Paul Friedman, Tri-State Area High School Coordinator for the pro-Israel advocacy group StandWithUs, stood at the foot of the bimah, gesturing to a pull-down screen displaying a PowerPoint presentation near the Ark. A crowd of about 20 had gathered in the sanctuary of Lincoln Square Synagogue on the UpperWest Side of New York a week ago for Friedman’s workshop “How to talk to BDS Supporters,” one of six sessions comprising an event called “Exposing BDS: How to be Proactive in the Fight Against BDS.”
The few young people had left the room to participate in another session (presumably the one focusing on campus life), leaving a somewhat disheveled crew of attendees who looked like the people you might find wandering absentmindedly through the aisles of The Strand. I had signed up under my real name and successfully avoided any negative attention, which meant that my previous writings hadn’t landed me on a citywide synagogue blacklist. Apart from asking a question at the end about the people who might oppose theocracy in general, I kept my mouth shut and tried to blend in.
Friedman spent a good chunk of his speech explaining the “10-80-10” formula: 10% of the population is already extremely pro-Israel, 10% is so anti-Israel as to be beyond all hope, and 80% is neutral and can be swayed in either direction. “They’re the ones that can turn into your ally or your enemy,” said Friedman, “they’re the ones that can work with you or against you.” The 80% is the sweet spot for propagandists, who take advantage of historical ignorance to frame Israel as a besieged Jewish enclave rather than a militant colonial project.
Later that night we watched a video of a BBC interview with Neil Lazarus, a PR flack who served as consultant to the Israeli Defense Forces and now teaches hasbara for a living. According to Friedman, Lazarus displayed an exemplary command of the ARMs technique. ARMs stands for Acknowledge, Reframe and Message, and teaches a sort of rhetorical judo meant to disarm your political opponent. Lazarus defended the 2014 bombardment of Gaza in a way that immediately shifted focus to the tired-and-true lie about Hamas using human shields. The essence of ARMs is to “encourage further dialogue” rather than shouting someone down or dismissing them out-of-hand – in other words, to win an argument without losing face. The technique teaches Jews to proselytize for a state rather than a religion, and with methods that more closely resemble a course on sales techniques than traditional evangelism.
Friedman spoke in the casual, conversational tone that has become de rigueur at lobbying conventions, TED talks, and Tony Robbins seminars. At times, it felt as if we were being given instructions for staging an intervention; to the sparse crowd gathered that evening, “How to talk to BDS supporters” probably didn’t sound that far off from “How to talk to your glue-sniffing child.” Friedman’s day job is giving similar presentations at high schools, where he seeks to mold young minds before they can be corrupted by the radical ideologues who lurk on college campuses and write for disreputable websites.
One PowerPoint slide featured a list of words to use when defending Israel: Future, Hope, Children, Dream, Freedom, and Equality. “These are key words that makes people feel really good about what you’re saying,” said Friedman, pointing out that Obama uses those words over and over again. The important thing, as any salesman could tell you, is to stay positive.
A big challenge for StandWithUs and other pro-Israel groups is how to garner sympathy for a state that exhibits so many features of settler colonialism, one in which anti-Palestinian discrimination has been codified into over 50 laws. Though the StandWithUs website features articles touting Israel as a “beacon of democracy,” the event’s intimate atmosphere allowed for a more candid approach.
“Democracy in the West Bank is a very dangerous thing,” said Friedman, “because you know which group, in all of the polls, has the most political favor of any political group in the West Bank right now?”
Before he could finish his question, three or four overeager listeners shouted out, “Hamas!” Democracy has a peculiar definition for Zionists – let the right people decide.
This elitism could also be seen in the StandWithUs stance on Black Lives Matter. Friedman said his group purposefully distanced itself from the movement after the Movement for Black Lives drafted a political platform accusing Israel of apartheid and genocide, though he maintained that he was still “sympathetic” to some of their goals. Of course, prominent black intellectuals from James Baldwin to Angela Davis to Marc Lamont Hill have been vocal critics of Israel for the better part of the nation’s existence, so the Black Lives Matter perspective on Palestine should have come as no surprise.
And what does the Israel lobby have to offer in response? Judging from what Friedman demonstrated, not much – a few dusty reminders of Jewish participation in the ’60s civil rights movement, the dubious claim that Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Zionist, and an even more dubious reference to a shared history of enslavement (when even an Israeli newspaper states “there is no evidence whatsoever that the Jews were ever enslaved in Egypt,” comparisons to the antebellum South are a bit of a stretch). There was a note of bitterness to all the talk of social justice warriors dominating campus discourse; Friedman was not concerned with encouraging solidarity so much as rejecting the idea that Jews benefit from white privilege and thereby reclaiming a Jewish seat at the table of oppressed minorities.
If the purpose of the talk was to turn the room full of crotchety ideologues into smooth-talking ambassadors, it was a failure. The secret to Friedman’s technique was diplomacy – acknowledge Palestinian suffering so that you can summarily dismiss it. But the crowd didn’t seem all that interested in developing techniques for debating BDS supporters (it’s unlikely that they would encounter this phantom enemy much anyway, apart from the occasional wayward relative). What really motivated the crowd was a desire to pontificate at length, a compulsion that has animated longwinded Q&A participants since time immemorial. Only this time, they didn’t even wait till the Q&A – hardly a minute went by in which Friedman wasn’t interrupted. At one point, a cranky pedant insisted on providing a short biography of Palestinian political prisoner Marwan Barghouti for no other reason than that he shared the same last name as BDS leader Omar Barghouti, and someone else had confused the two.
Though Friedman’s lesson largely fell on deaf ears that night, I doubt that the neutral 80% he referenced would have the same reaction. Young people in this country are increasingly progressive, as the popularity of Black Lives Matter and a rapid uptick in the number of self-proclaimed socialists can attest. Whoever captures this demographic will do so not with appeals to ethnic purity or tradition, but with a message conveying righteousness and commitment to justice. In France, for example, arguments for banning the burqa are more likely to be effective when couched in the language of feminism, which provides a progressive veneer to the underlying Islamophobia. In Israel, the tourism industry has used pinkwashing to divert attention from land grabs and hate crimes by selling Tel Aviv as a gay paradise, an oasis of tolerance in a sea of homophobic hatred.
I wish some of the high schoolers Friedman talks to on his speaking tours could have heard the more loathsome comments that night, the ones painting Syrian immigrants as threats to western civilization and denouncing the Quran as a guidebook for killing Jews. I wish they could have heard the pseudo-intellectual French immigrant (who bore more than a passing resemblance to Rowan Atkinson of Mr. Bean fame) talking about Muslim immigrants who are “ingrained from five years old to hate us” and who plan to descend on the West like an invading horde with help from the “collusion” of leftists like Bernie Sanders. Perhaps that would have given them some sense of who they are allying themselves with by embracing Zionism, and they would be less inclined to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.
Otherwise, they may embrace Friedman’s crash course in hasbara simply because competing narratives are not as readily available to them. Without a strong Palestinian perspective being taught in schools and shown on TV, much of the battle for the hearts and minds of the 80% may be left to the Paul Friedmans of the world. It would be a mistake to write off the undecided youth as easy marks for the Israel lobby, however, regardless of how well-rehearsed the spin doctors may be. Young people have access to more news sources than any previous generation. And people know apartheid when they see it.