February 23, 2019

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Intellectual Mugging at the MFA: Jhully and Ratzkoff’s “Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land”


I wrote this before i had a blog and never posted it. Dexter van Zile’s recent article about Sut Jhally, the filmmaker in question, prompts me to post it now. Jhally (on twitter) is profiled at Canary Mission.

Intellectual Mugging at the MFA (2005)

I just had a very unpleasant experience.  I was invited to comment on a documentary – Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land, shown at the MFA as part of their Film and Media series.  The invitation came because a number of people, including me, had complained to the MFA that they were showing what looked like, from the blurb, a propaganda film which should not be shown without some response.  After a number of negotiations, mostly aimed at sparing the MFA embarrassment, we agreed that the MFA would send me a copy of the film, and after the filmmakers spoke, I would make a statement and ask the first questions.  The idea was to keep it honorable and civil.

The movie itself is, as billed in the blurb, a tendentiously one-sided affair in which hyper-self-critical Israelis and Jews join up with Palestinian accusers to blame the whole conflict on the occupation, and to blame our residual sympathy for the Israelis, on illegitimate Jewish influence over our media.  The media should not only understand and present this Palestinian “narrative” – which is, to some extent the media’s job – but they also should adopt it – which is not it’s job.  The movie demands advocacy journalism: media should always point out the “context” – occupation, occupation, occupation.  They should tell people how to interpret these events.  Our way.

After I saw the movie, in conjunction with conversations with Bo Smith at the museum, who seemed very concerned about the possible hostility of the audience, I figured I’d start it with what we agreed on – the media are our eyes and ears on the world, and we need them to be as accurate as possible; that a well-informed and autonomously critical public is one of the best guarantees of that accuracy.  Did this film help us?  In my considered opinion, it was, if anything an object lesson in propaganda.  Inaccurate information, packaged with hyper-spin, and the exclusion of all dissident voices.  This was not so much an argument – although that it was – but a harangue.  No nuance here.  In response, I planned to raise some problems with the film (oversights that call into question the stark picture) and then pose some questions to the two filmmakers.

I knew I was in trouble when, at film’s end, the audience – packed house – gave the movie a standing ovation, old hippies with their grey pony-tails and their birkenstocks. Okay, so they liked it.  But nothing really prepared me for what was to come.  First the movie-makers spoke.  Bathsheba Ratzkoff presented herself as an Israeli who had grown up learning that you speak out against injustice, and that a holocaust should never happen again to anyone.  Sut Jhally presented himself as a courageous man taking on the Palestinian cause when it was taboo (when was that in University circles?  Was this before 1967?), driven by Edward Said to do what he had to do, regardless of the consequences.  Then it was my turn.

The crowd resisted with catcalls as if to have me speak were an insult, but I got to start.  I got though my opening throat clearing, although someone interrupted me when I said, in a gesture of concession, “at least the movie doesn’t explicitly claim to have a monopoly on absolute truth,” by shouting, “Yes it does!”  (I wonder how many people there, post-modern, post-colonials all, realized how bad that made them look.  All the irony of Pravda.)

But as soon as I got to criticism, the crowd went wild.  It was like they were Miracle Max in The Princess Bride holding their hands over their ears and shouting “I can’t hear you! I can’t hear you!”  Here I was, trying to tell them that in this movie there is not one voice of dissent, and they were shouting, “Shut up! Shut up!”

The filmmaker insisted that the crowd let me finish, and I was able to continue some more, constantly interrupted.  I’d love to listen to a tape of the event.  But I remember another interruption well.  I asked if they thought that we could do a similar study on Palestinian and Arab attempts to control the media.  I thought one of my strongest (even-handed) questions at the end, was, “are you planning a matching piece of the other side of this phenomenon.  Surely it would be easier to fill in the “big corporate interests” who control our politicians, who set the tone for the media (a power-point presentation in the film) with names like Bechtel and Halliburton, and Saudi owned AOL, owner of CNN, than with identifiably Jewish, much less Zionist “corporations.” But to my astonishment, that suggestion was greeted with loud catcalls.

Indeed, there was something cult-like about it.  The energy was high, and people felt comfortable taking public voice and speaking for the collective.  It was as if they had the gnosis, the secret knowledge, and they gathered to inhale it, to bathe in it.  They thrilled to the movie’s pretended revelation of hidden forces, the “Zionist occupied media” which resembled the conspiracist right winger’s term for U.S. government: ZOG (Zionist Occupied Government).

This movie delighted them. It filled them with enthusiasm and energy. It liberated them from any sense of guilt about Jews as victims – after all, so many prominent Jews in this movie have given them permission not to be concerned.  It mobilized their hate; it clarified the world into the forces of good and evil and let them know who to resist.  It oriented them into the fateful future that looms before us.  And they could not bear contradiction.  Impulse control low, and dropping.  And that’s from our progressive community.

Self-styled peace-loving dissidents shouting down a dissident voice. It was a cross between Monty Python, “We’re aaaall individuals,” we are aaaalll dissenters, and the meeting of the Second International, when the Mensheviks were relegated to the dustbin of history. It was as if these folks had been fed red meat and I was trying to stop the feeding frenzy, not by arguing for veganism, but just by suggesting that the meat was poisoned, that consuming it might lead to unwarranted hatred and foolish approval of violence that no one – repeat no one – has an excuse for. And these 60s retreads – I’m one for crying out loud – snarled at me with the ferocity of a hungry beast.

I finished, rushed by the crowd and an increasingly nervous museum staff by asking Batsheba, if she were against holocausts happening to everyone, why wasn’t she making a movie about Sudan?  Sut Jhally took the mike, and, rather than answering any of my questions, explained to the crowd why I had spoken.  Exempting poor Bo, the point man, he insisted that the higher-ups in the museum had caved, and that our insistence as Jews and Zionists, to respond to such one-sided presentations, was an example of our trying to control the conversation.

This was a replication of the movie’s unconscious message: don’t just listen to the Palestinian narrative, adopt it!  And don’t listen to anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.  So my dissent and request to be heard is really coercive manipulation, and his monopoly on the discussion is just keeping you in the audience away from propaganda.  He refused to recognize me beyond denouncing me, refused to answer any of my questions.  I was not an opponent, but an enemy.

The museum has yet to apologize, or even call to be in touch.  I’m sure it will, sometime soon [still waiting]. I suggest that we have a showing of two movies, and a discussion afterwards.  I invite Sut Jhally and anyone else he would like to bring to a four-person panel discussion in front of our audience.  One in which we all acknowledge the rules of civility.  No applause, except at the end.  We listen to each other.  And let people make up their own minds.

Richard Landes

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