Israel Advocacy - How People Form Opinions

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Forming Opinions

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Anti-Israel Narrative

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People do not form opinions based on isolated events or issues, though these are used to help build opinion on a subject. Kristallnacht would make you into an anti-Nazi only if you were already sympathetic to Jews. People get information from many different sources: Television, Internet, newspapers, friends. That is not necessarily how they form opinions. To understand the world and new phenomena, people build a knowledge schema. The schema may begin with very basic concepts and emotions about those concepts: "Jew - greedy - Christ killers - dishonest - bad" "Palestinian - oppressed - good." The schema and the associations in that schema provide a context for all new events and issues. Once they know their way around that schema they can fit events into it and understand, or think they understand, what the events signify and how to interpret them. Once they are committed, people look for information that reinforces their beliefs and tells them they are right. Perceptual and memory experiments showed over and over that people tend to see what they expect to see and to remember what they expect to remember. Objects or events that do not fit their expectations are often not seen at all, or are changed into something else that does fit what they expected to see according to their experience. People see what they are prepared to see and what they want to see.

Next time you want to take action over an outrageous anti-Israel initiative, think about why you were not influenced to change your mind by this initiative. You have a different set of facts and a different relation to the facts. Building that set of facts is what is needed to gain commitment to a cause and neutralize red herring propaganda. It is slow work, but worth the investment.

The knowledge schema and the emotional valences of different positions, movements and events are usually imparted by authority figures, parents and other important people. Many an activist  became one because of a boyfriend or girlfriend. These authority referents don't always impart the information, but they influence the person as to how and what to think about the information. They also filter the information that the person gets through their own value system and perspective.

People see what they are prepared to see and what they want to see.

People who do not have opinions about specific issues rarely retain much about the news regarding those issues even if they watch it. They are not interested and have not equipped themselves to understand it. I am really not likely to remember much about events in local politics in Japan because the places, persons and issues involved are unknown to me. For someone who doesn't know where Israel is or what Hamas is, it is pretty much a matter of indifference if Hamas attacked Israel or Israel attacked Hamas.

Once the opinions are formed, they are used to select sources of information and to filter information. A lot of "information gathering" is then done in order to buttress existing opinion rather than to find out what really happened. That is often done unconsciously. Republicans and conservatives are more likely to watch Fox News while liberals and Democrats may be more likely to watch MSNBC or read The Nation. These different sources attract their audiences by selecting information that reinforces a particular set of opinions.

Obviously, this is not a totally rigid process. People do change their minds based on new information. However, it is more difficult to change minds with new information once people have formed a strong opinion or impression. There is not a single valid channel of communication, but rather many paths to persuasion. The channels that reach the largest audiences are not necessarily the most effective by any means. A conversation with four friends may convince all four of them of the justice of your cause. A television appearance seen by 10,000 people may convince none of them to change their opinions. However, a TV appearance or YouTube posting that convinces 0.1% of a hundred thousand viewers to change their minds may result in dozens of new supporters.

Who and what can form and change opinions?

Who - People are more likely to listen to authorities and to people they know than to strangers. Authority is a relative term, and does not always require objective credentials. Noam Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at MIT, yet some consider him an authority on American foreign policy. Authority can be gained by a track record of visible advocacy which includes media appearances, since these appearances themselves rightly or wrongly imply authority and expertise.

How - People will probably respond to the spoken word and presentation more readily than they will to written material, The written material will be effective after it has been recommended and explained by someone they value.

What - Opinions and ideas that are closer to your own and that are couched in terms of values you understand and concepts that you understand and identify with are more likely to change your attitude or position than those that are identifiably alien. New information will be fit into the schema of the familiar, or the "narrative" that people have already formed. People respond to concrete instances: events, heroes and villains that have dramatic impact and become nores that organize the schema or narrative.

Language is also used to give cues, subtle or otherwise, as to what is "right" and what is "wrong," who is "with us" and who is "against us," depending on the audience. Separate chapters will explore the role of narratives and language.


Repetition induces familiarity and therefore it can help to popularize even the most noxious and alien ideas - as well as teaching the best ones. Repetition, like any other technique, can be used for imparting truth or fabrications.

Anti-Israel demonstrators repeated the "Israel Apartheid" "Zionism is racism" and "Zionism = Nazism" slogans often enough until these absurd and cynical ideas began to take hold and assume "legitimacy" and respectability. The idea that "the Jews" control the press and censor out terrible truths has been advanced by anti-Israel propagandists in a thousand subtle ways, ranging from Web sites like "If Americans Knew" to Jimmy Carter's protests that the "Israel lobby" was trying to suppress his book. In fact, his imaginative diatribe about "Apartheid" was an international best seller, and each protest he made about the "Israel Lobby" helped increase the sale of his book.

Ideas, slogans and facts must be repeated many times in different contexts in different media and formats, and from different sources, before people will

1 - Remember them

2 - Believe them

3 - Keep them in mind (availability)

4 - Be emotionally motivated to act on the ideas.

If you hear something from one source, you might not believe it. If you hear it from a dozen sources you may assume it is true. If you hear it a few times, you might believe it, but you might forget it. You learned many facts in school, but you don't remember many of them, right? If you hear it practically every day, and it is talked about by people who are important to you, it will always be in your consciousness. Different people are affected in different ways at different times. The written word may convince some people. Pictures or dramatizations may convince others, while a very effective speaker might be most successful at convincing others. Each presentation and each more of presentation reinforces the others. You might not remember much about Mary Queen of Scots from a history course, but if you also saw a movie about her, some of the facts will stick in your memory.

Dramatic Events

A searing event like the terror attacks of 9-11 can change opinions. It becomes an organizing point in a narrative. But the truth is not entirely self evident. Pro-Arab propagandists have been busily at work trying to find ways to blame the attack on "the Jews" or "Israel lobby." They circulate vicious and unfounded rumors that "Jews" or the Mossad intelligence agency perpetrated the attacks. They imply that the attacks were "understandable" reactions to US support for Israel. The impact of such events - even huge catastrophes like the Holocaust - tends to recede with time, as they become less immediate.


People tend to place higher value on a cause or event if they contributed to it. It becomes a part of them. This is in part due to cognitive dissonance. Supporters who have signed a petition, joined a demonstration or given even a symbolic amount of money are more likely to become involved, enthusiastic and committed. Demonstrations and the like are not just events where outsiders are educated and convinced, but events where the participants are convinced. The people at the demonstrations chanting slogans like "Long Live Hitler" "Put Jews in Ovens" "Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the Gas" was convincing themselves in part. (see here and here)   

Demonstrations and the like are not just events where outsiders are educated and convinced, but events where the participants are convinced

Peer Pressure and Bandwagoning

A famous series of social psychology experiments, the Asch experiments, showed that people's opinions, could be changed by peer pressure. This was true even for obvious matters of fact. When a large number of students intentionally picked a wrong answer in comparisons of the length of a line, they could influence the choice of a target subject.

Survey information is often deliberately distorted in press releases by interested organizations to "prove" that most people support their point of view. In many cases, the questions asked in the survey are loaded to produce the accepted response.

Sometimes bandwagoning effects can be unintentional. Telling people that X% of people in Spain consider that Jews are devious in business publicizes data about anti-Semitism, but it also creates bandwagoning for these ideas. If so many people believe it, it must be true. The information that large numbers of Europeans identified Israel as the #1 cause of world instability should have caused a focus on European propaganda and politics. Instead it caused a focus on Israel as a supposed offender. If a cause is perceived as having many adherents, whether it is Hare Krishna, democracy or Nazism, its views become more acceptable and respectable and it can get more adherents.

Sympathy for underdog and identification with winners

The rise in sympathy for Palestinians is often attributed to sympathy for the underdog. Perhaps so, but paradoxically, people also like a "winner" and shy away from "losers." Jews were never more unpopular than they were in 1939 when they were powerless and threatened with extinction. Zionism was never more popular than it was in 1967 after the victory of the Six day war. Along with their "oppressed" image, the Hezbollah in 2006 and the Hamas in 2009, were anxious to propagandize their "victories" over the Zionists. The relative importance of "acting weak when you are strong" (sympathy for underdog) and "acting strong when you are weak (to elicit identification with winners) depends on how the issue is presented and the nature of the audience. Point out that the "powerless" Palestinian terrorist groups are backed by hundreds of millions of Arabs. When appropriate, remind people the "victorious" Hezbollah and Hamas are not too anxious to repeat their "victories."

The bad information often drives out the good

The truth is often nuanced, complex and requires some background to understand. The truth can be BORING. A false version can be easily stripped of the background information and nuances and turned into an aggregation of accusatory slogans that help mobilize emotions and are easy to remember.

Good information: "Palestinian Arabs participated in a war to destroy Israel, which they lost. Many fled the country and others were expelled. The expulsions were often due to military necessity. The Arab Palestinians harbored irregular armies that shot at nearby Jewish neighborhoods or participated in road blockades and ambushes intended to isolate and starve out Jewish towns and villages. In isolated cases there were also, apparently, unjustified expulsions and even massacres. Arab countries refused to absorb the refugees in the same way that Israel absorbed Jewish refugees. This created the Palestinian Arab refugee problem."

Whew! Who wants to listen to that? B*O*R*I*N*G. Historical truth can be made interesting however, when it is illustrated with personal stories and people are made to feel the immediacy of the events. The book "O Jerusalem" is proof that good history doesn't have to be B*O*R*I*N*G.

Propaganda: "In 1948 Zionists ethnically cleansed and massacred the Arabs of Palestine, leaving them destitute and homeless. They did it to create a exclusivist racist colonialist Jewish state. This was the Nakba."

That's much more interesting, isn't it? It is not true, but that hardly matters to those who propagate this "narrative."

Note - the above are not actual quotes, but you can certainly find similar examples.

Source Credibility - Who forms Opinions for Whom?

People grade information according to the source. If your Rabbi or Minister or a respected analyst or public figure says it is true, you are far more likely to believe it than if the same information appears, for example, in al-Ahram newspaper. It goes without saying that most people will tend to believe sources that agree with their opinions or sources that have built a reputation for neutrality and accuracy - whether deserved or not. Regrettably, the BBC, which had enormous credibility built up in the dark days of World War II, has squandered its integrity by obviously biased journalism, but it is still believed by a large segment of the population. Main stream media aim at the central, middle of the road audience, and therefore tend to be believed much more than extremist publications. Government sources are generally discounted by those who do not support that particular government.

When pro-Zionist and pro-Israel articles appear in publications that are associated with extreme right wing ideas, Zionism gets the "bad politics seal of dissaproval."

Perhaps even more important is who and what people disbelieve. An idea is known by the company it keeps. If the Hamas Web site supports ketchup as "Islamic" you might think twice about using ketchup. If Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes out in favor of socialized medicine, you may well be inclined to oppose it. When pro-Zionist and pro-Israel articles appear in publications that are associated with extreme right wing ideas, Zionism gets the "bad politics seal of dissaproval." Israel is relegated to the camp of the "bad guys" by a very large segment of the population. You may think these publications represent your ideas or mainstream views, but they do not. They represent a tiny proportion of public opinion. The same is true, for example, of endorsements of Israel by extremist politicians like Geert Wilders in Holland. A lukewarm article in the New York Times or CNN about Israel that presents a fairly reasonable picture of the facts is going to be far more persuasive to far more people than a very enthusiastic write up in Pyjamas Media or Front Page magazine. Don't label your organization or publication by associating it with political movements and positions that are despised by a large proportion of the population, and don't circulate material from such sources exclusively. The anti-Israel crowd is always looking for an excuse to pin the "neo-conservative" label on you.

It works both ways of course. A British "progressive" advocate of boycotts and divestment from Israel embarrassed themselves and their cause when they cited an article from the racist and reactionary David Duke Web site as a good explanation of why boycotting Israel is justified. Many of the more extreme "criticisms of Israel" originate in or are enthusiastically adopted by neo-Nazi and reactionary groups. These connections should always be pointed out.

When citing critical facts and especially quotations, it is very important to your credibility to refer to the original source. This helps to build trust and credibility.

Basic Information is All-Important

Basic information is the most important commodity you can offer. It is often the one that is most sorely needed and in shortest supply. Opinions often far outrun the information on which they are based. "Advocates" learn some talking points and their knowledge is often not deeper than those points. The points are very effective at first especially if they are new or obscure, even if they are not exactly true, but they may be built on a foundation of nothing.

One fellow in an e-dialog carried on a pseudo erudite dispute about the meaning of the Balfour declaration for quite a while. His advocacy group had equipped him with numerous "talking points." At length it was discovered that he had no idea what the Balfour declaration was, who wrote it, or to whom it was addressed, or why.

One lady, the wife of a rabbi, had some outspoken views about Israel - a dusty and dangerous place according to her. It developed that she had no knowledge of Israel and was never there. She did not know that Israel is located by the sea. An American university professor could not understand why Israel was unwilling to give up territories conquered in the 6 Day War. He expounded at length and with apparent expertise on "Israeli expansionist militarism," until he was shown a map of Israel by a visiting Israeli high school student. He was amazed to find that Israel is only a few miles wide at its narrow waist. He said, "You would have to be out of your minds to give up any of these territories."

People who dispute about obscure minutiae of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often have no idea how big Israel is, when Jews started coming to Israel or what the Hamas or Hezbollah are, or what Zionism is. Nonetheless, their audiences look to them as "authorities."

The Middle East is a "specialty" field, so uncommitted audiences know even less. A survey in 2006 at the height of the Lebanon war found that 20% of American voters could not identify Hezbollah and 25% could not identify Hamas. A 2004 Frank Luntz survey found that only 19% of American college students could name the Secretary General of the United Nations, 35% could name the Prime Minister of Israel, and 55% could name Yasser Arafat as the President of the Palestinian Authority! Similarly, a 2007 PEW survey found high levels of ignorance among US respondents about current events information such as identifying the Vice President or Secretary of Defense.

Remarkably, lack of knowledge does not prevent people from having an opinion. An Israel project survey found that a substantial number of American voters had not heard anything about the Iranian nuclear development program. However, the percentage of those people favoring sanctions against Iran was about the same as it was among those who claimed t be familiar with the Iranian nuclear development program

Of course, regardless of facts, you will never be able to overcome the selective screening out of information, the willful ignorance, of the "true believers." Stephen Colbert, the US comedian said, "Remember kids! In order to maintain an untenable position, you have to be actively ignorant."

Never Assume Knowledge

Because your audience lacks basic knowledge, they often literally do not understand you. They think Hamas is just another group, they may think Israel is the size of France, and they have no idea what radical Islamist ideology is and what it aims to accomplish. They may believe Jews constitute 20% of the United States population (they are about 2%). Thus they might have no problem believing that Jews want to take over the world or control the US government. Unless your audience understands you and has basic knowledge of the Middle East, you won't have the same frame of reference. It is meaningless for example to tell people that negotiating with Hamas is not good for Israel and cannot bring peace if they don't know what Hamas is. They don't understand what Hamas aim to do or what they do to further their aims. They will think you are a "bad person" because you are against negotiations. Negotiations, after all, are a good thing, as they learned in civics class.

This means that your talks, presentations, answers to questions, articles and Web sites must go over the same basics repeatedly. For example:

  • Show the tiny area of Israel.
  • Explain the historic ties of the Jewish people to the land.
  • Explain that Zionism is a national liberation movement like any other, and that the Jewish people have a right to self-determination like any other people.
  • Explain who Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is and what his views are on the future of "Zionism" and America.
  • Quote extensively from the genocidal plans of the Hamas charter.

Explain that the Israeli-Arab conflict began about a hundred years ago, because of Arab opposition to any Jewish settlement in the land, and not in 1967, following the Six Day war.

Getting there first is all important

It is very difficult to unseat a fictive narrative or bogus "fact" once it has taken hold. or to undo the damage caused by a fake "Zionist quote." Getting your side of the story to specific audiences before the other side is there, and consolidating support, may be critically important. Once they have adopted the Palestinian "narrative," a person or group is not likely to listen to your counter arguments.


This material is copyright 2009 by Ami Isseroff and members of the Zio-Web group. No part may be reproduced without permission in any form.

See Also - Zionism and Israel- Issues and Answers   Zionist Quotes    Explaining Zionism Be a Proud Zionist 

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Was Israel Founded Because of the Holocaust??

The Two State Solution is the only solution for peace

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Zionism - Table of contents at the Jewish Virtual Library

Zionism article at Infoplease

Zionism - Definition and Brief History - A balanced article that covers the definitions and history of Zionism as well as opposition to Zionism and criticisms by Arabs,  Jewish anti-Zionists.

Labor Zionism - Early History and Critique - Contribution of Labor Zionism to the creation of the Jewish state, and problems of Labor Zionism in a changing reality.

The US Library of congress has a comprehensive and balanced set of articles about Zionism:

Zionist Precursors - US Library of Congress

Political Zionism - US Library of Congress

Cultural Zionism - US Library of Congress

Labor Zionism - US Library of Congress

Revisionist Zionism - US Library of Congress

Jewish Agency Zionism pages - Links to basic information about Zionism from the Jewish Agency

Ambassador Herzog explains Zionism in the UN


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