The IFC Media Project: Digging for the Truth About Israel/Palestine

by Latoya Peterson

So, I’ve noticed that a few readers have asked why Racialicious has been so quiet on the situation in Gaza. As the violence continues to escalate, it is hard to not post about what is happening.

However, as much as it troubles me to remain silent, it troubles me more to see the responses that the posts on Israel and Palestine receive. Generally, they are met with silence from normally chatty and informed commenters while the same six people rehash their opinions on thread after thread.

I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why this occurs. Why are so many people reluctant to discuss what is happening in Israel and Palestine?

Perhaps, they are too intimidated.

After all, this conflict is rich and multilayered, and most people new to the discussion exhaust their knowledge base within the first few minutes, lapsing into silence while those with the longest memories tend to dominate the conversation. However, I do not believe this is a worthwhile tactic – while those in the know debate strategies and bring up failed resolutions and broken promises, the majority of the people blink and begin to disengage. There is too much information. The opposing sides are ruthless in their arguments. And most tend to watch the conversation dispassionately, or click away.

On this blog, we try to break down social issues using a more human aspect to explain points of global policy or racial theory. But that has not been working. So it occurs to me that there may be a fundamental lack of information about the origins of the conflict and what is at stake. So, the question becomes how do we get more people this information in a way that they will find it accessible?

When I tuned in to the first episode of the IFC Media project, I didn’t know what to expect. I know I didn’t expect Gideon Yago to go off on a tangent about “missing white girls” dominating the news, or to see IFC clearly tackle race-based reporting bias.

And I didn’t expect the program to send someone to track down the issues involved in talking about Israel.

I initially transcribed most of the program to talk about the race related aspects of the first episode. In the 26 minutes of the show, I have about seven pages of notes. However, with the current situation, I think I will focus solely on the discussion of reporting on Israel for this post, and revisit the other items at a later date.

Segment: The Third Rail of Journalism

The segment opens with what appears to be an old movie reel describing the creation of “a new Jerusalem.”

Mark Levine, Professor of Middle Eastern Studies at UC Irvine begins his voiceover: “These are images of Israel I grew up with.”

Movie voiceover: “Over an area of some 500 square miles, Jews from around the world have been bringing about a miracle in the desert.”

Levine: “What an amazing country. I was taught that Israelis made the desert bloom, and created a paradise out of empty land.

Movie voiceover: “To live happily and courageously as free men and women.”

Levine speaks as a photo montage plays showing his growth and faith: “This vision of Jews and Israel shaped me as a kid. But by the time I traveled to Israel as an adult, I’d found something different. There were these other people there, the Palestinians, and they told an entirely different story. For them, the founding of Israel was a catastrophe, al-Naqba, which pushed them from their homes, and began a cycle of misery that continues to this day. Why hadn’t I heard about this other history in the news? The Israelis at least talk about it in their news.”

A segment of an Israeli news show plays.

Levine
continues: “So I was curious. Why don’t we have this debate here in America? What shapes the way we talk about Israel? Why does there seem to be so much that we can’t talk about?”

Levine travels to Chicago to meet with Professor John J. Mearsheimer, the co-author of The Israel Lobby.

Mearsheimer: “One of the reasons – just one – but, one of the reasons that Osama Bin Laden attacked us on September 11th is because of our support for Israel’s policies against the Palestinians. But hardly anyone makes that argument. […] The real tragedy here is that Israel is becoming an apartheid state and the lobby is helping them drive itself off a cliff.”

Levine poses a question about how the lobby shapes the media and public landscape.

Mearsheimer: “First of all, there are a large number of people in important positions in the media who are deeply devoted to Israel. There are also a lot of people who are not inclined to support Israel no matter what it does and who would be willing to be critical. What the lobby does is that they monitor those people very carefully and everytime they say something that is critical of Israel, they land on them like a ton of bricks.”

Switching subjects, Levine says: “That ton of bricks fell on Rob Malley, when his efforts to bring the Palestinian point of view into the national debate drew the ire of the Israel lobby.”

Levine meets with Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group who explains: “You have to be careful when you talk about settlements […] You have to be careful about how you talk about Israeli actions in the territories.”

Malley
notes that this discussion is very active and multifaceted in Israel, pointing out: “There was an Israeli government official who recently said ‘Either we end the occupation or the occupation is going to end us.’ “

A clip from the Daily Show airs about all the candidates attending the AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) conference while on the Presidential campaign trail.

Levine’s voiceover from his hotel notes: “AIPAC. The New York Times called them the most important organization affecting America’s relationship with Israel. Why? What do they do?”

Levine calls Josh Block, the Director of Media Affairs at AIPAC and gets stonewalled. He is informed that AIPAC does not talk to the media. Block gets dismissive, calls him “Bro” and informs him this just isn’t something AIPAC does. Block: “I wish I was in a position where I was gonna help you, but I’m not.” Levine asks for someone else to speak to, Block shuts him down.

(Random note of awesomeness: Levine has a book open on the desk while he is speaking to Block called Heavy Metal Islam. This is a book he wrote about “Rock, Resistance, and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam.”)

After hanging up, Levine asks: “AIPAC is an organization that gets coverage on every major network. Why do they have a policy of not talking to the press?”

Levine then goes to speak to Morris Amitay, former President of AIPAC.

Amitay: “AIPAC, I know, does not work to try to influence the media. AIPAC basically works with the administration and Congress on issues affecting Israel and the relationship between the two countries.”

Levine brings up the heavily covered convention. Amitay responds: “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean the media buys everything that AIPAC is advocating.”

Levine touches on “the ubiquitous feeling” that if you criticize Israel you find yourself on the wrong side of the pro-Israel lobby.

Amitay gives him a look, then says: “People who consider themselves friends of Israel, how [do they react] any different than any other interest group in Washington? You reward your friends and you try to defeat your enemies. Isn’t that the American way?”

(An IFC Note pops up on the screen: Since 1967, US Aid to Israel has totaled over $100 Billion.)

Levine goes into another voice over: “With our free press, journalists should be able to say anything they want about Israel, but they don’t. Is this the result of pressure from the lobby, or something deeper? When Ken Silverstein was at the LA Times, he wrote a potentially controversial article about the conflict. It never got published and he ended up leaving the paper.”

What Silverstein says here is illuminating (emphasis mine):

“Towards the end of the editing process, I had some very, very serious problems, where I felt like the piece had been significantly altered in ways that I wasn’t comfortable with. There was one key point that I really wanted to include that repeatedly was cut. [What was cut was] simply that one of the officials I interviewed who is with Hezbollah, we were talking about the question of Iran and the Holocaust came up, and he said ‘There’s no question this took place. I’m not denying that the Holocaust took place. My point though is that Europeans committed this crime and we paid for it with our land.’ And I thought ‘This is the Arab narrative.’

We don’t hear the Arab narrative very often at all. But it created a little bit of discomfort because it looked like it would be a little too ‘pro-Arab’ and I think that just made certain people nervous. And they just decided to ‘fix’ the piece. You know, it got to the point where I was just ultimately decided I would be uncomfortable publishing the piece as it was edited in its final version and I ended up just pulling the piece. “

Silverstein is currently at Harper’s.

A montage of videos culled from media coverage plays with varying people discussing actions to be taken against Hezbollah, the Palestinans, Arafat’s headquarters, and other targets, with Silverstein’s voice over: “There’s almost no point of view that would be pro-Israel, that would be deemed too extreme to appear in the American Media.”

Silverstein also says: “It’s hard to get my own head around it […] you’re always wondering do people consciously tell lies or not.”

Still traveling in search of answers, Levine explains in a voice over: “Despite tens of billions of dollars in aid to Israel and millions of lives at stake, Americans are still in the dark about what’s really going on.”

Levine ends up talking to Christopher Dickey, the Mideast Regional Director for Newsweek. The best points of the segment are made in their conversation. (Again, bold emphasis mine.)

Levine: “Why is it that the media has been so reluctant or unable or unwilling to get Americans to understand not only the reality that is there, but how we are implicated in it by our quote-unquote ‘special relationship’ with Israel?”

Dickey: “Is any news organization or reporter going to make it its cause to set the record straight on the Israeli occupation? So, instead of one report, we have lots of reports. We have daily reports […] If you do that then you’re not just telling the news. You’re creating a narrative and espousing a cause. It may be a worthwhile cause, but most American media don’t see it as their cause.”

Levine: “Perhaps one of the reasons why we have these boundaries that you can’t cross, these sacred cows about Israel, is because the sacred cows about Israel, and what it does, are actually in many ways the same sacred cows about who we are, and what we’ve done and what we do.”

Dickey: “There is a kind of understanding of America by Israel and of Israel by America that is almost unique. The fact that you’ve got two nations of immigrants, that you have a lot of different backgrounds, that there is, in a sense, original sin connected with the creation of the state, whether it is the extermination of the American Indians or the displacement of the Palestinians. All of that creates a kind of an affinity between the two that I think is much, much more complicated than the idea that a lobby, some insidious force […] just controls American people. It may know how to tap into that […] but that’s a different issue.”

Levine’s final words end the segment, and provide a much needed reality check on the current media situation:

“Israel was born out of the ashes of the Holocaust as a beacon of hope. But to really understand the country’s troubled present, we need journalists to look beyond one sided narratives and to offer up a more accurate picture of what’s happened in the past and what’s going on today.”