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PBS Ombudsman

A Documentary That Ends With a Bang

There is one sure cure for a summertime drop-off in mail to the ombudsman: broadcast a documentary that examines the laws, and their judicial history, that Israel has put in place since the 1967 War to administer its military occupation of the West Bank and, until 2005, the Gaza Strip.

That's what the PBS series POV did on Aug. 19 with "The Law in These Parts."

[NOTE: This video will only be available online until Sept. 18.]

Not surprisingly, the Boston-based, pro-Israel media watch organization known as CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) leaped on this immediately as presenting an "anti-Israel point of view." CAMERA headlined its message to subscribers "PBS Doubles Down on Anti-Israeli Films," a reference to the fact that, as the organization sees it, two of the 15 films scheduled as part of the new POV season, "over 13 percent, are anti-Israel." The second film that CAMERA labels in this fashion is "5 Broken Cameras," which is scheduled to air on Aug. 26.

Actually, the CAMERA "alert" and analysis, which asked its subscribers to write to me and provided information about points to be stressed in their letters and phone calls, was sent out before the program aired. And most of the three dozen or so emails and calls I received were from people who had not seen the film.

Here is some of what CAMERA says about the first program. There is more to their assessment which I will cite farther down in this column where I discuss my own thoughts. I also asked POV and PBS for responses and those follow this excerpt from the media-watch group.

Through CAMERA's Lens

"PBS describes 'The Law in These Parts' as an 'exploration of the evolving and little-known legal framework that Israel has employed to administer its 40-year military occupation of the West Bank and, until 2005, the Gaza Strip.' Note that the description does not mention the reason that Israel's administration of the Gaza Strip ended in 2005, namely that Israel unilaterally withdrew from the region, forcibly removed Jewish residents and turned over working businesses that were summarily destroyed by the Palestinian Arabs who remained. The film also ignores these facts.

"Both the description and the film ignore the thousands of rocket, missile and terrorist attacks that have targeted Israel since the withdrawal. Both ignore the fact that the area is now ruled by Hamas, recognized by the United States as a terrorist group. Both ignore the complete absence of human rights, women's rights, gay rights, and minority rights in the Strip since Israel's departure. Any of these facts would serve to create a more complete picture of circumstances.

"The film contains an incredibly brief acknowledgment of the plague of terrorist attacks inflicted upon Israelis known as 'the intifada.' The filmmaker calls it 'a decade during which Palestinian residents of the occupied territories carried out mass suicide attacks in cities in the heart of Israel.' This whitewashes the violent terrorist attacks and entirely ignores the thousands of Israeli casualties.

"The documentarian is described by PBS as 'celebrated Israeli filmmaker Ra'anan Alexandrowicz,' but the network ignores the fact that Alexandrowicz has a history of making films that unfairly cast Israel in a negative light."

POV Responds

"As the title of the series indicates, POV [which stands for point of view] presents films with a definitive perspective, which can be both personal and singular. Both 'The Law in These Parts' and '5 Broken Cameras' were selected after an extensive and rigorous editorial advisory committee process . . . Each of our films are screened by outside evaluators (media professionals and documentary specialists) and support for a selection must be strong in order for the film to make it to the next editorial review panel . . . An editorial committee of PBS programmers and independent media professionals is convened to make programming recommendations. Prior seasons of POV have featured films that have thematic links.

"'The Law in These Parts' by Israeli filmmaker, Ra'anan Alexandrowicz, is an inquiry into the evolution of the system of military administration in the Palestinian Occupied Territories over the past 40 years. The film portrays the filmmaker's point-of-view using candid interviews by those that created the legal infrastructure. Mr. Alexandrowicz is transparent about his cinematic approach and that the piece represents his personal perspective. The film won the World Cinema Jury Prize at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival.

"'5 Broken Cameras' was made by a Palestinian filmmaker named Emad Burnatin in collaboration with Israeli filmmaker Guy Davidi. It is a deeply personal narrative from one village in the Palestinian Territories that was nominated for an Oscar in 2013. The filmmakers' previous works has been featured on Israeli and French broadcast television and at the Jerusalem Film Festival to critical acclaim.

"While both these films are quite different from the other, both in terms of aesthetics and perspective, there are thematic links between them. Taken together, these two films provide unique inside views that contribute to a broader conversation about a complex, interwoven set issues of international importance."

And This from PBS

"A key part of our mission is to present ideas and viewpoints from a wide variety of perspectives. Across our schedule, PBS examines the complex issues surrounding Israel in a number of programs, including our news and public affairs series, and others. For example, an interview with Michael Oren, Israel's ambassador to the United States, was featured on Tavis Smiley last month, and the NewsHour's coverage of the Middle East is considered some of the best ongoing journalistic work in that area. Charlie Rose recently featured an extended interview with Jeffery Goldberg, a well-respected commentator and expert on the Middle East and national correspondent for The Atlantic magazine, about the Israeli perspective on the recently convened peace talks. And later this year, we will be presenting Israel: Facing the Future. In this film, BBC journalist John Ware journeys to Israel to explore and highlight the many different experiences and perspectives of contemporary Israelis as their country and society evolve. We are proud to serve as a catalyst for conversation and discussion and hope that viewers across the country see PBS as a trusted window to the world.

My Thoughts

First, a curiosity. I wound-up watching this film online a day after POV's normal Monday evening slot for its national broadcast because none of the three major PBS-member stations in the Washington, D.C., area aired it on their main channels, and only one, WETA, even has it scheduled (for Sunday, Aug. 25, at 12:30 a.m.) on its main channel.

And a coincidence. The cover story of The New York Times Magazine this past Sunday, Aug. 18, the day before POV normally airs, featured documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and her role in aiding the former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden in publication of a trove of classified NSA documents. Poitras is listed as one of two executive producers of the POV film.

As you can tell by reading the POV/PBS responses above, they do not deal with many of the hot-button points that CAMERA raises in its critique. "Neither film," the media-watch group says in its assessment, "paints a fair picture of the security threats Israelis face nor the extent of the Palestinian terrorist attacks they have endured."

Despite the failure by POV/PBS to address many of CAMERA's arguments, I will come to the defense of this film, but only to a point; and it is a big point that supports one of CAMERA's main criticisms. This is hard to explain. I did not find "The Law in These Parts" to be "anti-Israel" in the way CAMERA portrays it. Yet it ends in a way that I found inconsistent with the investigative, probing nature of the film and rather suddenly — literally in the closing minute — does casts the filmmaker and all that has come before on the screen in a different light. CAMERA catches this and they were right to do so.

Why I Don't See It as 'Anti-Israel'

First, this PBS series presents films that have a "point of view." Second, this is an Israeli filmmaker. The film, a longer version of which first aired in Jerusalem in 2011, is in Hebrew (with subtitles in English) and all of the main characters interviewed are Israelis. They are the nine retired military judges, lawyers, prosecutors and legal advisors who agreed to be questioned by Alexandrowicz on camera about the decisions they made, the laws they helped put in place and how they've functioned in the aftermath of the 1967 war. These laws are overseen by the Israeli Defense Forces, which makes the Israeli rule over these territories of unique and special interest.

The film deals with, as the POV description states, "the legal architecture of military occupation, but also its human impact on both Palestinians and Israelis. The film asks a question as troubling as it is unavoidable: Can a modern democracy impose a prolonged military occupation on another people while retaining its core democratic values?"

The film is not a detailed account of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Rather, it focuses on the legal infrastructure operating in the territories, something that, in my experience of watching Middle East conflict over many years, indeed does not get much attention. So I found these stark exchanges between the questioner and these aging but still very sharp former Israeli officers very illuminating. Such a program is virtually certain to attract criticism from pro-Israel organizations in the U.S. But one of the strengths of Israeli democracy is that controversial issues and policies are openly and hotly debated there, and my sense is that American viewers of PBS can absorb this film and its out-of-the-ordinary insights and still keep it in the context of a broader struggle that they already have been exposed to steadily for decades.

I've read 10 or so reviews of this film, which opened in the U.S. last year. It gets quite high marks from critics generally. The criticism it draws is mostly about technique. But none, as far as I've seen, portray the film as anti-Israel.

Just a few examples: Kenneth Turan, film critic for The Los Angeles Times described it as "compelling and provocative," dealing "fearlessly with an aspect of that country's legal and political system." The New York Times called it "sober and sobering . . . fundamentally an inquiry into justice." Variety says "one of Israel's most creative nonfiction filmmakers places judges and attorneys on the cinematic witness stand to explain Israel's contorted 45-year-old military legal structure governing Palestinians in the Occupied Territories."

A Journalistically Troubling Ending

Throughout an hour and 20 minutes of "The Law in These Parts," there is little doubt about where filmmaker/questioner/narrator Ra'anan Alexandrowicz stands with respect to the justness of the Israeli military justice system in the West Bank. But his questions to the former Israeli officials are tough, probing, legitimate, and they are met with candid, revealing and contextual replies.

But in the last two minutes or so of the film, Alexandrowicz reads a statement made to a military court by a defendant, Bassem Tamimi, in a 2011 case. It is very powerful. It encapsulates succinctly and almost perfectly virtually every core argument of the Palestinians against occupation. No Palestinian leader could have said it, or written it, better.

But unlike the rest of the program, it is just left there, leaving no doubt about the filmmaker's views but lots of questions, for me (and for CAMERA). Who is Tamimi? Is his account accurate? Why was he arrested previously? Why is he now facing prosecution?

I, personally, found this quite disturbing, not because of what Tamimi's statement says, but because its non-contextual use came across as a propagandistic touch to a program that had a point of view but still managed to serve until near the very end as an informative documentary. It was like the filmmaker saying to viewers, just in case you don't understand where I'm coming from, here it is.

At the risk of making an already long column even longer, here is the reported statement of Tamimi as read by Alexandrowicz, followed by CAMERA's take.

The Statement from Case Number 2058

"Your honor, I was born in the same year as the occupation, and ever since, I've been living under its inherent inhumanity, inequality, racism and lack of freedom. I have been imprisoned nine times for a sum total of almost three years, though I was never convicted of any felony. During one of my detentions, I was paralyzed as a result of torture. My wife was detained, my children wounded, my land stolen by settlers, and now my house is slated for demolition. International law recognizes that occupied people have the right to resist. Because of my belief in this right, I organize popular demonstrations against the theft of more than half of my village's land. Against settler attacks, against the occupation. You, who claim to be the only democracy in the Middle East, are trying me under laws written by authorities I have not elected, and which do not represent me. For me, these laws do not exist; they are meaningless. The military prosecutor accuses me of inciting protesters to throw stones at the soldiers. What actually incited them was the occupation's bulldozers on our land, the guns, the smell of tear-gas. And if the military judge releases me, will I be convinced there is justice in your courts?"

Alexandrowicz adds this to end the program: "Bassem Tamimi is standing trial in the military court at the same time that work on this film is being concluded. I will probably move on to document another subject."

CAMERA Sees It Differently

"The filmmaker ends the film by reading a lengthy statement by Bassem Tamimi, who he describes simply as a 'defendant.' He never explains that Bassem Tamimi has frequently organized violent protests against Israelis near his town of Nabi Saleh, even encouraging his own children to engage in stone-throwing.

"The violence does not end there. Even a New York Times Magazine story, sympathetic to the Palestinian narrative, related: 'In 1993, Bassem told me, his cousin Said Tamimi killed a settler near Ramallah. Eight years later, another villager, Ahlam Tamimi escorted a bomber to a Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem. Fifteen people were killed, eight of them minors. Ahlam, who now lives in exile in Jordan, and Said, who is in prison in Israel, remain much-loved in Nabi Saleh.'

"In other words, Alexandrowicz provides a megaphone for a family of murderers. Though the filmmaker has the right to his point of view, POV ought to share these details with viewers in order to truly 'educate, inform and inspire.' The network should set the record straight, instead of running yet another anti-Israel film the very next week . . ."

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