In the conflict over the land of Palestine, Israel’s overpowering military superiority has produced decisive battlefield victories. But just as crucial to Israeli dominance in that region is its supremacy in the U.S. news media, which is captured in the title of an important new film from the Media Education Foundation, “The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States.”
[Disclosure: I have been a consultant to, and interviewed for, other documentaries produced by MEF, including the 2004 film “Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land” and the 2006 film “Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear & the Selling of American Empire.”]
The film’s analysis is crucial to understand why—given the longstanding international consensus for a peaceful settlement that would give both Israelis and Palestinians a secure national homeland—the conflict drags on in its seventh decade. Whatever one’s position on how to resolve the conflict, it is uncontroversial that Israel could not continue occupying Palestinian territory without U.S. diplomatic, military, and economic support, and it’s unlikely that support could continue without the backing—or, at least, acquiescence—of the U.S. public.
Israeli officials understand that, and “The Occupation of the American Mind” offers a sophisticated analysis of their strategy to keep both policymakers and the public in the United States on their side, illustrated with detailed examples of how Israel successfully borrows from the contemporary advertising/marketing/public relations industries—the folks who produce what is best described as propaganda.
The basics of that propaganda are easy to identify: simplistic phrases, repeated over and over, designed to engage emotions rather than produce rational arguments, all shaped to fit into a narrative of good (Western-oriented Israel, the Middle East’s only true democracy) versus evil (Arab/Muslim terrorists who seek not only to destroy the Jewish state but kill all Jews).
To accept this impoverished account of the conflict, we would have to rewrite history, reject international law, and ignore the struggle over land and resources that is at the heart of the conflict. Because those realities have been so obscured, “The Occupation of the American Mind” begins with a straightforward account of the politics of the conflict. No summary of such a contentious issue is neutral, of course, but the film explains clearly the 1948 and 1967 wars that left Israel in its current position of overwhelming dominance. Israel’s image as an underdog fighting for survival became difficult to sustain after those military victories and the beginning of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That’s where the propaganda campaign becomes central.
Israel invested considerable resources in the media project after its brutal 1982 invasion of Lebanon started to turn world opinion toward support for the Palestinian cause. Rather than reconsider its policy of maximal expansion and crushing Palestinian aspirations for a state, Israel ratcheted up its media campaign, dubbed hasbara, which translates as “explanation.” In combination with aggressive lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill, that campaign has been amazingly effective at undermining an open debate in the United States.
Viewers expecting conspiracy theories about how Jews control the media or secretly run the U.S. government will be disappointed. “The Occupation of the American Mind” analyzes how the professional practices of U.S. news media—primarily a slavish reliance on official sources, combined with the unexamined ideological assumptions about the rightful dominance of the United States in world affairs—leave journalists susceptible to manipulation by the Israeli public relations machine. That media strategy supports the efforts of the Israel lobby that targets elected officials, who also have their own strategic interests in allying the United States with Israel.
All of this is the way media and politics work in the real world, where money and power so often trump law and moral principles. “The Occupation of the American Mind” explains how that works in the case of Israel/Palestine, a conflict in which cynicism and despair come easy for many in the United States. But the film is, in the end, a hopeful one, based on the belief that accurate information can be the basis for rational discussion that can change public policy in a democratic society.
How rational we humans really are, well, that’s an open question. But nowhere is such faith in education, dialogue, and people more needed than Israel/Palestine