Editor's Notes: Financing our own demonization

We fume, often with good reason, when others misrepresent Israel. Why would we contribute to the process ourselves?

July 23, 2009 21:28

Day after day, the pages of this newspaper feature news and comment articles detailing or asserting bias against Israel on the part of human rights groups, the media, filmmakers, international governments and other global opinion-shapers. Last Wednesday, our lead front-page story reported that the government was determined to fight back against NGOs that it felt misrepresent the country. Referring to the recent fund-raising trip to Saudi Arabia by Human Rights Watch, which two weeks earlier had issued a report blasting Israel's conduct in Operation Cast Lead at the turn of the year, a spokesman for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu declared bitterly, "A human rights organization raising money in Saudi Arabia is like a women's rights group asking the Taliban for a donation." Another senior Israeli official vowed to "expose the inconsistencies... and problematic use of questionable data" in the work of HRW, Amnesty International and others. A few days later, we quoted government officials explaining why Israel would not be cooperating with Judge Richard Goldstone's UN inquiry into purported war crimes in the course of the Israeli assault on Hamas - because, said the Foreign Ministry, rejecting Goldstone's claims to the contrary, the inquiry was skewed from the start, working from a mandate which guaranteed that the result would be yet another exercise in UN-initiated, unwarranted Israel-bashing. Israel-based human rights groups critical of Israel regularly provoke angry reactions from officials in our pages for alleged disproportionate criticism of Israel and for ostensibly acting against the interests of the state. One such group, Breaking the Silence, which is funded in part by the British and Dutch governments and the EU, last week presented a report containing anonymous testimony asserting Israeli crimes during Operation Cast Lead. Israeli military officials, in response, asserted that Breaking the Silence was not truly seeking an investigation of alleged misdeeds, but rather that "the organization's real motive was to slander the IDF." We've recently carried reports of American Jewish filmmakers withdrawing from the Jerusalem Film Festival in solidarity with a Palestinian-led international campaign to boycott Israel, and of pro-Palestinian activists disrupting Israeli cultural activities in the UK - persuading a theater in London to cancel an Israeli event because of the participation of an IDF entertainment troupe, and convincing a festival in Edinburgh to return sponsorship funding from the Israeli Embassy. We regularly feature columnists in these pages complaining, with greater and lesser justification, about perceived anti-Israel bias in the foreign and sometimes the local media - criticisms of newspapers, radio stations, TV channels, Internet sites and documentary films. CNN ignited a firestorm here when it gave more screen time to the mother of a May 2002 suicide bomber than to the victims of the attack he carried out in Petah Tikva in which an Israeli woman, Chen Keinan, lost both her mother and her 15-month-old daughter. The BBC is a frequent target of charges of bias. So, too, Britain's Guardian daily, cited in an opinion piece in our pages this week as standing on the cutting edge of a new wave of efforts to delegitimize our country. Official Israel has been grappling for years to counter what, often for good reason, it regards as misrepresentation of Israel in print and on screen. Coordinating bodies designed to ensure a rapid response to erroneous or exaggerated breaking news of alleged Israeli misdeeds have come and gone, been reconstituted, refined and generally found wanting. Media experts have been called in to train spokespeople in more effectively conveying their message. Whole departments in the Foreign Ministry, the army, the Justice Ministry and beyond are devoted to trying to ensure Israel gets a fair break. Under our last foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, great play was made of efforts to entirely "rebrand" Israel. We didn't want the world to think of us as a war zone, beset by shootings and bombings, as all-too-often documented on TV and in the papers, but rather as the uniquely wonderful tourist destination we so often can be. To graphically illustrate the point, the men's magazine Maxim was invited to fly in for a photo shoot two years ago featuring female former soldiers in, and largely out of, uniform. Admirably, at this month's Jerusalem Film Festival, the showcase opening movie, often a major crowd-pleasing international release in previous years, was instead A Matter of Size - a gentle, understated, local comedic production. If hardly an advertisement for Israel as world class tourist destination - it is set in Ramle - it is emphatically an advertisement for Israel as a country of normal human beings, with all the flaws and qualities of ordinary, decent people everywhere. Without wishing to give away much more than can be gauged on the poster, it revolves around a self-effacing, under-employed middle-aged chef with an overbearing mother and commitment problems, who is wrestling - literally - with serious weight issues. Panned by some critics, beloved by others, it offers nuanced glimpses of our wider Israel - the feistiness of our society, class divides, homophobia, changing attitudes from generation to generation. If you were to see it in a cinema overseas, you'd feel at least an intermittent warm glow of appreciation, a satisfaction that those in the seats around you, perhaps less familiar with our country, were gaining a small insight into some of what makes us tick. Unfortunately the same festival also featured an evening of sequenced short films about Jerusalem - Jerusalem Moments - that contained just about every imaginable one-sided, context-deficient, unbalanced misrepresentation of Israel rolled into one nasty package, precisely the kind of skewed misportrayal so gallingly common to our least fair-minded critics. JERUSALEM MOMENTS was produced by Ir Amim, an Israeli non-profit and self-styled "nonpartisan organization" that works, according to the Cinematheque program, "toward an equitable and stable Jerusalem with an agreed political future." Its seven shorts were the work of "seven young directors, Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and Israelis" who, the program said, "courageously confront the delicate and charged issues and present personal and political points of view about the complex reality in Jerusalem, between East and West." But if that variety of Israeli, Palestinian, and, in one case, joint Palestinian-Israeli filmmaking teams implied a range of theme and tone, perhaps an examination of Jerusalem's problems from dramatically diverse and conflicting perspectives, the opposite was the case. This was an exercise in the bludgeoning documentation of Palestinian victimhood and of allegedly mindless Israeli cruelty and aggression. It began with a eulogy to the late PLO representative Faisal Husseini - who happened to be cited by Likud Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor this week as being the one Palestinian leader to have acknowledged that there could be no "right of return" - and headed mainly downhill from there. We got to meet a Shuafat refugee camp rap pack, one of whose members made a casual lyrical reference to Israel's unexplained purported killing of a mother and father. We saw footage of the complexities of travel into and across Jerusalem, with a soundtrack that included the voice of a pregnant Palestinian woman discussing how Israeli security forces allegedly threatened to kill her if she would not get undressed for a security check at a roadblock, and the voice of a man discussing how he had been unable to save a dying Palestinian woman blocked en route to the hospital by hard-hearted Israeli security personnel at another roadblock. We heard about the alleged intolerance of the Wiesenthal Center's Museum of Tolerance being sited at a city center Muslim cemetery. This came complete with outrageous declarations by the Palestinian mufti of Jerusalem and others that Israel routinely builds parking lots and shopping malls over Muslim sites in a systematic effort to erase Islamic history. And in the most powerful of this succession of mini-features, we followed a group of Palestinian laborers as they sought to make their way into the city to earn the money to feed their families. The camera tracked the hapless young men risking life and limb to scale walls, crawl through barbed wire and dash across highways pre-dawn - all in the hope of finding honest work, and all in a desperate cat-and-mouse game with the Israeli security forces. The final images were of uniformed Israeli troops chasing down a trailing member of the group and catching him. There he stood in all his cornered misfortune, his face a study in despair, his hands ripped and bloodied by Israel's barbed wire. Israel was unhappy because CNN failed to give equal or more time to the Petah Tikva suicide bomber's victims? This incendiary Palestinian propaganda onslaught gave next-to-no hint of a dissenting narrative, with the short entitled The Little Western Wall constituting the only relative exception. There was no meaningful explanation of why it was that Israel, defending against waves of suicide bombers, constructed the security barrier in the first place. There was no mention of the attacks at roadblocks, often carried out by the most innocent-looking civilians, that necessitate Israeli security precautions there. There was no suggestion, in the short on those feisty refugee camp rappers, that contrary to the casual assertion of murder, Israel does not actually go around capriciously killing the parents of young Palestinians in refugee camps. There was no discussion of the protracted efforts to find a compromise over the Museum of Tolerance. And there was no reminder, in the emotive section on young Palestinians infiltrating Jerusalem at great risk to find work, of the fact that hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were working in Israel, entering and leaving the city freely, until Yasser Arafat rejected Ehud Barak's peace terms at Camp David in 2000 and came back to foster the second intifada - the terror war that has so blighted lives on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian chasm. To the dismay of some in the audience, Jerusalem Moments was warmly received at the Jerusalem Film Festival, and will presumably go on to play to similar effect at other festivals and screenings around the world. CNN has already done a report on it, now available on YouTube: "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict as told through film." OH WELL. What can you do? Ours is a free society, and we rightly aspire to the most elevated democratic values and the fullest possible freedoms of expression. I don't mean that cynically. We must indeed strive to maintain those values, even though those freedoms are sometimes exploited by those who denigrate and demonize us. That's the way it is with free speech, and we have the equivalent freedom to endorse and oppose, to applaud and object, as and when we see fit. My only question is, do we actually have to participate in the more extreme demonization? Do we ourselves have to directly contribute to the kind of dismally skewed, toxic, decontextualized attack that prompts official complaint and widespread frustration when practiced by others? Do we have to finance it ourselves? For Ir Amim's Jerusalem Moments was made, in part, with NIS 200,000 of funding from the Cinema Project of the Tel Aviv-based Rabinovitch Foundation for the Arts, which gets its funding, in turn, via the Israeli Film Council, from the Ministry of Culture and Sport. Jerusalem Moments was relentless Palestinian Israel-bashing, interspersed with near-relentless Israeli Israel-bashing. And we paid for it. With reporting by Ariel Zirulnik

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