Sometimes debaters stick to arguing the merits of their case. When facts and logic are on their side, they count on a rational audience to separate right from wrong and judge the winner on the merits.
Sometimes, recognizing that they're stuck with a losing argument, debaters resort to distortion, name calling, and other tactics to distract their listeners from the merits.
Who would know this better than Alan Dershowitz? As one of the premier litigators and legal minds of his generation and a veteran of decade after decade of making the "case for Israel," Dershowitz makes shrewd tactical choices in approaching the court of public opinion.
In the present debate over President Obama's determined efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the president and his supporters, including J Street, argue that a strong and assertive effort to end the conflict is in the best interests both of Israel and the United States.
We argue that the president should press both parties to take important steps that will end the occupation of the West Bank, establish borders between two states for two people, and lead to acceptance of Israel by the entirety of the Arab world. Only a negotiated end of the conflict can avert another generation of terror, bloodshed and suffering for the parties, and such an effort will undoubtedly weaken the forces of extremism that cynically exploit the conflict to further their own political agendas.
Those opposing the President's efforts, and arguing that America should stop pressing the parties to end the conflict, are stuck with unconvincing facts and logic.
What can they argue on the merits? That it's in America's interest for Israel to keep building settlements? That it's helping our efforts to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon for the Arab-Israeli conflict to go on just a little longer? That it wouldn't help America in pushing back against the forces of extremism in Afghanistan and Iraq to bring an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
And what about those like Alan Dershowitz who argue the "case for Israel"? How can they argue against the president's effort? By saying that Israel will be more secure by maintaining the occupation for another 43 years? That it can remain true to the vision and values of people like Theodore Herzl and David Ben-Gurion by ruling as a minority over a majority non-Jewish population?
No. There's no case for the status quo, no rational argument that things will get better simply by "staying the course" - there is no way to win this argument on the merits.
So what do you do when you're dealt a really bad set of facts and the arguments run against you? You attack your opposition. You label your opponent - as Dershowitz does, saying J Street has "gone over to the dark side."
Really, Alan, what does that mean? That those who don't think ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a U.S. national security interest are the "forces of light"?
If name-calling isn't enough, you can distort your opponent's position - claiming as Dershowitz does that I've "joined the off key chorus of those who falsely claim that Israel, by refusing to make peace with the Palestinians, is placing the lives of American soldiers at risk"?
Alan, I realize arguing against words I've never said is easier than answering the rational arguments I'm making, but it's time to blow the whistle on the lies and distortions that emanate from those who are arguing against the president's effort to bring peace and security to Israel and the Middle East.
You expose your own distortion on your own by quoting what I've really said - "resolving the conflict is not only necessary to secure Israel's future, but also critical to regional stability and American strategic interests." You acknowledge that I don't make the very statement that you attribute to me in your lead paragraph, but you then go on to knowingly state that my words are "code" for making that connection.
Really? Code? Who's got the codebook, Alan? My words stand for themselves. If you disagree with President Obama and with J Street that it's an American strategic interest to end the conflict, just say so. But just because you know that argument won't fly doesn't give you license to put words in my mouth.
Frankly, the kind of diatribe that you engage in, replete with falsehoods, name calling and guilt by association represents all that is wrong with the way the "case for Israel" has been made for far too long.
It's precisely this kind of slanderous campaign that you regularly run against anyone who disagrees with you. And it's precisely such tactics that lead to un-Jewish outcomes such as Judge Richard Goldstone almost being barred from attending his own grandson's bar mitzvah.
Your tactics are what makes being "pro-Israel" so unattractive that college students who do love and support Israel are afraid to be labeled "pro-Israel." They are not running away from Israel. They are running away from you.
Alan Dershowitz, you are wrong on the merits of America's strategic interest in making peace in the Middle East. You will lose in the court of public opinion and in the national policy debate.
But more important you are wrong to press the "case for Israel" in this way. Engaging in these sorts of attacks will not only set back the cause of peace and security for Israel, it will ultimately undermine the strength of the U.S.-Israel friendship.
Follow Jeremy Ben-Ami on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jstreetdotorg