I was gratified to read the article by Kasim Hafeez, a former anti-Semite who had become a Zionist. I was particularly gratified to learn that my book, The Case for Israel, played a role in his conversion from irrational hatred to support based on his own observations of the reality of Israel.
Hafeez’s article came at a time when I was becoming skeptical of my own ability, and that of others who try to make the civil liberties case for Israel, to influence public opinion. The hatred for Israel in parts of Europe and on many university campuses has become so irrational that no evidence, regardless of how indisputable and powerful it may be, seems to be able to change closed minds hardened by years of unremitting falsehoods. These falsehoods take on an aura of undeserved credibility, particularly when espoused by people who identify themselves as Jewish or Israeli (or even formerly Jewish or formally Israeli.)
But whenever I get discouraged, I recall an incident several years ago at the University of California at Irvine, which is a hotbed of anti-Israel hate speech. This is the very same campus where radical Islamic students tried to prevent Israel’s moderate ambassador, Professor Michael Oren, from speaking.
Use extremism against radicalsAbout a year before that incident, I spoke to a full audience of students that included some of the same radicals that tried to shut Oren down. About 100 of them sat to my right. Another 100 or so students, wearing pro-Israel shirts and kipot, sat to my left. Several hundred additional students were in the middle - both literally and ideologically. I know that because I asked for a show of hands before I began my remarks.
I first asked for students to raise their hands if they generally support Israel. All the students to my left and several in the middle raised their hands. I then asked how many students supported the Palestinian side. All the students to my right and several in the middle raised their hands. I then posed the following question to the pro-Israel group: “How many of you would support a Palestinian state living in peace and without terrorism next to Israel?” Every single pro-Israel hand immediately went up. I then asked how many on the pro-Palestine side would accept a Jewish state within the 1967 borders, with no settlements on territory claimed by the Palestinians. There was some mumbling and brief conversation among the people to my right, but not a single hand was raised.
The debate was essentially over, as everyone in the middle now recognized that this was not a conflict between pro-Israel and pro-Palestine groups, but rather, a conflict between those who would accept a two-state solution and those who would reject any Jewish state anywhere in the Middle East. The pro-Israel view had prevailed because I was able to use the extremism of the anti-Israel group to demonstrate the ugly truth about Israel’s enemies to the large group of students in the middle with open minds.
I have now used this heuristic repeatedly on college campuses, and with considerable success. The lesson, I believe, is not to try to persuade irrational anti-Israel extremists, but rather, to use their extremism - which often includes anti-American and anti-Western extremism - against them and in favor of a reasonable and centrist pro-Israel position.
The power of truth
The reality is that there are many open-minded people, even in Europe and on university campuses. Their voices are often drowned out by the much more vocal anti-Israel extremists. I saw this last year when I was invited to Norway by a Christian Zionist group. The group offered me, as a speaker, to the law faculties of Norway’s three major universities. All three universities refused to invite me to speak, even though my appearance would cost them nothing. One of them said I would be invited, but only if I did not speak about Israel.
When students at the universities heard of the faculties’ refusal to invite me, the students themselves asked me to appear. I spoke to packed houses at all three universities, and was told afterwards that I had changed the minds of many students who had never before heard the centrist kind of liberal case for Israel.
I will not give up despite, perhaps because of, the increasingly vocal hatred directed against Israel. It is imperative to continue to appeal to the open minds of rational people who want to hear all sides of this complex and nuanced issue. In the end, I have confidence that the power of truth will overcome the lies of anti-Israel extremists. If we believe in the marketplace of ideas, we must persist in our efforts. The conversion of Kasim Hafeez from an irrational anti-Semite to a thoughtful Zionist should encourage us to keep telling the truth.
Read this article in Hebrew