Propaganda and War
by Edward Said
(Al-Ahram Weekly Online 30 August - 5 September 2001 Issue No.549)
Never have the media been so influential in determining the course of war as during the Al-Aqsa Intifada, which, as far as the Western media are concerned, has essentially become a battle over images and ideas. Israel has already poured hundreds of millions of dollars into what in Hebrew is called hasbara, or information for the outside world (hence, propaganda). This has included an entire range of efforts: lunches and free trips for influential journalists; seminars for Jewish university students who over a week in a secluded country estate can be primed to "defend" Israel on the campus; bombarding congressmen and -women with invitations and visits; pamphlets and, most important, money for election campaigns; directing (or, as the case requires, harassing) photographers and writers of the current Intifada into producing certain images and not others; lecture and concert tours by prominent Israelis; training commentators to make frequent references to the Holocaust and Israel's predicament today; many advertisements in the newspapers attacking Arabs and praising Israel; and on and on. Because so many powerful people in the media and publishing business are strong supporters of Israel, the task is made vastly easier.
Although these are only a few of the devices used to pursue the aims of every modern government, whether democratic or not, since the 1930s and '40s -- to produce consent and approval on the part of the consumer of news -- no country and no lobby more than Israel's has used them in the US so effectively and for so long.
Orwell called this kind of misinformation newspeak or doublethink: the intention to cover criminal actions, especially killing people unjustly, with a veneer of justification and reason. In Israel's case, which has always had the intention to silence or make Palestinians invisible as it robbed them of their land, this has been in effect a suppression of the truth, or a large part of it, as well as a massive falsification of history. What for the past few months Israel has successfully wanted to prove to the world is that it is an innocent victim of Palestinian violence and terror, and that Arabs and Muslims have no other reason to be in conflict with Israel except for an irreducibly irrational hatred of Jews. Nothing more or less. And what has made this campaign so effective is a long-standing sense of Western guilt for anti-Semitism. What could be more efficient than to displace that guilt onto another people, the Arabs, and thereby feel not only justified but positively assuaged that something good has been done for a much-maligned and harmed people? To defend Israel at all costs -- even though it is in military occupation of Palestinian land, has a powerful military, and has been killing and wounding Palestinians in a ratio of four or five to one -- is the goal of propaganda. That, plus going on with what it does, but seeming to be a victim just the same.
Without any doubt, however, the extraordinary success of this unparalleled and immoral effort has been in large part due not only to the campaign's carefully planned and executed detail, but to the fact that the Arab side has been practically non-existent. When our historians look back to the first 50 years of Israel's existence, an enormous historical responsibility shall rest damningly on the shoulders of the Arab leaders who have criminally -- yes, criminally -- allowed this to go on without even the most meagre and half-hearted response. Instead, each of them has fought each of the others, or has relied on the hopelessly self-serving theory that by trying to ingratiate themselves with the American government (even becoming clients of the US) they would assure themselves of longevity in power, regardless of whether Arab interests were being served or not. So deeply ingrained has this notion become that even the Palestinian leadership has subscribed to it, with the result that as the Intifada rolls on, the average American hasn't the slightest inkling that there is a narrative of Palestinian suffering and dispossession at least as old as Israel itself. Meanwhile Arab leaders come running to Washington begging for American protection without even understanding that three generations of Americans have been brought up on Israeli propaganda to believe that Arabs are lying terrorists and that it is wrong to do business with them, let alone protect them.
Since 1948, Arab leaders have never bothered to confront Israeli propaganda in the US. All the immense amounts of Arab money invested in military spending (first on Soviet, then Western arms) have come to nought because Arab efforts have been neither protected by information nor explained by patient, systematic organising. The result is that literally hundred of thousands of lost Arab lives have gone for nothing, nothing at all. The citizens of the world's only superpower have been led to believe that everything Arabs do and are is wasteful, violent, fanatical and anti-Semitic. Israel is "our" only ally. And so $92 billion in aid since 1967 have gone unquestioningly from the US taxpayer to the Jewish state. As I said earlier, a total absence of planning and thought vis-à-vis the US political and cultural arena is hugely (but not exclusively) to blame for the astounding amount of Arab land and lives lost to Israel (subsidised by the US) since 1948, a major political crime which I hope the Arab leaders one day answer for.
I recall that during the siege of Beirut in 1982, a large non-governmental group of very successful Palestinian businessmen and prominent intellectuals gathered in London to establish an endowment to help Palestinians on all levels. With the PLO trapped in Beirut and incapable of doing much, it was felt that a mobilisation of this sort might help us to help ourselves. I also recall that as the funds were quickly gathered, a decision was made after much discussion that fully half the money would go for information in the West. It was felt that since -- as usual -- Palestinians were being oppressed by Israel with scarcely a voice lifted in the West to support the victims, it was imperative that money should be spent for advertisements, media time, tours and the like in order to make it more difficult to kill and further oppress Palestinians without complaint or awareness. This was especially important, we felt, in America, where taxpayers' money was being spent to subsidise Israel's illegal wars, settlements, and conquests. For about two years, this policy was followed; then, for reasons I have never fully understood, efforts to help the Palestinians in the US were abruptly terminated. When I asked why, I was told by a Palestinian gentleman who had made a fortune in the Gulf that "throwing money away" in America was a waste. The philanthropy now continues exclusively for the occupied territories and Lebanon, where this association does much good, but very little in comparison with the projects funded by the European Union and numerous American foundations.
Some weeks ago the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), by far the largest and most effective Arab-American organisation in the United States, commissioned a public opinion poll on current American perspectives on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. A very wide and deep sample of the population was polled, with quite startling, not to say disheartening results. Israelis are still believed to be a pioneering democratic people, even though no Israeli leader did very well in the poll. Seventy-three per cent of the American people approve of the idea of a Palestinian state, a very surprising result. The interpretation of that statistic is that when you ask an educated American who watches television and reads elite newspapers whether s/he identifies with the Palestinian struggle for independence and freedom, the answer is mostly yes. But if the same person is asked what his idea is about Palestinians, the answer is almost always negative -- violence and terrorism. Images of the Palestinians seem to be that they are uncompromising, aggressive, and "alien," that is, not like "us." Even when asked about the stone-throwing young people, whom we believe are Davids fighting against Goliath, most Americans see aggression rather than heroism. Americans still blame the Palestinians for obstructing the peace process, Camp David most particularly. Suicide bombing is viewed as "inhuman" and is condemned universally.
What Americans think of Israelis is not a great deal better, but there is a much greater identification with them as people. The most disturbing thing is that hardly any of the questioned Americans knew anything at all about the Palestinian story, nothing about 1948, nothing at all about Israel's illegal 34-year military occupation. The main narrative model that dominates American thinking still seems to be Leon Uris's 1950 novel Exodus. Just as alarming is the fact that the most negative things in the poll were what Americans thought and said about Yasser Arafat, his uniform (seen as needlessly "militant"), his speech, his presence.
Overall, then, the conclusion is that Palestinians are viewed neither in terms of a story that is theirs, nor in terms of a human image with which people can easily identify. So successful has Israeli propaganda been that it would seem that Palestinians really have few, if any positive connotations. They are almost completely dehumanised.
Fifty years of unopposed Israeli propaganda in America have brought us to the point where, because we do not resist or contest these terrible misrepresentations in any significant way with images and messages of our own, we are losing thousands of lives and acres of land without troubling anyone's conscience. The correspondent of the Independent, Phil Reeves, wrote passionately on 27 August that Palestinians are dying or being crushed by Israel and the world looks on silently.
It is therefore up to Arabs and Palestinians everywhere to break the silence, in a rational, organised and effective way, not by shooting off guns or by wailing or complaining. God knows we have reason to do all of the above, but cold logic is necessary now. In the American mind, analogies with South Africa's liberation struggle or with the horrible fate of the Native Americans most emphatically do not occur. We must make those analogies above all by humanising ourselves and thus reversing the cynical, ugly process whereby American columnists like Charles Krauthammer and George Will audaciously call for more killing and bombing of Palestinians, a suggestion they would not dare do for any other people. Why should we passively accept the fate of flies or mosquitoes, to be killed wantonly with American backing any time war criminal Sharon decides to wipe out a few more of us?
To that end I was pleased to learn from ADC President Ziad Asali that his organisation is about to embark on an unprecedented public information campaign in the mass media to redress the balance and present the Palestinians as human beings -- can you believe the irony of such a necessity? -- as women who are teachers and doctors as well as mothers, men who work in the field and are nuclear engineers, as people who have had years and years of military occupation and are still fighting back. (Incidentally, one astounding result of the poll is that less than three or four per cent of the sample had any idea that there was an Israeli occupation in the first place. So even the main fact of Palestinian existence has been obscured by Israeli propaganda). This effort has never before been made in the US: there have been 50 years of silence, which is about to be broken.
Even though it is modest, the announced ADC campaign is also a major step forward. Consider that the Arab world seems to be in a state of moral and political paralysis, its leaders encumbered by their ties both to Israel and, more important, to the US, their people kept in a state of anxiety and repression. As they and their brave Lebanese comrades did in 1982 when 19,000 were killed by Israeli military power, Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank are dying not only because Israel has the power to do so with impunity, but because for the first time in modern history, the active alliance between propaganda in the West and military force worked out by Israel and its supporters, has enabled the sustained collective punishment of Palestinians with American tax dollars, $5 billion of which go to Israel annually. Media representations of Palestinians show them with neither history nor humanity, as aggressive rock-throwing people of violence, and have made it possible for the dim-witted but politically astute George Bush to blame the Palestinians for violence. This new ADC campaign sets out to restore their history and humanity, to show them (as they have always been) as people "like us," fighting for the right to live in freedom, to raise their children, to die in peace. Once even the glimmerings of this story penetrate the American consciousness, the truth will, I hope, begin to dissipate the vast cloud of evil propaganda with which Israel has covered reality. Since it is clear that the media campaign can only go so far, then the hope is that Arab Americans will feel empowered enough to enter the political battle in the US to try to break, modify, or fray the link that binds US policy so tightly to Israel. And then, we can hope again.
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