Conflict Over Israel @ Chicago Media Watch Conference

The Chicago Reader reports on a controversy that broke out at the Chicago Media Watch’s recent conference, “Propaganda: War, Terror and the U.S. Empire.” According to the article, Sut Jhally, a communications prof at UMass, was invited to speak on how “the Israeli government is brilliantly manipulating American public opinion against the Palestinians.” But apparently the CMW’s president decided that the talk needed to be balanced by a presentation from a pro-Israel speaker from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. This move angered both Jhally and many in Chicago’s progressive community, who believe that the Israeli side of things is already well-represented in the mainstream media. Jhally said,

“I can actually point and say, `Here it is, actually working. This is how the propaganda works. You can change the debate. You can change the discourse within a supposedly progressive organization.'”

Indeed, the situation in Palestine is a very divisive issue, especially since it gets entangled with issues of religion, and the fact of the historic repression of Jews around the world. On many sides of the argument it can be too easy to simply associate Isreal and Jews as inextricably linked, resulting in baseless charges of anti-semitism against critics of Israels policies, as well as accusations and remarks from critics of Israel that do indeed cross the line into anti-semitism.

That said, the government of Israel is well-funded and has a PR apparatus that rivals the US gov’t. In fact, I’d say nearly every gov’t has a far better PR apparatus than any group that critiques or opposes it. Government’s hold power, and they use power, by definition.

Further, the Israeli gov’t speaks for the Israeli gov’t and does not represent all Jews, just as the US gov’t does not speak for or represent all US citizens — regardless of what the American democracy myth would have us believe. Critiques of the powerful Israeli gov’t are just that, and honestly I don’t see how they need to be balanced any more than criticisms of the US gov’t. The powerful don’t need our help. The powerful don’t need equal time — it’s those critical of power who need it.

Perhaps discussions and analysis about these divisions and distinctions would be more productive within progressive communities, and within broader communities. Obviously the CMW’s president arranged for the “balancing act” as a defensive maneuver — to head off at the pass any accusation that the CMW is anti-semitic. Unfortunately, those defensive maneuvers often only serve to give credence to the accusation.

Clearly, this defense backfired. I didn’t hear Prof. Jhally’s talk, but it sounds like it was actually aimed at exploring how the Israeli gov’t uses the media to frame the conflict under its own terms. That sounds reasonable to me, and would be better complemented with discussion about the nature of the relationship between Jews and the state of Israel. I’d argue that this relationship is complex, and varies quite widely amongst different individuals and groups. Understanding this relationship I think would help to better understand the Palestinian conflict, not to mention better help frame opposition to the Israeli government’s policies and actions towards the Palestinians — even opposition to the very state of Israel.

But this can’t happen if this conflict is only viewed in black and white — as Pro-Palestinian or Pro-Israel (or Jew vs. Palestinian). Things are never that simple, and, indeed, like Prof. Jhally points out — simplification is a hallmark tactic of propaganda.

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