How to Stop Conversations about Israel from Turning Toxic

May 20, 2021

Conversations about the Israel-Hamas conflict can quickly devolve into unproductive arguments that strain friendships and family ties.

For both Jewish and Palestinian Americans, escalations in violence in Israel and Palestine can be overwhelming and challenging moments, where they are forced to both witness the horror abroad and deal with difficult conversations at home. Tensions run high at the best of times, with toxic and impassioned debates playing out on social media, in conversations between friends, and around family dinner tables.

“Sometimes for progressive Jews it can feel like they’re hearing it from all sides,” says Yoni Slater, head of the progressive Jewish college group J Street U. “There can be a very real and understandable backlash to the Israeli government’s actions, but too often that gets taken out on Jews here. We definitely feel a spike in antisemitism at particularly difficult moment,” Slater says. “On the other side, it can feel like if we show any empathy for Palestinians — or try to push back on actions by the Israeli government or to confront efforts to dehumanize the other side — it is met with a lot of hostility and anger from some in the Jewish community.”

J Street spoke with J Street U leaders Yoni Slater, Julia Kupferman and Hani Fish-Bieler to get their advice for handling challenging conversations about the conflict, both in person and on social media.

Assume good intentions, and ask for the same in return

When it comes to such a polarizing political issue, it can often be easy to automatically assume someone who disagrees with you is speaking in bad faith. But this might be the first time they’re hearing your position, or they might have been raised in an environment where what it meant to be ‘pro-Israel’ was extremely narrowly defined.

Tensions often rise when people’s motives start being questioned, but questions can also be useful in defusing tension and forcing empathy. “When we start conversations with the basis of assuming good intentions, we open ourselves up to be curious about what the other person is saying,” Kupferman says. “Genuine curiosity is an antidote to defensiveness and debate, and the key to deeper and better conversations.”

Framing your own positions as questions can also be helpful in inviting a more open response to your position. “Do you think it might be possible that…” can be a good way of pushing someone to engage constructively with an alternative view. Similarly, using ‘I’ language can be a powerful way of asserting your perspective without pushing the other person to become defensive. “When you say ABC, I feel as if XYZ,” can be a useful form of phrasing.

Zoom out, talk about shared goals and values

It’s pretty common for politically invested people to skip right to the policies they want to see enacted and to blast those they see as harmful. But sometimes rushing into the weeds isn’t helpful if you haven’t built a shared understanding of your overall goals, values and vision first.

Whenever you feel as if getting into the weeds is leading you to unproductive dead ends, zoom back out and connect with your ultimate goals. Once you’ve done that, you can then move into the specific steps needed to get you there.

Zooming out at the beginning can also have another positive benefit — it starts the conversation from a point of shared values. “I think we both want to see Israelis and Palestinians living in peace and we can agree that both sides would be better off without the conflict, would you agree?” can be a good starting point for conversations.

For J Street, our goal is for all people in Gaza, Israel and the West Bank to enjoy the rights to live freely, peacefully and with self-determination. That’s why we support a two-state solution as the most workable mechanism to get us there, and oppose unjust policies which undermine those rights.

Build on common ground, reframe instead of rejecting

When we hear an objectionable argument from someone it can quickly fire us up for a strong response, but sometimes taking a moment to step back, understand the other person’s values, and reframing your response around their values, is a better response. “When they object, we connect. When they cast blame, we reframe,” is the mantra of Steve Levin, a progressive, peer-to-peer persuasion expert.

To do this, we first seek to understand the goals and values which are driving the other person’s point of view, then seek to validate them as shared values — if they are. The next step is to reframe your argument in a way that appeals to those values. If you do this, you’ll more likely be speaking in terms that they understand, which should lead to a more civil and hopefully more persuasive conversation.

Use specific human stories

The secret weapons progressives have is our focus on real people and the impact that policies have on real people’s lives. Telling real, human stories is an important part of that.

“Sharing stories of your own experiences and of people on the ground in Israel and Palestine helps to center the conversation around why these issues are important to you,” Fish-Bieler says. “Instead of a conversation built on instinctive or ideological reactions, human stories tend to open up the conversation for others to share their perspectives — it makes the conversation more human and less ideological.”

If you know folks on the ground in the region, incorporate their stories into your conversations. If you don’t, you won’t have to look too far to find firsthand accounts of the impact the violence is having. Here are some good examples from the most recent escalation. Reference these perspectives, and you’ll humanize the victims of the conflict on both sides, and force a bit more nuance and compassion into your conversations.

Draw a distinction between leaders and the people

Most coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict focuses on leaders and institutions. Hamas launches rockets, the IDF responds with airstrikes; Netanyahu aggressively advocates further settlement development, Abbas cancels elections.

A key part of any productive conversation on the conflict is injecting nuance and compassion for the people who are suffering on both sides — and a key part of that is clearly separating the people from the authorities which claim to represent them. As anyone who’s ever lived in the region can tell you, most Israelis and Palestinians just want to get on with their lives, provide a future for their families and live in peace and freedom.

It should be obvious, but it bears repeating: Not all Palestinians support Hamas, a political faction which took control of Gaza in a violent civil war in 2006 and 2007. The majority of Palestinians don’t live in Gaza, and those who do face violent reprisals if they voice their objections to Hamas rule.

Center human rights, reject absolutism

All the previous tips lead to this final piece of advice: Focus on the ramifications of this conflict for the real human beings on the ground in the region. This issue is personal for many because there is so much suffering involved, both over the last seven decades and right this very moment.

Remind others that two things can be true at the same time: You can recognize that the Israeli government must end the injustice of the occupation and rampant settlement expansion while also condemning indiscriminate attacks from Hamas. You can recognize the importance of Jewish self-determination while also recognizing the Palestinian people must have that same right.

“If you look at the pattern of escalation in this latest conflict, the connection between Palestinian human rights and Israel’s security couldn’t be clearer,” says Hani. “This was a cycle which started with attempts at dispossession in East Jerusalem, escalated with excessive force used on Palestinian protestors and has now led us to millions of lives being put at risk in Israel and Gaza with the abhorrent attacks from Hamas.”

“Ultimately, the entire premise of J Street’s mission is recognizing that neither the Israelis nor Palestinians can be truly safe or free while the other faces oppression and violence, and stopping that cycle of injustice and retaliation is what we’re all about,” says Hani. “If you can bring people back to that point, there’s often a lot of common ground.”

Know what social media is good for, and what it is not

Having conversations about Israel in person or over text with a single person you disagree with can be very difficult. On social media, where threads on contentious topics like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can attract considerable amounts of unsolicited input, it can be almost impossible. This is for a lot of reasons, but perhaps the biggest one is that social media makes it much easier to engage in bad faith attacks without particularly caring about the person on the receiving end (you don’t have to see their face, so who cares?).

If you need proof of this, just ask Slater, who monitors J Street U’s social media. “At moments like this the debate gets particularly toxic, a lot of the messages we get are just filled with anger and frustration,” Slater says.

In practice, it’s sometimes best to move conversations offline rather than spend hours fuming about a back-and-forth on social media. Remember, you’re not going to solve the conflict in a comment thread, and convincing just one person may not be worth the mental effort. However, there are a few ways that you can use social media to make a real difference.

The first is to amplify the experience of others. One major difference between this most recent flare-up in Israel and Gaza and previous ones is the sheer availability of first person footage of what is actually happening on the ground. Sharing people’s experiences and stories of everyday people in Gaza and Israel is one of the most effective ways to move beyond ideology and center conversations around people and peace.

The second is to share actionable content and get involved with groups like J Street or J Street U. For more information, visit J Street U’s website and join J Street here. 

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