Four things to do when defending Israel

There is an old lawyers’ expression: “If you have the facts on your side, pound the facts; if you have the law on your side, pound the law; if you don’t have the facts or the law, pound the table.”

Since Oct. 7, despite Israel having both the facts and the law on its side in the war against Hamas, I have seen too many defenders of Israel, both lay and professional, “pounding the table” in anger and frustration as Israel is accused of all manner of crimes. 

I would like to offer four pieces of advice for a more measured, effective response that applies to social media postings, speeches and even casual conversations with friends.

First, ask yourself: ‘What is my goal?’

The first rule for any advocate is to understand his or her audience and where he or she wants to take them. Time is an irreplaceable commodity, and it is not productive to waste it trying to persuade someone who cannot be persuaded. In some situations, you might need a more modest goal, or maybe the debate simply is not worth it. Remember that an hour spent virtue signaling to someone equally convinced about an opposing narrative is an hour not spent speaking to someone whose mind can be changed, or at least opened.

As a related corollary, you should also ask yourself what exactly you are debating. Some topics are completely legitimate, and others are not. I strongly believe that Israel’s military response since Oct. 7 has been appropriate and restrained considering the circumstances, but I do understand that someone might feel differently. I am happy to engage in that discussion in good faith and I am confident in the arguments that I employ. Conversely, I have very little interest in debating whether the events of Oct. 7 actually occurred or whether Israel has the right to exist. In those cases, the other person is starting at a point that is so divorced from reality that I question the utility of engagement.

Second, acknowledge Palestinian suffering

There is no question that Palestinian men, women and children who are not associated with Hamas have died since Oct. 7. Wars, even necessary ones, are horrible. The death of innocents is awful beyond words. Full stop.

It is also appropriate, if not essential, to ask why they died. Any honest discussion of Palestinian suffering should naturally include the fact that Hamas leaders in Gaza and Qatar want their own people dead to elicit world sympathy. Any honest discussion should address the cynicism of that same leadership in creating an immense network of tunnels to kill Israelis and save themselves while publicly stating that they have no obligation to protect their fellow Palestinians, in contrast with the steps that Israel takes to save innocent lives, which is without precedent in the annals of warfare.

And yet, none of this makes Gazan suffering any less real or any less horrific. We should mourn their deaths not simply as a talking point or a throwaway line, but because that is what decent people do.

Third, stay away from politics

I know this one is hard and not getting easier, but it is vital.

We live in a highly polarized political age and a nation’s policy can swing dramatically based on a single election. It is high time that we as a community remind ourselves that the most important accomplishment of American Jewry since 1948 has been to maintain access to the president of the United States and key decision-makers in government and be able to make our case to them on Israel’s behalf regardless of political party.

As the war enters its sixth month, anti-Israel protests mount and pressure on elected officials mount, but we must remember that the overwhelming majority of Americans continue to support Israel in its war against Hamas despite concerns that some might have about the way that it is conducted. Despite all the noise, supporting Israel remains not only the right thing to do but the politically smart thing to do. We must do all we can to not aggravate the tensions in our already politically frayed country. Israel’s survival is more important than your personal politics, and you must never forget that.

Fourth, keep it simple

On far too many occasions, I have spoken with well-meaning friends of Israel who fear that they do not know enough about Israel’s history or political system to fend off every argument. 

Has there ever been a cause, no matter how noble, that justified the rape of women? Has there ever been an oppression that was so severe that it necessitated the burning of babies? History and context are important, but is there any history or context that explains the kidnapping, torture and murder that took place on Oct. 7? Does anyone doubt that the war would end tomorrow if Hamas leadership freed the remaining hostages and surrendered power? Does anyone doubt how the U.S. would behave if the same thing happened to us?

Of course, knowledge matters, and we should do what we can to inform ourselves of the history and facts on the ground. There are incredible podcasts and online resources on Israel and the region, and you should listen to them and stay current on the news. At the end of the day though, while Israel needs experts to argue its cause, it also needs character witnesses. Talk about the Israeli person you know, and what they are confronting, on a human level. Talk about fundamentally good people who are trying to do their best to survive in a thriving democracy against enemies surrounding them who glorify death. Ask your listener what they would do to defend their homes in the face of such a threat.

And, at the right moment, it’s not the worst thing if you pound on the table a few times, too.

Dan Elbaum is head of North America at The Jewish Agency for Israel and the president and CEO of Jewish Agency International Development.