What Happened When I Was Grilled by Israeli Media About the Sanction Movement Against Israel
When I received an email from Jewish Voice for Peace asking if I would be interested in an interview with a major TV news program, “Ulpan Shishi,” I was intrigued.
A senior Israeli news anchor, Danny Kushmaro, wanted to talk with American Jews who support the boycott, divestment, sanction movement against Israel. Multiple emails and phone calls with Omri Kronland, a producer on the popular Friday night show, reassured me that the program was actually interested in our opinions and would be “respectful,” although I was aware of the likelihood for hostile questioning and bizarre final editing. This was, after all, Israeli TV. On the other hand, this might provide me with an unusual opportunity to speak directly to the Israeli public as an American Jew who is deeply concerned about Israel's treatment of Palestinians and believes that the status quo of occupation and discrimination will not change without outside pressure.
Kushmaro arrived two hours late and was in a hurry to get to the airport, so we did the videotaping standing up. He had already spoken with three other activists as well as representatives from the right-wing advocacy group StandWithUs, supposedly to give the impression of “balanced journalism.” He started out with, “So why do you want to boycott me? Why are you gambling on my life?”
His rapid-fire questioning and frequent sparring made it clear he had no interest in understanding my views. Here was an opportunity for him to talk with a respected physician and committed activist whose objections to Israeli foreign policy and treatment of Palestinians is grounded in the Jewish prophetic traditions: seeking justice and working with the oppressed. We could have explored the efforts to find a resolution to some of the thorniest issues in the region: the cost of Jewish privilege, the vexing issues of democracy and Zionism, the international excitement generated by a nonviolent Palestinian resistance movement. But this interview was all about Danny Kushmaro feeling threatened and misunderstood, the existential threat to all Israelis, and the arrogant and misguided attitudes of American Jews who do not understand the evils of the Arab world in general and Hamas in particular.
The program aired July 17 and despite my inadequate Hebrew, I could tell the visuals were not friendly and there was much more commentary than listening. The segment before us featured the title, "Israel Against the World." That certainly set the tone. The BDS segment opened with clips of BDS activists chanting and marching (evoking wild terrorists who hate Israel) and misleading infographics about the levels of foreign aid to other countries. Qassam rockets launched while I talked about the horrific devastation and suffering I witnessed while in Gaza in March. Even the background music switched when the activists were speaking. The victim narrative was deeply entrenched; Kushmaro revealed an utter lack of sympathy for the massive death toll and destruction in Gaza. He insisted Israel did not want to start that war; he viewed criticism of Israel, which he admitted is "not a perfect country," as disproportionate and biased.
With further translation, I learned that he referred fondly to the Rothschild family who bought land in Mandate Palestine (with the not-so-subtle implication that I am a traitor to the family name, although I can assure you I am not from that family). He confused anti-Semitism with criticism of Israeli policy and Zionism in an interview segment featuring two people from StandWithUs. I can only describe them as living in an alternative universe, talking about how hard it is for “pro-Israel” professors who are forced to keep their opinions quiet, face daily hostility, and are at risk for losing their jobs, even in the field of biology! They talked about Jewish students who cannot sit on student councils. Here Kushmaro nodded sympathetically, buying the world-is against-us mantra hook, line and sinker.
Had he done his research, he could easily have discovered that Jewish Voice for Peace has established an Academic Council to provide information and support for the many academics who have been attacked, harassed, threatened, blacklisted, fired, and denied tenure because of their sympathy to the Palestinian narrative, their criticism of Israeli policies, or their support for the BDS movement. The list is long and troubling: Ithaca College, North Carolina State University, DePaul University, Bard College, Barnard College, Columbia University, UC Santa Barbara, etc.
If he had any journalistic integrity, he could have critically explored organizations like Campus Watch, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, the Anti-Defamation League, Hillel, AIPAC, and a host of others that have a long track record of McCarthy-esque tactics and of aggressively muzzling discourse on Israel as well as pouring millions of dollars into campuses to control Israel messaging. This includes an app for students to report their professors when they deviate from the party line. And then there is Sheldon Adelson who just raised $50 million to fight BDS and the $100 million the Jewish National Fund donated in June 2015 to the JNF Boruchin Israel Education Advocacy Center.
The tragedy is that this mish-mash of disinformation and alarming visuals is what passes for critical journalism in a country that is very concerned with its international image and seems unwilling to hear that its behavior is causing international censure. Kushmaro had a unique opportunity to educate the Israeli public about a growing international movement by listening to the voices of Jewish-American activists who are deeply concerned with the survival of Israel and who refuse to be complicit in its continuing descent into an increasingly racist, militaristic society that endangers not only Palestinians, but Jewish Israelis and both Diasporas as well. Instead, he chose to produce a segment that only reinforced the increasing insularity of Israeli political discourse and the mantra that "the whole world is against us," without acknowledging that critics of Israel have legitimate concerns about the state's policies.
The response to the program has been telling. A number of us have been showered with hate mail, one interviewee was forced to close her facebook account and JVP has received more than its share of hostility. At the same time, several Israeli activists sent messages of support and pride and a few curious Israelis wrote, just wanting to talk.