‘Occupation of the American Mind’: Documentary on Israel’s Effective Propaganda War
The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States. This recent documentary film has a long title, but its terse 84 minutes are packed with riveting images and information. The last four words of the title are key: In no other country in the world do its political, religious, ethnic, racial and cultural, ideological, technical, military and financial factors collude so powerfully as here.
Media, public spokespersons and politicians in other countries are nowhere near so vulnerable to intimidation when it comes to asking probing questions about Israel’s policies toward Arabs in its Occupied Territories—Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. None of these areas has ever been acknowledged as legitimate, final-agreement Israeli land by any other nation, except for President Trump’s recent breach of international protocol when, without nuance or qualification, he named Jerusalem the capital of Israel and promised to relocate the American embassy there.
The film is narrated by Roger Waters, bassist and songwriter of the band Pink Floyd, and a prominent backer of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israeli apartheid, for which he is now under attack. A revealing interview that Israeli journalist Gideon Levy conducted with Waters in Haaretz clearly indicates that Waters’ issue is not with Israel’s right to exist as a nation but with apartheid and Occupation.
Among the many individuals interviewed in the film, a number are outspoken Jews who to one degree or another reject the Israeli government’s hasbara—the Hebrew word for propaganda—in the defense of bombings, invasions, attacks, killings, air strikes, dehumanizing checkpoints and more. The standard line against Israel’s critics is that by singling out Israel they are “anti-Semitic.” And when the critics are Jewish, well, then, they’re “self-hating Jews.”
I’m reminded of a quip by Forward journalist J.J. Goldberg, who often diverges from the official Israeli government line in his thoughtful analyses. Each time he writes, he told an audience in Los Angeles some years back, he gets a flurry of emails and phone messages accusing him of being a self-hating Jew. “But I’m not a self-hating Jew,” Goldberg protested. “It’s other Jews I hate!”
If there is room in the world for more than one way to slice and dice Israel’s behavior in the Occupied Territories—which in 2017 passed the half-century mark since the 1967 War—surely Jews too will have differing views and priorities. In the U.S., large majorities of Jewish Americans place concern for Israel way below first place when it comes to voting for candidates and thinking about foreign policy. Jews are among the most liberal ethnic groups in America and are moved by progressive, democratic, egalitarian values. Many are appalled by the racist, nationalistic and messianic ideologues who today rule the once quasi-socialist Israel. Yet the Jewish Establishment, with few exceptions, marches in lock step with the hasbara put out by public relations experts in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
Plenty of politicians and news purveyors can easily be found to uncritically repeat the familiar memes. “Israel has the right to defend itself!” has been regurgitated millions of times. You’ll often hear that in an act of good faith Israel removed its 21 settlements, with some 8000 Jews, from Gaza in 2005. The people of Gaza could have made a Mediterranean paradise of their land, but no, they elected Hamas and turned it into a fortress from which to “rain rockets on innocent Jewish children in Israel.” “What would you do?” the Israel Lobby asks Americans, if rockets were streaming over from Mexico or Canada or Cuba.
But in those reports and debates about wildly disproportionate Israeli killings in Gaza, you won’t hear anything about the strangulating control Israel has continued to exert over Gaza’s borders, its air, its soil, its water, the freedom of movement for its people, the right to raise agricultural crops and create industries, the right to fish in the sea or export its products. For good reason Gaza has often been called the largest open-air prison in the world.
Israeli officials admit that “in the war of pictures we lose,” as the horrors of their mass-scale bombing of schools, hospitals, UN buildings, apartment buildings, refugee camps and city streets circulate instantly around the global media. No, the hasbara insists, and their willing collaborators echo, “They hate us because we’re Jewish.” It’s always about “terror,” never about “territory.”
The appropriately named “Cast Lead” attack on the Gaza Strip, involving 600 tons of bombs dropped on an area twice the size of the District of Columbia, took place in early November 2008. Israel claimed that the Palestinians in Gaza broke a ceasefire of several months, but verifiable history shows it was Israel that initiated the renewal of hostilities. They timed it perfectly: The day Barack Obama won the presidency of the United States, a moment when events in a godforsaken wasteland halfway across the planet would surely not divert much attention from America’s main event. Israel greeted the news by handing the incoming president—whom they regularly called by his middle name Hussein—a new diplomatic catastrophe for his administration. No wonder American relations with Israel, especially with the preening Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who embodied the Likud Party commitment never to tolerate the establishment of a Palestinian state, were particularly chilly.
Part of the Israeli hasbara that we also see endlessly recycled in the American media is the intentional lack of distinction made among some very different ideological, political and religious groups: Hamas, Hezbollah, ISIS, Al Qaeda, terrorists, Islamic state, Arabs, Muslim extremists, nationalists, anti-Semites, people who “hate our freedoms”—they’re all the same. Lazy or jingoistic journalists and politicians fail us by not making the effort to separate out these many strands in a way that leads to genuine understanding.
Breakdowns of whose voices get heard in the media show a preponderance of Israeli and Jewish speakers, with far fewer Arab, Muslim or Palestinian views. Israel is depicted as the little David fighting against the big, powerful Goliath of two dozen majority Muslim states surrounding it, when in terms of comparative military might it is just the opposite.
In America’s self-created ignorance, we get bogged down in futile, never-ending hostilities whose only goal, in the final analysis, seems to be profit for the masters of war.
Liberal icons as Rachel Maddow are shown in the film as avoiding real thinking about U.S. policy and passively falling back on the cliché that the news over there is just a sad, endless cycle in an ancient history that will never get resolved.
The Occupation… is a brilliant, almost dizzying compilation of interviews and news footage from a variety of sources. In a succession of “chapters”—beginning with The Catastrophe, moving on through the disastrous Lebanon War of 1982 and the various Gaza wars, to The Lobby and the conclusion—it’s a multidimensional exposé of a topic that deeply affects how we are fed the news, how we understand the issues, and how we are manipulated to respond.
Among those interviewed for this film are (in no special order) Yousef Munayyer, Rashid Khalili, Phyllis Bennis, Amira Hass, Peter Hart, Norman Finkelstein, Henry Siegman, Rami Khouri, M.J. Rosenberg, Stephen Walt, Mark Crispin Miller, and Max Blumenthal. Clips of newsmen who tried at times to poke through the hasbara include Mike Wallace, Bob Simon and Jon Stewart (all Jewish), whose networks did not effectively back them up.
What the filmmakers don’t ask is why Israel is so fiercely adamant about retaining and expanding, and maybe eventually exclusively inhabiting the land it currently occupies, even in the face of world public opinion and judgment. Is it the water? Lebensraum for the future Jewish population? Pure spite against the Arabs? Theological fantasies of fulfilling Biblical promises? Does Israel feel that facts on the ground will in time erase the history that put them there, and that in the end all will be forgotten and forgiven as simply the inevitable ebb and flow of the tides of history?
Perhaps those speculative questions fall outside the purview of the film. But other questions occur as well: In public forums such as the UN, influential large countries such as Russia, India and China are reliable votes against the Occupation, but there is no meaningful BDS movement in those places. Below the radar, it’s business as usual with Israel’s advanced high-tech weapons and security systems. Even among majority Muslim countries, the Palestine issue has faded as a rallying cry, perhaps out of fatigue, or despair or self-interest.
Still, this film provides a convincing analysis of Israel’s decades-long battle for the hearts, minds, tax dollars and political campaign contributions of the American people. In the final segment, “Changing Perceptions,” the filmmakers highlight the work of anti-Occupation campus groups, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Black Lives Matter movement and others, especially among young people, who are defying the propaganda machine and slowly turning the tide of public opinion.
This is a film best seen in a group that can take the time after a viewing to discuss what role Americans can play going forward.
The closing rap song by Jasiri X about “checkpoints” draws the clear connection between Ferguson, Missouri, on the west bank of the Mississippi, and the Occupied West Bank of the Jordan River.
The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States
Media Education Foundation
Produced, written and directed by Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp
Narrated by Roger Waters