by Ira Chernus 8/10/06
“I can talk to my Jewish friends about anything — except Israel. When that subject comes up, they just shut down.”

I’ve heard this complaint from so many people, so many times, that I want to offer a few suggestions about how to talk to your “pro-Israel” Jewish friends. I hope this will be helpful to everyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, who is critical of Israel’s war policy and wants to move public opinion toward peace.

First, you can think about your own reasons for raising the subject. Are you just trying to express yourself — to bear moral witness or vent moral outrage? Or do you want to help your Jewish friends think about Israel’s actions in a new, more peace-oriented way? Let’s assume it’s the latter.

That means you aren’t just trying to score points and win the debate. So there’s no reason to go on the attack. Even though you may have most of the right and justice on your side, take it slow and easy. If you put your Jewish friends on the defensive, they are likely to close their ears, eyes, and minds. That’s what we all do when we feel defensive about anything.

And many of your friends probably feel defensive when it comes to Israel. They are defending themselves against the voice of their own conscience. They are morally sensitive people. That’s what is so frustrating. They care deeply about social justice in every other arena. But there is something peculiar about this Israel thing that seems to throw their normal ethical compass out of whack.

That “something” is a very complicated mix of factors. Part of it is a lifetime’s worth of socialization. They’ve been raised in a community that assumes — without question, as an article of faith — that Israel really is fighting for its life. They’ve been taught to see Israel as an innocent victim, surrounded by irrational, barbaric anti-semites bent on destroying it. So all Israel can do is fight back.

Your friends have been told this so many times, by so many people, in so many ways that it will take an immense mental shift to begin to question it. Imagine someone trying to convince you that the sun rises in the west, and you’ll begin to understand what an effort you are asking them to make.

At the same time, your friends still have that ethical compass. They are bound to be disturbed by the pictures they see on television. They know that the Lebanese and Palestinians are suffering far worse than the Israelis. They don’t value Jewish life more than Arab life. (If they did, they wouldn’t be your friends, right?)

So they are in a deep bind. They feel sure Israel is an innocent victim. Yet they can see the clear evidence that Israel bears some responsibility — and, they’re beginning to suspect, culpability — for the violence. They know two things that seem obviously true yet can’t both be true, because they contradict each other. Psychologists call that cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive dissonance hurts. People cope with the pain in different ways. Often they just stop thinking about the whole subject. It’s too hard to try to hold both sides of the contradiction in mind at once. So they find relief by getting mentally paralyzed.

There’s a large segment of the American Jewish community that deals with Israel by trying not to think about it. If some of your friends are in that camp, and you raise the issue, you are disturbing the ease of their mental slumber. You are forcing them to look at both sides of the contradiction. Naturally, they get irritable. They’d rather not talk about it at all.

Cognitive dissonance puts people on the defensive because it’s so confusing — especially when the issue is as confusing as the Middle East. Few American Jews have studied the conflict in any detail. Most know only the simplistic slogans they’ve been raised with and a smattering of facts. They just fit their few facts into the ready-made “pro-Israel” mold that their Jewish socialization provides.

If you complicate matters with facts that don’t fit the mold, you’ll be forcing them to confront their own confusion. That threatens the precarious mental balance they are struggling to maintain. Naturally they’ll get defensive. It’s not you they are defending against (though it feels like it is). It’s the complexities inside their own minds.

Most of your Jewish friends probably have some uncertainty and confusion about their Jewish identity anyway, apart from questions about Israel. Unless they are rigidly Orthodox Jews, they are probably not quite sure what it means to them to be Jewish. Anything that touches on that confusion is likely to make them feel uncomfortable. They may want to push the whole subject — and anyone who raises it — away. That just adds to their defensiveness.

If you persist, they may very well rely on another time-tested way of coping with dissonance: Try to make the contradiction go away by denying one of the things that appear to be true. Of course it never really works. No one can make the truth disappear by sheer will power. The repressed truth inevitably presses back up and demands to be heard. But the mind, fighting to escape dissonance, tries to push it back down. It’s an understandable defensive maneuver.

If you are giving voice to a repressed truth — that Israel bears some blame for the violence and should cease fire immediately — you embody precisely what they are defending against. So they have to push you away, too. The more you insist on the wrongs of Israel’s actions, the more they resist you and insist that Israel must be right. They’re caught in a sad but psychologically understandable cycle.

You may be able to ease the cycle of defensiveness and help your friends hear you, if you take it slow and easy. You can start out by assuring them that you agree with them on some fundamentals. You too want Israel to exist. You too want the Israeli people be safe. The question is how Israel can best achieve security.
You can point out the obvious: This summer’s war has only created more rage among Israel’s neighbors. It’s entirely predictable that Israelis will be less secure for a long time to come. Lots of Israeli Jews are criticizing their government on this crucial point. They are certainly not “anti-Israel.” You are not “anti-Israel” either, just because you criticize the Israeli government’s policies.

No matter how gently you say all this, you’ll probably trigger your friends’ dissonance and defensive buttons. But at least you’ll be starting off on some common ground. That’s why I suggest avoiding the question of Israel’s moral right or wrong and sticking to the practical question of security. Focusing on the moral issue may well press the defensive buttons so hard, the conversation may end before it begins. Focusing on security improves the chances that your friends will listen to your criticisms of Israeli policy.
They may never agree with you completely. But if you can understand them sympathetically, you can help them begin to listen to new viewpoints. Eventually, they may begin to think about Israel in new, more peace-affirming ways. That alone can make a tremendous difference. It’s worth the effort.

Ira Chernus is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He is the author of “American Nonviolence: The History of an Idea” and, most recently, “Monster to Destroy: The Neoconservative War on Terror and Sin.” Email to: