Are you a Zionist and in need of tools to sell the wonderful democracy known as Israel? Concerned that too many people see the Jewish state as an occupier? Hope that finding new tactics will assist the noble act of selling Israel to the world?
In 2001, IDC Herzliya students Gur Braslavi and Ariel Halevi won the Oxford Union Debating Competition for teams from foreign countries. Nine years later, their joint company, Debate Ltd., was chosen to carry out the Israeli government’s new public diplomacy initiative.
The company recently took on a contract to conduct 200 workshops in which its instructors teach regular Israelis the arts of rhetoric and persuasion. If the pilot proves successful, it will likely be extended and multiplied. By creating an army of amateur ambassadors, Israel hopes to counter negative media portrayals and improve its image abroad.
“Define terrorism,” said the instructor, entering the boardroom of the Tel Aviv district branch of the Histadrut labor union. “Come on. You’ve all experienced it. Tell me what terrorism means,” he urged.
After overcoming their surprise at the abrupt and irregular entrance, the 15 participants – members of the Histadrut’s under-27 exchange mission to Berlin – started suggesting answers.
“War,” threw out one. “A threat,” said another. “A lethal danger.” “Violence.” “Injury to civilians,” more people shot out.
“OK. By those definitions, is Israel a terrorist?” asked the instructor.
In the silence that followed the question, the instructor, a good-looking man in his late twenties or early thirties wearing a button-down shirt and sporting a short haircut, took a pause to introduce himself.
“My name is Ran Michaelis, and I am a senior instructor at Debate. Debate is a company that specializes in interpersonal relations and project management. We work with organizations in Israel and federations abroad on Israeli advocacy, on behalf of the Ministry of Public Diplomacy and Diaspora affairs.”
“I was once asked that very question by an Arab woman after a lecture I gave at Richmond University,” said Michaelis, returning to his question. “I told her Israel’s definition of terrorism, which is: the attempt to harm or kill innocent civilians.
“Without pausing for a second, she pulled out a photo of an Israeli soldier aiming a rifle at an old Palestinian woman. She pointed her finger at me, and shouted: ‘You, and all the Israelis are not innocent! According to your own definition, suicide bombers are not terrorists.’
“My question to you,” Michaelis asked the group, “is: How do you answer her?”
In the hours that followed, Michaelis taught the group how best to answer the woman’s question, as well as many others. Throughout the workshop, he challenged the participants with difficult situations, all of which have come up over the years, and provided them with the best tools to approach resolving them.
Like a young soldier returning from battle, Michaelis regaled the participants with stories from Israel’s hasbara front lines, sharing his experience of speaking before hostile audiences of anti-Israel students and leftist professors in American universities, tackling issues ranging from the security barrier to the Goldstone report.
“The basic structure of the workshops was developed during an all-night marathon that Gur and I held,” explained Debate co-founder Ariel Halevi. “After an intensive brainstorming session, we attempted to turn what we knew intuitively into an organized lesson plan. The 14-hour session resulted in five principles of effective advocacy. Later we added two more, to create the backbone of the method.”
The seven principles of effective advocacy are a set of analytical and rhetorical tools that help give novice advocates the means of engaging people on issues regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“It’s not about information, it’s about knowledge. It’s about navigating the discussion effectively. Every one of the principles offers a different tactic to tackle issues that come up in encounters with foreigners,” saidHalevi.
The first principle the participants are taught is the importance of terminology.
“Don’t enter into a conversation before you are clear about the terminology you’re using,” Michaelis urged. “For example, 95 percent of thesecurity barrier that Israel built around Judea and Samaria is a fence, yet people continually refer to it as a wall. The word “wall” tends to conjure up images of the Berlin Wall. It is an inaccurate and misleading characterization of the barrier and its function – keeping out terrorists.
“I have no problem with you talking about the merits or problems of the barrier, but make sure that the conversation sticks to the facts, and not to an Israel-hater’s misrepresentation of them,” said Michaelis.
Other words to watch out for, according to the seven-principle method, are apartheid, assassinations, freedom fighters and human shields.
“Each one of them carries some kind of mental or emotional infrastructure. If you overlook the terms people use and dive straight into the ideological discussion, you are overlooking a major obstacle that someone put in your place, preventing the audience from relating to you,” saidHalevi.