To mark the 50th anniversary of Israel’s military invasion of Arab East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Palestinian activists and Arab and Muslim organizations in the US issued impassioned, well-meaning statements denouncing Israel and urging people not to forget. In the Arab and Muslim worlds, it passed with barely a rumble.
We need to do a better job of telling our story. Palestinians continue to protest and organize conferences where they speak to the choir. Sometimes the activism is effective, such as with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS has made gains, but it is still not enough to bring about real change. Israel continues to expand, erasing Palestinian identity.
What we should do is what Israel has been doing since 1948. It knows how to tell its story to mass audiences effectively, even though the story is built on lies, exaggerations and the demonization of Palestinians and anyone who criticizes Israel.
I was in the Middle East section of a major Chicago library the other day, where I found dozens of books by Israelis and Jews who compellingly shared their experiences of “building” a state in the shadow of the Holocaust.
The two sides’ literature is together but is vastly different, not just in facts but in style. The Israeli story is not weighed down by footnotes or even facts. It is not written the way most Arab books are written, as factual but boring academic dissertations. Sadly the truth can be boring, and boring is not read.
The pro-Israel books neutralize the Palestinian narrative. The Israelis succeed in connecting with their audiences, in this case American readers, far better than Palestinians and Arabs have been able to. Very few Palestinian and Arab writers have told their stories in a personal way that might connect with American readers.
It is not just the print industry that is the problem. It is everywhere. The gap between how Israelis present their story and how Palestinians and Arabs present theirs is immense. It exists in movies, theater and on television, not just in popular sitcoms but in documentary channels.
Yet the Palestinian story is very powerful; it makes for great books and movies. I have written about the power of the fictional story Leon Uris wrote about the birth of Israel, called “Exodus.” Uris was commissioned by Israel to create a narrative, a myth that would draw in American audiences. Where is the Palestinian “Exodus”? Do we not have the money? We certainly have the stories. The nightmare in Gaza alone could tug at American heartstrings.
The gap in the effectiveness of the Israeli and Palestinian narratives is based on delivery, not substance or facts. The latter is handicapped by ineffective communications that lack some fundamental basics when speaking to Western audiences, especially Americans.
Those basics include how you say something, not what you say; winning a debate by winning over the audience, not winning the argument; looking, acting, dressing and sounding like the audience you are addressing; and not letting anger, emotion and passion get in the way of the story. Tell the story the way your audience wants to hear it, not the way you want to tell it. Nearly 70 years since the Nakba and 50 years since the Arab-Israeli war, can no one do this?
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