Edward Said’s Documented Deceptions

New York’s WNET aired a severely biased documentary on July 5th alleging that Israel expelled Palestinians from their homes in 1948, and continues to steal Palestinian land and oppress Israeli Arabs. Produced by Palestinian-American Edward Said, and first aired by the BBC, the program featured interviews with such well-known anti-Israel activists as Ilan Pappé, Israel Shahak, Azmi Bishara and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod. Not surprisingly, Said’s commentary, and that of his guests, consistently portrayed Israel as aggressive, apartheid and racist.

WNET, Channel 13 in the New York area, broadcast the program with the disclaimer that “points of view expressed in the following program are those of the independent producer,” an apparent attempt to evade responsibility for a documentary the taxpayer-funded station chose to present.

While the documentary was not distributed nationally by PBS, now that it has been aired by a major PBS affiliate like WNET, the producers will certainly press other public television stations around the country to air it as well.

WNET should be reminded that a documentary must be based on documented facts; and that if it needs a disclaimer, it shouldn’t be broadcast at all. WNET should correct – on the air – the false charges leveled by Said and his guests, and from now on should fact-check all documentaries before agreeing to air them.

Examples of the documentary’s false charges and bias:

Land Issues

• Said alleges that in Israel “92 percent of the land is for Jews only … Palestinians [Arab Israeli citizens] cannot buy or lease it ….” This is absolutely false. Roughly 80 percent of the land in Israel is owned by the government. This land is never sold to anyone, but is instead leased on an equal basis to Israeli citizens, both Jewish and Arab. Under this policy, Israeli Arab farmers have leased from the government about half the land that they use.

Moreover, to provide affordable housing the Israeli government has sometimes leased residential land to Israeli Arabs at subsidized rates unavailable to Israeli Jews. For example, while the government charged Israeli Bedouins just $150 for a long-term lease on a quarter of an acre of residential land in the southern community of Rahat, Israeli Jews were charged $24,000 to lease similarly sized plots in neighboring areas. In response to such policies favoring Israeli Arabs, Eliezer Avitan, an Israeli Jew denied the subsidized rates, sued the government for discrimination. In Avitan v. Israel Land Administration (HC 528/88), Israel’s Supreme Court ruled against Avitan and in favor of the government’s “affirmative action” policy.

Alleged Dispossession of the Jahalin Bedouin

Said grossly distorts the issue of the Jahalin Bedouin tribe, charging that they “were being evicted by Israeli soldiers from land they had occupied since 1951.” In fact, the Jahalin have been living on the land in question, which they do not own, only since the 1980s. They have been warned many times by successive Israeli governments that eventually they would have to move. Indeed, according to a January 29th, 1994 Los Angeles Times article, “no one, not even Hairsh (Mohammed Hairsh, a Jahalin leader) claims that his tribe has a legal right” to the land they have been occupying.

Nevertheless, out of sympathy for the plight of the Jahalin tribe, the Israeli government offered them title to a plot of land if they would agree to leave their encampment near Maale Adumim. This new site is about one kilometer from and more than five times larger than the Jahalin’s previous encampment. In addition, under the proposed agreement with the Jahalin, the Israeli government agreed to provide, at no charge, electricity and water hookups, cement building platforms and building materials.

Not surprisingly, the leaders of the Jahalin tribe accepted Israel’s offer and most of the tribe moved to the new site. The electricity and water hookups were provided, and the platforms were built. However, when a lawyer representing some of the Jahalin returned from a trip abroad and heard of the agreement, she convinced several of the Jahalin families who had not yet moved to stay where they were. She did this solely to keep the issue festering as propaganda. This lawyer, Linda Brayer, has a long history of exploiting clients to further her own anti-Israel agenda. Unfortunately the BBC and WNET have now become accomplices to Brayer’s blatant propagandizing.

Finally, Said’s assertion that the Jahalin story “was hardly mentioned by the media” is absurd. A Nexis search revealed 228 stories on the subject in English alone.

Biased Commentators

Unfortunately, the commentators interviewed by Said were as willing as he to invent facts as needed. Moreover, these commentators – Azmi Bishara, Ilan Pappé and Israel Shahak – represent an extreme fringe of Israeli society. Said’s failure to make this clear to viewers is as deceptive as, for example, making a film about the US for Israeli viewers, and presenting as “expert commentators” on American society the likes of David Duke and Louis Farrakhan.

• Consider Said’s interview with Azmi Bishara, an Israeli Arab Knesset Member, whom Said introduced as “a leading spokesperson for Palestinian Israelis.” Sitting in what appeared to be his living room, Bishara told Said that Israeli Arabs are forced to live under “apartheid.” Unmentioned was the fact that Bishara lives in a $250,000 home in Nazerat Illit, a town founded by Jews and largely populated by Jews. Bishara’s lack of integrity could not be clearer – he exercises his choice to live among Jewish neighbors, but speaking to foreign viewers he charges “apartheid.”

Also unmentioned by Said or Bishara is the fact that if an Israeli Jew tried to live in an Israeli Arab town, the lives of the Jew – and the Arab who sold or rented him the property – would be at risk. Thus, if the term apartheid applies at all to Israel, it is in describing the reality that Arabs can live anywhere, including the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City, but Jews cannot live anywhere without potential risk to their lives. Not surprisingly, Said and Bishara ignore this entirely.

Ignored as well was Bishara’s startling assertion, as reported in Israeli newspapers, that there is no such thing as a Jewish people and consequently no historical Jewish rights in Israel. Had viewers been informed of Bishara’s extremist views, his claims of “apartheid” and discrimination might at least have been placed in their proper context.

• Ilan Pappé was introduced by Said as a history professor whose scholarly work helped expose the alleged expulsion of Arabs by Jews in 1948. In fact, Pappé is a radical historian whose claims have been discredited by numerous scholars, such as Professors Itamar Rabinovich, Efraim Karsh and Shabtai Teveth. Even Benny Morris, perhaps Israel’s leading radical historian, has severely criticized Pappé’s stand that “the truth is what helps progressive politics.” This position alone should have disqualified Pappé from appearing as an expert in the documentary.

It should also be noted that Pappé is a
leader of Israel’s Communist Party (known as Hadash).

• Israel Shahak, introduced by Said as a veteran Israeli human rights campaigner and Holocaust survivor, charged that in the 1950s and 60s Israelis “demonized” Arabs, and that after 1967 “Israeli Jews, and of course Jews in America, even in Britain even more, went mad …” Later in the broadcast Shahak charged that Israel has stolen “much of the Palestinian land.” Viewers listening to his charges were never informed that, despite his Jewish heritage, Shahak is one of the world’s leading anti-Semites. Indeed, notwithstanding Shahak’s claims that he opposes anti-Semitism, hatred for the Jewish religion is the defining characteristic of his writings. For example, in his book Jewish History, Jewish Religion, Shahak levels numerous grotesque charges, such as that Jewish children are taught “whenever passing near a cemetery, to utter a blessing if the cemetery is Jewish, but to curse the mothers of the dead if it is non-Jewish.” (pages 23-24) Later Shahak accuses Jews of worshiping Satan: “both before and after a meal, a pious Jew ritually washes his hands, uttering a special blessing. On one of these two occasions he is worshiping God … but on the other he is worshiping Satan …” (page34)

Despite his own parroting of Nazi propaganda, Shahak has had the temerity to charge that “the Jews of Israel, along with most of the Jews of the world, are at present undergoing a process of nazification.”

Said’s choice of experts again speaks for itself.

Said’s Personal History was also Distorted

Finally, Said’s own personal contentions in the film are highly questionable. For example, his visit to what he describes as his childhood home in Jerusalem, and his claim that he was brought up in that city, are misleading in the extreme. Despite Said’s clear intention to portray his own life as a metaphor for Palestinian dispossession, the fact is he was brought up in Cairo, and British Mandate records show that his parents neither owned nor rented the Jerusalem residence he portrays as his childhood home.

WNET’s Responsibility

WNET’s disclaimer that “points of view expressed in the following program are those of the independent producer” in no way diminishes the network’s responsibility to fact-check assertions by such producers. Certainly if Said’s accusations had been leveled against a person who could sue for libel, rather than against a country, WNET’s lawyers would have insisted on exacting proof and fact-checking. It is unfortunate that when dealing with vilification of Israel, facts remain unchecked, accusations remain unverified, and journalistic responsibility is replaced by formulaic disclaimers.

Viewers expect PBS stations to maintain the highest standards of accuracy and integrity, and to refrain from partisan activities. WNET has flouted these cardinal obligations by broadcasting Said’s film without fact-checking any of his, or his guests’, inflammatory and false assertions.

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