Can we win the war of public opinion about Israel?

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After the horror of the October 7th terror attack, we have been fighting two wars. First, our brave brothers and sisters are fighting a physical war against Hamas to eliminate them from Gaza and to rescue the hostages. We have also been fighting a media war, a war on the street, a war for public opinion, to try to convince the world of the justice of our cause. And we are frustrated, and perhaps more than that, we are shocked, by how this second war is playing out. There is a terrorist organization that carried out a massacre of innocent men, women and children and killed them in the most brutal way imaginable. Their leaders have said that when they have the chance, they will do this again. Their leaders have said that it’s acceptable for their own civilians to die in the conflict because it is an acceptable sacrifice for their cause. They attack Israel from hospitals and schools and use civilians as human shields. And yet, there are countless rallies, protests and calls for a ceasefire throughout the world because of the humanitarian situation in Gaza without any plan for removing Hamas or for freeing the hostages. Jewish students no longer feel safe on many college campuses, which are supposed institutions of higher learning. We are justifiably shocked and devastated by this response. What must we do to convince the world of the justice of our cause? 


I can understand why, at times like these, people invoke the famous quote of  Rashi from Parshat Vayishlach (Breishit 33:4) when Yaakov met Esav after being separated for over twenty years: הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקב – it’s a known law that Esav hates Yaakov. They interpret this line to mean that the non-Jew hates the Jew. Should we simply assert that the worldwide response to Israel and to Jews worldwide is part of the non-Jewish DNA that they hate us? And if that’s so, what is the purpose of our social media posts and our rallies when, at the end of the day, all non-Jews hate us and will not change their minds about us no matter what we do?


Theologically, I don’t believe that we need to resort to the approach that everyone hates the Jews. For example, the Netziv understands the meeting between Yaakov and Esav in a different manner, that it teaches us that:


גם יעקב נתעורר עליו לשעה זו אהבה לעשו. וכן לדורות בשעה שזרע עשו מתעוררים ברוח טהרה להכיר את זרע ישראל ומעלתם, אז גם אנחנו מתעוררים להכיר את עשו כי אחינו הוא

“At that moment love for Esav awakened in Yaakov as well. Similarly, whenever Esav’s descendants genuinely acknowledge Yisrael’s greatness, Yisrael reciprocates with feelings of brotherhood.”

The Netziv, who does believe that this story provides a lesson for us about dealing with non-Jews, explicitly states that descendants of Esav are not always bad.  They sometimes may exhibit hatred towards us but at other times they may not. In those situations, we should not suspect them of trying to harm us; rather, we should embrace them.  Either the Netziv explicitly rejects the notion that הלכה היא בידוע שעשו שונא ליעקבor he rejects the assumption that this statement means that all non-Jews hate us.

It's very easy to say that no matter what we do nobody will change their minds and listen to us because they hate us, but I don’t think that that’s true. Several hundred years ago, Christians persecuted us and Muslims were our friends, but today many Christians, like Evangelicals, are our biggest friends and some Muslim groups are our worst enemies. As such, people’s attitudes towards us have changed and can continue to change.

I would say that critics of Israel and supporters of Hamas can fall into one of three broad categories. 

1.  The antisemites: They hate Jews. They hate the idea of a Jewish state in any form because they hate Jews. Some of these people hate Jews like the way some people hate blacks. They are racist. Others are political extremists who want to destroy established political institutions. Whether they are on the extreme political left or the extreme political right, they believe that the Jews are part of a conspiracy or part of an establishment that wants to rule over the citizens of their country. You can’t change the minds of those who belong to this category. They have their minds made up. They hate Jews whether Jews are rich or poor, powerful or powerless. We can’t convince members of this group, but we can expose them to the broader public. We can expose them for what they really want – not simply a ceasefire, but the destruction of a Jewish state.

2.  The political progressives: They assert that Israel commits human rights violations in their treatment of the Palestinians and in their disproportionate useof force to protect themselves. They want to limit financial aid from the United States to Israel because of its alleged human rights violations. Members of this group believe that there are two groups of people in this world: the powerful and the oppressed. Since Israel is powerful and Palestinians have miserable lives, the Palestinians must be morally correct in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many in this category expressed support for Israel after the October 7thterror attack because Israel clearly was the one that was oppressed in that massacre. However, many members of this group stopped supporting Israel the moment that it began taking steps to defend itself by trying to eliminate Hamas. There may be some ability to reason with members of this group by convincing them that Israel will be the victim if it doesn’t do what it needs to do to eliminate Hamas. An example is Bernie Sanders. In an interview, he told a CNN reporter that he is opposed to a ceasefire because he understands that Israel must eliminate Hamas in order not to become a victim. However, he said that Israel must do better to avoid too many civilian casualties. He didn’t say how Israel must do better because he’s not a military person, but he just said that Israel must do better. For people like Bernie Sanders, once you kill civilians in the context of a war against terrorists who embed themselves within the civilian population and use that population as human shields, the Palestinian civilians are the oppressed and Israel is the aggressor. In general, it is difficult to convince members of this group that Israel has the moral high ground here because admitting this radically changes their entire narrative and worldview about the binary of the powerful and the oppressed, but there may be some room to have meaningful dialogue with this group.

3.  The ignorant: They watch pictures on the internet of suffering Palestinians and look at the statistics of how many Israelis have been killed and how many Palestinians have been killed according to the Palestinian Health Ministry run by Hamas. They focus on the damage being done and not on the underlying cause of the damage being done. They are the most receptive to understand:

a.    Israel’s predicament and why it is absolutely imperative that Israel not be pressured into a ceasefire which will only allow Hamas to rebuild its terrorist infrastructure;

b.     That the IDF takes steps to try to minimize Palestinian civilian casualties through phone calls, text messages and leaflets telling civilians to leave war zones, and through the creation of corridors of safe passage for civilians while under fire from Hamas terrorists;

c. That Hamas takes steps to do maximize Palestinian civilian casualties by not allowing civilians to leave the war zones and by situating their headquarters and rocket launchers near schools and hospitals; and

d. That the responsibility for Palestinian deaths, albeit tragic, falls solely on Hamas.

Yes, עשו שונא ליעקב. There is a strain of antisemitism that has infected not just Arab society but Western society, as well. We will not be able to convince them, but we will be able to expose them. We may also be able to make some inroads with political progressives like Bernie Sanders by narrowly focusing on the hostages and the threat that Hamas clearly poses to the State of Israel without trying to contextualize this massacre. We cannot contextualize this massacre. Whatever one may feel about the State of Israel and how it treats Palestinians, there is absolutely no place for a political or military group like Hamas in civilizes society after its terrorist attack on October 7th and its pledge to do this again if given the chance. Finally, there are so many ignorant people out there and many of them are our neighbors, colleagues and acquaintances, and we can make a difference.

We may get discouraged by all of the protests and rallies in support of Hamas and we may wonder what we can do to shape public opinion. But as I mentioned, there are groups of individuals that we can educate. We can educate them with social media posts and simple one-on-one conversations. As our brothers and sisters thousands of miles away continue to fight a physical war, let us continue to fight a media war, a war on the street and a war for public opinion about Israel. With God’s help, we will be successful in both wars.