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.”