George Orwell wrote "history is written by the winners," and while this has been the case in many places, it has certainly not held true for Israel. After the war of independence established the state of Israel, it has continued to fight for legitimacy as a state.
Media has been central to framing this discussion. They have rightly outed human rights abuses as they've occurred, but often given heavy-handed and biased coverage that not only sours the debate, but encourages the promulgation of hate speech as the discussion norm. Most recently, this has been exemplified by an upcoming film by Benny Brunner, The Great Book Robbery.
Information is a powerful tool in framing a discussion, and in the past documentary films were an even-handed look at a specific topic that allowed viewers to have a more thoughtful and informed discussion afterwards. Unfortunately, they have regressed back into being propaganda pieces, brutally shirking the facts to better arm activists with bullet points to argue a side. To learn about WalMart I must now watch one movie that is pro and one that is against to find "the truth" somewhere in the middle. Who has the time or energy for that?
In the case of Israel, media can often go beyond rational but biased and directly into irrational and hate-filled. Cartoons and textbooks still portray racist caricatures of bloodythirsty Jews. For instance, these cartoons by Hamas as shown by Jon Stewart of The Daily Show. This fear-mongering stifles debate, instead replacing it with hatred, thus making it harder to return to normalcy.
According to the Great Book Robbery, "70,000 Palestinian books were systematically looted by the newly born state of Israel during the 1948 war" and this is evidence of the destruction of their culture. Personally, I have never heard of a war that has systematically avoided pillaging. The fact that these cultural artifacts were preserved, indexed, and are now freely accessible to any and all people is a beautiful testament to what is possible, even under the most horrifying of human conditions, that of war. Were there injustices? That is a given in a war. But a media project that conspires from a foundation of accusation and bitterness is not leading to positive reconciliation.
As I tried to bring up with the films production team, any effort to preserve books rather than destroy them during war is noble, not criminal. I've never heard of any attempt at cultural preservation during war, but this is what it sounds like to me. In the trailer, Israeli historian Ilan Pappe states, "I find the idea that Jewish professors and soldiers looted books of another people less than a decade after Nazis burned books of Jews because they were written by Jews, I find it despicable." This argument has no nuance or ability to build a constructive dialogue because it equates Jews with Nazis, despite the extreme difference between extermination and preservation. My criticisms unfortunately did not garner a response from the film's director.
In stockyards, a Judas goat will lead sheep to slaughter, while its own life is spared. It is becoming an increasingly popular form of promulgating extremist views in Europe with public money. In this case, a Dutch-Israeli is allowing for more biased and hate-inspired ideas to take hold against Jews the world over. Already, the film is supported by a Dutch parliamentarian and has funding from three, unnamed, European sources.
Ayaan Hirsi Ali also emerged as such a figure in the Netherlands, allowing for greater discrimination of Muslims, due to her criticism of the culture as an insider. However, as a parliamentarian and from personal experience, she argued about oppression and rights in specific cases and with facts, trying to give voice to those women whom she perceived could not speak out due to potential retribution, as she herself faced. This is not true in The Great Book Robbery's case.
As more violent rhetoric takes over, media turns darker and more accusatory. Options appear as dichotomies, reflecting a lack of gray area where discussion would otherwise be. Two strong examples emerge from Europe offering a choice between a homogenous state and one that is Islamified. One is a TV ad by the Sweden Democrats Party. The other is an ad by the Swiss People's Party depicting choice between naked Swiss women or headscarf clad smokers.
France has probably received the most media attention around the world over the "burqa ban," yet had garnered some of the most interesting protest to confront issues around the burqa/veil/headscarf/niqab. Some of the most hilarious being Niqabitch, a video featuring women walking around Paris with a niqab on top and hot pants and heels on the bottom. There's also French graffiti artist Princess Hijab who spray paints veils on billboard advertisements of half naked women.
This type of humor and subversion of otherwise dangerous media messaging can be a powerful antecedent to hate speech since it is difficult to battle an emotional reaction with a logical argument. This messaging strikes at the core and brings about humanity through emotion.
Social media does also have the power to bring about additional facts for a more informed discussion. The Great Book Robbery production team incorporated my suggestion to track the lost books using an Ushahidi-style map system to try and reconcile history through a more positive framing. However, the project chooses not to take this route to its fullest extent and instead tries to merely expose "looting." They could add a verification process to show users where they ascertained the locations from and go further by connecting what books were stolen from there and tying that to user-translated virtual editions of the book, but they don't. There is still an enormous potential to push this tool further, to instead reconnect individuals with their own history by giving them access to the specific books they would have lost, if they cannot physically go to the library themselves.
It's important to note that any and all people have access to these books in the National Library of Israel. In Gish Amit's doctoral dissertation, the case of Khalil al-Sakakini, a renowned educator and Christian Arab author, fleeing his Jerusalem home in 1948 is detailed. In 1967, Sakakini´s daughters discovered her father´s books with the notes he inscribed on them, perfectly preserved despite the war.
The question of accessing the inaccessible is a much more interesting one than giving voice to the voiceless. In the digital era, people now have the ability to speak for themselves when given a platform and an option. People are not voiceless. But as media makers, it is important to understand helping to give people access to information and, if possible, to a sense of justice that they themselves develop. An honest conversation based on shared facts and a collective means of figuring out proper retribution has been, particularly in the Middle East context, an inaccessible conversation.
With digital tools, there are many ways to make positive inroads and work towards reconciliation. Interactivity and mashup cultures, encourage a pushing beyond the norms that have become insidious, by allowing for the pursuit of a more honest dialogue again. Media Projects that are supported that continue to stifle this progress towards a collective conversation not only do an injustice to the topic at hand, but to the field of media and to the progress of humanity. It is my hope that The Great Book Robbery immediately changes its approach and embraces an open dialogue, reframing (perhaps Finding My Lost Book is an appropriately constructive title). Otherwise, a firm stance should be taken against hate media and for a more social response.
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