Monday, March 31, 2008

Ruthie Blum interviews Richard Landes

Richard Landes calls up a film clip onto the screen of his laptop to give an example of "Pallywood" - a term he invented as a take-off on "Bollywood."
The difference between the two, however, couldn't be greater. Whereas the latter is the name now used for the Indian movie industry, the former refers to what Landes asserts are pernicious productions staged by the Palestinians, in front of (and often with cooperation from) Western camera crews, for the purpose of promoting anti-Israel propaganda by disguising it as news.

It's a pretty harsh claim, and one that has earned the associate professor at Boston University - and co-founder and director of the Center for Millennial Studies - the reputation in certain circles as a right-wing conspiracy theorist. This perception of the French-born American, who divides his time between the United States and Israel, completely contradicts how he describes himself.

"I consider myself on the Left," says Landes, during an hour-long interview earlier this month in Jerusalem. "I've always been a liberal. I've always been in favor of progressive projects." But, according to Landes, in the current global climate, a dangerous meeting of forces is taking place that must be fought: the blood-libels of pre-modernism and the post-modernist constructs of reality that allow for them. "It's like a wedding of pre-modern sadists to post-modern masochists," insists Landes. "It's a match made in hell."

Discussing breakthroughs in mass communications - comparing the advent of the printing press to that of cyberspace - Landes believes that there is an opportunity to combat misinformation on a large scale through the Internet. Indeed, Landes himself maintains two Web sites, Second Draft and Augean Stables.

Scientific discourse, he is convinced, is no longer exclusive to the universities. On the contrary, he says, "Academia is stuck." It is the blogosphere, he concludes, where the real war of ideas can be won.

Define "Pallywood."

Pallywood is a term I coined - when I was looking into the Muhammad al-Dura case in October 2003 [the famous case of a 12-year-old Palestinian boy shot in the crossfire at the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, broadcast by France 2 TV] - to describe staged material disguised as news. The Palestinians regularly fabricate scenes for TV cameras, which, when sent to Western media outlets, are cut down to the believable three-second sight bite. And what makes it to the evening news is a stringing together of these staged scenes.

How do you know that these kind of scenes are staged?

By watching the rushes [raw footage]. So, for example, in one scene in the rushes - a scene we call "Molotov cocktail kid" - there is a Palestinian with red "blood" on his forehead, indicating he's got a head wound. And he's running along with no sign of pain whatsoever, then hands over what looks like a Molotov cocktail to a friend and runs into a crowd. Then, in the next frame, all of sudden he's being picked up and carried into an ambulance, all the while holding his head up high in spite of his supposed serious injury. It's really obvious that it's fake.

How do you have access to these rushes?

Getting it was connected to the al-Dura investigation [spear-headed by Israeli physicist Nahum Shahaf], which I started looking into partly as a medievalist. Even before I thought the footage might have been staged, I knew that it was being used as a blood libel. In other words, one Jew allegedly kills a gentile child in cold blood, and all Jews everywhere are responsible. That's the beginning of the wave of anti-Semitism that literally has marked the 21st century, and we have not seen the end of it. This is where cyberspace can play a crucial role.


I made a documentary film called Pallywood, and tried to shop it around. I figured [the network] ABC would be interested in it as rivals of CBS whom we criticized [for bad coverage]. I was wrong. The guy at ABC said, "I don't know how much appetite there is for something like this."

Then I ran it by somebody else, who said, "We couldn't broadcast this unless it were balanced."

When I asked him what he meant by that, he said, "We'd have to have something showing how the Israelis also fake it."

So, I gave up. Remembering the outcome of the Dan Rather affair [involving a 60 Minutes II report - broadcast on September 8, 2004 - on George W. Bush's National Guard service, which was exposed by bloggers to have been bogus. The incident ended in Rather's resignation from CBS.], I decided to post Pallywood on the Web.

That was in the fall of 2005. By the summer of 2006, it had already been seen by a good 50,000-100,000 people.

Then, when the [June 9, 2006] Gaza beach incident occurred [in which a blast - killing eight Palestinians, seven from the same family - was attributed to IDF artillery shelling; a subsequent investigation proved this to be false], I immediately started getting letters asking me whether I thought this was an example of "Pallywood."

We've since done a movie on it, which is up on the site.

Now, the Gaza beach incident... is not Pallywood in the sense that these people are not faking injury. They're really dead. But the overwhelming evidence is that they were killed by a Palestinian land mine. It was a terrible human tragedy. But the Palestinians just blamed Israel, and the press ate it up. And herein lies another real tragedy: The eagerness with which the media seize upon anything negative about Israel, and the reluctance with which they reveal anything negative about the Palestinians, have radically skewed the world's view of what's going on here.

If that's the case - if the media are biased in that way - then why would the Palestinians need to stage anything?

Because it gives the press the tools with which to tell the Palestinians' story. Their story in the intifada was, "We poor Palestinians were all of a sudden aggressed against by the Israelis who started shooting at us madly."

And in the West, people are indignant over the disproportion in the casualties. I mean, you've got editorials saying that the Palestinians have lost six times as many people as the Israelis. So what are they saying? That the Israelis have to lose as many as the Palestinians in order for the world to think it's balanced?

You've got Palestinians who want to get out a story about Israeli aggression. You have media that want to tell that story. And you have Pallywood that makes it possible for the media to tell the story of the Palestinian David against the Israeli Goliath.

We've been hearing about how poor Israel's hasbara is in countering this phenomenon. But, if what you say about blood libels is true, does public diplomacy really make any difference?

If the Israelis are failing at hasbara, it's not simply because they can't explain themselves; it's because nobody's listening to them, or when anybody does listen, he listens with hostility.

The instinct on the part of Israelis now - which probably dates back to the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon - is to apologize.

As a medievalist, surely you can't say that everything was hunky-dory until Sabra and Shatila. What period in Jewish history most resembles the current one?

I would say probably around 1900, when there were a lot of blood libels - the Dreyfus case and so on. What you have then is a series of blood libels that take on even more strength once the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are published in 1903-1905. But already in 1892, [Zionist thinker] Ahad Ha'am, in an essay on blood libels, wrote, "Is it possible that the whole world is wrong and that the Jews are right?"

Now, that's exactly what [former UN secretary general] Kofi Annan said after Jenin: "Is it possible that the whole world is wrong and that the Israelis are right?"

You're dealing with the circulation of these nasty stories about Jews, and there's this astonishing appetite for it. That's the depressing thing: how eager people are for these stories.

Still, the situation in 2008 is very different from that of 2000, when Europeans did not know that their continent was threatened by Muslims. They didn't know about the demographics, nor had they had any riots yet. At that time, viewing the Arab-Israeli conflict as a nationalist struggle between the poor Palestinians and the wicked Israelis had a great deal of appeal. At that time, the Arabs were bombarding the international media with photos and footage reinforcing that image. And what they were doing was bringing jihadi propaganda into France and other countries. Osama bin Laden immediately used the al-Dura image for recruitment. In fact, jihadis in French prisons have told interviewers that such TV images were critical in their decision to become jihadis. So, there was this astonishing porousness in Europe to a jihadist message, which came via anti-Zionism. And anyone who tried to resist it was accused of Islamophobia. This is how a kind of Islamist triumphalism has been spreading.

We're in a situation now in Europe where the elites - the media and academia - are still completely committed to this paradigm of "anti-Zionism is good and Islamophobia is bad." These are interesting moments in history, when an elite becomes so out of touch with the populace.

Isn't it common for elites to be out of touch with the rest of the population?

Historically it's been the norm, but democracies are not supposed to work that way. Democracies have responsiveness between elites and the rest of the populace. This, incidentally, brings me to the larger question I ask about what it is that makes for a civil society, and whether Europe still fits into that category.

The point is, though, that this is a moment in which you have two things: an awakening population and the blogosphere. Now, the Internet existed in 2000, but the blogosphere did not. There were blogs, but it was really only after 9/11 that the political blogosphere was born. So, now you're in a situation where there is an alternative means by which to communicate to the public. And the public has a reason to want to know, because it is now aware that there's a serious problem.

But doesn't the blogosphere also work in favor of the radical anti-Zionists and anti-Americans? Aren't they cranking it our faster than the West can refute it?

Well, yes, they are cranking it out faster than we can refute it - on every front - but there are certain significant fronts on which we are fighting back effectively. Take Wikipedia, for example. There's a fight going on right now at Wikipedia about the nature of information accuracy, truth, history, etc. These are all crucial issues for the 21st century. And Jews and non-Jews who are aware of historical events need to be weighing in at sites like that.

Now, there's a very close parallel - I teach a course on this - between the printing press and cyberspace. Both dramatically transformed the nature of reading, writing and communicating. One of the things that happened initially with the advent of the printing press is the Protestant Reformation and with it the proliferation of new religions, most of which were apocalyptic when they began, and a proliferation of "prophecies" - reports from around the world of wondrous things, etc. At that time, the fight between the Lutherans and the Papacy was vicious. The cartoons we have today are around that same level of viciousness. The Pope was depicted as the anti-Christ or as an animal and other such images.

But printing also had another effect: the emergence of scientific discourse. Over time, the scientific discourse won. So, the question for today is how do we help people in touch with empirical reality win in the blogosphere?

And what is the answer?

Detective work and vigilance. The interesting thing about the Dan Rather affair was that though there were lots of blogs defending Rather, the empirical evidence was overwhelmingly on the side of the people who said that he put up a fake.

It's a kind of post-modern problem here - you know, as if all reality is constructed. But it is not reality that is constructed; it is we who construct narratives about reality. And not all narratives are equal. Some are better than others. Some can coexist with others. Some contradict others. We have to make judgements. The idea that we should open ourselves up and let any narrative in is dangerous.

One of the problems with the Israeli post-Zionists is that they're post-modernists. They say Israel has this myth about itself. OK, fine. But then they want replace it with the Palestinian myth, that is 100 times more fantastic and unconnected to historical events than Israel's. In other words, the post-modernists would toss out something that needs correcting, and replace it with something that needs replacing!

So, what we have are the pre-modern blood libelists, on the one hand, and the post-modernists on the other - who say that it doesn't even matter whether this or that specific fact is true, when they believe the general direction that the fact is telling them.

It's like a wedding of pre-modern sadists to post-modern masochists. It's a match made in hell.

The point of pushing for scientific discourse is that with each new case of Pallywood - such as the recent Hamas "production" in Gaza showing residents holding up candles, as though they are in the dark due to Israeli electricity cuts, when one can actually see that they are doing it during daylight hours - the Israelis are going to start looking for other examples.

Ideally, what I would like to see happen is to have forensic, medical, ballistics, munitions, language, sound and culture experts ready to examine whatever tape comes out of these areas.

Aside from that, we have to utilize the blogosphere. That is where the conversation that is independent of - not unattached to, but independent of - academia is taking place. And as an academic, I can tell you that right now academia is stuck. The kinds of things that people can and can't say are so politicized and in such impoverishing ways that the next set of really important ideas is not going to come out of academia. And if it does, it will be nothing short of a miracle.

If radical Islamists can contribute to the blogosphere by writing in English, can the West counter them by writing in Arabic?

Oh yes! This is one of the enormous lost opportunities that the Israelis could lead in - though people would probably say that Arabs won't listen to them. But the fact is that there are plenty of Arabs who know perfectly well that the Israelis are effective modernizers; that they themselves desperately have to learn how to modernize; and that there's lots they can learn from the Israelis. The idea that no Arab is going to listen to an Israeli is actually a form of prejudice that says you think the Arabs are so primitive that they can't even listen to a good argument when it's made by somebody they might mistrust. We constantly hear that 99 percent of the Muslim world is moderate. Well, if they really believed that, they'd be trying to talk to these people on the Internet. The Israelis should be putting out hasbara to the Muslims and saying: "You are the first and worst victims of anti-Zionism. You are the targets. Your leaders want to get rid of us, because as long as we're around, it makes it harder for them to keep you enslaved. And they continue to enslave you by saying they have to enslave you because the Israelis exist. They put all of your energy - miserable as you are - into getting rid of the Israelis, when in fact it's the people blaming the Israelis who are screwing you."

I research apocalyptic expectations. And in apocalyptic expectations, what you have is cognitive dissonance. You believe in something so much that when it's disproved, you're in an unbelievable cognitive quandary. On the one hand, you're emotionally attached to a truth that's been disconfirmed by reality. You have this enormous hope, and it's taken away. What do you do? Well, one of the things you do is redouble your efforts. And one of the ways that you go about it is trying to convince others. So, one second-stage apocalyptic activity is increased proselytizing, which among other things, explains what happened in Christianity and in Islam.

In the West, you have a phenomenon where people are so attached to the politically correct paradigm: "If we're nice to them, they'll be nice to us." This means that if only Israel would make concessions, then we could get things on the right track. And the way to do this is through negotiations. Then you get all sorts of saying like, "War never solved anything."

The Romans had a great expression: "Si vis pacem para bellum" - if you want peace, prepare for war. Now, I consider myself on the Left. I've always been a liberal. I've always been in favor of progressive projects. But the problem for the Left is because we like to be nice, we can't imagine preparing for war. We don't want to imagine preparing for war. And we can't believe that others may have a different view of things. It's what can be called "cognitive egocentrism" - projecting onto others what you believe.

But guess what? Democracy was not established peacefully. The fear of picking up weapons is that once you do, you won't know when to stop. But the whole point about democracy is knowing when to stop. And the whole problem with pre-modern cultures is they do not know when to stop. This is why we have to beat them.

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