Saturday, June 17, 2006

Broadcasting Humanity: An Interview With Link TV's David Michaelis

Two years ago, David Michaelis, an Israeli citizen and Jamal Dajani, a Palestinian-American traveled to their mutual birthplace in Jerusalem and filmed a groundbreaking documentary called "Occupied Minds". The film originally aired in 2005 and powerfully illustrated the widening gulf between two entangled peoples in pain.

Both men grew up in Jerusalem just a few miles apart but in entirely different universes. Jamal’s roots in Jerusalem can be traced to the 7th century, while Michaelis was born in Jerusalem to parents who left Germany in the 1920’s because of escalating anti-Semitism.

For Michaelis, “Occupied Minds” easily fits into the tapestry of his career. Born in 1945, Michaelis earned a degree in philosophy and sociology at Hebrew University. He has produced and directed documentaries on social-political issues for the BBC Channel 4 in the UK as well as for ARD and ZDF in Germany. Michaelis also served as a news editor in London and Washington for ARD. The primary focus of the documentaries and talk shows he’s worked on is to legitimize the rights of minorities in Israel.

Michaelis is currently on the Board of Directors for Internews and is the Director of Current Affairs for Link TV in San Francisco. Link TV is a network dedicated to presenting global news, issues and culture. Before co-founding Link TV, Michaelis was the producer of “Popolitika,” the most popular news program on Israeli TV.

At Internews, Michaelis created the first satellite two-way link between Tunis and Jerusalem in October 1993. He also helped produce, with the Jerusalem Film Institute, the Palestinian Broadcasting Conference held in Jerusalem in January 1994.

Michaelis and Dajani met at Link TV six years ago. At Link TV in San Francisco, they are the only Palestinian-Israeli team working together in American media. Dajani, as Director of Middle Eastern Programming, produces the 2005 Peabody Award-winning daily newscast— Mosaic: World News from the Middle East. This program highlights daily TV news broadcasts from the Middle East, including, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Syria the Palestinian Authority, and Iran, among others.

After four years of professional collaboration, Michaelis and Dajani became friends and decided to combine their talents. “Occupied Minds” gives voice to a diverse range of views: a wanted Palestinian gunman, an Israeli soldier who served in the Occupied Territories, an Israeli surgeon who lost his eyesight in a suicide bombing, an Israeli mother who lost her son in the conflict, and a Palestinian activist who lost her cousin are among those interviewed. Their documentary went above and beyond the political leaders to reach the hearts and minds of those existing inside the ongoing conflict.

Michaelis generously agreed to answer questions about his life experience and perspective of the Middle-East:
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ILJ: Typically we focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but you’ve dedicated much of your career to minority-rights in Israel. Are minority immigrants from Africa such as the Sudanese or Ethiopian Jews second-class citizens in Israel?
MICHAELIS: Well I think it would be more correct to focus on the Ethiopians because they have the longer history but also to be sure about their capability to integrate into Israel. Because of a long history they’re not really always welcome in every place. It varies from city to city from school to school. The first generation especially doesn’t feel like they are totally equal. The second generation, which already is integrated in the army and schools feel they are much more welcome. So there is a generational difference. But legally of course they are totally equal. The issue is social.
ILJ: Is there a racism problem with Ethiopian Jews in Israel?
MICHAELIS: Be careful not to translate into American terms of black and white relationships. Because that is what immediately any American readers or anyone who studies the black/white relationship here would interpret it in this way. It’s not that kind of … there is no background of exploitation. There are issues of color of skin of course. But it varies again from city to city. And also depending on religious background, I’ll say that secular people are much more open to receive people from outside. People from a more religious background might have doubts about the Jewishness of immigrants from Ethiopia. So, I’ll say there is a difference of attitudes between people with a more traditional religious background and secular people.
ILJ: Why did minority rights in Israel become so important to you? Was there a defining moment during your youth that served as a catalyst?
MICHAELIS: I think it’s more about the education that I got at home. And awareness that once you’re a majority you have to take responsibility. The most important turning point in my awareness has been the awareness that we have been 2000 years in minority and we were always shouting and screaming about our rights. And once we became a majority we didn’t fully internalize the responsibility of a majority to be treating minorities not only on a legal level but also on a social level such as employment and housing as totally equal citizens. It’s very interesting what happens when you’re so many centuries in the minority and you’re still thinking as a minority when you’re fully in control of the country that you’re ruling. So that has been a major issue for the last forty years especially since Arabs and Israel became aware of their rights, foreign workers became aware of their rights, women became aware of their rights. It didn’t always go as it should go - the equal rights perception not only on a religious level but also on the day-to-day level.
ILJ: Would you say that minorities have viable representation in Israeli politics?
MICHAELIS: Yeah, viable in terms of representation in the parliament - yes. But are they planted really in the power center, the financial power center, the political power center? That’s a very different story. When people vote minorities into … the Israeli Knesset as you know has many different parties and many chances for different voices to be heard. But does that translate into equal treatment? That’s another issue.
ILJ: Moving on to another topic. Did your work on “Occupied Minds” make you more or less optimistic for the prospects of peace between Israelis and Palestinians?
MICHAELIS: Well, since the film was actually done during the Intifada when things were in such a situation of regression that it couldn’t of led to any clearer position of optimism. It was so bleak during the first four or five years – 2001 to 2005.
ILJ: Right
MICHAELIS: It was so violent that it made me more pessimistic actually in many ways.
ILJ: Are you still pessimistic or has your optimism increased in the past year?
MICHAELIS: No definitely not. Because I think the leadership on both sides is still not talking to each other and not seriously building bridges. And Hamas victory added another complication on top of the … if it was complicated before, the icing on the cake was the election of Hamas. It’s become really very dicey. Both sides are exhausted from the fighting and that is the only positive thing I can say. It is not as violent as it used to be.
ILJ: How do you think the international community should deal with the newly elected Hamas government? Should they wait until Hamas recognizes Israel’s right to exist and only talk to President Abbas? Or is it better to engage Hamas now?
MICHAELIS: Better to engage them now. But it depends how. Not to make promises but to try to find political inroads through a Palestinian coalition to encourage them to work as one unity government between Abu Mazen and Hamas. So in this situation you can’t have an easy solution. It was surprised it won – the Hamas I mean. Until they figure out their act, until they will understand the responsibilities of being in government. This will take time. Everyone is counting weeks and months. I think it will take a year for the Palestinians themselves to figure out how they cope with each party inside the Palestinian social structure.
ILJ: Are the Palestinians poised for civil war between Hamas and Fatah? What would the consequences of a civil war between those two factions be?
MICHAELIS: That would be terrible. It would be a very bad outcome for the democratic process inside the Palestinian Authority territories. I think that “poised” is … I’m not sure is the right term. I think there is a power struggle but it will shy away from an open civil war. That is my assessment.
ILJ: Until the Palestinians sort out their political turmoil, what options do the Israelis have beyond unilateral disengagement?
MICHAELIS: What they should’ve done some time ago is to realize that there are leaders such as Abu Mazen and others who are really very keen to talk and avoid unilateral steps. This has not been related too seriously neither by Sharon and not by Olmert. They’re not taking any constructive steps really to talk to them. They’re walling them off. There is no dialogue. Instead of unilateral steps you can start a dialogue with people you can talk to. And it’s not happening.
ILJ: Does Abbas have any political capital in Palestine to be able to deliver peace and be a viable partner for the Israelis to engage with?
MICHAELIS: He has some. I don’t know how much. I don’t know how much capital he has. He definitely has some because people don’t want to starve. People don’t want to be cut off from foreign aid. People realize that it’s best not to be closed behind a Gaza prison and closed behind an Israeli wall. There is some hope that he would be the only sane guy with the only sane group of people who will try to mediate inside Palestine. But I can’t assess how much capital he has.
ILJ: Do you consider yourself a Zionist?
MICHAELIS: Yeah, a minimalist (laughs). I would say I think that Israel should be a land of minimal injustice. Because from the getgo it’s obvious that when you fight for the same piece of land there will be injustice. So try to be more realistic and just about what you’re doing. It took Mr. Olmert almost forty years to say, excuse me I don’t think I can hold all these territories and all these settlements. So, forty years is a very normal pace for the Middle-East. People change very slowly. But if you look at it from a western point of view forty years is a long time to learn lessons. We could have been spared lots of bloodshed if many people gave up their greater land dreams ages ago. But it doesn’t work that way apparently in real life.
ILJ: Golda Meir once said there will be peace when the Arabs love their children more than they hate ours.
MICHAELIS: Oh my God yeah. It’s part of the demonization. Arab leaders
would say that when Israelis start to understand what a refugee is … it’s sloganeering. It’s demonizing the other side, which has proven to be destructive. So this kind of “they would love” and “they would hate.” It’s simplification and painting black and white colors about everyone and it’s very dangerous and very destructive.
ILJ: Do you have any sources informing you about what is happening inside Iran? Have you heard anything about a viable dissident movement for democracy emerging?
MICHAELIS: First of all I can tell you that my only alternative sources for information that I know there, are bloggers like you (laughs), active in Iran. And they are writing and they are expressing themselves. But I don’t really have any special information of how big this movement is and how serious it is.

ILJ: Regardless of whether you supported President Bush’s war in Iraq or not, is a sovereign democracy truly achievable there as well as a positive ripple effect for the Mid-East? Or has President Bush condemned the Iraqis to decades of sectarian violence and terrorism?
MICHAELIS: Very risky venture because he walked into a society and didn’t understand what their rules are and what their history is. And by walking into something where you’re like an elephant in a china chop you create a whole mess, but I don’t know if he “condemned” them to it. That’s a strong term. But he definitely created a tribal and nationalistic and religious based mess that will take a long time to resolve. You can’t transplant democracy into tribal societies by force or by torture or through the gun. You know there is an old saying, that you can fight with a bayonet, you can’t sit on it. So, basically he’s trying to sit on a bayonet which is really impossible. Not advisable for you to try.
ILJ: What is the most common misconception you encounter about Israel and the Mid-East?
MICHAELIS: Two different kinds of misconceptions. Misconception that is the easiest to point out is that the Israeli-Palestinian fight is a symmetrical conflict -which is totally wrong. I come from a country that has nuclear power. Very well financed armed forces. And science is far ahead. And is fighting a country with a third world economy and third world weapons. And it’s totally a fight between … it’s not equal. So I don’t say who is just or unjust but just in terms of force and power, the misconception I hear many times is “oh this side is this,” “this side is that,” as if the fight is equal. But it’s very unequal.

And about the Mid-East the biggest misconceptions are more in terms of ignorance. Knowing what the Muslim religion is about. What the differences between the Muslim countries are. When I tell people the Iraqi president is actually friendly to Israel they say, why? Why would an Arab be friendly to Israel and I say he’s not an Arab. He’s a Kurd. And the Kurds have a long relationship with Israel. And people don’t realize what it means. The internal divisions in terms of not just tribes but in terms of history of people. The Kurdish people have a long history. They are part of Iraq now because of the British division of making borders on the map. And it’s very unclear if Iraq can function like that. And people just don’t know.

I think many people believe Iran is an Arab country, which it isn’t. It has 5000 years of Persian history. So the misconceptions are more in the direction of ignorance and understanding the cultural, political, linguistic and religious differences between the different groups in the Mid-East. It’s not one blob (laughs). It’s not just one big mess. You have to know who’s who. And why.

And I think we Israelis often many times always talk about “the Arabs” It’s not such a simple a thing to talk about the Arab world.

That’s the work I’m doing on television in the Mosiac program. We compare every day for thirty minutes different points of view on the conflicts and the issues as broadcast by secular young women on TV in Lebanon and deeply religious preachers in Saudi Arabia. So it’s the way someone might say the Canadians and Americans and all the North Americans are all the same. It’s ignorance if you don’t’ see the different colors. It’s not all one color.
ILJ: You mention the Mosaic program. It’s fascinating and I’m providing a link for it on this posting (click here). Watching the recent broadcasts about Zarqawi I was struck how Jordanian television almost seemed like Fox News in a way.
MICHAELIS: Yeah. (laughs)
ILJ: The anchor was going out of his way to explicitly say Zarqawi did not represent the principles of Islam. And so forth …
MICHAELIS: Well he was clearly an enemy of the king and the kingdom and the concept of Jordan as it is. He was an enemy of the state. Grew up in Jordan. When someone from your own country turns against you, you become even more hostile than usual. He wasn’t an outside enemy. Someone who knew Jordan very well. Someone released from the prisons a few years ago. So they were definitely very, very hostile to him. So you were struck in the right way. This is more than Egypt but I don’t know who you were comparing it to. But for Jordan, Zarqawi was a major target because he would also encourage the people of Jordan to rebel. And that’s the last thing they wanted.
ILJ: Do you believe there was sympathy for Zarqawi among the people of Jordan?
MICHAELIS: I really don’t know. Basically in it’s tone it’s a very moderate country. Fanaticism is not welcome there. But I’m sure he had some people who sympathized with him either because they don’t like the king or they liked to side against the Americans. So I’m sure he had some followers. But I can’t tell you how big or small.
ILJ: How have your views about Israel’s place in the world changed during your life? And how has your views of the Palestinian people changed during your life?
MICHAELIS: Oh! You have to read my biography. Three volumes! (laughs). I’m joking but it’s a big question. Basically, I don’t know if you saw some of the “Occupied Minds” film … my views have changed mainly after ’67. Because before ’67, I believed all Arabs are the same and they’re our enemies and and there is no one to relate to. And in ’67 they came under our occupation and I was part of the occupying army in the West Bank … I went into the villages and I went into the homes of people. Of course it was in my army service but then also as a journalist and I learned who the Palestinian people are and what their story is.

And that changed me radically in my way … and I thought well I have to coexist with these people. They’re not anonymous people or Jew haters as Gold Meir defined them. They are people on the same land and we have to give them a rising chance to exist. And I with other people, since ’68, immediately like, a year after the war we said if we start settling in this land it means we have ambitions for land and not for peace. And so I have not changed one inch since ’68 to today. I still think and as I said it took Olmert 40 years ... it was one of the biggest mistakes that we’re paying for until now. To not relate to them as equals with rights and settle on their land beyond the ’67 borders. This was a turning point for me in a major way.

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The ongoing struggle between Israelis and Palestinians is a flash point for all that is wrong with humanity. Two aggrieved peoples are unable to peacefully co-exist on a small piece of land. As Michaelis pointed out, this conflict is not equal in terms of force. Israel clearly holds the upper hand militarily. Both societies however appear to lack an indispensable ingredient for peace: empathy for the other. Without empathy, a just and peaceful resolution appears beyond the grasp of my lifetime.

Perhaps, one may find hope in the example of David Michaelis himself. As he noted, Michaelis served in the Israeli army in 1967. The experience however did not dehumanize him. Instead, he became an advocate for human rights. As Americans are learning, soldiers of an occupation can be dehumanized very quickly. Also, the example of his partner Jamal Dajani merits respect. Dajani became friends with someone he easily could’ve viewed as an occupier of his people. Both men learned to see the other as more than clichéd abstractions but as individual human beings. They built a visceral bridge, which is far stronger than any diplomatic piece of paper, or agreement could ever be. It is the bridges of individuals such as Michaelis and Dajani that must become the building blocks for peace.
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SIDEBAR: On May 20th, author Robert Fuller agreed to an interview on this blog about his new book, "All Rise" and the quest to replace "rankism" with a "dignitarian culture." He is also responsible for introducing me to David Michaelis. Mr. Fuller will be attending a publicity event for his book at the KGB Bar in New York City on Tuesday, June 20th. The address is 85 East 4th Street and the event is scheduled between 7:00 PM and 9:00 PM.

4 comments:

VtPoet said...

Hey Rob,

Your blog really deserves attention and is getting it.

I found the discussion fascinating. The Palestinian/Isreali conflict has always been something I could not talk about without some level of ignorance. It is a world away and a world apart... to me.

On the other hand, this talk about the Isrealis and the Palestinians also seems to be a generalization. Isn't it fair to say that the confict is really between, ostensibly, a handful of radicalized groups and individuals? One gets the impression that these are people who, on principle, do *not* want a raprochement. They are not fighting *for* anything but *against*.

There are rational individuals and there are individuals who simply won't be or are incapable of rational thought or behavior.

I don't know if you have read "The End of Faith" by Sam Harris (you might want to interview him?), but Harris makes the argument that a more fundamental obstacle to peace between nations is irrational thought and behavior (principally religious thought and behavior).

How much of this conflict between the Jews and the Palestinians (& "Arab world") has turned into a broader religious conflict in the hands of a few people -- some of whom simply have no interest in resolution?

I just don't see a way out of it, even by attrition or exhaustion. I don't see any effective opposition to those who weild the guns and dogma. They hold both populations, Isreali and Palestinian, hostage to their violence; and it is in their interest to do so...

That is to say: Extremists on both sides of the conflict appear to have been amply rewarded for their extremism?

Bill said...

Rob-

I enjoyed reading your interview with David Michaelis. He's remarkable and I'm glad to have the chance to know a little about him and his work through your blog.

John D.C. said...

Rob,

I caught a link to your blog on a comment you made on The Fix at washingtonpost.com. I have to say I'm really impressed and glad someone is out there covering these kinds of things for the "patriotic" liberals such as myself. It's always great to see Israelis and Palestinians getting along in some manner of speaking, and your portrayal of Michaelis and his friendship with a Palestinian was very poignant. It's always interesting to hear about the conflict from the perspective of an Israeli. Maybe sometime you can interview a Palestinian? Thanks for the great posts!

John DC

David Michaelis said...

Your article has been posted on my blog, http://davidmichaelis.blogspot.com/

Thanks again.