By Basil Abdelkarim
While flipping through channels on television last week, I ran across an episode of Friends, the long running hit NBC sitcom (1994-2004), which grabbed my attention. In this episode from 2004, paleontologist and professor Ross Geller proudly announces to his circle of attractive young friends that he has just earned tenure at a New York university. This glorious occasion prompts the young dinosaur expert to break out a bottle of Israeli champagne in celebration. There are actually two references to Israeli champagne (‘Israel’s finest’) in this episode, and these moments are played ostensibly for laughs. (Israel? Champagne? Whoda thunk it?)
Nevertheless, Friends made me wonder. In recent years, I’ve noticed a trend among popular television programs and motion pictures to include bizarre, seemingly random references to Israel. The references are on the surface apolitical – they do not precede a discussion of the conflicts in the Middle East, nor do they offer an overt opinion on the Palestine/Israel crisis. They’re usually brief (perhaps a single exchange), and they add nothing to the underlying story. They stand alone, frequently as the punch line to a joke. But does anyone believe that the television and motion picture industries want us to laugh at Israel? Is that really all that’s going on here?
References to Israel in Hollywood, like references to Palestine or the Arab world, always demand close scrutiny, particularly given the entertainment industry’s shameful penchant for Arab/Muslim vilification and glorification of all things Israel, to say nothing of the fervent public devotion towards Israel shared by countless Hollywood luminaries. What this means is that in Hollywood, there’s really no such a thing as an “innocent” television or movie reference to Israel, no matter how tiny or inconsequential, for Israel is not like other nations. Even a fleeting mention of Israeli champagne, or a humorous reference to the Mossad (another television favorite), warrants further analysis.
So when a character on the hit ABC sitcom According to Jim (2001-2009) reminds Jim that he once planted a tree in Israel in his honor (neither of these characters are Jewish or particularly religious, by the way), there’s nothing innocuous about this fictitious gifting of a tree. Certainly not in an era when Israeli bulldozers routinely uproot ancient Palestinian olive groves and successive Israeli governments devote their collective energies to obliterating centuries of Arab history in the Holy Land.
Which brings us to this central question: what is the point of all of these (on the surface) non-political references to Israel on television and the big screen, in stories which have nothing to do with Israel or Israelis? Are they part of a wide-ranging propaganda campaign? Do they serve a different agenda from that of the more familiar, pervasive Hollywood depictions of Heroic Israel/Israelis or Victim Israel? Or are these merely two sides to the same coin?
To understand one possible explanation for this trend, it bears mentioning that we’re dealing with a more nuanced narrative than the traditional depiction of gallant little Israel. For the "Old" Israel, just think of the 1960 movie Exodus – attractive, noble proto-Israelis triumph against all odds while battling British colonial overlords and Arab primitives. The original, cartoonish version of Israel always implied conflict, for it centers upon the myth of Israel under siege. This is Jewish David confronting the menace of the Arab/Muslim Goliath. Let’s call this the “Neocon” Israel for reasons that will be made apparent shortly. And while still ubiquitous in far-Right circles, (mostly among neoconservatives and the crowd itching for the Apocalypse), this version of Israel has taken a severe pummeling in recent years. A succession of bloody incursions (Gaza, Lebanon), the inhumane siege of Gaza, the escalation of illegal settlements on occupied land, construction of the apartheid wall, and most recently, the brutal suppression of the Gaza aid flotilla – all have chipped away at this myth of Israel as the besieged yet noble “Light unto the nations”.
No, what we’re dealing with in Friends and According to Jim is a softer vision of Israel, but more importantly, an Israel that is neither defined by nor judged on the basis of its treatment of its Palestinian subjects. This is the non-controversial version of Israel, or “Non-Con” Israel, an Israel which exports bad champagne, co-opts environmentalist sentiment (planting trees), and offers up hot young female ex-soldiers as mysterious sex symbols (as in the recent Steve Carell/ Tina Fey comedy Date Night). As for Palestine and the Palestinians – well, they’re not even an afterthought.
I’ve always believed that what apologists for Israeli misdeeds crave the most (after vindication, of course) is normalcy. Normalcy in this context is not a comprehensive peace agreement that restores the basic human rights of native Palestinians while guaranteeing the security of all the peoples of the region. Normalcy, rather, is that elusive state of affairs where all the turmoil and embarrassing headlines (and by extension, the Palestinians themselves) have simply evaporated, magically cleansed from our collective consciousness. Normalcy means an uncontroversial, run-of- the-mill Israel disconnected from Palestinians with a reputation as benign as, say, that of Norway.
Ideally, the Israel PR movement wants us to think of Israel as we might think of Italy or Greece – an ancient land steeped in history and overflowing with a wealth of natural beauty, archeological treasures, and contemporary luxuries alike, a modern marvel whose charming population stands ready to greet visitors with a smile. “Come to Israel, come stay with friends,” declared the comical old Israeli tourism campaign from some years back. Just don’t bring any Arab friends. But if you enjoy sunbathing in the south of France, why not catch some rays on the beaches of Tel Aviv? And why not drink some Israeli bubbly?
Yes, this is a softer, less confrontational Israel, yet this version remains a myth, for it requires a suspension of disbelief. This Non-Con version of Israel is more insidious and in its own way even more damaging than the Neocon Israel, for it ignores Palestinians altogether. Decades of conflict, the deliberate dispossession of an entire people, the ongoing, brutal occupation and siege, institutionalized racism within Israel itself – all are swept under the rug in favor of a sanitized vision of normalcy that lacks any context whatsoever.
Fortunately, not everyone has bought into this charade. No, Israel is not Norway, nor are Israel’s policies normal. That’s why the Israel divestment campaign and the international movement advocating a cultural and academic boycott of Israel continue to gather steam. It’s the same reason that diverse artists, from Carlos Santana to Elvis Costello, have cancelled Israeli concert appearances in recent years. Here in America, people from all walks of life (including courageous young American Jews) are slowly waking up to the realization that an Israel that practices apartheid policies cannot be like other nations.
If one cares about the world, wishing for normalcy should never serve as a substitute for working for justice or promoting basic human dignity. Here’s hoping that future television and motion picture writers remember this lesson. In the meantime, I’d suggest planting a tree in Palestine as a gift to a friend.
As for Israeli champagne, I don’t drink, but for those who do, my advice is simple:
Just say no.
– Basil Abdelkarim contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.