Voices Prohibited by Mainstream Media and Its Role Spreading Islamophobia
by Rula Jebreal
Hanley: Go find your seats—we’re in for a real treat. Americans are
very quick to criticize other countries for their restrictions on
their media. The truth is, due to constant relentless pressure from
supporters of Israel, our own media is profoundly restricted. We can
criticize every country, including our own—except for Israel. Our
speakers will discuss Israel’s influence on television, print media,
and in the film industry.
So I have the great honor to introduce Rula Jebreal, who is here to present the second keynote address today. It’s titled, “Voices Prohibited by Mainstream Media and Its Role in Spreading Islamophobia.” Then she will sit down and join our media panel.
Rula Jebreal is an award-winning journalist, author and foreign policy analyst. Her first autobiographical novel, Miral, sold two million copies and has been translated into 15 languages. Rula’s dramatic screenplay turned Miral into a major motion picture, a rarity for any political film—not to mention a film telling a Palestinian’s story. Both are available at our Middle East Books booth, and she’s signing those books during the reception tonight.
Rula was born in Haifa and placed in the Dar El Tifl orphanage, founded by the late Ms. Hind al-Husseini in Jerusalem, where she received a superb education. I met her first at a luncheon hosted by Jumana Areikat, the wife of Palestinian Ambassador Maen Areikat. By the time she was 18, Rula told us, she was frustrated by the way Muslim Palestinians were portrayed in the media. I got tired of throwing my shoe at the TV, she told us. So Rula started writing her own articles. She received a scholarship from the Italian government, graduated, and later earned a master’s degree in journalism and political science.
Rula became the first foreign anchorwoman in the history of Italian television. Her career in American television has been more of a challenge. But I will let her tell her own story. Rula, please join us.
Rula Jebreal: Thank you. I’d like to thank Delinda and everybody at the Washington Report and IRmep. They’ve been very active lately, not only in organizing this amazing conference. But I have to say, I received a phone call from Delinda two weeks ago, and I was visiting some friends in Florida who had some health issues. Delinda said, well, I need to send you something urgently and I think you would be fascinated by it. I didn’t understand why she was secretive. Then Monday when I came back home and opened it, there was this package of e-mails [from an IRmep FOIA request] of some producer in Voice of America asking a former speaker of AIPAC if he would be fine that I would be the guest to debate whoever they deem as a proper Israeli official, eventually to debate him on television about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Obviously I will spare you some of these misogynist, sexist, disgusting details of the back and forth. But basically this has been the way my career—somehow, whenever I was hired by anybody in the American media—I love when they are about to prepare a war, whether it’s a war in Afghanistan or in Iraq, it’s like, we are going to liberate women, we will teach these natives how to treat women. And then you read these e-mails. I was like, sure, I’m sure you know exactly how to treat women and how to talk about them.
It’s fascinating to have the superior culture, but it’s a glimpse of the kind of power that they not only established, they exercise and wield shamefully, without any shame. But I am sure these e-mails were not the only e-mails. These are the e-mails that we know of. These are the e-mails that we had access to. But I am sure if you read private e-mails, internal e-mails of any news outlet—whether it’s The New York Times, CNN, MSNBC—you will find similar things, where we are begging.
Gideon said that the government is begging the Israeli government, that it was like we want to give you the money and they’re saying basically, no, we want more. Somehow we need to kiss their hands. But the media has played a major role in making this happen.
I grew up actually admiring the American media. I grew up thinking American media is, you know, this is a media that managed to expose major cases of corruption in history and forced a president to resign. This is the media that inspired me as a child, because I thought you can live actually in a country where a simple journalist, a simple reporter, can do his job or her job and can force the most powerful man in the land to answer some tough questions and eventually be forced to resign or be impeached. I thought, that’s the kind of dynamic of a vibrant democracy that makes this democracy vibrant. That’s the kind of journalist I didn’t see around me.
I grew up watching Arabic television, where I knew that somehow somebody in the government has written the questions, and maybe the answers also. So I grew up with that kind of culture, thinking something needs to change here. And I always looked up to Western media. So when I worked in Italian television, they hired me simply because I was the only woman who spoke Arabic. They needed somebody to understand the Middle East. They needed somebody that is native from the region to explain to them what went wrong. That famous article in Newsweek—what went wrong with the Arab Muslim world? And I remember going to my director and explaining to him the difference between Shia and Sunni and why the Iraq war would be disastrous, because just simply looking at the numbers, the composition of the population in Iraq—60 percent Shia. They sent me to cover the Iraq war.
I started my career in Italian television, and I always love to be underestimated because it gives me somehow more freedom, because as soon as they realize what they have, as soon as they realize what I was standing for, what I was doing, then these sexist, misogynist e-mails were some of the weapons they used and they throw against me. Obviously it makes me laugh, but it makes me think that there’s a lot to be done.
American media has been the most disappointing thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Even working in countries like Egypt, I’ve seen pushbacks by certain journalists, reporters, TV hosts by far much more than in this country. And I’m saying that because I’ve seen what that produced. Iraq was a war of choice. It was a non sequitur country that was invaded for a nonexistential threat. It could have happened only with the tacit, silent and vocal consent of American media, which sold a lie—and none of these people have ever been fired! They’ve actually been recycled, and they still are called experienced and the experts on many issues—Iran and the Iran nuclear deal, they’re writing long essays about Obama’s doctrine, as they call it. Nobody ever questioned their failures, their lies, their manipulation. None of that has happened.
But they actually questioned the fact that my hair is long or short, or I am skinny or fat. I mean, we are reduced to a level that allowed and enabled every lobbyist to get away with murder and basically pave the way for Donald Trump to become the frontrunner. I think we’re responsible for that. And it reminds me very much of the media in Egypt and Italy before the revolution.
The title of the conference, is this good for America? Not only is it bad, Israel’s influence here goes beyond Israel and Israeli borders. If you think of the larger dynamic in the Middle East, if you think how much money—we’re talking about four billion to Israel, think of the two billion to Egypt. This two billion is paid to the Egyptian regime that basically created a deep police state, a deep state and doomed democracy in that country. This is the country that gave us Zawahiri, number one of al-Qaeda today. This is the country that gave us political Islam. Inside the prison cells, more atrocity has been committed, torture since the ’60s that basically radicalized an entire generation. And they left with one idea, transnational jihad. Go after the regime. Create terrorist groups to go after the regime. Blow themselves up and, guess what, every one of their backers—starting with the United States.
So somehow we enabled a government that produced mass radicalization, and why? Because of one issue—because of the Camp David Accords. Basically we still give money to a regime that is committing atrocities, and violating human rights, and killing thousands of people, and imprisoning 60,000 as we speak today because of that peace accord with Israel, or to keep the peace with Israel or to do Israel’s dirty jobs, for example closing the borders with Gaza.
The other ally that we never not only question it—if you think of what Israel has been trying to push the United States to do, it goes beyond the Israeli-Palestinian issue. We had Bibi Netanyahu, who came here to testify in 2002. His words were: We need to go into Iraq and do the regime change that we need to, because this will have a positive effect on the entire region. If you look at the region, I don’t see an area where there are positive effects you can see. But the whole issue was one, and they’ve been vocal about it.
They don’t even care about the Palestinian issue, basically. What they care about is the Iran issue, and the Iran issue has been really the focus of this government for the last 20 years. So you have the prime minister, the minister of defense, Silvan Shalom, and even the former Ambassador Oren who basically are telling us that they’d rather have Sunni radical groups like ISIS, al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, than any Shia group—as if the answer to the region is, yes, let’s wage war on the Shi’i. And the Sunni, who gave us every, not only a radical group, but every group that has committed atrocities, we can turn a blind eye on these guys.
This is the same reasoning, this is the same mindset, as the Cold War. This is exactly the same mindset and it’s never changed. I think they are not realizing that the post-colonial order that’s been established in the Middle East has collapsed already, it doesn’t exist anymore, and it collapsed because of their choices. The Iraqi war basically ended that post-colonial era, but they are still thinking as if they’re living in 1979. The mentality of the mujahideen was that mentality. There’s a Russian invasion, so the Russians are the enemies. And this is the Cold War mentality. So we need to create an alliance with whoever is there to defeat that monster. We created a Frankenstein monster that is turning on all of us.
We keep repeating the same strategies and the same mistakes. I understand that it’s hard for a politician to change because they are beholden to the checkbooks of Sheldon Adelson and Haim Saban. Somehow, sadly, they call it legal corruption in my world. Here they call it Citizens United.
But the real failure has been my colleagues—the people who are sitting on television with the revolving door. They served as spokespersons for AIPAC 10 years earlier, and then they are on CNN as a neutral TV host, or some prison guard who served [in Israel] is lecturing people on some website on how they need to behave as journalists. Somehow the system allowed for these voices to thrive and to become the establishment voices.
When you listen to people debating, oh, how did we not understand that Trump would become the frontrunner—the signs were all there. The writing was on the walls. What were you thinking when for years, years since 9/11, the idea of us and them went from a marginal idea to a mainstream idea—that “them” was your neighbor who was Muslim, or Sikh, or eventually a Hasidic Jew. The war on diversity started by eliminating critical voices in mainstream media in the United States. I mean, I can’t even fathom until now how it’s possible that, in a country that led serious investigative journalism and led to push an administration to resign with Nixon, can be the country that allowed not only an administration to abuse its power, and pass secret memos, and spy on their citizens, or torture some people.
Our surprise today—and some of these speakers are intelligent—surprised that you have a fascist on the rise and basically telling you that you didn’t actually do enough. When I listen to these debates and some of my colleagues don’t even have a follow-up question for some of these candidates, who are not only calling to commit war crimes but they’re saying it’s not even enough, you need to expand those war crimes because waterboarding is not enough. You need maybe to kill him and kill his family and his relatives, because this is what will make us all safe.
Look, in my entire life I’ve never worked so hard to make people understand what the stakes are. But I’m concerned for the next generation. Because when I grew up, obviously, I watched that kind of journalist like Dan Rather and others. I think our children are growing up—if they’re 15, 16, or 14—and they look for people to inspire them. I mean, if that person is Anderson Cooper, I want to jump from a window.
The follow-up question matters more than the question itself, to push back. If your job is actually to expose lies, corruption and deflections, push them to answer it. The only person on who has been doing this somehow, and surprisingly—and I’m horrified to say that—has been on Fox News. I mean, we are looking at Megyn Kelly as the person who managed to actually challenge some of these candidates.
But we looked for years at the first African-American president being smacked by the leader of a country of seven million people, and here you have a country of 300 million people, supposedly the leader of the free world, and with Congress basically accepting that and allowing that. That can lead only in one direction. This is the beginning of dismantling of a democracy of this country, and this is what is worrisome.
The Israeli model is not contained in Israel. It’s being transported and it’s becoming part of the American model. So when you have police brutality and the cozy relationship with the media, it’s becoming a cozy relationship in the police departments. So the police who abused their powers in Ferguson have been trained actually by Israeli police, and it’s considered normal. Nobody’s investigating this kind of cozy relationship.
I am proud actually to be sitting with Philip Weiss here, who reported about some of these executives at CNN who are speechwriters for Bibi Netanyahu. I mean, the level of cooperation and propaganda has reached such a level that today it’s normal. We are the abnormal. We are the aberration. These people are writing the chapter of this nation’s history. This is the quote from [Antonio] Gramsci, my favorite European intellectual, who wrote from his prison cell. He was asked about [Benito] Mussolini, and he said Mussolini was not an aberration. Mussolini was an autobiography of a nation. He was part of this nation. He was enabled by the media. He was himself a journalist. He was enabled by a system that turned a blind eye.
I think we need to push harder, and we need to fight more. I think we need to create a community that is—we are part of an ecosystem that can help each other to expose this more. We cannot allow ourselves to—obviously 15 years ago I used to throw my shoe at the television. I can’t do this anymore. I’m very happy to be ejected from certain TV networks, but I’m very happy actually to be part of a system that whatever Philip or Max Blumenthal and other people write, we need to cooperate so we can push that message.
It can’t be a parallel world. It must be a united world, because the wave that is coming is by far much more dangerous. I’ve seen it in other places. I’ve seen it in Europe, and I’ve seen it in the Middle East. These people are beyond ruthless. [Silvio] Berlusconi, when he was elected in 1994, the first things that he did, he sued 18 journalists, kicked 18 others from television, from networks—people who dared to criticize him. Some of them were my friends—Marco Travaglio or Santoro and others.
I worked for an Egyptian television in 2009. After six months I had to leave, because the level of bullying and abuse was beyond me. I couldn’t control it. It wasn’t about me. It was about the people who worked with me. I knew that while the establishment was talking about the transfer of power from the father Mubarak to his son, the people were talking about actually three things, and these three things still exist. They were talking about freedom, democracy, and dignity. And this is what I kept hearing from the ground.
So the detachment between the base and the establishment, the gap is so deep, but we need to stay tuned with the base, because actually the base will lead the change. I don’t believe the establishment will anymore, but I believe the base will. The millions of people who were neglected around the Arab world stood up one morning, apparently without any reason. Three months earlier Hillary Clinton said it’s a stable country. People ignored those voices to such an extent that they didn’t even bother to think or to ask them what do you want, what do you think. These people stood in the streets and demanded dignity. They overthrew a regime. They had setbacks.
But that kind of power, that kind of sentiment, is still out there. It’s not dead. It’s dormant, but it’s not dead. I am sure it will rise again. I am sure just like I’m looking at you. And I hope in that moment we’ll be ready to help them and build a bigger bridge—a bridge that will unite us here and in the Middle East. It will not be about them and us, but it will be about all of us. Thank you.
Delinda Hanley: Thank you very much. You are reminding me of Gideon Levy’s speech last year. He called for an American Spring, and I think we are all inspired.