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August 29, 2016 10:32 am

How to Change People’s Minds on Israel

avatar by Judith Bergman

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A political argument. Photo: Wikipedia.

A political argument. Photo: Wikipedia.

Anyone who has ever tried to persuade someone to change his mind on a contentious topic on which he holds strong views — let’s say, Israel — knows that most of the time it is a frustrating and unrewarding pursuit that frequently ends in failure.

Israel advocates debate what strategies to pursue to achieve this, but the secret still appears to be as elusive as ever. No matter how many facts Israel has on its side, the “other side” still appears entirely unmoved. It goes on bashing Israel, ignoring the facts and absolving the terror-inciting Palestinian Authority and the missile-crazy, death cult-serving, terror tunnel-digging terrorists of Hamas.

We rational and thinking human beings can pull out our hair with frustration and struggle to keep our jaws in place while wondering: How on earth is it possible for anyone to claim that they care about “justice” and “human rights” while supporting such blatant terrorist criminals, who teach their own children to hate, and encourage and reward killing?

We all know the world is not fair. Jews in particular know this very well, and not being able to persuade people, let alone just leave us alone is hardly a novel development. We have dealt with that exasperating predicament for millennia and we are still here. The fact that the agenda-pushing journalists of the mainstream media, as well as the coddled, spoiled and brainwashed millennials of American college campuses, are neither willing nor able to distinguish facts from expertly peddled propaganda should not alarm us too much. This does not mean we should give up, merely that we should put things in proportion. As Jews, we have had more formidable foes. So first: A deep breath.

Then we should recall the following, which is based on science: Trying to change someone’s mind is virtually impossible, unless the right conditions are present. This is also known as “confirmation bias,” “cognitive dissonance,” or “motivated reasoning.” Research shows that facts by themselves are meaningless to people, who will stick to their opinions no matter what, because human beings are still in some ways “primitive,” tribal beings who find it difficult to step outside their group. Furthermore, relinquishing an opinion is akin to relinquishing an inherent part of oneself and one’s self-image, and admitting that one has been wrong is a hard thing to do.

These are formidable psychological hurdles to convincing anyone that his view is wrong, even on innocent, non-political issues, such as whether chocolate is healthy or not. The hurdle is all the more enormous when debating a highly charged subject such as Israel with people who have been subjected to biased reporting in the media for decades and are conditioned to a particular view of the issue.

Research shows that these hurdles can be moved in certain conditions: When people do not feel threatened and are made to feel comfortable, they are more likely to be open to facts and to change their opinions.

Observe almost any debate on Facebook, where verbal attacks are frequent and harsh. These “debates” are probably the least conducive circumstance for any meaningful exchange of opinions; instead they become “wars,” filled with accusations and expletives.

A different tactic is needed. Studies have found that if a person is asked to remember something positive about themselves and is put at ease, that is conducive to them becoming open to the debate and to changing their minds.

Unfortunately, that strategy is not very actionable when it comes to debates on the internet, especially with complete strangers, but would certainly be useful in a face-to-face situation.

However, the strategy could indeed be slightly modified, even for internet use. The main thing appears to be to de-escalate the situation, even before it has escalated — to show that one “comes in peace” and has no threatening intentions, perhaps even to underline that both parties do indeed have something in common.

Preferably, I would argue, that commonality should be something that has nothing to do with the political issue at hand. Instead, opening an argument with pleasant chit-chat might have a soothing effect that will put an opponent at ease and open his or her mind. This naturally means that there is no point in debating the hard-core haters on the internet, those who have already been so conditioned that there is no way to break through their walls.

The above contains no panacea as to how to win someone over in an argument, but it serves to elucidate what one is up against in a debate about Israel with a political opponent. Israel advocates often debate the content of the strategy, what arguments to make, whether to use historical or legal arguments, etc. We very rarely discuss the most fundamental psychological obstacles to winning a political argument, but becoming increasingly aware of these psychological hurdles is a step on the way to that elusive formula of success.

Judith Bergman is a writer and political analyst living in Israel. This article was originally published by Israel Hayom. 

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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  • Tomas M. Guggenheim

    Islamist terrorism in Western countries, plus the silence or dubious reaction to it by most Muslims, especially Arabs, may open some eyes about the mentality, world view or political culture prevailing among Israel’s neighbors as an – at least partial – explanation to the never-ending conflict with the Palestinians.
    To hope for might be over-optimistic and, unfortunately, up to now even the “Far-right” sympathizers are starting to fill out the dots sooner than the “Left-liberals”.

  • Nielsen

    “Never argue with stupid people, they will drag you down to their level and beat you with experience” – Mark Twain

  • Hannah

    This may work when you are very close to the person, but it will NOT work with most of the anti semitic idiots who don’t CARE to be right, they just lie because they HATE for their own reasons. What works with bullies? You knock them over and humiliate them.

  • SE Florida

    Sometimes it’s better to forget about what others think and just do what you believe is right and in your heart. Grow Israeli society, its infrastructure, its tourism, its industry, and its hold on the land that belongs to it for eternity. The world will notice the progress, and that is good enough. Let no one take away this dream that has come to fruition after 2000 years.

    How many times has someone told you that your personal dream of becoming “x”, or starting business “Y” is foolish and to forget it for the following reasons a, b, or c? You ignore them. Same applies to building the State of the Jews. Tell others thank you for the advice, and do what you want and need to. And forget about what others think.

  • israel is israel
    a powerful independent tool in it self

  • Liberals support Arabs and Muslims because they want to help the underdog.

    We must let them know that Israel is the underdog, not Arabs and Muslims.

  • This is probably one of the most sensible articles that I have ever read on the subject of engaging the “other side” in a meaningful discussion. To paraphrase Churchill; ‘democracy is the worst, messiest form of government – except for all the others” (or words to that effect) – in the same sense, then, regardless of all the previous failures in dialogue, the way forward as set out in this article is, I would submit, the best way forward.

  • mel fingerut

    Sadly, this article recommends a tactic that is far removed from the real world. We’re dealing with a hatred that existed for centuries, and has intensified in this era. Those who hate Israel
    and Jews are unwilling to accept facts about Israel, and to accept that their actions are anything but fine and laudable.
    We live in an age where academia, the press, and the social media
    work as a powerful triad to foster anti-Israel hatred.

  • Yale

    It’s hard to win an argument in which one side is always coherent and well-prepared and the other appears to be a cacophony of voices at war with one another. That so much of the anti-Israel campaign is being coordinated by the Muslim Brotherhood in its various faces accounts for the coherence of the anti-Israel side.

    For Israel and its supporters, this means that the efforts of Jewish Leftists to demonize the Israeli Right, and especially Netanyahu, are far and away the greatest hurdle to making the case. The situation is compounded by the Left’s self-perception that it is better informed, better educated, more intelligent and more moral than their opponents, when, in reality, they have simply been wrong.

    Getting the Jewish Left to face up to the reality that the conflict between Israel and the Arabs exists because of the internal workings of Arab society is a necessary first step in making this case to the wider world.

  • naomi

    Judith, you are very right in what you are saying. It has been utterly counter-productive to spew facts in the faces of the ‘stuck-in-the-mud’s, often accompanied by anger and disbelief, not to speak of poor language-skills.

    A space in our hearts needs to be cleared of this anger first, before we approach anyone who does not share our views. We have to argue with compassion (for their entrenched, unjust views and their agenda), with a heart that is warm and understands that even love (of one’s neighbour) might not guarantee the outcome we desire – we have to stop being attached to the ‘outcome’ and instead see the human being in front of us and sympathise with his/her ‘condition’.

    ‘Mashalim’, parables work wonders as well (‘would you not mind giving up the only, tiny home you have and which had belonged to your ancestors and give it to someone with 16 houses in the area?’ – to their: ‘Why can’t the Israelis just give back what they stole from the Palestinians’. Or: ‘If the UK was today invaded by mighty China, would it make it right in a thousand years?’ – to their: ‘You are talking about what was yours thousands of years ago, it is irrelevant to the present’. Etc.

    But above all: Leave anger at home and do not be attached to the outcome. Talking a lot of sense and being equipped with facts is nevertheless often failing to persuade the public; because when the anger is colossal the resistance to it would be colossal as well – attack summons counter-attack.

    We have to weed-out those who think themselves to be advocates of Israel’s justice and are ill-equipped to carry out this task because their hearts are not pure and their minds are stuck in the same rut as their opponents’ – and engage people who have, above all, sublimated their egoic urges (it is not about ‘positivity’ or ‘negativity’, but about understanding first of all where we, each one of us individually, are coming from). Right now, we have plenty of the first and very, very few of the latter – this is why we are losing the argument. We have to stop giving the platform to inadequate people and instead find people who are not only articulate but ‘evolved’ and wholesome, who can understand the heart of another human being, however erroneous it may be.

  • Changing peoples minds is not an easy task at all.
    There is a story of a competition between the wind and the sun, to see who is more powerful. They saw a man walking with a coat on, and they decided to see who of them could get the man to take off his coat. The wind went first -he blew and blew and blew, and the more he blew the more closely the man clutched the coat to his body. Then it was the sun’s turn: he shone on the man strongly, the man became very hot and took of his coat. So, trying to force a different point of view may well just strengthen the other sides resolve to defend their position.
    They also say that in order to fill a cup with tea, the cup must first be emptied.
    So the strategy that MAY work best is, to not challenge the other’s opinions directly, but rather get them to explain their opinions in more detail. If they start with reasonable assumptions and NO logical flaws exist in their reasoning – then they may be right and YOU need to change your views. But if there are flaws in their reasoning, you can eventually ask enough clarification for the flaw to become obvious. And if they realize they may be mistaken, they may become amenable to giving a fair hearing to a different opinion.
    IF the person is intellectually honest and not just defending prejudice at all costs – this can work.

  • I am beginning to think that some of you are ignorant at Algemeiner. It’s not Israel; It;s the Jewish people. Do you not understand that?

    • SE Florida

      This is correct, and should never be forgotten.

  • When I was giving Hasbara training sessions, I emphasized three things:

    in a debate or frontal lecture, you are not going to be able to change someone’s mind.

    the best that you can do is to plant a seed of doubt.

    to do so, you need to do two things:

    one, to be able to prove to them that you have an item of information – whether historical fact or current data – of which they didn’t know;

    two, you show that the information they have been provided with is unreliable;

    three, you leave them with an alternative source of information.

  • montlasky

    In other words we must “turn the other cheek” to be loved.
    This has been tried over millennia and all we got was two red sore cheeks!
    It’s time we started making the other guy’s sheets a little pink for a change.
    It’s better than the unending apologies we are involved in ad infinitum We hide our kappa!s and other outward gear that are recognizable to all anti Semites to start the “slapping” again.
    ENOUGH! Slapping back must now be the order of the day. We must bind together together in sixes or sevens and carry our own “brass knuckles” with the Star of David and leave a few read cheeks on the enemy including the self hating Jews who swell the enemies numbers.
    Sorry people, this is the only part solution to our problems. These have been our problems for thousands of years and until we try to stop it,expect another thousand years of cheek slapping from the other side. The answer is: Jews kave nice slappable cheeks? Enough!

  • Unfortunately, there is no elusive formula of success to change people’s minds on Israel. Using psychology is ineffective. The problem with Israel’s opponents stems from the heart. Finally, Israel’s most powerful defense is its place in the history of mankind.

  • I remember a debate I had over the Iran deal at a town hall meeting with a Democratic senator’s staff. Someone started yelling at me about Netanyahu and i calmly mentioned some things he did that I didn’t like. That commonality helped me with my points and we had a good discussion after the meeting

  • In the immortal words of a now obscure American sociopath:
    “Can’t we all get along”?

  • Meron Levitats

    The goal of the discussion should not be converting the inconvertible but presenting a calm , penetrating, and lucid argument that will sway interested presumably still open minded participants and bystanders.

  • God Bless Israel

  • Jay Lavine

    One need not try to change people’s minds but should simply present the facts in an evenhanded way. Ideologues generally do not do so. If one looks at Israel objectively, it is clear that Israel is largely in the right, but it is also clear that Israel, like all countries, sometimes behaves in a suboptimal way, and it is mandatory to acknowledge that.

    In Judaism, is is forbidden to lie, but it is also forbidden to say things that are true but that are presented in a deceptive way (geneivat da’at), which includes one-sidedness.

    If we look at the way people like Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov were depicted in the Torah, we see that they are not described in some idealistic fashion as individuals with perfect personal traits but rather as they really were, warts and all, and it is not forbidden to criticize their actions.

    Ideologues of Jewish background frequently talk about Jews but not about Judaism. Their ideology has become their religion, what I would call ideolotry. To the ideologue, serving oneself through self-validation, not serving God, is the goal.

  • Gary Katz

    Don’t waste your time showing them how good Israel is; they don’t care. A better approach is to focus on how bad “Palestinian” society is, whether it’s support for terror, teaching kids to hate, or stealing international aid. Then ask them if this is who they really want to support. Let them question if they aren’t better than that; do they really want to spend inordinate amounts of their precious time supporting a racist, sick society that hates Jews and the West? Maybe throw in a video of the “Palestinians” celebrating 9/11.

    • Thank you Gary, you’re absolute right. The second topic is :Be offensive instead being defensive and trying to answer their attacks and demonstrate that we are not the bad guys.

      “Principles for an offensive counter-propaganda

      In my last article “Being a victim? No, thank you!  “I lashed out against the serious mistakes that we make in our counter-propaganda, the so-called “Hasbarah.'”
      I explained that our victimhood attitude strengthen our adversaries and weaken us. Today I want to show what an effective offensive propaganda must be.”
      If you want to receive it write me at

  • Jane

    Strange it is identical to arguing whether Jews are culpable for killing a Roman occupation era minor rabbi, who ran a tiny cult at most, while Rome was sacking and committing genocides on the whole civilized world of the time., from Carthage to Gall, from Pheonecian North Africa to Persia, Rome was salting the earth and censoring it, and gathering millions of slaves for-whom murder and rape against was not a crime. Torture was never a Roman crime. Meanwhile, these same antisemites pretend to be isolationists, for all other cases, isolationists(!) and believe those terrible Neocons, don’t allow people to conduct their own systems, the best the mideast can do is dictators you-know? Yet even according to their lie to begin with, all Jews would have been doing at worst, is executing one of their own according to their laws. Something granted to all peoples in history other than the Jews. Millions of Jews were killed for that, any Jewish success stolen erased and repatriated to Christians or Muslims, good luck convincing them that the Jews should not be perpetually obsessed upon, and have an actual country of their own without hindrance.

    • EJ

      The cause is first and foremost spiritual. None of Israel’s battles have ever been won without the help of the Almighty.

      The reason Jewish people have been attacked and persecuted throughout history is not because they rejected Meshiach. That started long before the Romans and is at best a smoke screen. They are attacked and persecuted because they are people from which Meshiach will come. As such, they are the key in the Creator’s plan of salvation for all of mankind.

      In order to understand that, one must first be open to the spiritual heritage which humanity (with Israel as a chosen people) has been given through the holy scripture. It doesn’t matter though. You will see it with your own eyes.