In 2006, the Media Education Foundation, a non-profit organization located in Northampton, Mass., produced “Reel Bad Arabs,” a 50-minute film that highlighted the research of Jack Shaheen, an expert in mass communications and a former consultant for CBS News on Middle East Affairs.
The film was based on Shaheen’s 2001 book, Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. The book itself was an earnest plea to moviemakers in Hollywood to stop using Arabs and Muslims as stock villains in their films and to portray Arabs and Muslims in their full humanity. “For more than a century,” Shaheen wrote, “Hollywood has used repetition as a teaching tool, tutoring movie audiences by repeating over and over, in film after film, insidious images of Arab people.” He asked his readers to “consider how these slanderous stereotypes have affected honest discourse and public policy.”
Shaheen offered a similar message in the film, declaring that Hollywood offered a “dangerously consistent pattern of hateful Arab stereotypes, stereotypes that rob an entire people of their humanity. All aspects of our culture project the Arab as villain.”
In both the book and the film that featured his work, Shaheen presented persuasive evidence to prove his point. In the films he examined, Arabs were targeted with gratuitous slurs and insults, portrayed as lecherous sheiks and murderous terrorists. Images of principled and courageous Arabs were few and far between in Hollywood movies, Shaheen lamented.
Shaheen would have strengthened his thesis if he acknowledged that a similar demonizing process had been taken place in Arab and Muslim-majority countries, where Jews, Israelis and Westerners are regularly portrayed as monsters in various mediums.
If you want to talk vilification, for example, take a look the sermons given in the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem or films like the “Valley of the Wolves” movie franchise produced in Turkey, which depicts Israelis and Americans as monsters in ways similar — if not worse — than Arabs are in Hollywood films analyzed by Shaheen.
It would also have been nice if Shaheen acknowledged that not every criticism of Islamic theology and its knock-on effects of human rights, the status of women, and the prospects for peace in the Middle is an example of Islamophobia, an issue he addressed explicitly in the film.
If Christians are obligated to come to grips with their history of racism, antisemitism, and imperialism and genocide, so are Muslims. It’s not merely a question of fairness, but one of history and theology. The Armenian Genocide, the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands and the ongoing destruction and oppression of Christians and Yazidis in the Middle East is the end result of the demonization that Shaheen lamented was evident in Hollywood films.
It is also a question theological question regarding what type of God we worship. If God restrained Abraham’s hand on the Temple Mount thousands of years ago, then it’s beholden on the adherents of the Abrahamic faiths — Christians, Jews and Muslims — to do the same in the current age. We need to restrain the blade of hate and hostility in our hearts and brains. That was the underlying point in Shaheen’s work. Hateful stereotypes do not advance the cause of peace regardless of their source.
The director of the film featuring Shaheen’s work was Sut Jhally, a communications professor at Umass Amherst, who ironically enough, has engaged in a campaign of defamation against Israel and Jews in the United States. Jhally tries to disguise his demonization of American and Israeli Jews as principled opposition to right-wing Zionism, but in his movies and public statements, the Jewish state and Jewish pro-Israel groups come across as bogeymen in American civil society.
This is particularly true of his Jhally’s 2016 film, “The Occupation of The American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States,” which uses a distorted depiction of the Israel-Palestinian conflict to justify a contemptuous view of Israel and its supporters in the U.S. whom he accuses of practicing a form of “mind control” on American citizens. This film, which lists Jhally as executive producer, was produced by Media Education Foundation, where Jhally is executive director.
To buttress the narrative, Jhally altered the footage of television news segments in a fundamentally deceptive manner. He also downplayed Hamas’s anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hate to portray Mort Klein, executive director of Zionist Organization of America as “hysterical” in his opposition to the terror group’s agenda. He also filters out information about the bad acts of Israel’s enemies in a way that demonizes Israel.
After watching the film, it’s hard not to come away with the impression that Jhally has an obsessive hostility toward the Jewish people and their homeland. He denies it, regularly reminding people that not every criticism of Israel is antisemitic. But in his criticism he seems to fall into the illogic aptly described by Alan Dershowitz: “Not every criticism of Israel is antisemitic. I criticize Israel, therefore I’m not antisemitic.”
If Jhally is serious about disabusing his critics of the notion that he has a problem with Jews and their homeland, he did not do himself any favors during a panel discussion at Umass Amherst in November 2017.
The panel, which in addition to Jhally, included an anti-Zionist Jew from the U.S. and a Communist from India, spoke about how Zionist organizations in the U.S. allegedly use the charge of antisemitism to stifle criticism of Israel. During his presentation, Jhally argued that the debate over the alleged antisemitism of Israel’s critics diverted attention away from Palestinian suffering. During the question and answer period, Jhally put this idea (which has become a cliché in anti-Israel discourse) succinctly: “The charge of antisemitism is a way of stifling debate and to silence pro-Palestinian voices.”
Another theme that came out from the discussion (which can be seen on Youtube here and here) was that pro-Israel activists were so obsessed with the alleged antisemtism of Israel’s critics that that they were blind to the “real” antisemitism that has manifested itself on the right side of American politics. The unwillingness of the panelists to address the problem of Muslim antisemitism in the Middle East (and the rest of the world) lent the panel an air of unreality. There is an elephant in the room, and these folks simply did not want to talk about it.
But things got really weird — and I mean really weird — during the question and answer period when a young man, presumably a UMass student, got a hold of the microphone and accused mainstream Jewish groups (including the Jewish Daily Forward) of aligning themselves with neo-Nazis and white supremacists. Below is a transcription of what he said (which can be seen and heard at 18 minutes 12 seconds into this video):
I think it’s interesting that people like Richard Spencer refers to himself as a “white Zionist” that wants to establish an Israel for white people and then meanwhile you have Jewish institutions like the Daily Forward who publish article after article, one of which I think says right in the headline “Jews Should Start Befriending Neo-Nazis.” Meanwhile if they said something like “We should start befriending BDS activists, that writer would probably be black-listed.”
So I think like, I guess my question is, “What is the impetus for all these establishment Jewish organizations to totally ignore real antisemitism and openly ally often with blatant Neo-Nazis and white supremacists? Why would they do that? You know.
Let’s get one thing out of the way. Yes, the Jewish Daily Forward did publish an article that called for Jews to befriend neo-Nazis — not for the purpose of establishing a political alliance as the student’s question suggested — but to cure these folks of their Jew-hatred by connecting with their humanity, so that they stop seeing Jews and other minorities through the lens of racism.
The student’s assertion that anyone in the Jewish community who would call for befriending BDS supporters would be “blacklisted” is ridiculous. Building relationships with people hostile to Israel on college campuses is a major component of strategy employed by the David Project Center for Jewish leadership, which in the past has called for pro-Israel activists to take Israel’s critics out for coffee. Some people in the Jewish community question the effectiveness of the David Project’s “relationship building” strategy, but nobody is being “blacklisted” because of it.
And the young man’s assertion that “establishment Jewish organizations totally ignore real antisemitism and ally often with blatant Neo-Nazis and white supremacists” is simply a lie.
The Zionist Organization of America, a bogeyman of the anti-Zionist community on college campuses, called on President-elect Trump to condemn Richard Spencer and his followers after they engaged in blatant antisemitism after the November 2016 election. Mort Klein, national president of the ZOA, declared, “I am appalled and disgusted by Richard Spencer’s expression of Jew-hatred and the anti-Semitic conduct of his supporters at the alt-right conference last Saturday.” The ADL also condemned Spencer.
The student’s defamation against Jewish groups in the U.S. should have been rejected out of hand by someone in the room but it wasn’t.
Instead, Sut Jhally — the man who made a film calling on people to stop trafficking in ugly stereotypes about Arabs — affirmed this ugly lie by offering a lie of his own, declaring that right-wing Zionist groups “love Richard Spencer.” Jhally’s response (which can be seen at 20 minutes into this video) is as follows:
On the relationship between right-wing Zionist organizations and white supremacists, they share a vision of an ethno-racial state. That’s what drives … They love Richard Spencer because he has a vision of an ethno-racial state that they share. So they’re linked at that very base level of the vision they share of organizing the world around ethnicities and around races.
The notion that “right wing Zionist groups,” which in light of Jhally’s oeuvre encompasses pro-Israel Jewish groups that he disagrees with, is simply a lie. There is no mainstream Jewish organization that supports Richard Spencer, a man who inspired crowds to chant “Jews will not replace us.”
Clearly, Jhally is selective with his opposition to nationalism, focusing his hostility toward Jewish self-determination — even while he affirms the Palestinian national cause. In his contempt for Israel, Jhally ignores the fact that 20 percent of Israel’s population is Arab, and that Israel’s Arab citizens enjoy rights and well-being that folks living in Arab- and Muslim-majority countries simply do not. And in his support for the Palestinian cause, Jhally ignores that Arab and Muslim countries oppressed Jews for centuries before expelling them from their homes in the years after Israel’s creation. Jhally’s anti-nationalist agenda is not universally applied, but directed solely at Jewish nationalism, AKA Zionism.
In Jhally’s view, Jews who insist on self-determination (and whose leaders have made offers of statehood to the Palestinians) are real bad. But Arabs and Muslims who seek to deprive Jews (and others) of their right to self-determination are not so bad.
If we apply Jhally’s logic universally, we should accuse Kurds seeking independence in Iraq, Syria and Iran as embracing an evil, fascistic agenda. The same could be said of the Armenians, a beleaguered nation of people who achieved statehood after World War I. We could even speak ill of minorities in Iraq such as the Assyrians and Yazidis who seek an autonomous province to free themselves from jihadist violence.
By pursuing on their own liberation, just as Jews have, these people groups are, under Jhally’s twisted logic, now part of an evil agenda that seeks to organize the world around ethnicities and races when in fact, all they are insisting on is their own self-determination.
Which brings us back to Jhally’s support for the Palestinians, whose leaders have promoted two contradictory agendas for the past several decades. On one hand, they have regularly called for their own peoples’ liberation and self-determination. And on the other hand, they have regularly called for the murder, oppression and destruction of another people (the Jews) and their homeland (Israel).
There is a contradiction here. It’s undeniable. It’s readily apparent. You can’t demand freedom for yourself while denying it of others. But that’s what Palestinians have done, for years. It is the ultimate source of their misery.
Jhally assists in this campaign. His propagandizing regularly affirms the Palestinian demand for liberation while at the same time downplaying and denying Arab and Palestinian hopes for Israel’s destruction, which have been expressed time and time again over the past several decades.
If that doesn’t qualify as antisemitism, the word has no meaning.