Elizabeth Fernea’s “Struggle for Peace”

The Public Broadcasting Service has done it again! PBS had shown signs of moderating its penchant for propagandistic, anti-Israel Middle East documentaries since the outcry over 1989’s virulent "Days of Rage." Over the last decade the Public Broadcasting Service, supported by tax dollars, viewer contributions and, increasingly, by private corporations and foundations, has aired at least fifteen documentaries on the Arab-Israeli conflict. No more than three of these can reasonably be described as balanced, a standard that Federal statute mandates in "all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." The remainder have projected a clear anti-Israel bias.

"Struggle for Peace: Israelis and Palestinians", an hour-long documentary aired in early March of 1992, is the latest addition to the list. The broadcast marks the first phase of an ambitious PBS venture, "Perspectives on Peace," in which the network is promoting study guides, a book of essays by "noted scholars," and copies of a satellite-facilitated video-conference featuring audience participation from multiple academic sites. A promotional pamphlet distributed by PBS describes these spinoff "educational" products as suitable for academic, community and religious groups as well as for "peace-studies" programs.

The entire project is directed by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, a professor of English and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas whose credentials include the controversial 1983 film, "Women Under Siege". Funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the film elicited sharp criticism from NEH Chairman William J. Bennett for its stridently pro-PLO tilt. Bennett termed the work "propaganda" and a "political tract" that should never have received federal money. Nevertheless, Fernea’s record of tendentiousness has not deterred PBS from sponsoring her new documentary.

A veteran activist in promoting Arab views to American audiences, Fernea, along with George Ball and Gary Sick, is a member of the board of governors of the Middle East Institute, a quasi-academic, pro-Arab group heavily drawn from State Department retirees and former oil-company executives. The Institute, which has displayed a particular interest in American schools, helped finance the study guide for Fernea’s "Perspectives on Peace" with a $23,000 grant. The documentary itself was underwritten in part by the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO).

True to type, the documentary features interviews with a wholly unrepresentative set of Israelis and Palestinians, whose views are proffered as the truest and sincerest representation of the conflict and, as well, the foundation of any hope for peace. "Struggle For Peace" erases or distorts any and all historical facts which contradict the premise that Israel bears total responsibility for the plight of the Palestinians and the absence of peace; omits all reference to the virulent anti-Semitism of Arab governments and the PLO and the campaigns waged by these parties to annihilate the state of Israel; ignores current military threats to Israel; excludes mention of the historical obligations of all parties under international mandates; focuses narrowly on Israel’s allegedly brutal response to civil rebellion and on the resentments of Palestinian Arabs under Israeli control; and reiterates ceaselessly that the route to peace lies through Israel’s relinquishing of the West Bank and Gaza.

In pursuit of her candidly stated agenda, "To give a mass [American] television audience images of people with whom they can identify," Fernea freely mangles the Middle East landscape. Thus, most egregiously, her spokesmen for the Palestinian cause are not Moslems but Christians: a priest from Jerusalem; a principal at a Friends School; and a "civic leader" whose long ancestral claim reaches back to the "shepherds’ field when they got the first good news from the angels about the birth of our lord Jesus Christ." (Is the viewer therefore to understand that the man’s ancestors were Jews? Somehow one doubts it.)

Reliance on these Palestinian "spokesmen" is deceptive in the extreme. Christians comprise only 5 percent of the Palestinian population, and their status within the Palestinian Arab community has long been a tenuous one. Today, in all Moslem-dominated territories, Christians (along with other minorities) exist under threat from the forces of Islamic fundamentalism; an attack this April on a Christian village and school in Egypt left fourteen dead.

If the dominant, Moslem, voice is generally omitted, even more thoroughly expunged are any Palestinian voices that contradict the portrayal of the Palestinians as oppressed peace-seekers. No mention is made, for example, of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, the spiritual leader of the Palestinian Moslem majority, who in the summer of 1989 offered his own vivid opinion on the subject of the Arab quest for peace: "Kill the Jews until the stone shall cry, `Oh, Moslem, this Jew is hiding beneath me, come and kill him.’" Similarly, Fernea advances her thesis of Arab innocence by avoiding any focus on HAMAS, the violent and virulently anti-Semitic Islamic fundamentalist movement that claims the support of up to 40% of the population of Gaza and the West Bank. She devotes half a sentence to them.

Israelis interviewed in the film are as false a measure of the Israeli public. Ostensibly "ordinary," they are, in fact, among a tiny minority — men who agree to fulfill their military service only if assigned to areas outside the occupied territories, women who demonstrate weekly for Israeli withdrawal from those territories. The concerns of truly "ordinary" Israelis, that majority who continue to express a willingness to compromise with the Arabs but harbor very concrete fears about the military threat posed by surrounding Arab states and the continuing terror attacks of the PLO and kindred Arab groups, are ridiculed. Viewers are told of the seemingly absurd actions of the Israeli government preventing Palestinian Arabs from planting trees and vegetables, or acquiring a dairy herd — as if these were the sorts of dangers the Israeli public and military truly fear. Needless to say, no Israeli government voice is permitted at any time to provide an explanation or response to any of the charges leveled.

Sweeping historical falsehoods promoted by the film are actually surpassed by those in the companion "study guide." Therein can be found a version of the Middle East past lifted whole from Arab propaganda. A three-and-a-half page chronology enumerating events in the period 1850-1991:

  • reiterates the fraudulent theme that modern-day Israel is an artificial creation of European Jews collaborating with the British against native Arabs, omitting any reference to the millennia-long ties of the Jewish people to the cities and towns of the region;
  • omits any mention of the Holocaust;
  • fails to note a single act of terror perpetrated by the Arab states, the PLO, the Muslim fundamentalist Hamas organization, or any Arab group against Jews, including the myriad instances of hijacking, hostage-taking, and murder of children, athletes, tourists, commuters, and worshippers;
  • notes the creation of the PLO in 1964 without reference to the PLO Covenant, which stresses the illegitimacy of Israel and the determination of the PLO to destroy it;
  • describes the Six-Day War in terms which, like the film, evade entirely the issue of the declared Arab intention to annihilate Israel;
  • suppresses reference to the dramatic concessions — including the entire Sinai, with its oil fields, settlements, and air bases — made by Israel in exchange for a peace treaty with Egypt under the Camp David accords;
  • omits any reference to Syria's takeover of Lebanon.

One can only speculate at the ultimate damage to public understanding and discourse when poisonous materials such as these penetrate mainstream school and community groups, promoted under the prestigious imprimatur of the Public Broadcasting Service. Yet concerned Americans retain a means of self-defense against PBS's biased films and appalling "educational" materials; they can refuse to underwrite the defamation of Israel by withholding financial support from the network. Perhaps that, finally, will focus the thinking of network officials on issues of truth and public trust.

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