April 26, 2024

How the US Media Failed to Tell the Story of the Occupation of Palestine

A Q&A with the creators of The Occupation of the American Mind, a documentary analyzing media coverage of the occupation of Palestine.

Dave Zirin
Benjamin Netanyahu in front of a map of the U.S.
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves in an image taken from the Occupation of the American Mind poster. The Occupation of the American Mind

The Media Education Foundation’s 2016 film The Occupation of the American Mind is being hounded off of campuses and communities on charges of antisemitism. The documentary looks at the ways propaganda from Israel and the United States governments about the occupation of the Palestinian Territories shapes US media coverage. 

Since October 7, 2023, we have seen how the US media has a separate set of rules when discussing the total war being waged on the civilians of Gaza. With more than 35,000 dead, an unprecedented number of child amputees, and over a million at risk for starvation, the urgency to decode media obfuscation of a genocide has never been greater. Much has been written about this, especially after were revealed The New York Timeslanguage constrictions that limit how writers should discuss the current attacks on Gaza. 

That makes The Occupation of the American Mind and its trenchant media analysis a vital tool for understanding the current situation. That’s also why it’s been attacked by politicians and policed by college administrators and compared to Birth of a Nation and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Such responses are similar to Netanyahu’s comparison of the sit-ins at Columbia to the Nazi rallies in the 1930s. I reached out to the film’s executive producer, Sut Jhally, and directors Loretta Alper and Jeremy Earp to discuss the film and the public reaction.

Dave Zirin: A slew of politicians and school officials in Maryland denounced your film as antisemitic. What’s your response to that charge?

Sut Jhally: My first response is they clearly haven’t seen the film and are just reading from some script that’s been handed to them. If they’d bothered to watch it, they might have thought twice about modeling such a perfect example of what the film is actually about. The film is really a history of how US news media have failed to tell the story of Israel’s brutal, decades-long military occupation of Palestinian land. It also details how pro-Palestinian voices have been marginalized and routinely vilified as antisemites and terrorist sympathizers, which is exactly what these Maryland state legislators and college administrators are doing. It’s just one small example of the mounting backlash that’s now spreading across the country as pro-Palestinian protests erupt on more and more college campuses. The clear goal is to prevent any kind of challenge to the dominant narrative that’s been circulating in the media about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades. More than anything else, it reveals how petrified US and Israeli officials are that their control of the narrative is falling apart under the weight of reality.

Loretta Alper: These Maryland state representatives and school administrators seem to think our film reinforces the antisemitic trope that Jews control the media because we document how pro-Israel perspectives far outnumber pro-Palestinian perspectives in mainstream outlets. The problem with this claim is that we explicitly say the imbalance has nothing to do with some kind of Jewish conspiracy and everything to do with corporate media’s more general tendency to amplify, rather than question, the official claims of US and Israeli officials. Likewise, when we examine how the pro-Israel lobby helps build public support for US backing of Israel, we explicitly say that there are key elements of the lobby that aren’t even Jewish, including right-wing evangelical groups like Christians United for Israel, and we point to other powerful interests that shape media coverage, like the military-industrial complex. So, if anything, the film is a rebuttal to the antisemitic idea of Jewish control of the media.

Jeremy Earp: It’s worth adding that when politicians and college administrators weaponize the charge of antisemitism to silence pro-Palestine voices, it’s also intended to silence the tens of thousands of anti-Zionist American Jews who have been courageously speaking out against the occupation and defending Palestinian human rights for years. In fact, nine of the 16 critics of Israeli policy we feature in our film are Israeli and American Jews, some of them children of Holocaust survivors who explicitly condemn how antisemitism and the Holocaust have been weaponized to justify Israel’s brutal treatment of Palestinians. Rather than acknowledging any of this and engaging with the actual substance of our film, these state politicians and college administrators would rather throw around incendiary smears to scare people away from watching it and deciding for themselves what to think about it.

DZ: What kind of chilling effect can this response have? Is it too far to call it neo-McCarthyism?

SJ: Attacks like these are designed to make sure people know there’s a price to be paid for criticizing Israeli human rights violations and war crimes. The goal is to chill the discourse and to make sure people are scared. None of this is by accident. We now know that the Israeli government formed a task force to target American campuses and intimidate students and faculty and administrators into silence. And Congress has also joined in, holding hearings and interrogating university administrators about student protests at high-profile campuses like Harvard and Columbia, knowing full well it will trickle down and spread fear through other institutions. In that sense, I think you really can describe it as neo-McCarthyism. It’s designed to create a climate of fear and stamp out the expression of ideas. And there’s a logic behind it. Universities are one of the last places left in this country where there’s any kind of debate and diversity of opinion on the Israel-Palestine issue. So that has to be shut down. It’s deeply anti-intellectual in addition to being profoundly antidemocratic.

JE: When you watch these congressional hearings, it’s hard not to hear echoes of the McCarthy hearings. So much of the questioning of these university presidents and administrators comes down to, “Are you now or have you ever been a Hamas-sympathizer?” As Sut said, it’s all about instilling fear in anyone who even thinks about speaking out for Palestinian rights. What’s amazing is the growing movement of young people who are resisting these intimidation campaigns and refusing to back down. The mounting protests we’ve been seeing over the past few days at Columbia, the University of Southern California, and other universities are a clear sign young people are getting their news from very different sources than older Americans. They’re on social media and they’re seeing these horrors unfold in Gaza in real time, so they have a much more accurate and visceral sense of the genocidal violence the US government is actively supporting. This makes it much more difficult for them to simply shut up and go away.

DZ: You are experts on how the media shapes the Israel-Palestine narrative. What have you seen the media do since October 7?

SJ: As we show in our film, which came out in 2016, US and Israeli officials have been able to routinely transmit pro-Israel propaganda through the mainstream media without any kind of real pushback or debate for decades. Well, since October 7, pro-Israel propaganda has been on steroids. Over the past few months, a number of studies have shown consistent pro-Israel bias in leading newspapers and news broadcasts, allowing atrocity propaganda like the now-debunked beheaded babies stories to circulate without challenge. We’ve also seen journalists at CNN and The New York Times leak memos and release anonymous statements blasting editorial restrictions on their reporting, criticizing tight controls on the kinds of language they’re allowed to use, and talking about how these restrictions and controls have worked to dehumanize Palestinians and create an overwhelming pro-Israel slant.

LA: These are the same propaganda patterns we’ve been analyzing in our films for years when it comes to wars waged by the US or with US backing, from Vietnam to Iraq. First and foremost, there’s been no sustained coverage of the US’s role in Israel’s mass killing of Palestinians. Instead, it appears the US is doing everything in its power to help protect Palestinian civilians and restrain Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The extent of US complicity in Israeli atrocities in Gaza, especially the fact we’re supplying most of the weapons to carry them out, is mostly hidden from view. Likewise, in keeping with media coverage of other US and US-backed wars in the past, the killing of tens of thousands of Palestinian civilians has been repeatedly described as “unintended” and “unfortunate” rather than the entirely predictable result of Israel dropping tens of thousands of US-made bombs on civilian centers in Gaza. In addition, we now know that reporters have been encouraged by their bosses to use sanitizing language to describe the horrors unfolding in Gaza, to avoid using words and phrases like “ethnic cleansing,” “genocide,” and “occupied territories.” As media critic Norman Solomon has argued, the result is a dominant media narrative that tells Americans that Israeli lives matter a lot more than Palestinian lives.

DZ: What do you say to students who want to screen the film and fear condemnation?

SJ: I would say I don’t think it’s the responsibility of students—those with the least power on college campuses—to resist government efforts to silence the kind of free expression, debate, and protest that are the lifeblood of American universities. I think it’s the responsibility of those in positions of leadership and power on these campuses to do that. Administrators and faculty members, regardless of their politics, should be doing everything in their power to create an educational environment where students feel free to debate these issues and ask tough questions about US foreign policy, without fear of being criminalized or vilified as extremists or terrorist-sympathizers.

JE: In the end, that’s all our film is really about. It’s about clearing away all the distortions and myths and ideological filters that have warped people’s understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And it’s about leveling the playing field for Palestinian voices so we have the context and information we need to make up our own minds about US support for Israel.

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Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin is the sports editor at The Nation. He is the author of 11 books on the politics of sports. He is also the coproducer and writer of the new documentary Behind the Shield: The Power and Politics of the NFL.

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