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Dabscheck: Stories are most effective ways to defend Israel’s legitimacy
July 1st, 2012
Two women in a village, Truth and Story, were arguing about which was more beautiful. They decided to settle it by walking through the village and seeing how many people came out to look at them.
Truth went first, and half the town ran indoors. So, Truth took off her clothes and walked again, and the remaining villagers ran indoors and pulled down their shades.
Story said, “Few like Truth, and nobody likes naked Truth. Let’s work together.” Story gave some of her clothes to Truth. They walked through the village together, and everybody came out.
David Dabscheck told a version of this parable to an audience of about 40 at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center on May 31. He is the deputy managing director of the Israel Action Network, a project of the Jewish Federations of North America in partnership with the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
His topic was “The Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy: Challenges and Opportunities.” His point was to show the most effective ways of responding to efforts to demonize and isolate Israel — one of which is to tell stories about Israel and, even better, Israelis.
Dabscheck quoted research on these topics done by such groups as the Pew Research Center, which tracks public opinion, and the Brand Israel Group, a coalition of marketing and communications executives created in 2005 that explores ways of improving Israel’s public image.
Dabscheck said that surveys consistently find that most Americans view Israel more favorably than they do the Palestinian Arabs. Nevertheless, it is important “to dig down a little deeper into how people actually see Israel.”
About eight percent of the U.S. public is totally anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian, and cannot be persuaded otherwise. They constitute the core group helping to attack Israel’s legitimacy, he said.
Another 22 percent constitute the core pro-Israel group, including most of the Jewish community, people 65 and older, many conservatives, and Evangelical Christians.
The remaining 70 percent “knows little about Israel or the Arab-Israel conflict” and includes people that are “vulnerable to the message of the eight percent.” These include people 35 and younger, political liberals and progressives, women, and members of minority groups, he said.
The problem is that the messages that inspire the “choir” of Israel’s advocates “don’t resonate with the vulnerable groups,” Dabscheck said. Yet “we have our message and we are very attached to it,” and so keep trying with it, even though it often doesn’t work.
• “We often start with history,” while “the people we’re speaking to are concerned about the present and the future,” Dabscheck said. He said that in his experience, when some members of the vulnerable group tour a modern Palestinian refugee camp, that sight can make the history of anti-Semitism and of Zionism look totally irrelevant compared to a perceived necessity to do something about people suffering now.
• “To us, this is a zero-sum game” — i.e., either Israel is legitimate or it is not — “and the stakes are high,” he said. But “the people we’re speaking to want to see the world in terms of win-win situations” and “in shades of grey” rather than black and white. They want to know “what is the solution that can help both sides.”
• “Lastly, there’s the Jewish problem of talking,” an attitude Dabscheck characterized as “This is what we want to say, why you’re wrong, why we’re right.” This just makes the intended audience “zone out,” he said. “We have to be able to listen and hear their concerns” as well as talk, he said.
Above all, “do we want to be information distributors or story-tellers?” he said. “We have to tell Israel’s story.”
Dabscheck cited the work of Marshall Ganz of Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government. Ganz wrote (in a 2009 article “Why Stories Matter: The Art and Craft of Social Change,” available online) that three types of stories are important.
• “The story of self,” which Dabscheck interpreted to mean personal narratives.
• “The story of us,” which Dabscheck interpreted to mean “stories we share together.”
• “The story of now,” which Dabscheck interpreted to mean “why it is important for us to act.”
After presenting passages of prose about Israel and showing why some are and are not effective, Dabscheck said that stories portraying “the human face of Israel” can provide the vulnerable group with “inoculation” against the delegitimizers’ messages.
“Then when they hear about [alleged Israel] apartheid and other negative things, they understand that is not the full story,” Dabscheck said.
Even though currently Israel is not a source for stories as dramatic as those of the War of Independence, the Six Day War, or the Entebbe rescue, “the stories today are as powerful as what we had back then,” he said.
And if the pro-Israel community learns how to tell these stories, he said, “That is how I think we’ll win.”
The event was organized and sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. As JCRC chair Joyce Altman said at the beginning, the public event was part of a “25-hour mobilization intended to help us better counter the attacks on Israel’s legitimacy.”