01 March 2007

28 February 2007 – I won, but I lost

I won, but I lost. I destroyed the argument that Israel is an apartheid state; I proved my opponent’s arguments were built on a heap of lies; and I offered solutions for the future of the peace process. But it didn’t matter. The people who packed Rocky Sullivan’s last night had made up their minds before the debate had begun. Perhaps a third of those present were pro-Israel; the rest were vehemently anti.

As soon as I walked into the pub, I knew I was definitely on the “away” team. Photographs of anti-British protests in Northern Ireland hung on the walls. The jukebox was stacked with “revolutionary” bands. A sweet old Irish couple who had arrived early politely informed me they expected to hate me by the end of the evening. This was solid Republican country—green state, not red state.

My playful attempts to relate to my surroundings went over like a limp shamrock. I insisted on drinking Guinness onstage instead of water, and polished off two pints before the debate was through. But the barman glowered as I threw in references to Daniel Patrick Moynihan and the Good Fr iday agreement. I realized, too late, that most patrons probably thought the single-state solution was a neat idea.

Still, I held my own. I won the coin toss and spoke first, trying to adopt a cool, confident tone. I used my line about Israel being the only country in the Middle East where a Jew and an Arab could share a beer together. My opponent, Hadas Thier, went on the rampage. “Obviously you’ve never been to Israel,” she said to me, “because any Arab would have to climb the apartheid wall in order to get to a bar.”

I have, of course, been to Israel, seven or eight times. I have also been to Palestinian areas of the West Bank—hell, I’ve even been to the Palestinian presidential headquarters in Ramallah. I was surprised to hear the “you’ve never been there” argument from the anti-Israel side; typically one hears that sort of evasive remark from hardline defenders of Israel. But that wasn’t the worst I’d hear from Thier.

Over the course of the next two hours Thier endorsed Palestinian suicide bombings against Israeli civilians; claimed that Zionists had collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust; and accused Israel of deliberately plotting the “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians. I was amazed that anyone could defend suicide bombings in New York after 9/11; however, Their was applauded as she defended the “right to resist.”

I had an easy time defeating the proposition that Israel is an apartheid state. Neither Thier nor her supporters could counter my argument that Israel forbids racial discrimination and does not discriminate in law against her Arab citizens. Nor could they respond when I argued that Israel is the freest country in the Middle East, and that the occupation, while wrong, is the result of conflict, not racism.

But they did not come to debate; they simply came to bash Israel, and the question of apartheid was just a useful pretext. The moderator was fairly even-handed, but the format of the debate prevented me from responding directly to anything Thier said until the closing statements. In answering questions from the audience, I would provide facts and explanations, and she would get equal time to spout venom.

I became more and more discouraged as the debate went on, and had to remind myself not to slouch in my chair. As I listened to the crowd cheer one after another of Thier'’s ridiculous lies, I was reminded that bad arguments can sound more convincing than good ones if the person making them sounds absolutely certain of them. Lacking other information, most people take conviction as a sign of truth.

The worst part of the debate was the heckling. Not against me—I didn’t mind that at all, and gave as good as I got. After I argued that suicide bombings were immoral, for example, a woman screamed: “Racist!” I challenged her to state her views at the podium and she refused. No—the worst was the way Their’s supporters harangued the small group of pro-Israel people, some of whom became quite upset.

When they asked questions, the pro-Israel members of the audience were quite timid, and often seemed to find it necessary to couch their remarks in criticisms of Israel or the Jewish community. Some tried to split the difference between me and Thier by criticizing both of us; others tried to gain “forward cover” by criticizing me first. They were clearly intimidated, afraid to state their own views plainly.

The one great moment in the debate came when Thier cited Nelson Mandela as an example of a South African hero who had endorsed the Israel-apartheid analogy. She threw in Ronnie Kasrils and Max Ozinsky, too, for good measure, not realizing that I have debated both. My girlfriend Julia, sitting in the audience, saw the opportunity and asked Thier if she could prove that Mandela had made the analogy.

Thier went for the bait and read the hoax Mandela letter aloud. I watched as the faces of the pro-Israel people fell at hearing the worst anti-Israel rhetoric echoed by the world’s last living legend. Then my turn came to answer the question: “I’m glad you read that letter. It is a hoax, a complete fraud. Like most of what Hadas has presented as fact, it is pure fiction.” Thier and her friends were stunned into silence.

I ended on a positive note, delivering my closing statement on the need for a positive vision for the future of Palestine, and describing my ideas for advancing the peace process. Thier ended as she had begun, attacking Israel with reckless disregard for the truth, and called for a “secular, democratic state in Palestine”—i.e. for the destruction of the state of Israel. The audience cheered, and it was over.

I won, but I lost. Yet I would do it all again. Not because I believe I could convince the audience to see my point of view—though one Muslim guy who had challenged my views came up to me afterwards and told me he thought I had won the debate. No—I would do it for the sake of the pro-Israel people in the room, who did not know how to respond to the heckling and seemed unsure how to defend their views.

Judge Richard Posner happened to be at Harvard today, and paid a visit to a reading group I am in that is studying his book Law, Pragmatism and Democracy. In the book, Posner criticizes the idea that people need to be more involved in political debates to participate fully in democracy. He reiterated that view today, saying that people rarely change their minds because of arguments and debates.

After last night, I am inclined to agree. Political debates are not aimed at finding truth; they are tests of each side’s ability to defend itself. Perhaps I can learn better ways to win over a hostile audience; some rhetorical tricks, maybe, or some witty jokes. I have also thought of looking at what Steven Pinker has to say about how the brain wrestles with ideas, and drawing some tactical lessons from his work.

But on this issue, and on other important political topics, it may not be as important to convince the other side as to convince one’s own. The best ideas—liberalism, for example—are never popular. But they can succeed if those who hold them remain confident in their worth. And so with Israel. Fated to be the concern of a small minority, it will nevertheless thrive, as long as enough people believe it should.


At 1:04 PM, Blogger Thermblog said...

My initial suggested tactic of calling your opponent a Nazi might have caused the audience to actually think when you supported that position.

Anyway, congratulations on the triumphs you achieved in the debate. Overall though, a change in approach is needed by all who argue Israel's case. Earnest honesty and goodwill are not working, as the anti-Israel side has devolved into a witch-burning crowd.

BTW, I no longer see Mandela as a living legend. His criticism of Bush prior to the Iraq War ended my automatic respect for him. He went over the edge when he called George, "stupid" and there are other reasons too. I suspect Mandela was coerced but it was just not appropriate for him to say those things. I notice that SA has taken a very anti-US tone since then and I think it was planned.

At 2:03 PM, Blogger Joel said...

Regarding Mandela, my impression is that he is actually instinctively pro-US in the war on terror. After 9/11 he rushed to expressed condolences and even visited President Bush. When he expressed support for the war in Afghanistan, the Muslim community in SA was up in arms and started calling him senile. His advisers, particularly the Pahad brothers, started reeling him in and my impression is that they force-fed him a large amount of propaganda, telling him it was necessary for the fortunes of the ANC that he take an anti-US line. So he has said some really stupid things, but his instincts are actually quite the opposite. I think Mandela is far more pro-Israel--or far less anti-Israel, at any rate--than his party.

At 2:22 PM, Blogger Thermblog said...

Thanks for the info on Mandela. I'm judging as best I can from "here." What he said after 9/11 also made his later pronouncements seem odd.

At 12:47 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well done Joel. I for one am grateful that people with your intellectual ability are willing to use it on this cause.

The you tube clip was great. do you have the full audio or visual that you could post somewhere?

At 3:48 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The sad thing about this whole conflict is how unintellectual public debates between Israeli and Palestinian supports are. I have a friend who used to be the chair person of the European Union of Jewish Students. She is probably one of the most intelligent people I know. She speaks 7 languages, has a doctorate in Jewish history and philosophy. She is on the far Left of the political spectrum. And she used to joke that when she had to publicly debate Palestinian activities she played the role of a rabid right winger. Unfortunately in these sorts of things there is no room for grey. Nuisances are just perceived as weaknesses. Her motto was attack attack attack.


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