U.S. Politics and Palestine / Israel

The Occasional Movie Monday presents critical analyses of recent films from Dr. L. PresumablyDrL is a New York-based educator who works to promote the critical use of documentary film in secondary classrooms. 

A decade ago, when I was teaching a class on Zionism and Israel at a Jewish high school in the United States, I showed my class a film (Jerusalem 1948: Yoom Ilak, Yoom Aleik) detailing the events of 1948 from the perspective of Palestinian Jerusalemites. My goal was not to promote that (or, for that matter, any other) perspective, but simply to expose these students – most of whom had never before heard the term Nakba – to the fact that there exists a counter-narrative to the one with which they were already quite familiar.

This, it turns out, is not so easily done.  At one point in the film, an elderly Palestinian woman, wearing a headscarf and missing several teeth, began to tell her story.  As she spoke, several students began to giggle. Others joined in, and the response grew into a chorus of derisive laughter loud enough that the woman’s testimony could scarcely be heard.  For many of my students, it seemed, it was simply impossible to see beyond the woman’s physical appearance and all the preconceptions it connoted.  She was, to them, the consummate “Other,” and they could neither see nor hear beyond her “otherness.”

I recalled this incident as I watched the remarkable Oscar-nominated documentary 5 Broken Cameras.  On the surface the film is the story of the story of the ongoing non-violent protests against Israel’s separation barrier in the West Bank village of Bi’ilin. Much of the footage was shot by Emad Burnat, who unwittingly becomes “the Bi’ilin cameraman” and chronicles five years of protests against the route of the barrier as it encroaches on agricultural land surrounding the village in order to separate it from the ever-expanding settlement of Modi’in Illit. Burnat’s five cameras see the bulldozers uprooting olive trees, the soldiers wielding their guns, the checkpoints, the confrontations, the tear gas, the bullets, the injuries, the deaths.

But the power of the film lies in the fact that Emad’s cameras see much, much more.  In the end, it is not the political that makes the film so exceptional, but the personal. Emad’s cameras slash through the seemingly endless layers of impenetrable and hyperbolic rhetoric that have engulfed the Israeli-Palestinian divide from the beginning and capture, as few documents have, the essential humanity of those entrapped within it. Emad’s cameras see the playful eyes of his youngest son, Gibreel (upon whose birth Emad decided to acquire his first camera). They see Gibreel squinting through the soap in his eyes as he takes a shower, staring nervously in the mirror as he gets a haircut, kicking up his feet while lying in bed watching cartoons. They see Emad’s wife Soraya hanging the laundry out to dry. They see Emad’s friend Phil – “El-Phil,” the “elephant” – cavorting with acrobats to the delight of the village children. They see the whimsically painted face of his son Yasin, sheepishly smiling as he and his backpack lean against a wall in a school courtyard.

The interweaving of these scenes of daily life with the chronicle of the protests reportedly came under the guidance of the film’s Israeli co-director, Guy Davidi (at least if one is to believe what one reads on Wikipedia). Davidi surely knew that for the film to connect with western (and presumably Israeli) audiences, viewers needed to be taken beyond the protests themselves, where Palestinians who confront Israeli soldiers could – like the woman in the film I had shown my class – be all too easily dismissed.  By taking viewers inside Bi’ilin and documenting the life that brews beyond the glare of the protests, 5 Broken Cameras paints a portrait of lives and individuals that one simply does not have the option of dismissing.  That it somehow manages to do so in a way that is neither heavy-handed nor overly simplistic makes it all the more extraordinary a document.

Because the sad reality is that in the end Emad’s cameras are unable simply to tell a story of prosaic ordinariness. The occupation intrudes at every turn. The political and the personal cannot be separated, not in Bi’ilin. When Soraya hangs her laundry, we hear bullets in the background; she matter-of-factly instructs her husband: “Don’t let the kids out. The soldiers are in the village.” Gibreel and his brother sit inside a parked car and watch as their uncle is carried off to jail. They pass through a checkpoint guarded by armed soldiers.  When four-year-old Gibreel witnesses violent death, we see him ask the innocent questions only a child can ask, and his father’s grim recognition of the moment his son seems to have lost his childhood forever.

Any good work of art functions at multiple levels. 5 Broken Cameras is a document of the Bi’ilin protests, to be sure, but it is much more than that. It is also a lyrical meditation on cameras and film and how one sees the world through them. (“I feel like the camera protects me,” Emad says at one point, “but it’s an illusion.”)

But from my perspective in the United States, it is most compelling as a work that makes the invisible visible. Like thousands of other American tourists, I have passed along the Trans-Israel Highway as it passes along the massive concrete separation barrier at Qalqilya. But I had no means of seeing beyond the barrier, of getting even the smallest glimpse of daily life in Qalqilya or anywhere else on the West Bank. Fortunately, the distributors of 5 Broken Cameras have made access to it relatively easy (it is available for streaming on Netflix and available as an instant video on at modest cost). It has aired on Israeli television, and Davidi has spearheaded an educational campaign to bring the film into secondary classrooms within Israel.  A short video of this project underscores the promise of works such as 5 Broken Cameras to humanize what is all too often seen in broad and abstract political terms.

 (A longer version of this video can be found here.)

A decade ago, one of my students began an essay about the separation barrier with the following lines: “The most easily distinguishing feature identifying an Israeli or a Palestinian is not found in garb, or accent, or driving ability (universally horrible throughout) but rather in how they characterize the other side. Israelis and Palestinians often see the other as a homogeneous group with a collective will that is alien to their own. The word ‘they’ is used a lot. They harbor terrorists, they teach hatred, they are ruining our lives, they do not care about us.” The student went on to lament the inability of each side to listen to and respect each other’s narratives. I hope he and his classmates have seen 5 Broken Cameras and have in the decade since I knew them developed the ability to see and hear “them,” to recognize there really is no “them,” but a collection of individuals with names and stories that have every right to be heard.


On 25 March, President Obama released the standard pre-holiday message to Jewish Americans as preparing to celebrate Passover that night. These sorts of messages are released for just about every major religion’s holidays, and as such are generally a bland sort of affair, wishing people a meaningful celebration and good tidings. This time, not so much:

Last week, I visited the state of Israel for the third time, my first as President. I reaffirmed our countries’ unbreakable bonds with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Peres. I had the chance to speak directly with young Israelis about the future they wanted for their country, their region, and the world. And I saw once again how the dream of true freedom found its full expression in those words of hope from Hatikvah, lihyot ‘am chofshi be’artzeinu, “To be a free people in our land.”

Let’s get the more general issue out of the way first: By tying the celebration of Passover to suport for the State of Israel, the President has effectively excluded me and a great many other Jews in America and around the world who do not support the State of Israel, and in fact see the holiday as a reminder of all of the reasons we cannot. But this is standard-level offensiveness for U.S. politics; certainly not fodder for a blog post.

No, what bothers me in particular about the President’s message is the quotation from HaTikva, Israel’s national anthem. According to President Obama, the Zionist dream of an exclusively Jewish state is “the fullest expression” of “the dream of true freedom.”

Unintentionally, the President here obliquely references one of the darkest legacies of European anti-Semitism: the Jewish Question. Stated in its broadest terms, the Jewish Question (sometimes called the Jewish Problem) asked whether Jews could ever truly be part of the nation. Jews in Europe were inherently the subject of suspicion, either because they could not be assimilated into a nation that defined itself as Christian (Great Britain,  Germany) or because their status as an “alien nation” meant they could never be more than a community apart from the nation (France). Regardless of the reason given – and there were many – European anti-Semitism held that Jews were incapable of being full citizens of the nation-state, at least as long as they remained Jewish.

It was in this context that political Zionism took hold. In 1896, Theodor Herzl explains

The Jewish question still exists. It would be foolish to deny it. […] The Jewish question exists wherever Jews live in perceptible numbers. Where it does not exist, it is carried by Jews in the course of their migrations. We naturally move to those places where we are not persecuted, and there our presence produces persecution. This is the case in every country, and will remain so, even in those highly civilized–for instance, France–until the Jewish question finds a solution on a political basis. The unfortunate Jews are now carrying the seeds of Anti-Semitism into England; they have already introduced it into America.

[…] I think the Jewish question is no more a social than a religious one, notwithstanding that it sometimes takes these and other forms. It is a national question, which can only be solved by making it a political world-question to be discussed and settled by the civilized nations of the world in council.

We are a people–one people.

For Herzl, the Jewish Question is interminable. Even when things seem like they are going well, Jews inevitably carry with the them the seeds of anti-Semitism that will inevitably sprout, even in the seemingly tolerant United States. It’s an argument you still hear today when people talk of Israel as their “insurance policy,” just in case their own country’s politics begin resembling 1930s Germany. And it is the argument that inspired Naftali Herz Imber to write the line quoted by the President in his Passover message.

So when the President quotes that line from Hatikva he is, I’m sure unintentionally, telling Jews that they cannot truly be free in America. They cannot really be American. They can only realize their true collective project by emigrating. A any good community organizer ought to know, it is the unintentional messages that often do the most harm. That is not the sort of message that a President ought to be giving to any of his citizens.

The occasional Teaching Tuesday posts focuses on education strategies and practices. The issue of Palestine, while of concern to a great and growing number of people, still has a long way to go before it is widely known and understood by the general public. This series tries to think through and produce tools and strategies for public education.

 In part 1, we took a close look at the worrisome top line results of a recent Gallup poll on Americans’ attitudes towards Palestine and Israel. Although the top-line were interpreted by most media outlets, Gallup included, as indicating record level support for Israel, looking mostly at question wording in this and other polls, I argued for a more nuanced interpretation of the results. Today we jump a bit deeper into the other questions asked in these polls as well as some of the demographic breakdowns to look at the possibilities for public education campaigns moving forward.

Education is possible. The headlines last week seemed to indicate growing support for Israel. Looking more closely at the numbers, however, there is good reason to believe that this support may be softer than the numbers appear.

We have several bits of data to suggest that the increased support for Israel is coming from low-information respondents. This is evidenced by the fact that the increased support from Israel in the Gallup poll is coming at the expense of the “don’t know / both / neither” category. In the last post, we speculated that this might partially reflect the increasing frequency with which declarations of support for Israel appeared in the 2012 political campaign season. In this case, it’s possible that those who didn’t care are now adopting what has become a necessary platitude for entry into American politics.

Another reason to think that these may be low information voters is that the increased support seems to be coming primarily from independent voters. Republican support for Israel held steady from last year at 78%, and is actually off 7 points from its 2010 high, while Democratic support ticked up 2 points from a year ago, though remains 2 points lower than in 2011 (we’re might just be looking at statistical noise here). Independents, by contrast, registered 63% sympathy for Israelis, an all-time high. Surveys have shown that independents are much more likely to be low-information voters on any number of issues, and it is probably the case here as well.

Taken together, this indicates to me that public opinion is probably far from set in stone and that a public education campaign can be particularly effective at the moment.

There is a significant generation gap on Palestine-Israel. Another bit of good news is that younger people are markedly less supportive of Israel than older folk, though majorities in all age categories do support Israel. Support for Israel drops off about 9 points with every age cohort in both the Gallup and the ABC/WaPo poll. This generational difference is only slightly off of the generational gaps on gay marriage was showing in the early 2000s, and we all know how quickly public opinion shifted there..

While there is a party gap, it is not growing. Both Gallup and ABC/WaPo show about a 20-point gap between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to sympathizing with Israel. Contrary to some of the signs that we saw in the last election, however, we have yet to see any evidence of this gap in the numbers. Once again, it seems like it is independents and low information voters who are up for grabs.

Conclusions. While still generally supportive of Israel, Americans’ opinions on the matter are far from determined. The more you dig into the numbers, the more you get a picture of frustration than anything else. When ABC/WaPo asked if the U.S. should take a leading roll in advancing a peace settlement or leave it to the parties, 69% of Americans respond the former.

Getting through this frustration will be difficult, but it is not impossible. The status quo benefits Israel and Israel advocates have been pursuing a strategy to take advantage of this frustration by encouraging people to see Palestine and Israel as “complicated,” i.e. too confusing for you (the under-informed) to oppose.

The message of Palestine solidarity needs to be simplified in order to cut through Americans’ frustrations. At this blog, we’ve been trying to do with Memes for Palestine. Visualizing Palestine also does so with great success. Now is the time to brainstorm and implement new, simple communication strategies so that we may achieve broader public action in the future. 

The occasional Teaching Tuesday posts focuses on education strategies and practices. The issue of Palestine, while of concern to a great and growing number of people, still has a long way to go before it is widely known and understood by the general public. This series tries to think through and produce tools and strategies for public education.

We got some very sobering news from Gallup this week about the state of American attitudes towards Palestine and Israel. Fully sixty-Four percent of Americans say that their sympathies are more with the Israelis than with the Palestinians, tying the high-water mark for the question, recorded in the midsts of the First Gulf War. Despite the harrowing results, I think that by placing this poll in its proper context we will see not only the need to focus on public education campaigns but also some promising avenues for achieving a shift in public perceptions.

The first thing to note is that this poll is no outlier and cannot be easily dismissed. It is consistent with a longer-term trend over the past decade of Americans shifting from the “don’t know / both / neither” category towards registering sympathy for Israelis. And other polls asking similar questions have produced similar results; a Nov. 2012 CNN/ORC poll  found 59% of Americans say their sympathies lie with the Israelis, while only 13% sympathize with Palestinians. And shortly before publication, ABC/WaPo released a poll with similar results, showing a 55/9 split.

Anyway you cut it, this is worrisome for those of us advocating for Palestine in the United States. However, in this first of two posts, I’m going to suggest a few reasons to take these results with a large grain of salt.

First, it is important to be attentive to the truly awful wording of the question. In fairness to Gallup, they have been consistently asking the questing in this way since the late ’80s and changing the phrasing now would make it impossible to accurately compare responses across time.

Still, the phrasing of the question is problematic, as it asks about sympathies towards populations (Israelis and Palestinians) rather than attitudes towards states (Israel and Palestine). Polls that have done the latter have shown less support for Israel. When asked about their opinions of Israel the state rather than Israelis, support drops a good 10 to 15 points. For example, a 2012 BBC poll asking about the Israeli state’s impact in the world found only 50% of Americans responding that it was “mainly positive” while 35% chose “mainly negative.” 

Interestingly, when asked directly about “the dispute” rather than about general attitudes, Americans’ support for Israel drops off a cliff. A 2012 YouGov poll asking “In the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, which side do you sympathize with more?” found only 36% support for Israel, a good 25 points off of that year’s Gallup numbers. Now this is just one poll and all the standard caveats apply. But it seems possible that, on some level, Americans are aware that there is something rotten in the way Israel treats Palestinians.

This last result may also help explain the huge gap between the story told by the Gallup numbers of growing sympathy for Israelis and the growing feeling among both Palestinian solidarity activists and Zionists that U.S. discourse is starting to shift, allowing more talk of “apartheid” and even of a one-state solution than ever before.

Second, results differ significantly depending on whether it asks respondents to compare Israel and Palestine or simply evaluate Israel on its own. We will explore this issue a bit more in depth next time when we look at some of the other questions these surveys asked. But for now, we ought to note that in all of these surveys support for “the Palestinians” is consistently low. If I had to guess, I think the reason for this is that Americans are looking at Palestine through the lens of a U.S. media discussion that treats the conflict like a football game between two sovereign states. Americans who equate Palestinians with the most frequent images of Palestinians in U.S. media – namely as rocket-firing terrorists – may be registering support for “the other team.” 

For this reason, the BBC, which asked only about Israel in isolation of the Palestinian Authority, also registered the highest disapproval of the state. Unlike in an election, where we can ask people what actions they will take in the future, a question about public sympathies may encompass a great deal of contradictory, inchoate, or just plain complicated evaluations on the part of the public.

Third, the poll needs to be contextualized within the broader U.S. media landscape. Israelis, the American politicians reassure us, “share our values.” This is reinforced in the media with representations of Israeli supermodels, tech firms, and even via pinkwashing. By contrast, when is the last time you saw a story in any mainstream U.S. media about a Palestinian footballer, theatre troupe, or even a really amazing Gaza cookbook? I’ll give you a minute to ponder.

For better or for worst, Israel’s soft-hasbara is having an impact. No wonder, then, that questions about sympathies to Israelis vs. Palestinians registers far higher levels of support for Israelis (20% of whom, we should note parenthetically  are also Palestinian).

So after examining the top-line results in a bit more detail, we have reason to suspect that the record-high sympathy for Israelis registered by Gallup may not be as significant as most news reporting on this poll have suggested. Still, where does this leave us?

To me, this suggests the need for a renewed focus on public education. Though I generally consider myself a supporter of BDS (I may have just broken Israeli law), one concern I have about the American campaigns is the strong focus on University and other institutional divestment votes. Though a few hard fought victories have been achieved, they have not always generated much media attention. And the biggest and most headline-grabbing divestment campaigns – like the Brooklyn food co-op or the Methodist church – have failed.

In Europe, by contrast, BDS activists have met with significantly more success, so much so that EU governments are now seriously considering punitive actions against IsraelThis success, however, taked place amidst a dramatically different landscape of public opinion. In the United Kingdom, the BBC found that 68% believed Israel’s impact to be “mostly negative.” In France, the number was 65%, in Germany 69%, and in Spain 74%. This overwhelming public disapproval for Israeli policies is a key component in the success of European BDS campaigns.

To be sure, there is a great deal of work to be done in Europe still as well. But, the successes of their BDS campaign signals the importance of public opinion in influencing corporate, university, and government policy. If American BDS activists want to do the same, it seems to me that we should concentrate more of our efforts on educating the American public.

Next time we will dive a bit deeper into the cross-tabs for some insights on how this education effort might shape up. As we dive deeper into the numbers, we will also see a broader case for optimism, so join us back here next time as we delve behind the worrisome topline toplines and into the more promising nitty-gritty!

On Wednesday, Barack Obama will begin his first visit as President to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. I have just one question: why? What could President Obama possibly think he can accomplish in his meetings with Israeli leaders?

National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes put out a (monotoned) video to try and answer precisely that question.

Cutting out the fluff, meaningless phrases, and tourist activities, the list of actual issues that Rhodes names for the President’s talks with Israeli leaders are:

  1. Peace process
  2. Iran
  3. Syria

It is not entirely clear, however, that there is much to discuss when it comes to any of these issues.

The peace process is perhaps the most obvious dead end of the three. The U.S. remains committed to advancing a two state solution along the Oslo Accords framework. Although Bibi Netanyahu has officially endorsed the two-state solution, his Likud party has not, and several MKs from his party  stand adamantly opposed to it. More so, Mr. Netanyahu’s previous governments’ actions have so greatly undermined the possibility of a two-state solution, that even mainstream newspapers are starting to wonder aloud if it has slipped beyond reach.

Even if Mr. Netanyahu somehow did somehow wish to advance a two-state peace process, though, the makeup of his new coalition government makes such a scenario impossible. Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party – which advocates formalizing Israel’s apartheid system by annexing most of the West Bank and creating Palestinian Bantustans in the remainder – controls 11 seats in the new Knesset, enough to bring down the government. And Yair Lapid’s 19-MK strong There Is a Future party – which the media confoundedly insists on calling a “centrist” party – has been lockstep with Bennett since the elections, so much so that Mr. Lapid forbade his members from participating in a Geneva Initiative tour, an action so extreme not even Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud nor the Religious Shas party followed suit.

Simply put, no matter what Mr. Obama does or says over the next couple of days, there is simply no possibility for advancing anything resembling a two-state peace process in the immediate future. And, with Israel’s new housing minister promising continued settlement building in the West Bank, the possibility of ever realizing a two-state solutions grows ever more remote. Hence the reason why one settler-colonist recently described the new government as “a wet dream.”

On Iran, there likewise seems to be little to discuss. Although Mr. Netanyahu’s rhetoric – not to mention his buffoonish cartoons – has been quite hawkish on Iran in the past, the possibility of military action against the Islamic Republic grows ever more remote. Military elites in Israel and American continue to publicly express their skepticism over the both the practicalities and the wisdom of such a strike. The latest example of this came last week when the head of Israel’s military intelligence, Major General Amir Kochavi, publicly declared that Iran has yet to decide to pursue atomic weapons. If there appeared to be nothing to discuss regarding the peace process because of irreconcilable differences, when it comes to Iran it seems like everyone is pretty much on the same page.

Finally, on Syria it is not clear how much there is to discuss at the moment either. As bad as our foreign policy has been, it seems like U.S. policy is pretty much on autopilot, funneling arms and materiel to the rebels under the table. There may be some minor issues to discuss regarding the Israeli-Syrian border, intelligence sharing, and planning for a post-conflict situation, but these are more the sort of minor issues that can easily be worked out by undersecretaries than Presidents and Prime Ministers.

So there would appear to be no possibility for serious progress on any of the three issues that Ben Rhodes names.

The funny thing is, Mr. Rhodes seems to indicate hat the White House is well aware of the futility of talking with Israeli government officials. After describing the policy issues to be discussed, Mr. Rhodes declares:

After that, the President will go to the Jerusalem Convention Center, where he’ll give a speech to an audience of mainly Israeli university students. And this really is the true purpose of the visit, an ability for the President to speak directly to the Israeli people about the future that we want to build together.

Did you catch that? The true purpose of the visit is not to talk policy with government officials, but rather to give a speech to a bunch of university students.

It’s difficult to imagine what any President of the United States could possibly say that would be at all impactful or productive at the moment (and easy to imagine how such a speech could cause harm). Still, this President is at his best when he is giving big speeches. It will be interesting to see whether President Obama raises the specter of a one-state solution. Even though such a reference would no doubt be a (most likely unsuccessful) ploy to frighten Israelis into supporting a two-state solution, it’s mention by a U.S. President could nonetheless represent important move towards further legitimizing the one-state possibility in U.S. political discourse. And that would be something. A small something, but it’s better than nothing.

So if even the White House admits that the sole purpose of the visit is to deliver a speech, then let’s hope it’s a good one. Perhaps the White House believes this could be the Cairo Speech of the second term. Other than fulfilling a silly campaign promise, it seems to be the only reason for his visit. We’ll be watching, albeit with great skepticism.

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