31 August 2007 - Tribute to Theo Schkolne
Theo Schkolne, who is celebrating his birthday today (Happy Birthday!), is one of the pioneers of media activism in Cape Town around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was moved to act by a propaganda film (purporting to be a “news report”) that aired on e-TV. The film was called “Lifting the Veil,” and in his critique, co-written in August 2001--prior to both the Durban racism conference and 9/11--with Shauna Westcott, Theo lifted the veil on the manufacture of media bias in South Africa.
CRITIQUE OF FAIZEL COOK'S "LIFTING THE VEIL",
SCREENED REPEATEDLY BY E-TV
Written by Theo Schkolne and Shauna Westcott (August 2001)
Screened most recently on 29 June and 11 July 2001, “Lifting the Veil” is introduced and advertised as an E-TV “special news report”. But it soon becomes clear that it is an opinion piece and we are told as much by Faizel Cook, the writer and narrator. The subject matter is two-fold: the suffering of the Iraqi people under United Nations sanctions and the plight of the Palestinians.
In the section on Iraq, Cook ignores such key issues as why Iraq finds itself in its current predicament, the role of Iraq as a regional bully, the Iraqi slaughter of countless thousands of Kurds in northern Iraq, and why Saddam Hussein refuses to allow UN arms inspectors to return. He makes no reference to Saddam Hussein’s intransigence and how this functions to perpetuate the suffering of the Iraqi people. No opponents to Saddam’s despotic rule are canvassed, no dissident voices heard.
Instead, the viewer is shown terrible and moving scenes of children dying as a result of a lack of essential medicines. We are told that 1,3 million Iraqis have died as a direct result of sanctions, many more than during the Gulf War. Cook then interviews a number of “medical activists” who make the unverified claim that there has been an unprecedented increase in the number of cancer-related illnesses and deformities in children since the Gulf War. This is blamed on the Americans who, again without any verification, are accused of using uranium-depleted shells on the population. Iraqi torching of Kuwaiti oil wells and the resultant toxic cloud over the region is unmentioned. We are told how wonderful life was in this oil-rich country before sanctions (there were no beggars on the streets, now there are many) and how the economy has been destroyed.
The Iraqi component ends with critical questions unasked, possible solutions unexamined. The viewer is merely invited to participate in pervasive feelings of resentment and anger at the injustices portrayed. The intention is clearly to leave the audience with the impression of a patriotic, proud and suffering nation in solidarity with their leadership in opposing “American-led aggression”.
In this instance and overall, “Lifting the Veil” transgresses the basic rules of fair reporting. Cook states at the outset that his work “makes no attempt at being an objective piece of journalism”. Rather, he says, “this is how I saw it ... this is my story”. But even an “opinion piece” should attempt to provide the viewer with a reasonable account of the context—at least the most pertinent background information. To utterly neglect this basic requirement of honest story telling, particularly in relation to a region so volatile and tormented as Israel/Palestine, is so extremely irresponsible that it must smack of sinister purpose.
In place of a fair hearing for both parties to the conflict, Cook relies on highly emotionally charged testimony from one side alone—and from an extremist sector of that one side. This infuses the malignly reduced “landscape” that he sketches with an undertone of incitement. In addition, particularly in regard to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Cook allows mostly ungrounded prejudicial assumptions and associations to guide his reading of events and the questions that he poses.
The narration is delivered in a quiet tone of earnest humility, suggesting the honest attempt of a questioning man to come to terms with terrible truths in a world where much more is veiled than revealed. But the largely contrived content of Cook’s piece obscures far more than it claims to uncover.
In the second half of the programme, Cook tells us that his chosen destination is “Palestine”. This suggests that he is among those who refuse to recognize the legitimacy (even the existence) of the state of Israel—“the Zionist entity”, as many in the Arab world contemptuously call it. The only references to “Israel” are later in the narrative when Cook describes his group’s “humiliating” encounter with Israeli border guards who refused them entry into Israel from Jordan, and the “millions of Palestinian refugees ... in countries all around Israel ... who just want to go home”. It is as if Israel can be named only as a wrongdoer.
Cook approaches his subject matter with a mindset that has already sculpted a perfect (and perfectly false) congruence between the oppression and struggle of blacks under apartheid and the plight of the Palestinians. He talks of the “strange nostalgia” that he felt when encountering Israeli soldiers and tells us that his experience in the struggle against apartheid serves as a reference point in understanding this conflict.
“In my mind I have always drawn a parallel between the oppression of black people under apartheid and the suffering of Palestinians,” he says. “It’s a comparison that many South African Jews are most uncomfortable with. Black South Africans and Palestinians both became third-class citizens in their own land, both forced to carry passes. The only difference in my mind was that the whole world condemned what apartheid was doing to blacks.”
It would appear that Cook’s journey to “Palestine” is an attempt to eliminate this “difference”, in the hope that once the “truth” is unveiled, there will not be a country left that will not heap condemnation on Israel.
But Cook trifles with the facts and with the viewer. What does he mean when he speaks of “third-class citizens in their own land, forced to carry passes”? He can’t be referring to Israeli Arabs, whom he would surely also want to classify as Palestinians? These citizens of Israel do not carry passes and have full participatory rights. Arab parties serve in the Knesset, Arab citizens are included on the party lists of mainstream Israeli parties and numerous Supreme Court rulings have outlawed discrimination in housing and jobs. While much still needs to be done to break down alienation and mistrust between Israeli Arabs and Jews, especially since the latest intifada, significant elements within civil society are working hard to break down barriers. In addition, many within certain mainstream political parties, numerous NGOs and other activist groups are committed to reaching a just peace in the region and to realizing full economic integration and equal opportunity for all citizens, whether Arab or Jew.
Palestinians resident in Gaza and the West Bank, who work in Israel and who commute daily, do require ID documentation to enter and to leave Israel, precisely because the final status of these territories has yet to be determined. Palestinians in the neighbouring countries do not carry passes. Surely one cannot be a “third-class citizen” in a country in which one does not live?
By ignoring the distinctly different geo-political and geo-historical scenarios that pertain in each situation, Cook attempts to foist a malicious caricature on the unsuspecting viewer. In fact, dishonesty pervades his whole piece. Not only is the title a misnomer (no veil is lifted on anything except Cook’s prejudices) but also, in the second segment on “Palestine”, Cook never gets beyond the border of the place he claims he is portraying. His group is delayed by Israeli border personnel, subjected to rigorous body searches, and finally denied entry.
“The only reason ... given was security,” Cook complains, apparently unmoved by the danger of more civilian deaths in the suicide bombings presented by extremists as “holy war”. Indeed, one must wonder whether Cook himself does not subscribe to the deadly rhetoric of Jihad, which supposed “spiritual” leaders deploy from the safety of their pulpits to inflame the Palestinian youth to self-destruction and murder.
Subsequent use of news footage on the recent disco bombing in Tel Aviv (in which 21 Israeli teenagers died) lends weight to this suspicion. Cook is pitiless, observing in a warning tone: “The Mujahidin [holy warriors] are ready to cause the kind of devastation that sends shivers down the spines of most Westerners.” We are not seeing the tragic and criminal waste of 21 young lives but merely “devastation that sends shivers down the spines of most Westerners”. In this demented vision, which Cook so glibly portrays, the slaughter of teenagers is not murder, it is holy war; and the brutalised dead are not children but merely dehumanised units of the “Zionist entity”.
What is at best an appalling naiveté (but more likely a mindset created by demonic indoctrination) is also what strips youth and life itself from the tragically misled suicide bombers. As journalist Huda Al-Husseini (of the London based Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat), no friend of Israel, notes: “I want to know why we, the Arabs, insist on dying instead of living for our homeland.” Shocked at reports that Palestinian children are trained for weeks to serve as a stone-throwing screen from behind which adult Palestinian gunners fire at Israeli soldiers, Al-Husseini asks: “What kind of independence is built on the blood of children while the leaders are safe and so are their children and grandchildren?”
Cook appears to be insulated from such painful questions by a tunnel-vision focus on his purpose. This is, we suggest, to construct Israel as an exact replica of apartheid’s evil empire and, by implication, as therefore deserving of destruction.
Thus he is righteously aggrieved that the “pilgrimage” of members of his group has been frustrated. “A lot of people on the delegation feel embarrassed and humiliated and very angry,” he says. For Cook, “it is an experience that plays itself out a thousand times for many Palestinians who live in the neighbouring countries .... who just want to go home”.
The legitimate right of a sovereign state to use discretion in a volatile and deadly situation is ignored, and we are to believe that somehow the “rights” of Cook’s group have been violated. One must ask: would the group have expressed the same level of outrage had they conducted their “pilgrimage” differently, because it is well known that anyone who has an Israeli stamp in their passport, will certainly be denied entry into Iraq?
But Cook is preoccupied with imprinting his associative caricature in the minds of his audience. “The sprawling refugee settlements of Jordan reminded me of the townships of South Africa,” he says. “They looked very different but they feel the same.” If seeing is not believing, then feeling must be!
Interestingly, in the process of conjuring congruence between the experience of the Palestinians and the victims of apartheid, Cook falls into a cross-cultural trap. Invoking the insults gratuitously dished out to blacks under apartheid, Cook recounts how his group’s middle-aged Palestinian tour guide was called “boy” by young Israeli border guards. But there is no linguistic equivalent to this racist term in Hebrew nor is it likely that Israeli guards with some English would use the English “boy” in this sense. Cook may be interested to learn that the Hebrew word for “come here” is “boh” or “boyi”.
More serious is Cook’s disingenuous “history” of the establishment of Israel and the roots of the Palestinian refugee problem. Lasting a mere thirty seconds, this sound-bite annihilates context, meaning and the longitudinal unfolding of events, leaving viewers without the basic information necessary to evaluate what they are seeing.
What Cook tells us is this: the Palestinians “were forced to flee during the war that led to the declaration of the state of Israel in 1948 and they continued to arrive on the doorsteps of their neighbours landless, penniless, many with just the clothes on their backs. In the beginning the refugees lived in tents hoping they would leave here soon. Five decades later they are still here. The settlements have taken on lives of their own and the refugees now make up half the population and most of them are poor”.
Cook fails to give the viewer any idea of the complexity of both the history and the current situation in Israel/Palestine. He does not mention the background against which the international community decided to divide the ancient home of both Jews and Arabs into Israel and Palestine (United Nations resolution of November 1947). He does not mention that the Jews agreed to abide by this decision while the Arabs refused.
He does not mention Arab complicity with the Nazis during World War II. He is silent about invading Arab destruction of ancient Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and between Jerusalem and Hebron, and about subsequent Arab quarantine and desecration of Jewish holy places. He does not tell the viewer about the approximately 600 000 Jewish refugees who fled numerous Arab countries after the War of Independence, because of the violation of basic human rights, including confiscation of their property. The basic story line is simple, as far as Cook is concerned: only the Palestinians have suffered, only the Jews have done wrong. (Extremists on the other side would switch the verbs.)
The truth, of course, is far more difficult and painful. And the crucial thing for those interested in facilitating peace is to recognize that there has been great suffering on both sides of this tragic and possibly world-menacing conflict. Equally, there has been wrongdoing and propaganda from both sides.
For example, early Zionist claims that Palestinians left their land and homes because they were urged to do so by their own leaders (who planned to return after the Jews had been driven out) have been overstated. Equally untrue, however, is the Palestinian claim that the first refugees were victims of ethnic cleansing. While numerous Palestinian villages were attacked by Jewish forces, there was no master plan to expel the Palestinians. Indeed, some Jewish mayors pleaded with their Arab constituents to stay and a variety of reasons (mainly fear and reluctance to live under “Jewish rule”) were behind the exodus that first created “the Palestinian refugee problem”.
Another relevant fact unremarked by Cook is the role played by Arab nations in perpetuating the suffering of the refugees. There are more than enough petro-dollars in the region for comfortable integration of the refugees. However, the displaced Palestinians became the armament for fractious Arab nationalism, or as the historian Paul Johnson put it: to resolve the refugee problem would mean “the final disposal of a moral asset” (History of the Jews, pg. 530).
Thus the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees is that they have been used by hostile Arab neighbours as a potent symbol to delegitimise Israeli nationhood. Allowing them to remain impoverished in makeshift camps enables a continuing vivid embodiment of “Israeli crimes”. Coupled with the undeniable fact that neighbouring Arab states have never ceased to threaten Israel (indeed, have waged four wars aimed at ridding the region of the “Zionist entity”), this, in turn, provokes enormous rage and insecurity on the Israeli side of the conflict.
“Everyone we spoke to claimed that they would die fighting” the Israelis, Cook says. (Did he speak to any women, one wonders, any peace activists, anyone except those consumed by hatred and fantasies of divinely sanctioned murder?) He lets the camera dwell on Salah Alsheikh, a third-generation Palestinian living in Jordan, who has named both his son and his new cafe “Tahir”, meaning “revolution”. Alsheikh vows that the intifada will not stop “until the last drop comes out from our nation”. He has sworn that he will not visit “Palestine” without a gun in his hands because he “will not be able to see the criminals and the killers in front of me—the Jewish, the Israelis”.
Another third-generation “refugee”, Sultan Abdul Aid, says: “We will go to Palestine when it is a free country and all the Jews have left.” Cook adds: “Here there is the belief that the current peace process is a means to an end—the end, the eventual liberation of Palestine, all of Palestine!”
And so Cook, his camera and “pilgrimage” team end their “journey of discovery”, incomplete as it is, as a result of what is portrayed as the intransigence of Israeli border police. By contrast, Cook tells us about the two Jordanian police agents who escorted the group on to their plane and “were kind enough to even check in our luggage for us”. (How awful the Israelis are, how dear and sweet the Jordanian police!)
Sitting on the plane en route home Cook reflects on his experiences and notes: “The Israeli refusal to allow us into the country made sense. It is a government whose legitimacy to govern is being questioned.” We then see file footage of two women carrying a poster stating “No peace, no security without ending the occupation”, which refers to Gaza and the West Bank. Cook goes on to declare that “there are millions of refugees waiting to take back their land” and that the Israelis “need to protect themselves from those whom they know will not hesitate to sacrifice their lives for the land they believe is their God-given right”.
The file footage is a mere filler distraction, because it is now clear (if it was ever in doubt) that what Cook is referring to and aligning himself with is the ending of the “occupation” not just of Gaza and the West Bank, but of “Palestine, all of “Palestine”!
It remains only to regret profoundly that Cook—and E-TV—missed an opportunity to contribute to the possibility of reconciliation in a protracted conflict that has been immensely painful for everyone directly involved, one that will ultimately call for profound compromises on both sides. Those who truly yearn for a peaceful settlement will view his programme as a piece of malevolent propaganda, which does nothing to deepen insight or understanding. Rather, the primary aim appears to be to evoke an agitated sense of outrage in the viewer and to serve as a subtle incitement to violence.
There must also be a suspicion, perhaps a cynical one, that this programme was made and aired in the run-up to the World Conference on Racism as part of the ongoing campaign to resurrect the 1975 UN resolution (repealed in 1991) equating Zionism with racism. No doubt the agitation will continue, despite the reminder to conference planners by UN Human Rights chief Mary Robinson that the resolution was repealed ten years ago and that “anyone who seeks to reopen this issue is putting the Durban conference at risk” (Cape Times, 31 July 2001).
Much more than a conference is placed at risk by hate speech.