Railing against Reality: Lisa Goldman tries to defend Journalists who Use Pallywood

October 17, 2011
(Richard Landes h/t DOCS TALK and Augean Stables)

Recently a number of articles by photojournalists who turned their cameras on their fellow photojournalists have reinforced an argument I first made in 2005 with my first documentary short, Pallywood. They revealed the extent to which journalists, with their pack mentality and their eagerness to get pictures of the victimization of the Palestinian David by the Israeli Goliath, may influence, even make the “news” they record about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Ritual from Andrew Lampard on Vimeo.

Photojournalism Behind the Scenes [ITA-ENG subs] from Ruben Salvadori on Vimeo.
Obviously such charges runs the risk of undermining the narrative that the MSNM so relentlessly record for their audiences, a narrative that has had an enormous impact on images of Israel in the West. In response Lisa Goldman, a blogger at 972, has come to the defense of this kind of news. Her piece illustrates from many angles just what’s wrong with people who think they’re “journalists” when they’re really advocates.

The questions people don’t ask about ’staged photojournalism’
A few years ago, a far-right commentator on Israel-Palestine coined the term “Pallywood” to describe video clips and photographs which were allegedly staged or manipulated to score public relations points against Israel.

Lisa defines what she means by “far-right” later in this essay: those who call the occupied territories the ‘administered territories’ and insist that Israel must keep its settlements in the West Bank. There are two major points to be made here.
1) This is a pretty weak definition of “far-right.” I would have imagined something more along the lines of forceful transfer of population from both Israel and the territories for the sake of an Arab-free greater Israel. That would, after all, be a fairly neat parallel to an apartheid position that has its mirror opposite among so many Palestinians. But what Goldman’s trying to do here is to label anything that isn’t close to her position “far-right.” Presumably, she’d have no problem labeling “far-right” anyone who referred to them as “disputed territories” or felt that some of the settlements should, indeed remain part of Israel.
2) Nowhere can Lisa, who knows me personally because I invited her to participate in a conference at the IDC in 2006, find in my fairly copious writings, anything resembling these positions. I personally find even the “right-wing” label inaccurate, much less “far-right,” but that’s probably because I don’t skew the political spectrum heavily to the left in order to define anything that disagrees with me “right-wing.” On the contrary, I think that, when speaking of the Arab-Israeli conflict we need to have a spectrum that can accommodate both Palestinian and Israeli politics. That way we can avoid such foolish generalizations as, on the one hand, calling Abbas a “moderate” when, by my definition, he and his fellow PA officials are “far-right,” in favor of ethnic cleansing of a Palestinian state and keeping the refugees in camps, and on the other, avoid calling Netanyahu a “hardliner” when, in comparison, he’s far more accommodating than Abbas.
So we learn from Lisa Goldman’s first sentence of her post that: a) she is a poor journalist who doesn’t even care to research her claims, b) she’s into smearing people who get in the way of her narrative, and c) she defines matters with a heavy skew to the PCP (2) as normative, rather than one-sided.
All three of these observations will continue to hold true throughout an examination of her piece.

The term is now quite widely used by those who take an uncritical Israel-advocacy position. People who subscribe to the Pallywood theory believe that Israel is the true victim in its conflict with the Palestinians. Israel’s only real wrongdoing, they claim, is in its failure to combat effectively what they perceive as a relentless media battle waged by Palestinians and their advocates. What Israel needs, they say, is better hasbara.

This analysis reveals still more about Goldman’s world. I would have thought that people who “subscribe” to the Pallywood theory are people who have looked at the evidence – quite copious – and have come to the conclusion that it’s true, regardless of where they stand politically. Has Lisa even seen the movie or the rushes upon which the movie is based? I won’t deny that it’s water to the mill of those who defend Israel, but it’s empirically sound evidence that should, in principle, trouble those who think Israel is in the wrong.
Apparently, however, it does trouble people with a particular agenda. I remember a colleague of mine told me that he proposed I present al Durah and Pallywood to the journalism department at a major California university, and someone objected that I was trying to destroy the peace process. On the contrary, I tried to argue, no peace process will succeed when all the Palestinians need to do is fake an incident and break all their promises.
Lisa prefers to label anyone who takes this evidence seriously as an ideologue who takes an uncritical stance towards Israel. In other words, apparently, Lisa thinks that any criticism of the Palestinians and their narrative is a position that considers any criticism of Israel illegitimate, what so many on the “left” call the “Israel right or wrong crowd.” The idea that people can at once consider evidence for and against both sides seems alien to her. If you defend Israel and criticize the Palestinians, you’re “Israel right or wrong.” In her mind, people like me think Israel’s only fault is its poor hasbarah. If only it were so simple. But I guess that works for the simple-minded.

But the far-right – those who call the occupied territories the ‘administered territories’ and insist that Israel must keep its settlements in the West Bank – are not the only ones who claim that images of clashes between Palestinian demonstrators and Israeli security forces are staged. Sometimes, people who do not have a personal stake in the conflict make the same claim. These are intelligent, sensible people who visit Israel-Palestine, observe the situation for a short time – but do not study it or investigate it – and then draw their conclusions.

Oh dear. Innocent bystanders have been poisoned by far-right ideologues. Goldman to the rescue. We must look deeper to understand.

Recently, two young journalists – one Italian and one from the United States, created video reports about what they saw at clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces. In these video reports,  news photographs and video clips are juxtaposed alongside images that show the same scenes from a wider angle, so that they include a scrum of photojournalists madly clicking their shutters in the direction of a single teenage boy with a keffiyeh wrapped around his face and a chunk of rock clutched in his hand, while a tyre burns in the background. The implication is that these images are, if not exactly staged, then manipulated. If the photographers and videographers were not present, they suggest, these clashes would not happen. This claim leads, of course, to the next one – ie, that if these scenes are staged, then they must be inauthentic.

I personally would not jump to that conclusion. Are there scenes that are inauthentic? Yes. Are they all? Not necessarily. I’m certainly not going to take the position that all Palestinian claims to mistreatment and injury by the IDF are false. I have no doubt the Palestinians, even innocent ones, suffer at the hands of a military that must deal with terrorism from the seemingly innocent. But given the widespread propensity of Palestinians to stage scenes, the idea that they should be granted authentic status a priori seems like a foolish epistemological move… one typical of many journalists up till now.

But there are a few questions that are not asked by these journalists – or by those who have enthusiastically posted and re-posted their videos. Questions like, Why are these Palestinians out demonstrating in the first place? Why do they come out, week after week, to face Israeli security forces who choke them with tear gas, beat them and arrest them? What are their grievances?
Well, for starters, how about checkpoints, land confiscations, arbitrary arrests, military trials that are effectively kangaroo courts, arbitrary beatings at the hands of Israeli security forces and settlers, a life without civil rights or legal recourse, night raids by the army, destruction of water cisterns, destruction of homes, no freedom of movement and… Oh, come on. If you know anything about the occupation, then you know all this. If you are an intelligent person who is interested in Israel-Palestine issues and you don’t know all this, then you don’t want to know.

I don’t have the time to go into this list one by one, but I do think it worth mentioning that a) the checkpoints (and the separation fence/wall) are a direct response to Palestinian terror directed specifically against civilians; b) most of the arrests are hardly “arbitrary” by any but an ideologue’s standards; c) Palestinians have extensive protection before Israeli law (including the Supreme Court), indeed far more than they do before Palestinian “law.”
In short, this list is advocacy driven, has no sense of balance or perspective, no depth or complexity. It merely parrots the most one-dimensional Palestinian narrative, and then, in a classic move, accuses anyone of not agreeing, of acting in bad faith.

Do teenage boys wearing jeans and muscle shirts swagger and act all macho when a bunch of photojournalists point big lenses in their direction? Yup, they do. Do they sometimes make a mockery out of stressful, frightening situations in order to preserve their dignity, their cool and their street cred? Sure.

Let’s take it a bit farther. Do they fake scenes in order to produce “sight-bytes” for the Western news to run? Yup. Does their macho get in the way? You bet. Look at this fellow, who’s been made up with blood on his forehead, run along, hand off a Molotov cocktail, and enter a crowd that carries him to an ambulance that’s directly in front of the Israeli position where (presumably) the soldiers are shooting wildly at him and everyone else. He can’t even pretend he’s been injured. Note how he holds up his “wounded” head as he’s carried to the ambulance.

Does that mean they have no reason or purpose in demonstrating? Of course not. Would the same people demonstrate if there was no media presence? Yes. I know, because I have attended many demonstrations from which the media was completely absent,

Except, of course, you Lisa. And how many others? Can you give us some examples?

and events unfolded in pretty much the same way as they do when the photographers are there.

Excuse my skepticism here. This contradicts what you just said about how they mug for the camera. I don’t believe for a minute that they behave differently when the camera isn’t there. Indeed, the key moment for me in “discovering” Pallywood was watching a big fat guy in Netzarim Junction, filmed by Talal abu Rahmah, who faked a leg injury and when he realized he wasn’t going to get the media “treatment” – carried to an ambulance in front of the cameras – he walked away without a limp. (NB: France2 cut this clip from the video they showed the court.)

Neither of the two video reports, which are embedded below, include any background or explanation.  They also don’t really touch on the fact that very few of the photos and videos shot at these demos are ever published.

This may actually reflect a welcome trend in current journalism. Certainly, during the first and second Intifadas, these images were eagerly snatched up by journalists (I made Bob Simon the butt of my movie, but there were plenty of examples to draw from, that continued throughout Operation Cast Lead). Now, perhaps because having once had the faking pointed out, and having been stung by bloggers for their gross incompetence, reporters are less likely to do so.
Or maybe, just maybe Lisa, the world has awakened to the fact that their obsession with the Arab-Israeli conflict has blinded them to far more important conflicts and far greater suffering than what the Palestinians suffer at the hands of the evil Israelis – like what’s happening next door in Syria, where the paragraph above that outlines what they have to protest would be ten times as harsh (including what they do to Palestinian refugees) and a thousand times more accurate.

Editors are not interested anymore. Their readers have turned away; Israel-Palestine is regarded as a story that is stuck in Groundhog Day, doomed to repeat itself in perpetuity.

There’s only so long a boy can cry wolf, even if people so desperately want to believe it. I’m under the impression that even though the media does its best to blame Israel for the failure of negotiations, their audience has begun to realize that the Palestinians have played a major role in their own failure to have a country.

But once in awhile there is an egregious incident that is deemed newsworthy. And if a persistent photojournalist or videographer who has been attending these demos every week for years happens to be there, s/he could have the shot that will make the front page or win a prize.

You mean, like Talal abu Rahmah and the Muhammad al Durah affair. He got lots of prizes for his staged blood libel. By the way, Lisa, as one of your commentators (RichardNYC) also asked, what is your position on Al Durah? Have you looked at the evidence? Are you aware of how the piece was used as a “icon of hatred” by the Palestinians, the Muslims, the radical “left”? Do you have a position on egregious propaganda, or does the “victim status” of the Palestinians forgive anything, and answer to a higher truth?
Except for the fact that you don’t seem interested in going anywhere else, it would not be hard to photograph egregious incidents that are noteworthy every day, many times a day in Syria right now. Anyone getting them into papers? Anyone getting prizes?

But rarely – almost never – will you see a print or television journalist at these demos. Because they are not reported. Because hardly anyone cares anymore.

I’m sorry. What are you talking about? Wasn’t the footage you’re complaining about showing a – in your own words – a “scrum of photojournalists madly clicking their shutters in the direction of a single teenage boy with a keffiyeh wrapped around his face and a chunk of rock clutched in his hand, while a tyre burns in the background“? Try reading Stephanie Gutman, The Other War.

Lisa, let me suggest something that I doubt you’ll consider, but think you should. Maybe your uncritical embrace of the Palestinian narrative of suffering that you defend so poorly is part of the Palestinian problem. Maybe if Palestinians had real friends, who gave them valuable advice, rather than merely reaffirmed their sense of victimhood, maybe if you helped them address the degree to which their own leaders (Palestinian and Arabs and Muslims) have victimized them, then maybe this wouldn’t be groundhog day. But of course, that would take what you call “study and investigation” and what I would call complexity and depth.
It may well be that the real problem is not Israeli failure of hasbarah, but the unmerited success of Palestinian hasbarah. And to that, you and your friends in the center of the far left contribute way too much.