Television exposes Washington to Palestinian plight

Elderly Palestinian priests gingerly place a crucifix on the hood of an Israeli military vehicle, while a voiceover solemnly explains how Christians living under occupation are prevented from going to Jerusalem to pray.

Israeli troops in watchtowers sporting the Star of David glare down at impoverished children playing in the bullet-riddled squalor of a Gaza refugee camp.

These are hardly familiar images to American television viewers, but starting last week, audiences in the greater Washington area have been exposed to four television advertisements which powerfully argue aspects of the Palestinian cause.

The ads, running on the Cox cable service, one of the main providers in the capital, are the first sustained effort to promote the Palestinian issue in the same way that American politicians and companies have traditionally sought to influence public opinion – television.

They carry a more powerful message to a much larger audience than newspaper ads and billboards that had, until now, been the highlight of pro-Palestinian public education in the United States.

The ads are the brainchild of a grassroots group of young Americans called Imagine Life.

A gala fundraiser to inaugurate the campaign held at the Ritz-Carlton in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia on April 19, included representatives of partner organizations including Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice for Peace and Adam Shapiro of the International Solidarity Movement.

In an emotional presentation, Surasky said that she and many other Jewish-Americans were appalled by the treatment of Palestinians under Israeli occupation, and that an increasing segment of her community is standing up to the Israeli government and pro-Israel organizations, saying: “You don’t speak for me. You are not doing this in my name.”

According to Russ Rands, a spokesman for Imagine Life, “The purpose of these advertisements is to humanize the Palestinian people and communicate important realities about their suffering to the American public.”

He added: “We hope that this educational campaign will fill a giant void in the American conversation about the Middle East – a realistic understanding of the Palestinian experience.”

This is not the first campaign of its kind that has been planned – only the first that has actually been broadcast.

In the summer of 2001, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) contracted for the broadcasting of a series of ads featuring Palestinian-Americans from many walks of life identifying themselves proudly, and referring people to a website where they could learn more about the suffering of their brethren in the Middle East.

The ads were scheduled to begin airing on Sept. 12, 2001, but the terrorist attacks on the US on Sept. 11, 2001, led to a quick decision to postpone the project indefinitely.

Imagine Life’s ads are not generic, as ADC’s were. They tackle specific issues facing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and pro-Palestine advocates in the US.

The ad highlighting the suffering of Palestinian Christian communities directly counters a number of themes in pro-Israeli propaganda: that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict pits Muslims against Jews in a religious war, and that Christians in the United States should stand by Israel.

This discourse elides the very existence of a Palestinian Christian community and, when it does acknowledge it, blames the Palestinian Authority, not the Israeli occupation, for oppressing them.

The millennialist theme in pro-Israel advocacy in the United States has been expanding in recent years, as the evangelical Christian right has moved away from anti-abortion activism to making support for the Israeli far-right its main political platform. Influential preachers such as Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Franklin Graham have increasingly abandoned defense of the unborn fetus in favor of defense of Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon.

By highlighting the suffering of Palestinian Christian communities, Imagine Life is directly challenging one of the most powerful tendencies which blur distinctions between American and Israeli interests and even identities.

Playing on the strengths of television as a medium, the ad uses powerful visual imagery (such as confrontations between clergy and Israeli soldiers), along with music and effective sound bites – “Palestinian Christians suffer under occupation just as Muslims do,” “the vast majority of Christians here are Palestinians” – to undermine the assumptions that many Americans have about Palestinians, Israelis and the conflict.

Of course, the challenges facing pro-Palestinian advocacy go far deeper than evangelical religious sentiments. The European Jewish and Israeli historical narrative, with the Holocaust as its climax and the founding of Israel as its redemptive denouement, is part of the consciousness of most Americans. The Palestinian narrative is almost entirely unknown, and its main features, the nakba of 1947-48 and decades of exile, dispossession and occupation, are either unknown or hotly contested.

And then there is the generalized negativity about the Arab world and Islam that has become an increasing feature of American popular culture since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Imagine Life’s campaign bears some comparison to other grassroots public-relations efforts such as the influential website (EI), an online clearinghouse for information and media criticism on the Palestine issue.

EI co-founder Ali Abunimah, told The Daily Star: “We start from a position where Palestinians are seen first of all as Arabs and Muslims, which means in negative terrain in terms of US public opinion.

“Indeed,” he continued, “most Americans have been conditioned by their general cultural background to identify with Israelis and give them at all stages the benefit of the doubt, whereas Palestinians often encounter the opposite bias.”

But Abunimah is optimistic, saying: “On the other hand, I’ve found it’s no problem to convince Americans that Palestinians have a case once they’ve decided they’re willing to listen.”

He believes that “our rhetorical strategies in fact do work, for the most part, but we lack the resources to communicate them to a wide audience on a sustained basis.”

Imagine Life is aiming at just such a sustained effort and is working toward moving beyond the Washington area. A second phase of issue ads is already in the works, and the group is eyeing markets such as South Carolina, New York, Los Angeles and Boston.

The long-term goal is clearly to affect not only American discourse on Palestine, but American policies as well.

Another leader of the Imagine Life campaign, Nina Ghannam, explained: “Our hope is that these advertisements will be an important contribution to promoting responsible and fair US policies that will enhance the prospects for peace.”

Few harbor any illusions about how difficult and protracted a struggle this will be, and even given their ambitious start, the Imagine Life activists are already expressing concern about the funding needed to expand and even sustain their campaign.

Abunimah agreed, saying: “Ultimately, the skill and passion of people who are throwing themselves into this effort with all of their might cannot suffice until we get the Arab and Arab-American communities to invest in what is being done now on too small a scale and to train emerging generations for the coming challenges of the future.”