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“The Occupation of the American Mind”: Documentary Looks at Israel’s PR War in the United States

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We continue our conversation with legendary British musician Roger Waters, founding member of the iconic rock band Pink Floyd. Waters is the narrator of a recent documentary titled “The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States.” We air clips from the film and speak to Roger Waters and Sut Jhally, professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts and founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation, which produced the documentary.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. As we continue our conversation, we go now to an excerpt of—we are speaking with Roger Waters, the famous British musician, founding member of the iconic rock band Pink Floyd, Waters the narrator of the recent documentary titled The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States.

ROGER WATERS: Over the course of 51 days, the Israeli military dropped nearly 20,000 tons of explosive on Gaza, a densely populated area the size of Philadelphia, killing over 2,000 Palestinians and wounding tens of thousands more. The overwhelming majority of these casualties were civilians.

HAMISH MACDONALD: This strip of land is being bombarded from the air, sea and land.

DIANA MAGNAY: Israel launched at least 160 strikes on the Gaza Strip.

RICHARD ENGEL: And there’s one less hospital in Gaza now. Israel today flattened Wafa Hospital.

ROGER WATERS: The sheer scale of the attacks sparked outrage and condemnation around the world.

MARK BROOME: Israel’s month-long pounding of Gaza has shocked many people around the world. Mass demonstrations have been held in many of the world’s major cities.

ROGER WATERS: But in the United States, the story was different. Polls show the American people holding firm in their support for Israel.

ANDERSON COOPER: This is the latest CNN/ORC poll of Americans, shows 57 percent of those polled say Israel’s action in Gaza is justified, 34 percent say unjustified.

ROGER WATERS: These numbers were striking, but they weren’t new. Over the course of a conflict in which Palestinian casualties have far outnumbered Israeli casualties, the American people have consistently shown far more sympathy for Israelis than for Palestinians.

PETER HART: It’s very difficult to divorce public opinion on any question from the media coverage that people rely on to form opinions. And I think the most prevalent lesson from looking at the coverage is that the coverage tends to see this conflict from the Israeli side.

AMY GOODMAN: That last voice, Peter Hart, the National Coalition Against Censorship. That a clip from the film The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States, narrated by our guest, Roger Waters, the musician.

Well, on Wednesday, Nermeen Shaikh and I interviewed Roger Waters and Sut Jhally, professor of communication at the University of Massachusetts, founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation, which produced the documentary. I asked Sut Jhally why he chose to make the film.

SUT JHALLY: Well, it started, actually, quite a while ago, and the reason for it is that American public opinion is so far outside the bounds of world opinion when it comes to—when it comes to Israel. As we talked before, I mean, the moment you start—you break—you start to talk about this, there’s an attempt to silence you. So you’re actually not allowed to—you’re not allowed to talk about it. And then, actually, once you do talk about it, you realize that Americans have a very warped sense of the conflict. I mean, I learned this from my own students, as well as from public opinion polls, that most Americans think that, in fact, it’s the Palestinians who are illegally occupying someone else’s land in the Middle East.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, talk about legally—talk about what in fact is happening in the Middle East.

SUT JHALLY: Well, it’s such a clear kind of instance of, you know, colonization. We’ve just had 50 years of occupation, Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and, until recently, of Gaza. And that’s actually very, very clear, because there’s also this instant—Americans think it’s so complicated. That’s actually—when I talk to my students, they always say it’s too complicated. And I just actually explain to them, you know, in a few sentences, that this actually is a very, very simple conflict. And what—and when the conflict is that simple, what you have to do is you have to make it more complicated. And that’s the function of public relations.

And so, that’s what we focus on. We focus on the public relations campaign in the United States to essentially confuse the American public about what was going on, so there will be no pressure coming from the public on this. And in that sense, you know—and we say this in the film—the occupation of Palestine also depends upon an occupation of American public opinion, that unless the American government is aboard with this and acts as a protector of Israel, then that occupation is not possible.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Let’s turn to another clip from The Occupation of the American Mind, featuring our guest, Sut Jhally.

SUT JHALLY: Israel can saturate the media with its spokespeople, but there’s still the problem of massive Palestinian casualties showing up on television screens. You can’t make those images go away. An Israeli official actually said, “In the war of pictures, we lose. So you need to correct, explain or balance it in other ways.”

Here, again, the Luntz document spells out which talking points have been most effective in spinning the brutal reality of Palestinian casualties. He says the first thing the pro-Israeli spokespeople should do is to express empathy for the innocent victims.

DAN GILLERMAN: Unfortunately, innocents do get hurt. And we—we really grieve that.

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: We’re sad for every civilian casualty.

MICHAEL OREN: The entire situation is tragic.

SUT JHALLY: Once you’ve done that, Luntz says, you also have to get people to empathize with Israelis, by describing what life is like for them living in constant fear of Hamas rocket attacks. So, again and again, we hear the focus-tested phrase that the rockets are raining down on Israel.

MICHAEL OREN: We have thousands of rockets raining down on our civilians.

HILLARY CLINTON: Rockets were raining down on Israel.

NORMAN SOLOMON: Any advertising executive will tell you the essence of propaganda is repetition.

GRETA VAN SUSTEREN: Rockets raining down on southern Israel.

FOX NEWS ANCHOR: Rockets raining down on Israel.

NEWS ANCHOR: Well, Hamas rockets rained down on Israeli border towns.

SUT JHALLY: Then, Luntz tells PR spokespeople to turn the tables and ask the American people, “What would you do?”

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: So what would you do in the United States?

RON DERMER: Will you imagine what America would do if it were facing a similar threat?

NACHMAN SHAI: We always try to ask you the question we ask ourselves: What will you do?

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: What would you do?

MARK REGEV: What would you do, if more than 3,000 rockets had been fired on your cities?

SEAN HANNITY: What would you do? Three thousand rockets.

MARK REGEV: What would you do, if terrorists were tunneling under your frontier?

SEAN HANNITY: What would you do if three kids are kidnapped because of a tunnel network?

YOUSEF MUNAYYER: What sort of question is this? Of course, anybody would act to defend themselves against unprovoked aggression. But it is a question that is completely devoid of any context. What drives a society to a point where, after multiple devastating wars, they continue to resist with these most feeble methods? They don’t want you to ask that question. They don’t want you to ask what is behind this, what’s the history here, who are these people, where did they come from, why are they so desperate. No, they want you to understand Israeli behavior. Israeli behavior is always characterized as a reaction to unprovoked violence.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s an excerpt from The Occupation of the American Mind. And the last voice was Yousef Munayyer of the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights. We also heard from Norman Solomon. And this is another excerpt from the documentary.

ROGER WATERS: Two years after the Lebanon invasion, the American Jewish Congress sponsored a conference in Jerusalem to devise a formal public relations strategy, known in Hebrew as hasbara. Participants included PR and advertising executives, media specialists, journalists and leaders of major Jewish groups. According to a brochure from the congress, “No single event brought home the need for a more effective hasbara, or information program, more persuasively than the 1982 war in Lebanon and the events that followed.” As one conference participant put it, “Israel is no longer perceived to be 'little David,' but Goliath steamrolling across the map.”

The primary aim of the conference was to develop strategies to spin unpopular Israeli policies and to counter negative press coverage by shaping the media frame in advance. “News doesn’t just jump into a camera,” a conference delegate said. “It’s directed, it’s managed, it’s made accessible.” Israel-based advertising executive Martin Fenton would put it in even more blunt terms: “'Propaganda' is not a dirty word,” he said. “Face it: We are in the game of changing people’s minds, of making them think differently. To accomplish that, we need propaganda.”

The conference was chaired by U.S. advertising executive Carl Spielvogel, the legendary ad man who created the highly acclaimed Miller Lite beer ads in the 1970s.

SUT JHALLY: The choice of Spielvogel makes perfect sense. He’s known as a master of image inversion and rebranding. The ad man responsible for transforming Miller Lite, which had been viewed before as a woman’s beer, into a manly beer the tough guys would drink.

MAN IN BAR 1: But the best part is that it tastes so great.

MAN IN BAR 2: The best part is, it’s less filling.

MAN IN BAR 1: Nah, tastes great!

MAN IN BAR 2: Less filling!

SUT JHALLY: His job with Israel would require the same kind of rebranding, only in the opposite direction: to help soften the image of a country that’s coming to be seen as a bully. So he recommends creating a Cabinet post dedicated exclusively to explaining policy, whose job would not be setting policy, but presenting it in the most attractive way to the rest of the world.

NORMON SOLOMON: Classic PR is to say the problem is not the policy, it’s the presentation. When the policies are so reprehensible that many people become critical, rather than acknowledge there’s anything wrong with the policy, there’s a doubling down on the PR effort.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that was another clip from The Occupation of the American Mind. And that last voice was Norman Solomon of the Institute for Public Accuracy, the film, of course, narrated by our guest, Roger Waters. But, Sut Jhally, I want to ask you about these clips, the way in which the Israeli state, working with different media organizations, has changed, as you argue, American public opinion, or swayed it in this way to be sympathetic only to the Israeli side. Now, this strategy of hasbara, the attempt to influence U.S. public opinion, Israeli supporters argue that such initiatives are attempted by practically all countries in the world, they all have lobbying firms in the U.S. What is it that distinguishes hasbara from the propaganda, in fact, that’s attempted by every country attempting to influence U.S. foreign policy?

SUT JHALLY: And that’s true. Everyone tries to mold perception in some way for their own—their own actions. The difference in this case is the public—is that Israeli public opinion—or, Israeli public relations is so closely connected to the interests of the American state. And so they’re not pushing against the American policy. And it’s American policy working hand in hand with Israeli policy, as well. In the film, you know, we try and we—because we really want to make clear that this is not about an Israel lobby that’s manipulating—you know, that’s manipulating politicians and the public. The reason why Israeli public relations works is because it goes hand in hand with American elite opinion. And if that didn’t happen, then the public relations wouldn’t work in that way. And we know that that’s—that those two things go together, because when American elite opinion differs from what Israel would do, oftentimes American elite opinion prevails, as in the discussion around the Iran policy. The Israel lobby really wanted to push a different line on that. But that was one place where the interests of the lobby diverged from the interests of the American state. And so, when we talk about this, it’s not about—it’s not about, you know, a lobby that has all this power. It’s about an Israel—it’s about a lobby that goes hand in hand with the interests of the state. And if that—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, in other words, even—so, if U.S. elite opinion were to change, this precise strategy, hasbara, would be relatively ineffective.

SUT JHALLY: Well, it relies upon the American state to go along with it, which is why American public opinion is so important, which is why you have to control American public opinion. Not only do you have to control Senate and the House, which they do, but you also have to make sure there’s no pressure on politicians, which is why you have to control public opinion, which is why we say you need to occupy American public opinion to make the occupation possible, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: When it comes to this film, where was it shown?

SUT JHALLY: We’ve had a huge amount of difficulty getting this shown. It’s been shown almost nowhere in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Elsewhere?

SUT JHALLY: It’s been shown in other—we showed it in Mexico City. It’s been shown in Brussels. It’s been shown—I just came from a screening in Beirut. We showed it in London. It’s screened in—on television stations in Scandinavia, in Europe. Russia Today showed it. Al Jazeera showed it. So, it’s been shown outside of this country.

AMY GOODMAN: And the reaction to this film when you attempt to get it to play in the United States?

SUT JHALLY: I mean, it’s the way that censorship works, which is silence. We submitted it to film festivals, which is the first way you try and get some publicity and some visibility. We did not get it accepted into one film festival in the United States, and therefore that means it’s very difficult then to make the next step, which is how do you get it into theaters, how do you get it into television, how do you get media reviews. I mean, we’ve—there’s been, around this issue—and it’s not just this film, but on this issue. It’s like there’s a web of silence around it.

And it’s not just, you know, the right-wing media. It’s not just Fox. And it goes everywhere. I mean, it’s the one—it’s the one topic that even so-called liberal media won’t touch. In the film, you know, we had the example of Rachel Maddow, who is supposed to be the most, you know, progressive voice on television, and yet refuses to deal with this issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to another clip from The Occupation of the American Mind.

SUT JHALLY: Look at how American media covered Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza. A keyword search of all the major networks showed that over the course of the 51-day assault, Israel’s ongoing military siege and blockade of Gaza were barely mentioned, compared to the thousands of times Hamas rocket attacks on Israel were mentioned.

JAKE TAPPER: Why is Hamas launching missiles into population centers of Israel?

SUT JHALLY: The basic propaganda frame is built into the very assumptions journalists bring to the table.

JAKE TAPPER: Since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, 8,000 rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel.

SUT JHALLY: This is how propaganda works. It works by getting your words in the mouths of other people, especially the mouths of supposedly objective media commentators.

DAVID GREGORY: I’m wondering, though, whether you’re outraged by the conduct of Hamas, starting the conflict by firing rockets, building tunnels to kill and kidnap Israelis, being more than willing to sacrifice Palestinian lives by embedding them into—into their own kind of arsenal, and using them, as Israel contends, as human shields. Do you have a level of outrage at Hamas itself?

SUT JHALLY: It doesn’t seem like propaganda at all. It just seems like news. And this goes across all the major media, including the supposedly most liberal. Look at Rachel Maddow on MSNBC, who’s known as the leading progressive voice on mainstream television. She did only four segments on the war. And during these few segments, she never once mentioned Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank or its siege and blockade of Gaza, and never once mentioned the fact that the U.S. has armed Israel with the very weapons that were being used against a defenseless civilian population, instead choosing to frame the invasion as part of a senseless cycle of violence perpetrated by both sides.

RACHEL MADDOW: It’s been a constant cycle of fighting between Israel and Hamas for the past several years in Gaza. And the fighting and the cause of the fighting feel terribly familiar, because this is basically a recurring war. And if it feels like déjà vu, feels like, “Ugh, I’ve heard all of this before,” you are right, because this really does keep happening, over and over and over again.

RULA JEBREAL: Rachel Maddow, the most important woman on MSNBC, the leader when it comes to politics, in six weeks of war, never mentioned the word “blockade,” “occupation,” “illegal settlements,” never mentioned the support that Congress have for Israel, unconditional amount of money, billions of dollars. What is that? What a disappointment! Our media operations, national media, is a scandal when it comes to Israel.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt from The Occupation of the American Mind, the documentary that is narrated by Roger Waters, that’s produced by Sut Jhally. That last voice, former MSNBC analyst Rula Jebreal, who is an Italian-Palestinian journalist. Let’s go for a moment to the contrast, Sut, that you bring into this film, which is the international media.

JON SNOW: Mark Regev, how does killing children on a beach contribute to that purpose? What was the point of bombing the al-Wafa Hospital, for goodness’ sake? … There are grave uncertainties—

MARK REGEV: No, no.

JON SNOW: —about whether you’re acting within the law.

MARK REGEV: No, no, no. I disagree.

JON SNOW: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. You are deliberately targeting—

MARK REGEV: No, I reject that.

JON SNOW: —neighborhoods in which you know there are women and children. … You’ve tried everything with Gaza. You’ve besieged it for seven years. The people live an intolerable and ghastly life, and you know that better than anybody. Why don’t you try one other thing: talking? Why not talk? Why not be brave and talk directly with them? Why not?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s another excerpt from The Occupation of the American Mind. Sut Jhally, you produced this film. Talk about the contrast of the media coverage.

SUT JHALLY: I mean, the contrast is quite striking when you look at—when you look at—you don’t have to go to other parts, you know, really foreign parts of the world. Just look to the way it’s covered in the United Kingdom. That’s a striking difference. And part of the reason—and, I mean, the clip we show—that clip we use was of Jon Snow, doing what a journalist should be doing, which is asking questions. So, in the U.K., journalism actually still exists. On this issue, in the United States, journalism has ceased to do what it’s supposed to do, because it has just succumbed to public relations.

AMY GOODMAN: Sut Jhally, founder of the Media Education Foundation, which produced the film The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States. When we come back from break, we return to Sut Jhally and the musician Roger Waters, in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Roger Waters, performing “We Shall Overcome,” accompanied by the teenage cellist Alexander Rohatyn, here in the Democracy Now! studios.

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