Volunteers Professionalizing Public Relations for Palestine like Never Before
Hazem Jamjoum interviews Never Before Campaign
Since the Palestine Liberation Organization replaced its strategy of resistance with one seeking a negotiated settlement to end the Zionist colonization of Palestine, the Palestinian liberation movement has been marked by fragmentation. Different groups and individuals have worked on projects and campaigns to turn back the over sixty-year tide of Zionist injustice, with varying goals and means, and often with conflicting messages. One often-deployed image is that of the “Palestinian victim” in an effort to gain sympathy, and often intentionally distanced from the other part of Palestinian reality: the Palestinian as one who struggles with all the means at her disposal to restore justice and dignity to her life.
Since 2008, a group of communications specialists in Lebanon came together to use their know-how to fill in the void, creating some of the most powerful Palestine-related video clips available on the internet. Hazem Jamjoum spoke with the founders of the Never Before Campaign.
Hazem Jamjoum: How did the idea for the Campaign come about? Tell us about your beginnings.
Never Before: Throughout 2008, we had discussed the idea of such a campaign as a way of exposing the brutality of the Israeli siege on Gaza. Something had to be done on the level of communications, which is our area of expertise. When the Israeli bombs started to fall on Gaza at the end of that year we were involved in the efforts to send relief supplies from Lebanon, but of course the siege made this work impossible, and so we started to produce the videos that we had discussed before. We made two videos during the assault – Palestine: Today I Stand Up and Palestine Like Never Before – and a third – Palestine: Today I take Justice into My Own Hands – directly afterwards. The format of these early videos was essentially similar to a slideshow presentation put to music, and since then we’ve tried to develop this into the video format that we work with today.
The main idea, or message, of the videos is not to fall into the all-too-common trope of Palestinians as victims that is invariably accompanied by an apologetic and defensive approach to Palestinian resistance. We’ve aimed to set a more proactive, even aggressive, tone for activism. This has been our strategic aim.
HJ: Can you expand on this idea of your strategic goal.
NB: We want to communicate the Palestinian cause as a cause for justice, and not to allow for distractions from the main issue which is the racist nature of the Israeli regime, and consequently the right of Palestinians to use every means at their disposal to achieve justice.
HJ: Is there a way for you to gauge the response by viewers? If so, what has the response been like? Have you developed ways to incorporate the energy of people who want to join the campaign?
NB: Mostly our ability to engage our viewers is through email and social networking media. The response has been beyond our ability to absorb the requests to join and support our work. The feedback we get has been predominantly made up of requests to translate our videos to other languages. For example, the PLO representatives in Japan asked to subtitle and screen some of the videos on Tokyo. A result of some of this support is that we’ve been able to set up Italian and French channels on YouTube. People also continually pitch ideas for videos they want us to work on based on topics they see as important.
Regarding volunteers, we took on volunteers to manage our social networking pages, some did this for a short period, others are still with us. Many of our volunteers are professionals to whom we screen rough cuts of the videos and who provide feedback, offer research, video footage, and photographs. Some use their skills in copy-editing, and also in video production and editing. One video editing studio has actually offered us the use of their equipment whenever we need it, and this has been very useful. We have to admit, though, that we haven’t been creative enough to make use of the abundance of energy asking to support the Campaign, especially since we never envisaged our work becoming a movement in and of itself.
HJ: Overall, do you feel your videos are popular with viewers? Have there been other requests to screen them to live audiences that you know about?
NB: In terms of popularity, the only way to really gauge how many people are seeing the videos is the counter on YouTube, our most popular video – I Resist – has been viewed well over thirty-five thousand times. But this isn’t fully accurate; we’ve found several sites where the videos have been downloaded and uploaded elsewhere, as well as torrents of our videos available for download. These don’t show up in hits counter. Four of our videos have been aired on Hiwar Maftouh (Open Discussion), one of the most popular shows on al-Jazeera’s Arabic channel, and we get various requests from people to screen the videos at film festivals and solidarity events.
HJ: Have you faced any problems in your work on the videos?
NB: In general, our biggest obstacle is the lack of time. We all have our own jobs, lives and other activism that we do in Lebanon.
HJ:Has there been much of a Zionist response to your work that you’ve felt?
NB: Ironically, some of the best compliments to our work have come as part of this response, especially when they characterize our work as part of a well-funded Arab campaign to delegitimize Israel. We wonder if they realize that the work is done with practically zero funding except for the equipment that is made available to us, and entirely volunteer driven. When we do have to pay for something, it comes straight out of our own pockets.
The one time the Zionist response had a deleterious effect was when we released our Christmas 2009 video Christmas in the Holy Land. It is our adaptation of the Christmas carol Silent Night, and had been viewed over twenty-two thousand times within the course of a couple of weeks when YouTube decided to remove the video for what they deemed inappropriate content. The allegedly offensive content was an image of infants killed by the Israeli military. As a general rule we do not use any of the thousands of gory images of the effects of Israeli brutality in our videos because that generally falls into the Palestinian victimization trap we consciously work to avoid. On occasion, however, this aspect of the Palestinian reality has to be shown when making a specific point, and we’ve used some images that are more explicit than this in some of our videos, especially during the Gaza war.
HJ: Then why do you think this video was singled out?
NB: We think this particular video was targeted because of the danger to Israel that is posed by sensitizing Christian communities in the west to the reality of Israeli racism and brutality, especially in the context of an Israeli public relations strategy that tries to ensure that western audiences associate Palestine with Islamic fundamentalism.
HJ: As you’ve stated, your videos particularly address perceptions of the Palestinian issue. There are, however, some very important campaigns in which people can directly work to be a part of the struggle, the campaign for Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) being the most prominent example. Is steering clear of engaging these campaigns an intentional decision?
NB: Even though we don’t explicitly promote these campaigns the idea of the videos is to offer implicit support. We are trying to provide a general resource for all of these campaigns. We have, however, engaged with specific campaigns; last year we were approached by the campaign to rescue the Mamilla Cemetery in Jerusalem to make a video, and the result was Jerusalem/Mamilla Cemetery: Victim of Israeli “Tolerance”. We encourage people to get in touch with us about specific campaigns, but of course we also work on a specific plan and strategy and these ideas have to fit within this strategy if we are to work on a proposed video.
In the end, we are trying to provide a general resource for everyone. We don’t claim copyright, and we’re often asked for high resolution versions of the videos for screening and we offer them without conditions. Al-Jazeera actually dropped our logo when they aired our videos, and we had no problem with that. We want the message to be broadcast as far and wide as possible.
HJ: Given that you are working on a particular strategy, you must be incorporating some element of self-evaluation into your work. What is your assessment of your success and failure so far, and the success and failure of communications campaigns in today’s movements for justice in Palestine?
NB: It depends mostly on the target audience. What we have set out to do has been to fill in gaps in the existing communications campaigns that have overemphasized a kind of competition in victimization. Our main target audience is youth around the world, and from what we’ve been able to gather on who follows our work suggests that we have been successful in reaching this demographic.
Regarding other campaigns, on the level of the Arab world, some campaigns have engaged in a kind of preaching to the converted, some of which has produced some excellent material, but almost all of which is colored by the political movement that produces it, whether it’s a particular party or tendency, and which are really speaking strictly to their own audience.
The Israeli propaganda machine has been quite successful in countering various “west-oriented” campaigns. This is especially the case in pro-Palestinian campaigns that distance themselves from the resistance, and which Israeli propaganda has an easy time of denigrating as attempts to hide or obscure the reality of the resistance that they characterize as terrorism. It was this shortcoming that partly brought us together to work on this campaign.
The problem with much of the pro-Palestinian communications campaigns is that they are most often not based on a strategy. That is, they are not calculated responses to Israeli Public Relations campaigns, and are more often than not, reactions to a particularly heinous event or incident. One of our main objectives in the work of the Campaign is to make use of our diverse expertise relevant to communications in coming up with a comprehensive communications strategy to offer relevant guidelines for activists, a strategy that would raise the ceiling from the current lowest-common-denominator approach, but that also includes how to deal with different audiences, how to deploy terminology, and things like that.
HJ: It sounds like you want to create a kind of clearing house for communications related resources for Palestine. How far have you reached with this, and how do the videos fit into that plan?
NB: The videos are just one tool towards the bigger plan. We’re involving other people to grow into a team that can prepare such a project that requires researchers, academics and specialists. In working on the longer-term project, we’ve started preparing a glossary of terms most often used – or not used enough – outlining their implications and connotations, and the advantages and disadvantages of their use. This came about from thoroughly studying the terms we’ve used in our videos. It’s probably important to note that apologists for Israel’s crimes are very serious about professional this aspect of their work. You can see it clearly in something like that Israel Project’s "Global Language Dictionary" where they’ve paid a PR specialist to prepare a kind of "dos and don’ts" of Zionist communications. Most of the recommended communications tactics are very shallow, but if not countered can be extremely effective if we’re not prepared to show how they distort or hide the truth of Israeli racism and brutality.
HJ: The theme of your most recent video departs from that of your other videos, and the number of people who have seen it is quite low. Do you have any thoughts on this?
NB: The low response might be partly explained by the fact that it’s been five months since we’ve produced a video. But you’re right, the most recent video – Palestine: Roadmap to Peace?” – has a clear message, which is that any peace initiative that doesn’t address the core issue, the racist nature of Israel, can only serve to postpone the inevitable collapse of the apartheid regime. Previous videos had mostly addressed a specific aspect of Israeli oppression and the struggle of Palestinians and were therefore more descriptive, this last video was more forward looking. This might be why it was not as popular.
HJ: Does this signal a shift in your videos to more prescriptive political commentary in your work?
NB: We’re currently putting together the plan for the coming year, asking for and incorporating the feedback we’re receiving to help assess where we’ve reached and where we’re going. It’s too early to say what trend we’re following.
HJ: When speaking about where we’ve reached in the struggle for justice in Palestine, the range of views ranges from the very optimistic to the depressingly pessimistic. Where do you place yourselves in this spectrum?
NB: If you look at a map of the region’s changing political geography over the past century, you will clearly see that the trend of Zionist expansion reached its peak in 1982. Since then, and with the withdrawals from the Sinai and Beirut that year, from the south of Lebanon in 2000, and the settler evacuation of 2005, you can see the map of Israel’s mini-empire shrinking. On a moral level, there is a similar trend of an increasing number of people becoming aware of the truth of what Israel is and the racism inherent in the Zionist project that underpins it. Basically, the day of justice in Palestine will inevitably come, our job is to make that day come sooner.
Hazem Jamjoum is a Palestinian writer, researcher and the former editor of al-Majdal, the English language quarterly magazine published by the Badil Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights.