Posted on September 23, 2002 in Washington Watch

I got in trouble this week. Some American Jewish leaders became upset with me because I have been widely quoted referring to their pro-Israel advertising campaign as “racist.”

Their campaign, the first time that major Jewish organizations have used national television advertising to promote Israel, was prompted by polling data which shows that Israel’s image in the U.S. has been hurt by the behavior of the Sharon government and the continued violence in the West Bank and Gaza. In an effort to rebuild that image, the groups, again relying on polling data have designed ads that project a message claiming that the U.S. and Israel “share common values.”

My complaint? First and foremost it is, of course, troubling that Israeli supporters would list “democracy, freedom, peace and security” as values exclusively promoted in the Middle East by Israel, specifically when it is Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land that denies these very values to the Palestinian people.
It is also troubling because this is, in fact, an old theme which has long been used to describe the Arab-Israeli conflict. Though subtle, it is racist, because, at its core, the message it projects to Americans is that, “We are like you, they (the Arabs) are not.”

It was first used in the 1930’s, during the 1936-1939 Great Revolt. At that time, one of the early leaders of the Zionist movement sent a message to America in which he described the conflict in Palestine as “an age old” conflict. “On the one side,” he said, “are the forces of civilization, on the other are the forces of the desert.” The theme was later crystallized in the popular film, “The Exodus” which caricatured the Arab-Israeli conflict as a Middle Eastern version of cowboys versus Indians.

The very idea that Arabs do not share the same values as Americans or any other people, for that matter, is demeaning and hurtful and, yes, even racist.

My first concern with this advertising campaign is that it obfuscates and in no way contributes to a resolution of a real problem that must be solved. After spending huge amounts of money on image building, Israel’s favorable ratings may improve and some Americans may forget, for a time, that government’s brutal behavior in the occupied lands. But, at the end of the day, the occupation will still be in place. And so will the resistance to that occupation and so too will the repression.
The pro-Israel campaign appears, therefore, it is to be a statement of acceptance of this situation and a desire to maintain Israel’s image in the context of a permanent occupation and a continuing conflict.

The distortion in people’s understanding that results from such efforts only prolongs and, to some degree, even intensifies the conflict.

For example, during the last month, scores of Palestinians have been killed and hundreds were wounded by a combination of actions by the Israeli military and terrorist settler violence.

Most of these casualties were innocents. For the most part the U.S. media virtually ignored them. A Palestinian terrorist attack last week, however, killed five Israeli innocents, and U.S. television responded with special news coverage on the “Crisis in the Middle East.” To make matters worse the Israelis renewed assault on Arafat’s already near demolished Ramallah compound was greeted by official silence in Washington.

All of this combined, can only foster deeper anger and bitterness on the Palestinian side, while emboldening the Israelis to continue.

I have long argued that in addition to the asymmetry of power that characterizes the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are two other asymmetries that exacerbate the conflict: asymmetries of compassion and pressure. The U.S. gives compassion to the Israelis and gives pressure to the Palestinians.

Projecting the inherently biased notion that only Israel and the U.S. “share common values” only reinforces the asymmetries creating a mindset that says “Israelis are people like us, Palestinians are not.”

So, of course, I am furious at the ad campaign. Instead of finding a way to get both Israelis and Palestinians out of the mud, the ads try to cover over the mud and in the end, serve no purpose but to keep the conflict going.

This discussion would not be complete without a consideration of what should now be done. After a century of conflict and 50 years of dispossession, Arabs have failed to grasp the importance of telling their story in the West in universal language that can be understood. It is not too late and it is, in fact, more important now than ever. But to succeed, to be relevant, and to make a contribution, an Arab effort should not mimic the Israeli campaign.

The Palestinian story needs to be told. A human face needs to be put on the long-suffering Palestinian people, but not in a way that seeks to dehumanize the other side to this conflict. Rather, an effort must be made to project the reality of the tragedy and that is to tell the story of a conflict that has cost too many lives, shattered too many dreams and hopes, and denied shared values sought by both peoples.

A way must be found out of the mud into which we are all in danger of sinking even further.

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