You’re a college sophomore and one day on the quad you see a group of students handing out flyers blasting Israel as a racist apartheid state. You want to refute them but you’re not sure how best to argue the pro-Israel position.
What to do? Keep calm and read the manual.
“Winning a Debate with an Israel-Hater” is a new book by Dr. Michael Harris of San Rafael. As one of the founders and leaders of San Francisco Voice for Israel — now the Bay Area chapter of StandWithUs — Harris has had plenty of experience debating vitriolic anti-Zionist activists.
Though that experience informs every page, Harris said his book, published Oct. 8, is not intended to change the opinions of intransigent PIDS, his term for People with Israel Derangement Syndrome.
“You’re not going to convince the people who chant ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,’ ” Harris said. “But they’re not the audience. The book is aimed at giving tools to people on [the pro-Israel] side that will help them persuade undecided people.”
Using logic, a dash of humor and what he considers irrefutable facts, Harris breaks down his arguments into key aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. One chapter, for example, showcases the various categories of anti-Israel activists (from aging hippy to enraged anti-Semite), along with each group’s version of the “truth.”
Harris, 57, began the book in 2012, writing it between family time, his responsibilities as a pediatrician and his pro-bono work as an Israel advocate.
He said the impetus was his realization that “many who are strongly pro-Israel don’t know the facts well enough to respond to some of the lies the other side throws out. Hamas launches 10,000 missiles hoping one gets through and kills a bunch of kids. Similarly, the [anti-Israel] side launches 10,000 lies to the public hoping one will stick and make an impression.”
Among those “lies” are accusations that late 18th-century and early 19th-century Jewish pioneers stole land from indigenous Arabs. The book counters that Jews were always there and lands were purchased from absentee Ottoman-era landlords.
Also addressed is the not-so-hidden agenda of many anti-Israel activists: the eradication of the State of Israel. This is often revealed, for example, at pro-Palestinian rallies when people shout “ ’48!” — a reference to giving everything within Israel’s 1948 borders to the Palestinians.
If a person engaged in debate can get a Palestinian supporter to make a similar point, that’s a win for the pro-Israel side, Harris said, as keeping the Jewish state alive is a stance “that appeals to a majority of Americans.”
The book also urges people arguing on behalf of Israel to avoid prematurely playing the “anti-Semitism card.” Sooner or later, Harris said, the anti-Israel side will present an argument caked in anti-Semitism.
“They can’t help themselves,” he said, adding, “It’s also very important not to accuse every single person of anti-Semitism. For one, it’s not true, and if that’s all we have to fall back on, it’s a self-defeating argument.”
While Harris does concede Palestinians have suffered for decades, he bristles when activists support extremists “who insist that Palestinian national rights require the elimination of Jewish rights. We need to explain that the positions promoted by anti-Israel extremists promote rights for the Palestinians that they would deny to the Jewish people. Supporting the extremists’ agenda undermines those who genuinely want to see peace and coexistence.”
To promote the book, Harris is set for a round of speaking engagements and radio interviews. After 10 years of debate on the streets (at counterprotests) and in auditoriums (in formal settings), he has learned the art of rhetorical persuasion and hopes his book will help others — including those who shudder at the thought of public speaking.
“There are some people who feel comfortable standing up in an extemporaneous setting,” he said, “but taking on the other side like that is not for everyone. This book’s techniques are applicable to talking to someone in the workplace, someone who is not hostile [to Israel] but wants to ask questions about it.”
“Winning a Debate with an Israel-Hater” by Dr. Michael Harris (Shorehouse Books, 176 pages)