Monday, February 26, 2007

Chutzpah for Oscar Week

That same illness that seems to be responsible for performers cancelling out around the world (including the visiting conductor in San Francisco this past weekend) is about the only excuse I can give for being late with the Chutzpah of the Week award. However, had it not been for my wife wanting to follow the red-carpet coverage outside the Kodak Theater last night, I might not have realized how appropriate this week's award was to the "week of Oscar fever." If I may have the envelope, please, the award goes to the film Obsession: Radical Islam's War Against the West, which is billed as a documentary but, as was reported in The New York Times, was better described by Professor Arnold Leder, who teaches a course called "The Politics of Extremism" at Texas State University, San Marcos, as polemic.

In her Times article, Karen Arenson provides the following context for this film:

Three years ago a video produced by a pro-Israeli group featuring Jewish students’ complaints of intimidation by Middle East studies professors at Columbia set off a campus-wide debate over freedom of speech and academic freedom, prompting an investigation that found some fault by one professor but “no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.”

Into this milieu stepped the producer of “Obsession,” Raphael Shore, a 45-year-old Canadian who lives in Israel, with the documentary. It features scenes like the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and Muslim children being encouraged to become suicide bombers, interspersed with those of Nazi rallies.

The film was directed by Wayne Kopping of South Africa, who had worked with Mr. Shore previously on a documentary about the failure of the Oslo peace efforts in the Middle East. Mr. Shore said in a recent interview that they had not set out to make a film for college students but to spur action against Islamic terrorism. “We want to spread this message to all people that will stand up and make a difference in combating this threat,” he said.

It would thus appear that Mr. Shore would not dispute Professor Leder's classification of his film as polemic, so it may be more appropriate to direct the award to campus organizations, such as Hillel, that have been arranging screenings of the film under the pretense of initiating an objective discussion of the current problems in the Middle East. As Arenson pointed out, the real chutzpah may lie in how these "discussion forums" are being managed:

The documentary has become the latest flashpoint in the bitter campus debate over the Middle East, not just because of its clips from Arab television rarely shown in the West, including scenes of suicide bombers being recruited and inducted, but also because of its pro-Israel distribution network.

When a Middle East discussion group organized a showing at New York University recently, it found that the distributors of “Obsession” were requiring those in attendance to register at, and that digital pictures of the events be sent to Hasbara Fellowships, a group set up to counter anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses.

“If people have to give their names over to Hasbara Fellowships at the door, that doesn’t have the effect of stimulating open dialogue,” said Jordan J. Dunn, president of the Middle East Dialogue Group of New York University, which mixes Jews and Muslims. “Rather, it intimidates people and stifles dissent.”

Yesterday I wrote about the danger of compelling rhetoric that reinforces an opinion we already want to have. If the operative metaphor for the Middle East is the powder keg, then Mr. Shore may be offering a lighted match to anyone wishing to check if the keg is empty. It is the last thing we need to try to restore a sense of stability and civil discourse, and to pretend that it is being done in the name of furthering discussion is chutzpah indeed.

No comments: