ADC Panel Examines Perceptions of Palestine

The June 13 ADC panel on “Palestine: Perception and Reality” was moderated by ADC communications director Hussein Ibish. Refusenik Charles Lechner of Jewish Voices for Peace opened the discussion with reminiscences from his time at a peace camp. There, he said, he realized that there was a whole narrative—”a longing for their homeland, and feelings of pain from the Nakba”—which emerged among the Palestinian youth singing around the campfire, rather than during the daily political discussion. Lechner said he foresaw a shared future for Israel and Palestine, and noted that there was a culture of Arab/Israeli cooperation in Israeli peace camps that was missing among American activists.

According to Lechner, Palestinians in the U.S. wanted to defeat Israel, but, he said, there were things about Israel that should be understood and defended. The “hostile, negative view” toward Israel made it difficult for Jews to work for peace in the U.S., he said, adding that he had noticed dissonance at 2003’s second divestment conference of the year at Ohio State University. Lechner concluded that the conference should have been like ADC or the Arab American Institute in its outlook.

Souheil Elia of ADC, South Florida, said that while the perception was that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had agreed to trade land for peace, the reality was that Sharon gave up peace for land. There were two concepts which were perceived differently, he said: the “promised land,” and the “chosen people.” Arabs thought the covenant with Abraham included all Abraham’s descendants, not just those of Isaac, he explained, thereby promising the land to Muslims, Jews, and Christians, as well as “choosing” adherents of all the Abrahamic religions. Elia proceeded to argue, however, that the problem was not religiously based at all, but rather a question of indigenous land claims. He concluded by pointing out that by 2025, according to U.N. demographic projections, Palestinians would outnumber Jews by about a million people, thereby changing the problem altogether. Elia argued for a two-state solution to the conflict now.

Nigel Parry of the Electronic Intifada said it was encouraging to see young Palestinians like Dean Obeidallah, Maysoon Zayid, and Suheir Hammad, (p)reaching outside the choir through their art. Like Lechner, Parry related his story of “seeing the light.” He went to Palestine with no previous knowledge and wound up in a U.N. bus in a refugee camp, just in time to see a small child throw a rock—very ineffectually—at an Israeli soldier, who then knelt, cocked his gun, and aimed at the child. The soldier was about to kill the child, Parry said, when he spotted the U.N. bus, and guiltily stood up.

“There is no context in the media,” Parry stated. That is why the Electronic Intifada and other information outlets are crucial, he said, because “information is what will end the conflict. If we could transport Americans to Rafah for five minutes, they would never support Israel.”

Alison Weir of If Americans Knew clearly agreed. When the second intifada started, she recalled, she knew nothing about the issue, but started paying attention, soon realizing she was seeing only one side of the story. Weir decided that it was the most censored story ever, quit her job, and bought a ticket to Palestine to visit the West Bank and Gaza for a month. Illustrating her talk with powerful pictures, Weir said she saw “warmth, devastation, children with bullets in their stomachs, backs, and heads.” She also saw “fixed machine guns and tank guns pointed at us.” Yet when she returned to the U.S., she said, there was no mention of any of it in the press. Weir set out to change that, and has since conducted statistical studies of the U.S. press’ opposing amount of coverage of Palestine and Israel (See the September 2003 Washington Report, pp. 22-23) and raised the consciousness of many Americans without transporting them to Rafah.

Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh of Yale offered practical advice to continue along the road of education that Parry and Weir laid out. Facts give power, he reminded the audience, and activists should do research to know their facts. Images and maps were particularly powerful tools, he pointed out, adding that activists must work proactively and cooperatively with the mainstream media to get their story told, that flyers and ads could be effective, and that flyers were cheap. The proper use of language was important to point out inconsistencies, the Yale professor continued, stating that activists could and should create news, urging the use of alternative media, and emphasizing the importance of telling real stories of people. “They are our stories, our people,” he emphasized. “Tell your own story.”

Qumsiyeh concluded by saying that even though only the tip of the iceberg was showing, Palestinians should never give up, because there was much more under the surface.

The final speaker was Bathsheba Ratzkoff of the Media Education Foundation who showed a short but powerful clip from her latest movie—featured at the conference film festival—called “Peace, Propaganda, and The Promised Land.” Born in Israel, Ratzkoff described how she asked people on the street what the fighting between Israelis and Palestinians was about. Most of them did not know, she said, while others answered “religion,” or “terrorism.” Only a few said land. However, when she said, “Great! Whose land?” they answered “Israel’s.” Ratzkoff’s second question, “Who’s responsible?” was answered by 99 percent of respondents saying “Palestine.” When those who answered that they did not know were pressed to guess, they responded, “Palestine.” Ratzkoff then noted that they got their perceptions of Palestine and Israel from the American media. Like Parry, she said that what was left out of the picture was the context of the occupation, and that Israel’s actions were depicted as self-defense. Ratzkoff’s movie, like Weir’s studies, were meant to call attention to that lack of context and raise American awareness.

Related Links

  • Washington Report on Middle East Affairs