State of Israel.

The very name of this group proclaimed the negativity that it embodied. It was extreme, antisemitic and not for anything. It stood in favor of obliterating the Jewish state, and it was unpopular.

Times change and people learn from their mistakes.

By 1981 BAZO had changed its name to BAZO-PS (British Anti-Zionist Organization – Palestine Solidarity). It was too late for that particular fringe group to change its image and salvage any relevance. Perhaps it was the unfortunate choice of the initials “PS” that conveyed the reality that their purported solidarity with Palestinian Arabs was only an afterthought. Nonetheless, you would be hard pressed to find any organization in the Western world today that is so naive as to title itself “anti-Zionist” or “anti-Israel”. It’s bad PR, and it’s bad for your image to be viewed as negative.

Today, in the UK, a much more dangerous (because it is more persuasive) group is active. They are called the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), and proclaims that they campaign “for peace & justice for Palestinians, in support of international law and human rights & against all racism”. Naturally, they support the international BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) campaign against Israel, which calls for punitive measures against Israel “until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights”.

Around the world you will find groups that operate under similar titles. PSC has Irish and Scottish incarnations. The Canadian group Canada Palestine Support Network seems to have taken over from Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights, a university-based group that once shut down the Concordia campus in Montreal because Binyamin Netanyahu was about to speak there. Australians for Palestine is obviously the antipodal manifestation. In the US the American Association for Palestinian Equal Rights (AAPER) operates as a lobby on Capitol Hill while ubiquitous Students for Justice in Palestine groups operate on campuses around America.

All these organizations have learned the lesson that presenting oneself as a merely anti-Israel group limits one’s appeal to the hard core of Israel haters.

Better to be for something than against something.

Hiding the truth?

But is the description of the protestors being “pro-Palestinian” justified? I think there’s a simple litmus test to apply: Does the organization in question express sympathy for Palestinian Arabs who face difficulties that can’t be attributed (rightly or wrongly) to Israel?

One that does fit that description is the Independent Commission for Human Rights. Although harshly (and often unjustifiably) critical of Israel, it doesn’t stint in reporting on the mistreatment of Palestinian Arabs by the Palestinian Authority, in either its Hamas or Fatah versions. Unfortunately, I couldn’t access their reports directly via their own website, but here is some media coverage of their latest report on PA abuse of power:

A search on the name of the organization via Google News threw up only five citations, four of which were from Israeli news media. The exception was Palestine News Network, which caries a number of stories on PA abuse of power.

The first article cited above carries the shocking account of Mohamed Abdel Karim Dar of Hebron. He was detained and tortured by the PA’s Preventive Security Service to the point where he lost the power of speech. If you do a Google search on his name, however, the total number of results is unlikely to crash your computer. I found only the original Jerusalem Post report and a quotation of it in a conservative web magazine.

Check out the websites of the “pro-Palestinian” groups I listed above. Not one of them carries any information about Mohamed Abdel Karim Dar, nor the eleven Palestinian Arabs who died under PA detention. Haroun Abu Arrah and Omar Arqoub, two Palestinian Arab journalists who have been repeatedly harassed by the PA, won’t be found on any of them either.

We understand why Mohamed Abdel Karim Dar is silent; he was beaten into it by the torturers of the PA. But why are all the organizations that claim to be on his side also silent?

It’s nothing new. During the Battle of Gaza, when Fatah and Hamas forces were killing each other as well as uninvolved civilians, the whole panoply of “pro-Palestinian” organizations couldn’t even muster a Rodney King style, “Can we all just get along?”

Why does it matter?

Let’s return to my original question: Is there a difference between being “pro-Palestinian” and “anti-Israel, and if so, does it matter?

As we have seen, there is a disadvantage in being perceived as anti-Israel if you are trying to appeal to an uncommitted audience. If someone seeks an advantage, it’s fair to check that they are entitled to it. If you want to buy liquor you need to be prepared to be carded, if you want a senior discount you have to be willing to reveal your age. Obtaining a privilege that you are not entitled to is cheating. The vast majority of “pro-Palestinian” groups are cheats, plain and simple.

This deception also matters because of the overall conceptual frame of the discourse. Is it between two partisans of competing sides, each seeking their own rights (pro-Israel versus pro-Palestinian)? Or is it a dispute between those seeking legitimate rights (pro-Israel) and those seeking to deny those rights (anti-Israel)?

Add to that the fact that those who seek peace between Jews and Arabs are arguably the most “pro-Palestinian” groups that can exist, and we reach the counter-intuitive conclusion that the State of Israel is likely the most pro-Palestinian entity in the Middle East.

As is so often the case, presenting Israel’s position effectively starts with telling the truth. Those who oppose the Jewish state are seldom honest.


BAZO has (thankfully) almost completely vanished. For a flavor of what it was like, see this article about one of its founders:

1 Some high points of their activities included: photographing Jewish students with threats that the pictures would be sent to the PLO in Beirut, forging links with the National Union of Iraqi Students while it was persecuting pro-democracy Iraqis in the UK, and succeeding in having BAZO’s literature distributed by the neo-Nazi British Movement.


Filed under Advocacy strategy, Advocacy techniques

The Red Queen’s Race

Red Queen and Alice“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Caroll

I’ve written before about the need to take a pre-emptive role in advocating for Israel. Here I want to stress another reason why we need to take the initiative: it is physically impossible to keep up with the rate of accusation. Like Alice, we are forced to run as fast as we can just to keep up.

If you have been following my travels, you will know that I recently returned from a speaker tour of South Africa. There I visited the beautiful city of Durban, whose name is now inextricably linked with the 2001 international anti-Israel hatefest. One of the dedicated rabbis of the community later e-mailed me that one of his congregants had received a message from a friend who, to her horror, supported a cultural boycott of Israel. The rabbi (like most rabbis, overworked and underpaid) passed it on to me for comment. I won’t quote the whole message from the Israel detractor – it’s long, consisting of ten accusations against Israel. Here are my answers to two out of the ten points:

2) The denial of the Palestinian “Right of Return” as recognized by the United Nations Resolution 194

UN General Assembly resolutions neither create nor adjudicate International Law. They have exactly as much legal import as a resolution of the local Rotary Club. Only Security Council Resolutions are legally binding, and then only if they are made under Chapter VII (Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression) of the UN Charter. (See second to last paragraph here.) Israel can’t be committing a “crime” by denying a “right” that doesn’t exist in law.

9) The War Crime inherent in the use of White Phosphorus as a weapon during the Israeli Defense Force Operation Cast Lead of 2009

What war crimes are “inherent in the use of White Phosphorus”? The International Committee of the Red Cross said there is “no evidence to suggest” that Israel had used white phosphorus as a weapon. (See here.) Notice the shift to alleging that the supposed crime is “inherent” in the use of white phosphorus; that’s happened since the ICRC said that there is no evidence of there having been any casualties from its use by Israel (see here; it’s a long document, search for the word “phosphorus” to find the relevant statement).

I didn’t blame the rabbi for feeling out of his depth here; these are pretty arcane subjects that normal people don’t spend much time thinking about. It wasn’t hard for me to refute them, but that’s not because I’m particularly clever – it’s just that I do this for a living.

But look at the accusations and the refutations. The first thing that should strike you is the language. The accusations are replete with emotive terms (“denial” of a “right,” “war crime” and “weapon”). The refutations are technical (“legally binding”, “Chapter VII” and “International Committee of the Red Cross”). The second thing you should notice is the disparity in length between the accusations and the refutations. Even ignoring the texts referenced through internet links, the refutations are about four times as long as the accusations.

Whereas anti-Israel accusations can be manufactured out of a mixture of thin air and chutzpah at enormous speed, they need much more time to refute, and the refutations often make for turgid reading or listening. If I’d refuted all ten of the accusations in this article, I would have found myself without a reading audience.

Setting the Frame

Only half in jest the very talented David Jacobson of South Africa’s Jewish Board of Deputies recently mentioned to me that anti-Israel advocates can make us do whatever they want. A sham “court” (whose verdict is a forgone conclusion) is set up to put Israel on “trial,” and at once the local Jewish community must apply its limited time and resources to countering it.

Although it’s important to let no negative message about Israel go unanswered, as advocates for Israel we must realize that it is even more important to push our own conceptual frame. Communal decisions about how to apply scarce resources should be based on this fact as well as the impossibility of ever truly refuting every false charge.

The only way to get out ahead of the game is to set your own conceptual frame. To do so effectively requires two elements:

  1. Positive messaging about Israel to convey the basic truths about the rights of the Jewish people in their own land.
  2. Negative messaging about our adversaries to put them on the defensive and dissipate their resources answering us.

Of course, both of these objectives must be carried out by telling the truth (a stricture our opponents often seem to be untroubled by).

In a future article, I’ll go into greater detail about how to set the agenda and conceptual frame. Stay tuned…

Leave a comment

Filed under Advocacy techniques

Beyond the Flotilla

Engineering a flop

Lost at sea?

For most of the three months from May to July 2011, the Jewish world was abuzz with the impending Gaza flotilla and its higher-end cousin, the “fly-in.” After Israel’s mixed success in dealing with the 2010 flotilla, there was obvious apprehension that things might be disastrous. In the end, Israel’s diplomatic efforts and security measures turned the flotilla into a non-event. Instead of an armada, a single overcrowded French-owned yacht staggered in the direction of Gaza and was intercepted in international waters – with no casualties on either side and next to no media attention.[1]

An ambitious plan to fly over a thousand anti-Israel activists to Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv was largely preempted by Israeli liaison with foreign airlines, which prevented most of the agitators from even reaching the Jewish state. The minority who arrived were (briefly) detained and deported with little fanfare. A handful were even admitted to Israel.

I’d like to discuss what lessons we can learn from this whole episode: what we did well and what we can do even better.

Media events – the flotilla and fly-in

In a recent post ( I wrote of the ease with which the media can be manipulated. One of the simplest ways to achieve this objective is through media events: incidents contrived solely to generate coverage from the media.

The flotilla and the fly-in were conceived of as just such stunts, actions designed to manipulate the media into covering events a certain way to produce the story that the anti-Israel organizers wanted. Israel responded remarkably well to the flotilla of 2010, realizing that they did not have to be passive victims of media manipulation. The IDF found they could add their perspective to the media stream by shooting their own footage of events in the Mediterranean and releasing the video directly through YouTube. This use of the Internet allowed them to bypass mainstream media outlets that had already fallen into the conceptual frame of the anti-Israel activists.

In 2011 Israel went one step further. The Israeli government asked itself the old philosophical question: “If a tree falls in the forest and CNN doesn’t cover it, has it happened?” By ensuring that the media event never took place, the message it was intended to convey was lost.

Another media event – the GA ploy

Through diplomatic and other means, Israel was able to control events surrounding the would-be flotilla and fly-in. But Israel had no way to control actions in countries hostile to Israel. In September 2011, the Syrian government and Hizbollah organized mass marches on their borders with the Jewish state. Forced to act forcefully to defend her borders, it was the IDF who were manipulated into falling into the stereotype of “brutality.” Fortunately for Israel the story picked up little momentum, perhaps because it was such a transparent attempt to divert attention from the real brutality of the Syrian and Iranian regimes’ suppression of domestic dissent.

With the prospects of a reprise, the IDF is straining to develop new tactics to minimize the potential damage from even larger mass demonstrations likely to coincide with the threatened appeal to the UN General Assembly to acknowledge Palestinian Arab sovereignty in September 2011.

Israel has grasped that the GA ploy is another media event and is using diplomatic efforts to try and stymie this stunt as well. By the way, those who – like myself – are critical of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s advocacy efforts should take pause to congratulate the diplomats on their success when they do what they are supposed to do: exercise diplomacy. As I write these words, it’s too early to tell whether Israel’s envoys will succeed or not.)

What can we learn from the successes and failures of these attacks on Israel?

All politics are local

When Tip O’Neil coined that slogan in the 1930s, he was talking about the need to relate to the concerns of your local constituents. As local activists for Israel, we should apply the lessons of the flotilla successes and failures to campaigning for Israel on the local level. Local media is read, listened to, and watched much more than national and international outlets. If we are to define the parameters of debate we should learn the lessons of the crucial importance of media events, but translate them to a local level where we can have the biggest impact. To focus the attention of local media, we might try staging events such as the following:

  • Street theater dramatizing the plight of Gilad Shalit. Three volunteers (two dressed as Hamas terrorists and one as Gilad Shalit), a cage, a few people to hand out flyers, and a prime location (shopping mall, sports stadium, local legislature, or Iranian Airlines office) are all you need to get on the six o’clock news.
  • Placing anti-Israel terrorists on trial. Under Article III (c) of the 1948 “Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide” the “direct and public incitement to commit genocide” is a crime. That makes Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call to “wipe Israel off the map” a crime under international law. Targeting Israeli civilians with rockets and mortars are war crimes. That makes the leaders of Hamas and Hizbollah criminals. Use local legal academics to set up a public tribunal to try any of the above on suitable charges. Take dramatic testimony from individuals who have suffered or are threatened by them. Invite the media. Repeat as necessary.
  • Celebrate your community’s links with Israel. When your community sends a mission to Israel, have local political leaders and/or celebrities welcome them back at the local airport. Get up a crowd with national and Israeli flags. Arrange some sort of award. Have the under-12 Jewish day school choir, dressed in white (always think about how to make an event photogenic) and holding candles, sing to greet them.

Generating our own stories gives us the edge. It’s much better to have Israel’s enemies loose sleep wondering how they are going to counter our campaigns than vice versa.

[1] If you are reading this blog you are probably well informed on the facts of what happened and I’ve no intention of reinventing the wheel. I would offer three links that didn’t get wide distribution in case you’d like to know more.

Melanie Phillips reveals the small Israeli NGO that lead the legal challenge to the flotilla. She also musters some compelling proof of the duplicity of the flotilla organizers in talking about the nonexistent “humanitarian crisis” in Gaza.

Left wing, post-Zionist activist and journalist Amira Hass (who identifies so strongly with Palestinian Arabs that she lived for several years in Gaza) essentially derides the handful of foreign agitators who were on the final yacht for being “useful idiots” in this breathtakingly honest article, where she also gives the lie to the “humanitarian crisis” canard.

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs offers one of its excellent analyses of the murky forces behind the flotilla.

Leave a comment

Filed under Advocacy techniques, Media