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Image Makers Need to Catch Up With Reality : Palestinians: If Arafat and Rabin can shake hands, Hollywood can stop perpetuating stereotypes.

September 22, 1993|JACK G. SHAHEEN | Jack G. Shaheen is a professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville.

Watching the dawning of peace on the south lawn of the White House--the mutual recognition by Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization--I silently rejoiced. Thanks to the actions of courageous political leaders, stereotypes are at last being shattered. Emotional minefields, the products of decades of fear and mistrust, are being cleared, and ignorance, the handmaiden of bigotry, is finally being vanquished.

Now, it's up to Hollywood's fantasy fabricators to stop vilifying Palestinians on the silver screen. For decades, it's been easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a Palestinian to be portrayed as a genuine human being. Given the end of mutual denial in the political arena, there are few matters more important than convincing image-makers to turn their backs on this omnipresent stereotype.

Sadly, for decades the screen Palestinian has not had a human face. The one ideological supposition perpetuated by producers and writers is this: Any Palestinian is a terrorist.

Beginning with "Exodus" (1960), more than three dozen Hollywood features have taught viewers to hate Palestinians. Films have shown Palestinians trying to blow up the President and Super Bowl spectators, torturing Marines, raping women, slaughtering Europeans, Israelis, Americans and even other Arabs.

This image has grown more, rather than less racist and humiliating over the past decade. Practicing the sins of commission and omission, image-makers always show Palestinians as perpetrators of violence, almost never as victims. Writers have their characters call Palestinians "animals," "scumbags," "sons-of-a-bitch," "f------' pigs," "a fly in a piece of s---" and stateless savages" who "massacre children" and "slash your throat for 50 bucks, American."

The insults are never contradicted by other characters in the films. In television's staged wrestling spectaculars, such as "Glorious Ladies of Wrestling," audiences hiss Palestina, "the terrorist," who is clad in fatigues and carries a prayer rug. Even after the peace agreement, talk-show hosts Chevy Chase and David Letterman derided Palestinian children in the occupied territories, ridiculed Palestinian culture. Audiences cheered.

Hollywood depicts today's Palestinian as Nazi cinema depicted yesterday's Jew: radical zealots intent on destroying "civilized" peoples.

There is a dangerous cumulative effect when image makers dehumanize peoples. Rigid and repetitive pictures do not exist in a vacuum. Teaching viewers whom to hate, whom to fear, the stereotype affects perceptions and, subsequently, U.S. public opinion and policy decisions. Explains Los Angeles Rabbi Leonard Beerman: "The invasion of rights of any single group inevitably diminish the freedom of all of us. And I think that should apply particularly now to Palestinians because they . . . have so frequently been stereotyped as being terrorists."

Counterfeit characters are not anchored. Film history shows that the metamorphosis may be frustratingly slow, but once humane portraits become visible, change occurs. To their credit, image makers are bringing about more realistic depictions of some groups. Films such as "The Joy Luck Club," "Dances With Wolves," "School Ties" and "Stand By Me" are helping to erase past negative images of the sneaky Asian, the savage American Indian, the sly Jew and the greasy Latino.

It is hoped that the future will bring us scenarios proposing positive interactions between Palestinians and Americans, Palestinians and Europeans, between Palestinians and Israelis. It would be a step in the right direction if image-makers presented scenes in which a Palestinian mother sings to her child, a Palestinian man embraces his wife, families gather to go to mosque or church, a teacher enlightens students, a doctor tends the ill.

Scenarios could focus on Israeli and Palestinian commonalities: family ties, religion, mutual sufferings and the common desire for peace. Consider one based on the courageous initiatives of Marlene Tobias, a Jewish-American woman from San Francisco, who while traveling to the West Bank, befriended Palestinian artist Kamel Mugrabi. Together with other Palestinians and Jewish-Americans, they worked on a mural stressing reconciliation rather than continuing hatred.

Writers could also develop characters modeled after real-life Palestinians. Viewers could then identify with a scholar like Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, the Palestinian spokeswoman, or a priest patterned after Father Michael Sabbagh, the Nazareth-born President of Bethlehem's Catholic University.

Producers could offer viewers a comedy about a threatened intergalactic invasion of the Middle East. Such a film could show, for the first time, Palestinians and Israelis united in repelling an extraterrestrial force.

War and conflict thrive on stereotypes and fears. Peace can only grow with truth and hope. President Clinton has called on Israelis and Palestinians to topple "the wall of anger and suspicion" by following "the values of the Torah, the Koran and the Bible." The region's peoples, he said, deserve "the quiet miracle of a normal life." To create this miracle, image-makers must emulate Clinton's wisdom, and begin humanizing Palestinians.

In 1951, Milton Berle, at the height of his fame, addressed the subject very simply, telling Danny Thomas: "There is no room for prejudice in our profession." No room indeed.

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