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Louis Theroux’s latest documentary, whilst rightfully welcomed as a rare glimpse of the settler mentality on British television, failed to fully portray the warped reality in the Occupied Palestinian Territories.

Although the programme offered people who know nothing of the situation to see something like the reality, it obscures the wider political context behind it. Alarm bells ring immediately because of Theroux’s persistent and uncritical use of Zionist vocabulary - not just when speaking to settlers in order to keep them on-side, but also in voice-overs addressed to the viewer. He refers “disputed areas” rather than occupied land, and to the “Jewish presence” rather than Israeli presence, conceiving the issue as religious, not political. He usually speaks of “Arabs” instead of Palestinians, and even subscribes to the term “security barrier” to describe the apartheid wall; the Israeli army is called by its official title of Israeli ‘Defence’ Force. This use of the misleading terminology of the oppressor is extremely significant and damaging to the professed pursuit of impartiality.

The programme misrepresented the truth in several crucial ways. There are some plain inaccuracies. The wall, according to Theroux “separates Israel from the West Bank” - a cursory glance at a map however, shows that the wall snakes deep inside the West Bank, separating neighbours and families, serving to expropriate Palestinian land, in particular annexing most of East Jerusalem, while excluding areas unwanted by Israel like Abu Dhis.

Theroux seems genuinely clueless, when he refers to a protest as taking place “outside” the “small town of Bil’in”, that the very land he is standing on has been stolen (and the very reason why the town’s inhabitants march to the fence weekly is to attempt to access their land.) He stands ignorantly behind the fence with the Israeli army.

Two massive problems become painfully clear at this point. Firstly, Theroux’s decision to embed himself with the army and the settlers is extremely troubling. John Pilger’s most recent film ‘The War You Don’t See’ showed how this practice inevitably skews journalistic output. Although Theroux’s signature technique is getting cosy with fringe fanatics - and he’s frequently lauded for his talent for extracting the truth from a range of bizarre interviewees - the version of reality that we see through his eyes is highly problematic. He is inside a settler’s car, for instance, when a Palestinian child throws a stone at it, but he is never in a Palestinian household subjected to a night raid by the Israeli army. An even more basic problem is that, naturally, the settlers are on their best behaviour for the cameras. The soldiers too are considerably less violent than usual.

The second enormous problem is that so many crucial facts are left out. Granted, Theroux is no polemicist, but he usually delivers a dose of reality. We expect him to tell the truth - the whole truth. But instead he commits countless sins of omission: no mention of the International Court of Justice’s statement that the wall is illegal under international law. No mention of the Green Line, the ongoing ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem, and very little on the evictions of Palestinians families in areas like Sheikh Jarrah and Silwan. No mention at all of the demolition of Palestinian homes. Nothing about the coloured ID card policy so reminiscent of Apartheid South Africa, or the bureaucratic discrimination which sees Palestinians’ permits - and therefore access to Jerusalem - regularly revoked. Not a word on plans for the Jerusalem Light Railway which will connect illegal West Bank settlements to illegally occupied East Jerusalem and further cement the occupation. Silence on the practice of administrative detention by which Palestinians are kept in jail without charge and without trial for as long as the Israeli government wants, while Israeli settlers and soldiers commit crimes with near total impunity.

In Hebron, Theroux does briefly show us a checkpoint and challenges a settler to explain the “harassment” suffered by Palestinians but in no way does justice to the commonplace violent attacks, persecution, restrictions on movement, shop closures, ritual humiliation suffered by Palestinians living in the Israeli controlled area of the city. Nor does he mention the brutal repression of nonviolent protest in Hebron or the rest of the West Bank.

Either Theroux is unaware or uninterested in the fact that Adeeb and Abdallah Abu Rahmah, two prominent leaders of the weekly non-violent protests in the village of Bil’in, were both in jail (along with around 8,000 other Palestinian political prisoners) at the time his crew was filming in the town (Adeeb has since been released; Adballah remains incarcerated despite condemnation from Amnety International and Baroness Catherine Ashton , EU High Represenative). They were imprisoned for the crime of organising peaceful demonstrations.

Instead Theroux has this to say at the demonstration: “injuries to both sides are not uncommon.” This is a classic example of bias dressed up as balance. When Palestinians demonstrate in Bil’in - and many other West Bank villages - they are fired upon by heavily armed Israeli soldiers and border police. Sometimes young Palestinians throw rocks at these soldiers. It doesn’t take a genius to guess which side incurs the overwhelming majority of injuries and has a monopoly on fatalities.

Which brings us to the passing reference to “one unlucky protestor”, killed in Bil’in when a tear gas canister was fired at his chest. This phrasing and brevity is not only insulting to the memory of Basem Abu Rahmah but also woefully characteristic of Theroux’s capacity to appear objective whilst deftly (inadvertently or deliberately, I wonder) letting Israel off the hook. The incident he refers to was not an accident, but a crime, since the army’s practice of using canisters as over-sized bullets is well documented and harrowing footage of the shooting disproves any suggestion that Basem posed a threat to anyone. (The Israeli army did not stop there, of course, but also killed Basem’s sister, Jawaher at the beginning of this year. Was she too just “unlucky”?)

Perhaps even more disturbingly, Theroux is taken to an East Jerusalem house that’s been “acquired” by “Jewish concerns” - this is the description given by Daniel Luria, an Australian Zionist who has moved to Israel and works for a group called Atterit Cohanim - an organisation which, although Theroux fails to mention it, is regularly involved in evicting Palestinians. A Palestinian man who lives next door shouts that although a couple of houses were indeed sold, the one they visit has been occupied by force while the owners were “out at a wedding”. A identical-sounding case was reported in the mainstream media - yet Theroux fails in the most basic responsibility of a journalist: to establish the objective truth. If this is indeed the same house, Theroux could and should have done much more than challenge Luria weakly, query the general principle and ask about the exact nature of the families departure and why so many of their belongings remained in the house. True, Luria’s silence on this point is telling but Theroux’s stand-offish, subtle approach verges here on wilful mystification. It’s baffling that when the facts are so readily available he either doesn’t do his research or doesn’t see fit to reveal clearly and unequivocally to his audience the horrible truth behind the acquisition of this property.

The Palestinian man living next door who brands Luria a liar, is one of few voices from ‘the other side’ who appear in the documentary. Is Theroux just not that interested in Palestinians’ daily suffering and bravery? Or is he just out to make an hour of light entertainment TV, based on a ‘point-and-stare-at-the-freaks’ formula with minimal factual content? Whatever his real agenda, the Palestinians interviewed - almost all at times of acute stress - generally acquit themselves well. This is despite Theroux’s best efforts to elicit anti-Semitism rants - even the youth who says that he “will always hate Israel” seems to have reasonable justification for doing so: the Israeli state has stolen his land, killed his friend and destroyed his life.

Meanwhile, Jawad Siyam, director of the Wadi Hilweh information centre, patiently explains the contradiction of settlers claiming they wish to live together with Palestinians yet bringing armed guards with them. When Theroux tries to elicit sympathy for the settlers, Jawad points out that they often use fake documents - accepted as valid by the racist judicial system - to steal Palestinians homes. Theroux’s perverse attempt to portray oppressors as victims falls flat on its face.

At times you begin to tire of this awkward Englishman, who feebly attempts to engage in debate but seems to know nothing of the history of the conflict he has walked into. Theroux looks absolutely absurd, chumming up to Israeli soldiers who have just been pursuing young children and when he returns to Silwan saying he is “hoping to get close to the action” it’s hard not to conclude that he is merely an occupational tourist. Though it’s clear he intends well - challenging a settler in Hebron for instance - Theroux displays a worrying lack of understanding of the Palestinian cause. He thinks he is criticising the Israeli army in An Nabi Saleh when he speaks of “the futility of trying to bring the town to order”, but it doesn’t seem to occur to him to ask why the soldiers are there in the first place - or whether the ‘disorder’ could merely be a product of their presence.

Because of his political naivety, he almost misses the point entirely. He notes that a settler’s car has a police escort; he sees a settler rally “organised by a fringe of the religious right and yet fully protected by the army”; Luria tells him that the government pay for “security” for the settlers in East Jerusalem and that housing there is state-subsidised; all these observations point to the crux of the problem. Yet the fact that the Israeli government enables, supports and allows the activities of the settlers he interviews cannot be explored in the narrow scope of Theroux’s programme. His voyeuristic fascination with strange people leads to a fatal lack of depth. Unlike the Westboro Baptist Church, who can safely be portrayed as a tiny group of oddballs, Israeli setters cannot be reduced to an isolated group of religious fanatics because of the incredible levels of support they receive from government and from rich American Zionist groups.

An Independent review called the programme “a strong argument for atheism”, while the Guardian praises Theroux for “wisely” avoiding the political situation. However, examining Israeli settlers outside of the political context of the Israeli state is like trying to understand Israel’s power and Palestinians’ oppression without referring to the complicity of North America. To Theroux’s credit, his talent for appearing disingenuous does expose the settlers’ racism and their uniquely tormented psyche, accurately described as “somewhere between embittered and entitled”. Luria, for instance, believes in an “intrinsic” inability for Jews and non-Jews to live together. (If only the programme editors could have juxtaposed this with the words of Basem Tamimi’s from An Nabi Saleh, who tells Theroux that his message for an Israeli soldier called Danny, who regularly terrorises his village is: “…if you remove the occupation from your head, and your mind and your mentality, then you will be a human, and we will be friends.”)

Most disturbingly, he elicits from an agitated Luria, an extremely revealing statement: “We either pack our bags and go back to the ovens of Auschwitz, and I’ll go back to the shores of Australia, or this is our land and it means fighting for it…tactics have changed but it’s still a war of survival for the Jewish people...”. Not an uncommon sentiment to hear expressed by an Israeli settler, this perspective illustrated how psychologically damaged many settlers are. But the “ultra” Zionists that Theroux concentrates on are arguably less of a problem than the (slightly) milder, (slightly) saner Zionists in the Israeli government. Theroux laudably ends on this important point, asking Luria if he is a religious extremist, to which the indignant response is: “Not in the slightest…if I am an extremist then millions of citizens and residents of Jerusalem…and the whole of the state of Israel are also, therefore, extremists.”

Tagged under: Palestine Middle East

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