David is the founder and director of JCCAT: Jerusalem Center for Communication and Advocacy Training. A former student leader in the UK, David has become one of the world’s top advocacy trainers. He works with students, community activists and the staff of professional Israel advocacy organizations around the world. His clients have included major organizations such as the ADL, as well as grassroots groups. Based in Jerusalem, David Olesker travels often to North America and other countries.
Advocacy is the art of presenting a case—in a court of law, in the media, or just to a friend or colleague. Lawyers, journalists, and other effective advocates are trained in specialized communications skills, and advocates for Israel also need specialized skills in order to defend Israel’s image and promote the truth about the Middle East.
The Jerusalem Center for Communication and Advocacy Training (JCCAT) is a communications training and consulting service that specializes in serving the pro-Israel community. Under its director, David Olesker, its workshops have assisted a wide range of groups, including Israel’s Foreign Ministry and major Jewish Organizations on five continents.
J.C.C.A.T’s advocacy training workshops teach supporters of Israel how to:
understand how perceptions of Israel are formed
appreciate the problem of negative perceptions
present a new, positive image
We achieve these goals by teaching the most advanced forms of:
How can we seize back the agenda and inspire the world – and ourselves – once again, with the rightness of Israel’s cause? Each and every one of us can change public opinion by challenging anti-Israel opinions. If you would like to fight for Israel in the arena of public opinion, you will need not only facts, but the skills to present Israel’s case in an impactful and persuasive way.
Today, there is something deeply wrong with public discourse about the Middle East. Israel, the region’s only fully functioning democracy, has to defend its every action, while the systematic abuse of human rights by some of the most despotic regimes on earth barely registers on public opinion.
With the latest round of fighting in Gaza over, it’s time to take stock of what can be learned from the conflict. In Israel the military and diplomatic lessons will be examined. Abroad, where most people get their information about the conflict, there is one key aspect of the information war that we need to confront: How did Hamas largely succeed in managing the media output from Gaza?
The Palestinian Arab branch of the Muslim Brotherhood (for that is what Hamas is) had two clear propaganda objectives in relation to the Western world:
To portray itself as the righteous victim.
To portray Israel as the powerful and merciless aggressor.
Why did the Western media collaborate with Hamas’s goals? To answer this question we have to know a little about how the media operates in Gaza.
The parachute brigade
Israel has a high number of resident correspondents, certainly more than any other nation in the region (the surrounding countries are not exactly havens of free press). But the number of resident reporters is dwarfed by the numbers who are “parachuted” in for brief periods to cover hot news like the recent fighting in Gaza. These journalists are usually ill informed on the regions they are covering, live and hunt in packs, and are consequently disproportionately dependent on local Arab “fixers” to provide access to the scene of news events. In Gaza the press corps were hosted by Hamas and their agents and funneled toward the scenes that the Islamists wanted covered.
Experienced journalists are used to this sort of manipulation. It is par for the course for reporters to be shown only what their hosts want them to see. They would, however, normally take such tableaux as the jumping off point for a more independent investigation. This almost never happened in Gaza, and it begs the question why hard-boiled reporters were not willing to strike out on their own to find the stories that were not being spoon-fed to them.
In 1961, a reporter for the UK’s Independant Television News (ITN) in Johannesburg, Brian Widlake, risked his freedom and perhaps more by arranging a clandestine interview with Nelson Mandela. The man who would go on to become the first black president of South Africa was at that time a wanted fugitive. If caught, Widlake would have been imprisoned under the apartheid regime’s tough censorship laws for giving a platform to the African nationalist leader. Nonetheless, he braved the threat to get the story out.
One of the more dramatic pieces of news footage of the recent conflict in Gaza featured an Indian reporter speaking in hushed tones from the balcony of his hotel room while his cameraman cowered inside. The pair were daring to cover the erection of an Hamas rocket launcher right outside their hotel in the middle of a civilian residential area (a war crime in and of itself). They were among the very few foreign pressmen who risked the wrath of Hamas by showing such scenes. Isra Al-Mudallal, head of foreign relations in Hamas’s Information Ministry, admitted that those who recorded such scenes were expelled from Gaza. In words that would suit a Mafiosi, he stated, “The [Hamas] security agencies would go and have a chat with these people. They would give them some time to change their message, one way or another.”
The code of silence
Journalists often have to work under conditions of censorship. The BBC was forced to cover Zimbabwe from 2001–2009 from neighboring South Africa. Having been excluded from the country by the authoritarian regime of Robert Mugabe, the journalists’ abilities to report fully and accurately was severely curtailed. To their credit they covered what they could and concluded almost every report with a statement to the effect that the BBC was banned from Zimbabwe. At least the audience was then in a position to know that they were being denied information.
In contrast, Western journalists in Gaza overwhelmingly did not report the fact that they were being constrained and threatened by Hamas. The few who did report on it did so only after they were safely outside the Strip. On August 11th, the umbrella body for visiting journalists, the Foreign Press Association (FPA) in Israel, took the unusual step of publicly condemning the “blatant, incessant, forceful and unorthodox methods employed by the Hamas authorities and their representatives against visiting international journalists in Gaza.” Even when, having taken advantage of the anonymity offered by the FPA, the journalists protested Hamas’s strong-arm tactics, they still didn’t report it!
The bottom line is that the news from Gaza was inadequate and inaccurate because it was usually being reported by journalists who were ignorant of the context, and always by ones dependent on Hamas for access. All were subject to harassment and censorship.
(This article is based on an earlier version that was published in the 7 August edition of the UK weekly paper Jewish Tribune)
Supporters of Israel are always bemoaning the terrible PR that Israel seems to produce. Supporters of Israel in the UK in particular are feeling hard pressed with this latest round of fighting again unleashing images of Palestinian Arab suffering into the media that pull on the audiences’ heart strings. None of the statistics that Israel’s diplomats can produce can match such emotive pictures. Huge crowds chanting anti-Israel and (increasingly) anti-Semitic slogans seem to be mobilized onto the streets at a moment’s notice. Celebrities (those people my father called, “famous for being well-known”) pontificate as to why Jews, amongst all peoples, have no effective right of self-defense. You would, indeed, be forgiven for thinking that support for Israel amongst the British public is being outstripped by support for the Palestinian Arabs.
The truth is more complicated.
UK versus USA
Let’s start with the bad news. In comparison to the United States, support for Israel in the UK is weak. Over the last twenty-five years, when Americans have been asked with whom they sympathize more in the Middle East, between 38 and 64 percent have favored Israel over the Palestinian Arabs. In the last decade, the highest numbers for support of Israel in Britain have peaked at a mere 20 percent. If the UK public had reached the lowest point of support for Israel seen in the US it would have been counted as a major triumph by supporters of the Jewish state!
There are a number of factors that create this distinct difference. One of the most striking is the fact that many Americans are believing Christians who are predisposed to see the Jews as protagonists in an ongoing biblical narrative in which the Children of Israel are the “good guys.” In contrast, the UK is largely a post-Christian society where religion (particularly Christianity) is treated with suspicion, especially by the elite. (This contrast can sometimes be vivid. When traveling in the US my beard, kippah and black hat make me a fairly obvious Jew. I can’t count how many times I’ve been accosted in public places [especially away from the large East and West Coast cities] by gentiles who loudly exclaim, “G-d bless you and your people, sir!” I’ve yet to have anything remotely like that experience in Britain.)
Is the UK simply more hostile to Jews than the US?
What’s the problem in Britain?
If you look at the polling figures for the last ten years, the answers show a more complex reality than simple hostility to Israel.
Two major facts stand out. First, the levels of support for Israel and the Palestinian Arabs have remained fairly stable over the last decade. Events in the Middle East do temporarily affect attitudes, but don’t seem to make much of a long-term difference.
Second, there’s not a large gap between support for Israel and the Palestinian Arabs (around 10 percentage points or less). Given that a little more than 4 percent of the UK population is Muslim, if that proportion is subtracted from the whole, the lead of support for Palestinian Arabs over Israel in the general public becomes even narrower. (Not all British Muslims are antipathetic to Israel – Economic Secretary to the Treasury Sajid Javid is a noticeable example of an outspokenly pro-Israel Muslim – but identification with Palestinian Muslims is high amongst their coreligionists in the UK.)
But the most significant point emerging from the polling is that the combined support for both sides is far less than the numbers of those don’t take sides. More than half of the UK public do not engage enough to take a side.
More than half of the UK public do not engage enough to take a side.
Half full or half empty?
Is the fact that half or more of the UK’s population isn’t particularly interested in Israel a good thing or a bad thing?
One might argue that, given the BBC’s biased coverage, it’s a blessing that things aren’t even worse. On the other hand, perhaps indifference to significant moral issues is itself a “soft” kind of evil.
Better, perhaps, to see the situation as an opportunity and a challenge. When our clear and simple messages are heard, they definitely make an impact. The current round of fighting in Gaza has been marked by a noticeable reluctance by some senior figures in the British government to condemn Israel. The Prime Minister made a forthright statement endorsing Israel’s right to self-defense on July 21. Sounding as if he was taking his words from the IDF’s list of talking points, he stated, “Those criticizing Israel’s response must ask themselves how they would expect their own Government to react if hundreds of rockets were raining down on British cities today.” The new Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, was grilled on the BBC radio’s flagship news show “Today” on July 30. Despite presenter Sarah Montague’s efforts to make him say so, he stubbornly refused to characterize Israel’s actions in Gaza as “disproportionate”. Of course, he wouldn’t state that they were “proportionate” either, but then you can’t expect too much. No matter what statements spokespeople might feel constrained to make in the wake of hysterical news reports in the days ahead, they will be made against a background of acceptance of the most basic point of all: Israel is defending herself as she has every right to do.
The latest pictures on people’s TV screens as well as the day to day pressures of politics will cause spikes and troughs in the British public’s view of Israel and these variations are not insignificant but what is of overriding importance are the overall trends.
For a country with such a terrible image in Britain, Israel has demonstrated that it can make its case effectively. The real measure of success in PR for Israel in the UK will be gauged by what inroads we can make on the mass of the indifferent. That’s the challenge we must meet.
“Truth,” it has been said, “is the first casualty of war.”
Philip, 1st Viscount Snowden (1864–1937)
As I write this post it isn’t clear if the current round of fighting between Hamas and Israel is winding down or not. What is clear is that the Islamist terror group is waging war as much by telling lies as by launching missiles and digging attack tunnels. Some of the lies are obvious (“Israel shot down the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine to divert attention from its war on Gaza”!); others are less so.
One of the most significant and unrelenting lies, intended to brand Israel as an outlaw state, is that of accusing the Jewish state of “war crimes.” So common are the allegations of such crimes against Israel that many Jews are, in their ignorance of the facts, reduced almost to desperation, pleading, “We don’t care if they are crimes or not, we need to act this way for our own protection.” However, these particular lies are the ones with the least foundation, and the easiest to dismiss.
Laws of War
The great American Civil War general William Sherman famously said, “War is hell,” but for centuries civilized nations have striven to make sure that it is not unmitigated hell. There is a difference between the Mongol Hordes of Genghis Khan destroying all before them and the armies of Britain and France in the Napoleonic wars. The former used violence on all and sundry; the latter tried to limit the fighting to the soldiers and leave the civilians alone. Efforts to limit the inescapable brutality of war became known as the “Laws of War” by soldiers and as “International Humanitarian Law” (IHL) by human rights advocates. It’s important to realize these laws were developed not only by starry-eyed philosophers, but by soldiers. They are not intended to make it impossible to fight, but rather to limit the damage done by waging war. Once you understand what the laws actually state, you will realize that Israel does not infringe them at all.
Principle of Distinction
The most basic principle of IHL is that there should always be a clear distinction between the military and civilians. The military have the right to fight and must be treated as a prisoner-of-war if captured.
Civilians have no right to fight and cannot be targeted. The Hamas missiles that have been launched in their hundreds at civilian population centers are illegal, and every single one of them is an individual war crime.
Each side in a war has a duty to keep the military physically separate from the civilians.
It is not, however, just enemy combatants that can be legitimately targeted. Arms caches, supply routes and anything that supports the military can be destroyed. What of institutions and resources that are used by both the military and civilians? An example might be a railway line that is used to carry both civilian traffic and troop trains. In such instances the principle of proportionality comes into play.
Those in the media and the world of politics who point to the disparate number of Israelis and Palestinian Arabs killed and shout “Disproportionate” are demonstrating either their ignorance or their mendacity. There is no rule that states that you are allowed to kill only as few or as many of the enemy as they have been able to kill of your people. The concept of “proportionality” has to do with the degree of military advantage you can gain from destroying a military target despite the fact that nearby civilians will inevitably die.
A very bald statement leaps out of the dry, legalistic text of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Article 28 states, “The presence of a protected person may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.” When the residents of a building are warned by the IDF that it is about to be bombed, and Hamas calls on civilians to bring their children to stand on the roof of the building, the IAF is within its rights to bomb the building and kill all of the “innocent” civilians on the roof! The responsibility for their deaths would be on their own heads and the heads of the Hamas officials who encouraged them to put themselves in harm’s way. Whether the IDF, would actually carry out such an attack is another matter.
The bottom line
The entire Hamas military strategy is based on war crimes. They illegally target Israel’s civilians while illegally hiding behind their own. On July 9, Ibrahim Khraishi, the Palestinian Arab representative to the UN Human Rights Council, made an astonishing admission during an interview on Palestinian Authority TV. Asked if the PA should accuse Israel of war crimes before the International Criminal Court, he responded, “The missiles that are now being launched against Israel, each and every missile constitutes a crime against humanity, whether it hits or misses, because it is directed at civilian targets… Many of our people in Gaza appeared on TV and said that the Israelis warned them to evacuate their homes before the bombardment. In such a case, if someone is killed, the law considers it a mistake rather than an intentional killing because [the Israelis] followed the legal procedures.”
It would be hard to get a clearer declaration of who is right and who is wrong in this matter from a more authoritative (if surprising) source!
(A slightly different version of this article appeared in the UK weekly Jewish Tribune on July 24, 2014)
Supporters of Israel are often puzzled why facts that seem so significant to them are ignored or dismissed by others. We can understand how an ideological opponent of Israel can ignore inconvenient truths, but how can otherwise neutral people be so (apparently) blind? Must we believe that they are guilty of the same malice and mendacity so often displayed by opponents of Jewish rights? Is the new antisemitism really so prevalent?
The answer to these questions lies in the persuasion technique of conceptual framing. If you can understand it then you will possess the key to being persuasive about Israel.
Yes, but what’s that got to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The conceptual frame
A key principle of persuasion is known as the conceptual frame. What is it? To answer that question, let’s ask another one: Do you have a brother? If so, let’s ask a question about him – don’t worry, it’s a simple question, and you can (in fact you must) answer it yes or no. Here is the question: Is your brother out of prison yet?
Did you answer yes or no? If you responded either way, you fell for what logicians call the Fallacy of the Complex Question. Answering the question according to the “rules” means that you accepted the assumption that the question is based on–in this case, that your brother is a criminal. Of course, you could decline to answer yes or no and instead address the assumption. With such a transparent example it’s easy to see that you should shout out, “My brother is not, and never has been, a criminal!” But if you don’t do that, then you’ve let the questioner define the parameters of the discussion; you’ve let the questioner define a frame that includes only what he claims is relevant and excludes everything else.
Manipulation can go beyond the Fallacy of the Complex Question. Sometimes it’s hard even to identify the assumption that should be addressed.
Are you “pro-choice”? It’s hard not to be if the alternative is being “anti-choice” or “pro-coercion.” Maybe you are “pro-life”? Of course you are – if you weren’t you would have to be “anti-life” or “pro-death.” Here it’s the words used that define the parameters of the moral issue and predetermine the outcome of the discussion.
Posing a question
Sometimes a conceptual frame is created simply by raising an issue. E.g., Is candidate X really faithful to his wife? Ignoring such an issue may make candidate X appear evasive, even if the question of his fidelity was never relevant in the first place. If the issue isn’t initially accepted as being a significant one, then repeating it over and over again will endow it with significance.
Even a striking image can be enough to create a frame. When in 1968 a member of a Viet Cong death squad was brought before Republic of Vietnam’s Chief of National Police, General Nguyen Ngoc Loan, he executed him on the spot, in conformity with the rules of war. American photojournalist Eddie Adams snapped the exact instant of death and won a Pulitzer Prize for his photo. Adams later commented, “The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera. Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. People believe them, but photographs do lie, even without manipulation. They are only half-truths … What the photograph didn’t say was, ‘What would you do if you were the general at that time and place on that hot day, and you caught the so-called bad guy after he blew away one, two, or three American soldiers?’”
Whether you use words or images, once you define the parameters of the discussion you have created a conceptual frame. At that point the outcome of the discussion is almost preordained.
The most extreme detractors of the Jewish state assert that the key to understanding the region (and perhaps the whole world) is to understand that “Israel is the problem.” Like the classical antisemite, the ideological enemy of Israel sees Jews and Israel behind everything that is wrong in the world (from 9/11 to shark attacks!). Most reasonable people who are generally supportive of Israel’s rights can’t easily be seduced by the conceptual frame that defines a world where “Israel is the problem.” However, they can fall prey to its less extreme form of the frame, which can be summed up as “Israel is the issue.”
Those who have fallen for this scam often betray themselves unconsciously in language. The “Middle-East conflict” (as if there were only one) always seems to have Israel at its center. More thoughtful interlocutors, when challenged on this simple point, will usually admit that of course there are many other conflicts “but that’s what people call it and don’t get hung up on semantics.” (Tell them that they shouldn’t be anti-semantic.)
If Israel is the issue, then all problems can ultimately be resolved only by actions on Israel’s part . So factors such as widespread dictatorship and abuse of human rights in Arab states are ignored because they are outside the conceptual frame. Even when other factors demand attention, such as the carnage (and even cannibalism) in Syria or upheaval in Egypt, they remain outside the overarching frame that Israel is the “root cause” of the conflict.
So who is right?
How can we judge which of the competing conceptual frames is right? Is it even possible to ask if one is right or wrong, or are there only “competing narratives,” as the post-modernists would have it? To make a judgment, ask yourself three questions:
Is the frame accurate?
To claim that the cause of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Arabs is Israel’s “occupation of Palestinian land” that began in 1967 is clearly untrue, since the Arab-Israel conflict was going on a long time before the Six-Day War.
Does the frame explain the past and present?
A subcategory of the “Israel is the problem” frame is the assumption that it was Israel’s “occupation” of the disputed territories that caused the conflict and that if that “crime” is ended, hostility to the Jewish state will end with it. Yet throughout the Arab and Muslim world, and particularly in the PA, official media consistently refers to “occupied Tel Aviv.” Even Israel within her pre-1967 boundaries is seen as the problem.
Are there any key facts outside the frame that invalidate it?
If someone claims that it is Israel’s “occupation of the Palestinian lands” that is the chief cause of instability in the Middle East (and perhaps even further afield), then the existence of a whole gamut of unconnected conflicts (inter-ethnic, inter-religious and between pro-democracy forces and despotic regimes) would give the lie to such a myopic frame.
Question the assumption: Israel is the issue
To successfully impose the“Israel is the issue” frame we have to stay inside a narrow focus that excludes anything beyond the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. Within that narrow focus, Israel is a hulking Goliath facing a pitiful Palestinian Arab David. If Israel is powerful and Palestinian Arabs are weak (and within this frame they are the only Arabs that matter), then it makes sense that it is Israel that must act. The unspoken assumption is that Palestinian Arabs are inherently passive and can therefore only be acted upon. This has been the paradigm through which the world has viewed the conflict since before the Oslo Accords of 1993. But let’s question the assumption, and shout out: “Israel is not the issue!”
Denial of rights
Let’s reframe. The problem is not Israel, but the governments of the Arab world. The key to understanding the conflict is their despotism and denial of human rights. The rights of Jewish people to national self-determination in their ancient homeland are rejected by almost the whole of the Arab world. Now it makes sense to pull the camera back and Israel becomes almost invisible in the vastness of the Middle East. Hence, the key to peace between Israel and her neighbors becomes securing the recognition of Jewish rights.
As I write this blog post, Israel is in the process of releasing convicted terrorist killers as the price to bring the negotiators of the Palestinian Authority back to the table. This is only the latest of a long series of concessions Israel has made to try to secure peace. Supporters of Israel sometimes become frustrated that it is only Israel that is ever called upon to make concessions and compromises. It’s even more galling when the constant pressure to concede comes from the nations that see themselves as friends and allies of Israel. This pressure will continue until the frame is changed.
If a different conceptual frame, that of denial of Jewish rights, were anchored firmly in public consciousness, the absurdity of Israel being forced to pay for the privilege of making concessions would be apparent to all. Why isn’t this conceptual frame accepted and well known? Well, don’t expect the PLO, Hamas or the Iranian government to propagate it for us. That’s a job no one will do except ourselves.
It is important for the advocate for Israel to refute lies about the Jewish state. It is even more important to constantly and imaginatively promote a new way of thinking about the entire region.
1 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9/11_conspiracy_theories#Israeli_agents and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/9/11_conspiracy_theories#Israel
4 Ephraim Kishon once quipped that Israel is one of the few countries that is actually smaller than its own name.
5 The Israelis who negotiated the Oslo Accords sought to address this very issue by insisting that the PLO sign an explicit recognition of Israel’s right to exist. This undertaking was secured but turned out to be as flexible as the other commitment, made at the same time, to renounce “terrorism and other acts of violence.”
Advocating For Israel
David Olesker has three decades of practical experience training advocates for Israel. He can help you develop the skills necessary to run a successful campaign, communicate effectively and take back control of the discourse about the Middle East.