I recently returned from an all-day conference, held at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, on the Israel lobby. The impressive conference was organised by the Institute for Research/Middle East Policy and the Washington Report for Middle East Affairs, two progressive organisations. Most speakers addressed political realites vis-à-vis Washington and Israel.
But my role focused on Hollywood and how cultural stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims – notably those advanced by Israeli image-makers – are used to help shape public policies.
For more than a century, like inseparable twins, two centres of power, Washington and Hollywood, have been linked together.
Jack Valenti, the ex-president of the Motion Picture Association of America was fond of saying: “Washington and Hollywood spring from the same DNA.” If Valenti were alive today, however, he would have to add to the mix, Israel’s DNA.
The Israeli connection in American cinema began in the early 1980s when two Israeli producers with a political agenda, Menachem Golan and Yoram Globus, created an American film company called Cannon Films.
Under the Cannon label they churned out scores of B-grade action films. Among them, more than two dozen movies such as Sahara (1983), The Delta Force (1986), and The Hitman (1991), which vilified Muslims and Arabs.
Film critics were silent about the Israeli connection. Which leads me to this interesting thought experiment: What if two Arab film makers called Huneidi and Hishmeh had created Cannon Films. What if, under the Cannon label, they released dozens of movies that dehumanised Jews and Israelis in the same manner that Golan and Globus dehumanised Arabs? How would the press and the industry react?
The Israeli television presence on American TV is even more damaging. As I stated in a previous column, back in 2006 CBS-TV’s NCIS series began featuring an Israeli heroine – a Mossad agent called Zeva David. For nine years, this tough and sexy Israeli Jew and her American colleagues beat the tar out of Arab and Muslim bad guys. David’s “cheerleading role” helped promote strong, positive ties between the US and Israel.
Significantly, the NCIS series failed to display a single Palestinian intelligence agent.
If TV shows were not political and just harmless entertainment, there would no justification for not including a, for example, feisty Palestinian heroine.
Flash forward to the present. Few viewers are aware that, as Steven Zeitchik of the Los Angeles Times writes: “A small group of creators and industry types has built a pipeline between Israel and the Los Angeles entertainment world 9,000 miles away.”
Consider Homeland – an Islamophobic series for grown-ups. Most viewers are unaware that Homeland’s bash-the-Arabs programmes are based on an Israeli series, Hatufim, and that Homeland was created by an Israeli producer Gideon Raff, and produced by another Israeli called Avi Nir.
Raff serves as producer and writer of Homeland. But he also produces Tyrant and DIG, two TV series on American television that vilfiy all things Arab. Nir, whom Israelis consider one of their most influential television executives, is also the executive producer of Tyrant and DIG.
To date, the set-in-Jerusalem DIG series has perpetuated the false claim that Jerusalem is void of Palstinians – except for one mostly-mute character.
But, even more disturbing, one episode did finally display Palestinians. Only they appeared as an angry, violent, mob of screaming radicals who brutalise an Israeli and then trounce the American heroine working with the US consulate.
Raff and Nir’s anti-Arab and anti-Muslim images on American television are much more dangerous, much more effective, than those Arab stereotypes advanced by Golan and Globus. Their programmes are specifically designed to influence hawkish Israeli viewpoints, and subsequently US policy.
Yet, the American press is mum. An induced silence persists; critics fail to point out that these anti-Arab TV shows are merely Israeli propaganda designed as entertainment.
Fortunately, to their credit, other Israeli image-makers, men like Eran Riklis (The Lemon Tree) and Yuval Adler (Bethlehem) – have given us movies that shatter stereotypes, movies that ignite hearts by humanising both Israelis and Arabs.
As for the future, what Israeli and American image-makers need to do now – more so than ever before – is to tell fresh stories that conquer fear, stories that advance not violence but peace, stories that lead to new ways of thinking, new ways of feeling.
Recently, UAE filmmaker Faisal Hashmi told this newspaper’s Chris Newbould: “Homeland [and other TV programmes] show the streets of Middle East countries as littered with armed men, women everywhere wearing burkas, men wearing turbans, the city looking like it’s on a constant lockdown of sorts. Camels everywhere. No middle ground whatsoever.”
Are you listening Nir and Raff? I challenge you to reveal that much-needed “middle ground,” and to see the light and get it right.
Jack G Shaheen is the author of Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People and Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After September 11