Television may be the best demarcator of the limits of speech that can actually be heard and understood in the US today. The Palestinian intifada has broadened public tolerance for critical presentation of Middle Eastern issues on the tube. But the extent and duration of this change remain subject to constant contest.
PBS Frontline’s Israel: The Covert Connection (produced by Andrew Cockburn and Leslie Cockburn for WGBH-Boston, aired May 4, 1989) is one of the best television productions of the post-uprising era. The opening scene presents the film’s thesis: “We had an idea and it was called Israel — strategic ally,” spake then-Vice President George Bush before a meeting of the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation League. What follows is a look at the “hard enduring reality” of the US-Israeli special relationship.
The collapse of Israel’s political center has made it easier to unravel the intricate fabric of liberal guilt, Christian messianism, wishful diaspora thinking and Israeli self-promotion that has masked this alliance. Former Mossad operative David Kimche bears the burden of articulating the official line, denying: that Israel has supplied military advisers to Central American dictatorships; that Israel has armed and trained the contras; that Israel has sold arms to repress internal dissent; that Israel has mobilized the Zionist lobby to obtain US aid for Third World dictators to whom it sells arms; that Israel has extensive military-trade relations with South Africa. The filmmakers demolish these components of Israel’s righteous image by sandwiching Kimche between Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, who summarizes the arguments of his The Israeli Connection: Who Israel Arms and Why, and Yossi Melman, a right-wing military historian whose multi-volume study of the 1948-1949 war is destroying more than a few heroic myths on its own.
The unsentimental revelations of Melman and others like him are most damaging, since they cannot be discounted as motivated by “self-hatred” or other moral defects. Melman discusses: the Mossad-CIA cooperation agreement from the early 1950s (its fruits included Israel supplying the text of Khrushchev’s 1956 secret speech to the US, and CIA funding of Israeli “development” programs in Africa in the 1960s); Washington’s green light to Israel to launch the 1967 war in a meeting between Mossad director Meir Amit and CIA chief Richard Helms; and the rationale for Israeli spying on the United States. Former Mossad chief Isser Harel, now a leader of the West Bank settlers’ movement, discusses the central role of the late CIA counterintelligence chief, James Jesus Angleton, in promoting Israel’s interests in the framework of the US-Israeli intelligence relationship. Lt. Col. Amatziah Shu’ali reveals the face of Israel’s economic dependence on the export of military hardware and expertise while advertising the range of services he offers to various Central American thugs. Dror Ayal and Ya’ir Klein affirm that Israel’s Ministry of Defense must approve the activities of Israeli arms merchants and soldiers of fortune in Latin America, such as their own Spearhead Corporation, while Kimche solemnly intones that as a democracy Israel cannot inhibit the private activities of its citizens.
Covert Connection closes with George Bush predicting to his B’nai B’rith audience that, “the American strategic partnership is going to be even stronger tomorrow.” If this film is used as an educational tool by the anti-intervention movement to discuss Israel’s role in US foreign policy, especially among those concerned about Central America and southern Africa, it may help prove the president wrong.
The uncertainty of the new discursive terrain won by the intifada was illustrated by Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land (produced by Robert Gardner and Associates with WETA-Washington, DC for PBS, aired May 29, 1989) — a documentary based on David Shipler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title. Unlike the book, which does not impose a unifying narrative on the memories, experiences and emotions of its Arab and Jewish subjects, the first half of the television version presents an unreflective capsule history of the conflict that barely acknowledges any Palestinian sense of grievance and loss.
The only awareness of an alternative version is an interview with Israeli historian Benny Morris concerning the massacre at Dayr Yasin, and instances where Palestinians were expelled by Israeli military commanders. Even the impact of this sequence is contained by sanitized terms. (Thus, the attackers of Dayr Yasin were “Jewish guerrilla organizations,” even though most Zionists call the Etzel and Lehi terrorists.) Similarly, the interviewer failed to ask Morris about other massacres during the 1948-1949 war that he has written about (at Duwayma and at several villages along the Lebanese border occupied during Operation Hiram).
The second half of Wounded Spirits improves as it addresses the situation of Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel in an anecdotal style more like that of Shipler’s book. A memorable sequence contrasts the views of a Jewish high school teacher — an activist in the “Defenders of Upper Nazareth” group that seeks to prevent Arabs from settling in the town — and an Arab social worker whose family moved there when they could not find housing in overcrowded all-Arab Nazareth proper. Yoram Binur, an Israeli journalist who adopted the method of John Howard Griffin (author of the American classic, Black Like Me) and wrote of his experiences as an “Arab” in My Enemy, My Self, appears all too briefly.
The concluding portrayal of the West Bank village of Bayta during the intifada and of efforts to promote Jewish-Arab coexistence naively suggests that better personal relations and mutual understanding, not politics, can resolve this dispute between two peoples. The film’s intentional omission of explicitly political issues and questions about relations of power are emblematic of television’s dominant mode.
The new intifada-generated tolerance of public television allowed the screening on April 2 of Letter from Palestine (produced and narrated by Steve York), a sympathetic report from the spring of 1988 that records the work of the Union of Palestinian Medical Relief Committees. But outright censorship is still deployed to patrol the borders of permitted thought. Jo Franklin-Trout’s film about the intifada, Days of Rage: The Young Palestinians, was originally scheduled to appear on New York City’s municipal channel, WNYC, in June. Station officials refused to air it, claiming that it was biased toward the Palestinians. The program is now scheduled to air on the PBS affiliate network on September 6, sandwiched between two hours of protective “commentary” that reportedly cost more to produce than the film itself.