PC(USA) Promotes “Propaganda” Film

The following essay appeared at Presbyweb, a daily news source for Presbyterians in the U.S on March 12, 2007.

People who think that the Presbyterian Church (USA) embraced a more balanced and historically accurate narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict at its 2006 General Assembly need to think again. To be sure, commissioners at the church’s 217th General Assembly reversed a 2004 vote singling Israel out as a target for divestment. However, the denomination’s staffers and leaders are still using their position and authority to broadcast an inaccurate and distorted narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict to its members. The narrative is this: Once Israel comes to its senses, and arrives at the magical formula of concessions, withdrawals and admissions of guilt, the violence to which it has been subject since its creation in 1948 will come to an end and peace will reign in the Middle East. Not only was this narrative repudiated by the 2006 General Assembly, it was exposed as a sham last summer when Israel was attacked from both the Gaza Strip and Lebanon – territories from which it withdrew in order to achieve peace with its neighbors.

The refusal of the PC(USA)’s leaders and staffers to take the events of 2006 into account is particularly evident in the material about the Arab-Israeli conflict they recommend to Sunday school teachers and youth group leaders. The list of “resources,” published in support of “A Week of Prayer and Witness with the Christians in the Middle East,” scheduled to take place in local churches sometime between Easter and Pentecost in 2007, does not promote the cause of peace, but instead buttresses the message affirmed by the 2004 General Assembly and repudiated two years later: Israeli behavior is the sole source of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The centerpiece of the “resources” offered by Louisville is a video titled “Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land.” The video produced by the American Media Education Foundation (which includes Noam Chomsky on its Board of Advisors) is not a dispassionate or fair assessment of the Arab-Israeli conflict but is, in the words of the New York Times, a “pro-Palestinian documentary [that] presents a condensed argument in favor of prosecuting Israeli leaders in the court of American public opinion.” And in order to achieve a conviction, the movie’s producers and directors bury exculpatory evidence in a manner that would make even the most ferocious district attorney cringe. For example, the video begins with the following text displayed across the screen:

In 1967, following a war between Israel and the countries of Syria, Jordan and Egypt, Israel militarily occupied the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem.

That year, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 242 calling on Israel to withdraw from the Occupied Territories.

Israel has yet to comply.

This superscript – clearly intended to put the images of suffering and violence that follow into a frame of Israeli culpability – omits several important facts – all of which demonstrate that the Arab world, and the Palestinians themselves share a huge measure of responsibility for the suffering in the West Bank and Gaza.

First off, the text is conveniently silent about how the “war between Israel and the countries of Syria, Jordan and Egypt” was started.

Before Israel launched a pre-emptive strike, Egyptian leaders blockaded the Straits of Tiran, called for Israel’s destruction, and massed troops and tanks on the border with Israel. It also expelled a UN peacekeeping force from the Sinai. From 1964 through the first four months of 1967, Egypt launched more than 100 cross border attacks.

Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser made his intentions perfectly clear: “Our basic objective will be the destruction of Israel. The Arab people want to fight.”

Syria had repeatedly shelled Israeli villages from the Golan Heights before the 1967 War and on May 20, 1967, Syrian Defense Minister Hafez Assad stated that his country’s forces were “ready not only to repulse the aggression, but to initiate the act of liberation itself, and to explode the Zionist presence in the Arab homeland. The Syrian army, with its finger on the trigger, is united…. I as a military man, believe that the time has come to enter into a battle of annihilation.”

And Israel did not take the West Bank from Jordan until after the Jordanians started shelling Jerusalem.

The upshot is this: Israel came into possession of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip as a result of having won a defensive war against countries seeking its destruction. (To Israel’s detractors, this might not seem relevant, but to the average Presbyterian, it probably is.)

The text is also silent about Arab and Palestinian behavior after the Six Day War. After the 1967 War, when Israel hoped to negotiate, the Arab League issued the Three Nos of Khartoum: No peace with Israel, no recognition of Israel, no negotiations with Israel. (Again, the Arab refusal to negotiate after a war they initiated with bellicose and threatening acts might not seem relevant to Israel’s detractors, but to the average Presbyterian, it probably is.)

UN Resolution 242 calls on Israel to withdraw from territory after a negotiated settlement, a fact not included in the video’s opening text. And it specifically doesn’t require a withdrawal from “the Occupied Territories.” As the drafters of the resolution have repeatedly explained, 242 calls on Israel to withdraw from territory, but it doesn’t specify how much territory, because the country was not expected to return to its precarious and “artificial” pre-1967 lines.

One bit of history that the movie could have gotten right but did not is the failed negotiations at Camp David and Taba that took place in 2000 and 2001, followed as they were by a campaign of suicide bombings called the Second Intifada. Commentator after commentator downplays Ehud Barak’s offer to Yasir Arafat as a meaningless gesture and the media’s portrayal of it as a “generous” or “unprecedented” offer merely a consequence of the Israeli spin machine. The words of Toufic Haddad, a pro-Palestinian activist, are emblematic of the manner in which Israel’s offer at Camp David during the summer of 2000 is described: “The occupation was not being dismembered, it was being made more efficient. It was being consolidated.”

Predictably, the directors failed to bring in commentators who would contradict this description and failed to offer any detail at all about the Clinton Proposal presented in early 2001, which was even more generous than what Barak’s previous offer of the summer. On this score, the movie fails to meet the guidelines for covering the conflict issued by the National Council of Churches in 2002. In its Code of Fair Practices, Coverage of Israeli-Palestinian Issues, the NCC calls on journalists to “strive to get the other side or sides of the story and rely on diverse sources.” To be sure, the movie relies on diverse sources – Palestinians, Arabs, Israelis and American Jews (who all happen to blame Israel) but nevertheless, the movie does not offer any competing explanation for wha t happened at Camp David.

On the issue of diversity, the movie makes effective use of Jewish and Israeli critics in its narrative about the conflict to inoculate its producers from charges of unfairness or worse, anti-Semitism. This is not really all that remarkable – it’s a tactic used extensively by peace and justice activists in every mainline church in the U.S. What is remarkable, however, is the sheer number of Israeli and Jewish critics of Israel directors Bathsheba Ratzkoff and Sut Jhally were able to recruit as sources – Noam Chomsky (who needs no introduction), Neve Gordon (an Israeli professor who routinely bashes Israel in the National Catholic Reporter), Rabbi Michael Lerner (founder of Tikkun magazine who also condemns Israel) and Gila Svirsky (a prominent activist in Women in Black, a fringe group in Israel). The overall message was loud and clear: Israeli and Jewish self-reform will lead to peace. Israeli concessions to the Palestinians will end the violence against Israel.

What the movie fails to acknowledge is that while there is a long and storied tradition of some Jews leveling baseless charges against Israel in the guise of holding Jewish institutions to high standards of conduct, there is also an equally storied tradition of anti-Semites and anti-Zionists invoking Jewish self-criticism to lend credence to their agendas.

Instead of acknowledging that the continued existence of a human rights and peace movement in Israel – which has been under siege from its neighbors and anti-Zionist polemicists since its creation – is indeed a miracle, the movie invokes Jewish-self criticism in a de-contextualized manner that calls into question the legitimacy of the Jewish homeland. For example, Rabbi Lerner explains that “since Intifada number two began, you have a much heightened level of oppression. Often the villages are surrounded by the Israeli Army and people aren’t allowed to go out of their villages, or next door.” What neither Lerner, nor any of the other commentators explain is that prior to the Second Intifada, Israel had turned over 40% of the West Bank and most of Gaza to the Palestinian Authority and that this action was followed by a huge increase in violence against Israeli civilians by terrorists either supported or tolerated by Yasir Arafat. This context had to be left out of the movie. The narrative of Israeli and Jewish self-reform leading to peace falls apart once the failure of the Palestinians to stop terrorism in the face of Israeli concessions becomes evident.

But the real value of the presence of the Israeli and Jewish critics is not their one-sided criticism of the Jewish homeland, but their legitimizing appearance in a movie in which Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council from the West Bank, asserts “I don’t see why they [the Israelis] have to protect themselves if they are on our land” adding later: “That context is always missing – so even when Israelis are busy murdering people in cold blood, it is always presented as the self-defense mechanism of Israel.” With the presence of anti-Israel Jewish and Israeli speakers in the rest of the movie, Ashrawi’s narrative is given undeserved credence.

What makes this even more offensive is the willingness of Ratzkoff and Jhally to conveniently ignore Jewish and Israeli self-criticism when to do so would undermine their portrayal of Israel as a rogue state. This becomes evident during the movie’s discussion of the invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at Sabra and Shatilla in 1982, perpetrated by Christian Phalangists allied with Israel during its invasion of Lebanon.

The movie’s narrator fails to report the PLO rocket and terror attacks from inside Lebanon that preceded the 1982 invasion. Instead, it reports that “To the Israeli government, the problem was not the death of thousands of civilians. Rather it was the damage to Israel’s public image – a public relations disaster in need of damage control.”

The director then gives the screen over to Robert Fisk, a British journalist known for his exceptionally extreme and fallacious attacks against Israel, to baldly assert that the Israelis “desperately said ‘What went wrong?’ It was concluded that the problem was there wasn’t good enough public relations.”

The movie does not reveal the horror Israeli citizens and officials felt over the massacre, which provoked unprecedented protests in Israel. (An estimated 200,000 to 400,000 people took to the streets the following day.) A government investigation clearly stated that Israeli officials should have foreseen the massacre and done more to prevent it and stop it once it was underway. Ariel Sharon, who served as defense minister at the time of the massacre, was ousted as a result. Clearly, the massacre was something more than a “public relations disaster” to Israeli citizens and officials, who regard it as a shameful period of their history.

One important historical fact not included in the film (through no fault of the film’s producers or directors) is an event that took place after its production – Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in Sept. 2005. After years of being told that Palestinian violence is a consequence of “the occupation,” (the main thrust of the movie) Israel withdrew every single Jewish resident –  more than 8,000 of its citizens – from the Gaza Strip only to witness Hamas’s electoral victory in January 2006 and continuing rocket attacks against Israeli citizens. In short, Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip without any cessation in violence.

Watching the film in light of this withdrawal does provide a moment of hilarity when Karen Pfeifer, a professor at Smith College and director of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP), asserts that observers of the conflict should ask why Israel “continues with the occupation” despite its negative impacts. Her answer? “It intends to annex the territories eventually.”

We can imagine the response to the withdrawal: “Israel had to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in order to annex it.”

Such hilarity is beside the point. The real issue is this: How can the PC(USA) recommend, in good conscience, a four-year-old movie (copyright 2003) filled with distortions and which fails to take into account Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and the violence that followed?

It can’t.

Given the enmity Israel has faced since its existence, the fact that a movie like this has been made and distributed in the United States is really not a surprise. Movies like this are as perennial as the grass. As time passes, its name will be gone from memory, only to be replaced by yet another distorted and one-sided “documentary” about the Arab-Israeli conflict, produced by yet another generation of polemicists. What is a shock, however, is that a putatively responsible mainline Protestant church would see fit to include it in a list of so-called “peacemaking” resources – for Sunday school teachers and youth group leaders, no less.

But then again, this is the same denomination that owns Westminster John Knox Press, the publishing house that printed Christian Faith and the Truth Behind 9/11: A Call to Reflection and Action, by David Ray Griffin in 2006. The book asserts that the murderous attack that took place on Sept. 1 1, 2001 was a “false flag” operation perpetrated by the Bush Administration to justify the creation of a global empire.

For Griffin, the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York City was not the result of passenger jets crashing into the buildings on that fateful morning, but the consequence of a “controlled demolition” caused by the detonation explosives secretly placed in the building prior to the attack. To buttress his case, he cites, among other things, testimony from firefighters and observers reporting loud booms at the time of the collapse and the horizontal ejection of debris from the buildings all of which, according to Griffin, a process theologian of some note, are markers of a controlled demolition – a notion thoroughly demolished in Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts, an in-depth investigation by Popular Mechanics.

Westminster John Knox Press’ board of directors (elected by the PC(USA)’s General Assembly) repudiated the book (which is still being sold) but the damage is done. A factually inaccurate and morally distorted historical narrative has been legitimized by a the PC(USA).

That happens a lot.

Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting (CAMERA).

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