The Daily Show’s Unfunny Segment on Palestinians and UNESCO

Ordinarily, it’s unnecessary to criticize how a comedy show parodies the news. But Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” hosted by Jon Stewart, is not just a comedy program; for many it’s a credible, if satirical, news source. So its distorted handling of serious issues cannot always be discounted as a laughing matter.

On March 15, the show ran two six minute segments lampooning the decision by the United States government to suspend funding for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), for admitting Palestineas a member. The show’s roving reporter,John Oliver, treated the story as an example of America’s self-centered, obtuse behavior and willingness to abandon impoverished people to serve a narrow political interestsupporting Israel. Oliver exhibited no serious interest in conveying the politics that motivated UNESCO’s executive body to circumvent its own procedural rules in order to admitPalestine, a non-state entity.

The segment failed to point out that a coalition of Muslim states and dictatorial regimes extended membership to “Palestine” against the wishes of most of the world’s democracies. These countries, led by the United States, had made it clear to both the Palestinian Authority and to other UNESCO members that a Palestinian state could qualify for membership in U.N. agencies only after being established as a result of direct negotiations with Israel according to U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the 1993 Oslo accords and related agreements and the 2003 international “road map.” Membership without meeting those conditions would undermine U.N. principles and circumvent a negotiated Palestinian-Israeli peace.

In addition, the democratic nations, including the United States, suspected additional negative consequences should “Palestine” be granted unfounded membership in UNESCO. Looking at another U.N. agency, the United Nations Human Rights Commission, they see that it has been undermined by a political agenda to isolate and delegitimize Israel. Meanwhile some of the world’s worst abusers of human rights not only get a pass, but serve as members of the commission, ensuring that efforts to end massive human rights abuses, even genocide, as in the case of Sudan, are stymied. Hence the democracies’ wariness, and in the case of the United States, rejection of the maneuver of granting “Palestine” UNESCO membership. But Oliver punts on all of this.

The United States Congress passed two laws, in 1990 and in 1994, that required cancellation of funding for any United Nations agency that “grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood” and in particular, to “any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as a member state.” While the laws were specifically targeted towards the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Oliver’s sarcastic treatment fails to disclose that by ignoring the U.N.’s fundamental requirements for membership — that the entity be a recognized state — the consequences go beyond just a notional Palestine.

Former U.S. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) was selected to give the other side of the issue, but seemed strikingly unprepared. Wexler explained that the reason for the legislation was that lawmakers recognized that the Palestinian leadership would try to circumvent negotiating a peace agreement with Israel. But that was as far as he got. Or rather, that was as far as “The Daily Show” allowed him to go.

Early in the first segment, Oliver feigns jubiliation at the decision to cut off funds and raises his arm to offer a high-five to Wexler. Wexler complies, slapping Oliver’s palms. It is an embarrassing moment, casting Wexler as insensitive and inept. He is subjected to Oliver’s sarcastic jibes throughout both segments. No doubt, selective editing may have exaggerated Wexler’s ineptitude.

Oliver never discusses how Palestinian Arabs and their supporters use the enormous leverage they have in the United Nations to delegitimize Israel. This leverage comes from the 57member Muslim-bloc assembled in the Organization of the Islamic Conference, reinforced by other non-Muslim, third-world dictatorships into a voting majority.

Oliver, instead, treated the issue in a cavalier manner throughout. A second American official, George Papagiannis, the Officer in Charge of the UNESCO mission in Iraq, was also used as a comic foil by Oliver, but he clearly shared Oliver’s viewpoint.

In fact, thanks to the stacked deck by “The Daily Show,” all the broadcast’s participants highlight programs run by UNESCO and bemoan the fact that the funding cut-off will restrict them. At no point did anyone, including Wexler, clearly convey that the UNESCO executive body knew that by admitting Palestine, they were breaking the rules of the United Nations and this would result in the suspension of funding for crucial programs; yet they decided that the political statement against Israel was more important.

A more serious handling of the issue might also have clarified that Palestinian Arabs have their own U.N. agency, UNRWA (United Nations Relief and Works Agency) that is specially dedicated to their claims and heavily funded by the United States — the only such entity focused on any group. But according to Oliver and Papagiannis, the U.S. suspension of funding is purely a selfish act.

Typical were exchanges like the following:

Oliver sarcastically mugged: “I think we can all agree that we had absolutely no choice but to cut off funding for tsunami victims and starving droughtridden African children.”

Again mocking the US official: “Homey don’t play that (expletive).”

And once again Oliver mocks American insensitivity: “All they [UNESCO] cared about were some starving people.”

In fact, Oliver conflates emergency relief efforts with the longterm development programs that UNESCO actually oversees.

Papagiannis offered no help. He clearly opposes the U.S. law, maintaining that over 100 nations voted to accept Palestine. Oliver then adds, ” The problem is UNESCO has its own laws to follow which requires decisions to be made democratically.” Neither Oliver nor Papagiannis bother to share a crucial piece of information — the nations voting for Palestine to be admitted are with few exceptions non-democratic regimes. Would either man claim that a vote by the UNESCO representative for Syria represents the will of the Syrian people?

The segments avoid any discussion of the realities of the United Nations necessary to understanding the vote. The United Nation’s founders, the victorious World War II Allies, mostly but not all democratic countries, understood that many members of the world body eventually could be unrepresentative, undemocratic re gimes. That is what is behind the decision to invest the Security Council, consisting of five permanent members and a few rotating members, with the real actionable authority and not the General Assembly.

Instead of bringing clarity, Oliver devotes most of the second segment to mugging with students at a UNESCOfunded school in Gabon. It is the sort of manipulated scene one would expect from a public relations or propaganda video targeting an ill-informed audience. Viewers might find it humorous, but it is cruel and dehumanizing of the children who have little understanding of the issue and are being used as props. He tells the children, “Once upon a time there was a U.S. Congress that passed a law that outlawed funding to any U.N. organization that allows Palestine to be a member. And that’s why you can’t have books anymore. It wasn’t a hard concept to understand.”

The impact of this segment can be at least partly gauged by some of the talkbacks on The Daily Show’s Web site. One commenter wrote, “You know what’s the real issue here… It’s that even if the Jewish lobby has enough money to corrupt UNESCO (in order to reject Palestine), they don’t do it. Instead just pay the Congress in order to serve their interest.”

Unfortunately the net result of this two-part segment is to perpetuate ignorance and abet prejudices rather than to inform.
Is that good for a laugh?

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