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Hasbara-Lite Films

Israeli Propaganda, With Warts

by LOUIS J. PROYECT

Out of a sense of duty to CounterPunch readers, I went to a press screening for “Israel: a Home Movie” that opens at the Film Forum in New York on July 10th. It might be more accurate to say that I went to monitor it since it had all the earmarks of a typical Israeli film geared to the liberal to left audiences at the Film Forum, a premier art house. Unlike “World War Z”, the new zombie movie that apparently includes 10 minutes of full-blast Zionist propaganda (Israel becomes a Zombie-free zone largely on the efforts of a muscular and merciless IDF standing guard at the borders), “Israel: a Home Movie” is anxious to show Israel with warts and all, as the announcement from the Film Forum publicity department made clear:

Israel goes from a young, optimistic, albeit naive nation, to one in which the realities of middle-age (and worse) settle in. There is a description of “shell-shock”; a young soldier who declares “God bless morphine”; images of a relative “killed in a terrorist attack at about age 30″; the demolition of a minaret and discussion of whether it was a holy site; David Ben-Gurion visiting transit camps in 1956, and glimpses throughout of Ariel Sharon, Moshe Dayan, and Anwar Sadat. Perhaps nowhere in the world could home movies so intimately reflect the changing political face of a nation. As early as the late 1970s, one feels that tragedy has become the norm, that life inevitably leads to death and that – in Israel as we have known it – peace inevitably leads to war.

As the title implies, the film is entirely made up of home movies shot  mostly on 8mm film cameras like the kind people used to take on vacation. As such, most of the footage is fairly banal stuff that ostensibly would only be of interest to people who get a kick out of watching strangers frolicking in the ocean or—worse—babies waddling into their parents’ arms. The men or women who made the films or their children provide narration. The perspective is mostly that of old-style kibbutz “socialism” or Peace Now liberalism, just the sort of thing that would resonate with the film’s target audience.

These benign moments are punctuated by scenes of warfare, starting with the 1948 creation of the modern state of Israel. The film also includes plenty of footage from the 1967 and 1973 wars, all calculated to convince the viewer that they were forced on Israel. There are lots of shots of Moshe Dayan and Ariel Sharon in uniform, the two military “heroes” of the two wars. There also military parades galore, all a reminder that this is a country on a permanent war footing much to the dismay of Eliav Lilti, the film’s director and Arik Bernstein, its producer. In the film notes, Bernstein describes the film’s goal as evoking a “sense of nostalgia and profound political unease.”

In order to maintain credibility with a left of center audience, the film includes some scenes of Israeli brutality. For example, you will see Egyptian POW’s from the 1967 war being beaten as they step down from the back of a military truck. Stripped to their underwear, they are forced to rise repeatedly from a prone to an upright position on the command of an Israeli MP. When they are not quick enough, they are clubbed.

You also see a thoroughly disgusting triumphal IDF march into the West Bank after the 1973 war has come to an end, reminiscent of the Wehrmacht’s entry into Paris or French paratroopers marching down the main boulevard of Algiers in 1954.

What the film does not present is home movies made by the settlers in the West Bank as they parade around behind one or another of their fascist gang-leaders. The film comes to an abrupt halt a year or so after the 1973 war has ended, showing little interest in the occupation of Gaza or the West Bank. This would obviously risk reminding a left-of-center audience that Israel’s “political unease” is trivial in comparison to someone whose house has been demolished as part of the process of creating a new fact on the ground in Hebron or East Jerusalem.

You can get a good idea of producer Arik Bernstein’s capacity for telling the truth about Israel from a documentary he did in 2008 titled “Gaza-Sderot” that has the temerity to put the Israeli and Palestinian populations of these two places on the same plane. In the entire time that Sderot has been under attack from Palestinians, there have been 16 Israeli deaths. Meanwhile, B’Tselem, an Israeli human rights group, puts the number of Palestinian deaths in Gaza at 4672. The word for this is asymmetrical.

“Israel: a Home Movie” received funding from the Marc Rich Foundation. That name might ring a bell. The deep pockets that the foundation relied on belonged to a man who died at the age of 78 on June 27th. Rich was a financier who was indicted on 65 criminal counts that included tax fraud in 1983. Before the cops could get their hands on him, Rich became a fugitive and lived high on the hog in Switzerland as he continued making billions.

On January 20, 2001, his last day in office, Bill Clinton pardoned Marc Rich but refused to take the idea of pardoning Leonard Peltier seriously. When Amy Goodman took this up with him in an interview, Clinton talked around it. If Peltier had billions, I am sure that Clinton would have paid attention. Of course, with that kind of wealth, Peltier would never have spent a day in prison.

The NY Times obituary for Rich adds some revealing data:

It was soon learned that Mr. Rich’s former wife, Denise Rich, had made large donations to the Democratic Party and the Clinton library, and that Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Ehud Barak, had lobbied Mr. Clinton for the pardon. Rabbi Irving Greenberg, chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, also pressed Mr. Rich’s case, on museum stationery.

Shabtai Shavit, a former head of Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service, expressed gratitude to Mr. Rich for routinely allowing agents to use his offices around the world and for financing airlifts of Jews from Ethiopia, Yemen and other countries. King Juan Carlos I of Spain also weighed in on Mr. Rich’s behalf.

It is worth keeping an eye on propaganda efforts such as “Israel: a Home Movie” as the struggle around BDS heats up. On June 26th Mondoweiss reported that a “Leading American Jewish group announces plan to ramp up campaign against BDS movement”. They were upset with Stephen Hawking, who after announcing that he was boycotting Israel was denounced by Alan Dershowitz as an “ignoramus”. Clearly, a film such as “Israel: a Home Movie” would have provoked Dershowitz’s ire as well. That, however, does not make it any less pernicious.

“Israel: a Home Movie” is the latest installment in a series of hasbara-lite films calculated to persuade liberal-minded audiences outside of Israel, particularly in the U.S., that the country is not all that bad.

“The Gatekeepers”, another documentary, also played at the Film Forum and with the same intentions. Now available on Netflix, I described it back in January as the second cousin of Earl Morris’s film on Robert McNamara:

But the closest relative to “The Gatekeepers” is Errol Morris’s 2003 documentary “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara”, which allows the war criminal to shed crocodile tears over his “mistakes” in Vietnam. Surely, if the U.S. were able to stabilize a puppet government in South Vietnam, Morris would have not had material to work with. By the same token, if Israel did not have to contend with continuing Palestinian resistance, the Shin Bet chiefs whose interviews form the substance of Israeli director Dror Moreh’s film, would have had no reason to take part in a film that reflects Israeli “dove” nervousness about the settler state’s future.

And before that there was “Waltz with Bashir”, an animated fiction film that once again reminded film audiences that “war is hell”. Although I did not review the film, my reaction to it was identical to that of Haaretz’s Gideon Levy:

Hollywood will be enraptured, Europe will cheer and the Israeli Foreign Ministry will send the movie and its makers around the world to show off the country’s good side. But the truth is that it is propaganda. Stylish, sophisticated, gifted and tasteful – but propaganda. A new ambassador of culture will now join Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua, and he too will be considered fabulously enlightened – so different from the bloodthirsty soldiers at the checkpoints, the pilots who bomb residential neighborhoods, the artillerymen who shell women and children, and the combat engineers who rip up streets. Here, instead, is the opposite picture. Animated, too. Of enlightened, beautiful Israel, anguished and self-righteous, dancing a waltz, with and without Bashir. Why do we need propagandists, officers, commentators and spokespersons who will convey “information”? We have this waltz.

The waltz rests on two ideological foundations. One is the “we shot and we cried” syndrome: Oh, how we wept, yet our hands did not spill this blood. Add to this a pinch of Holocaust memories, without which there is no proper Israeli self-preoccupation. And a dash of victimization – another absolutely essential ingredient in public discourse here – and voila! You have the deceptive portrait of Israel 2008, in words and pictures.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.