A donation of $25,000 to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which helps Palestinian refugees abandoned and abused by Israel, may not sound like much, but it is. The donation came from Kal Penn, an actor starring in the hit TV series “Designated Survivor” as a White House spokesman.
Penn, who also worked for the administration of US President Barack Obama as an associate for public engagement, recently won a food-related reality show called “MasterChef Celebrity Showdown.” Each celebrity selected a charity for their money, and Penn chose to help Palestinians, a people expelled from their indigenous country, Palestine, when Israel was created there in 1948.
Israel continues to refuse to recognize Palestinian refugee rights and maintains an ongoing, multimillion-dollar PR campaign that began in 1949 to “spin” facts to make it look better while making Palestinians look bad. Israel has done a good job of that, considering it receives billions of dollars each year from the US and blind loyalty from many one-sided journalists who are Jewish, Israeli or simply pro-Israel.
How many Arabs or Palestinians write columns or work for major news media in the US? It is minuscule, in part because Arab culture does not encourage young people to pursue journalism or communications careers. Communications and the information media in all its forms — news, entertainment, movies, TV and radio — are so important in molding public opinion, especially the American public.
For example, in the late 1950s Israel’s government commissioned an American PR professional to find a writer to tell Israel’s story to the English-speaking world the way Israel wanted it told. The PR man recommended Leon Uris, who wrote the powerful but wholly fictional novel “Exodus.”
That 1958 novel became a popular movie in 1960 starring Jewish actor Paul Newman. More importantly, it set in stone the narrative of how Americans would view the Palestine-Israel conflict. “Exodus” was not a boring academic dissertation, like many of the books written about Palestine. Nor was it a historical documentary. It was pure fiction.
Yet Americans embraced its storyline because it was compelling: A tiny nation, Israel, of mainly young children and farmers seeking to escape Nazi persecution, built their own place in a “land without a people.” Of course, Palestine had people. In November 1947, when the UN partitioned it into two states, there were about 1.1 million (58 percent) Muslim Arabs, 145,000 (8 percent) Christian Arabs, and 608,000 (33 percent) Jews.
Yet the UN gave Jewish residents 56 percent of Palestine, and Muslim and Christian Arabs only 43 percent, even though the Arab population was twice as large. No wonder the Arabs rejected the partition plan and Israel’s founders accepted it.
We all know these facts, but Israel did a better job of presenting them to the world. The Israelis did their homework, the Arabs did not. That has not changed since 1947. Israel continues to reinforce these myths, while Arabs and Palestinians mostly yell and scream at Israel. However, once in a while something happens that makes Americans wonder what is going on, like when Penn donated his winnings to Palestinian refugees.
Is he some kind of terrorist, according to Israel’s PR propaganda? No, he is a conscientious, successful individual who knows that while $25,000 will not solve Palestinian refugees’ problems, it will give them a public boost. Sadly though, not every media outlet covered the story, although UNRWA distributed a well-written press release to everyone.
Most Arabs simply do not know how to write a basic press release, and even more do not think things such as press releases, strategic communications and professional media spin have any value. Press releases have significant value. Despite a brilliantly written UNRWA press release, most of the coverage of Penn’s generosity was in the Arab and Israeli media — only a few American media outlets covered it.
Other celebrities have done much to help the Palestinians, such as actress Whoopi Goldberg, modern-day Einstein Stephen Hawking, actress Emma Thomson, and Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters, among others. The first, though, was Vanessa Redgrave, who helped produce a documentary showing the just cause of the Palestinian people.
Redgrave won an Oscar in 1978 for “Julia,” a film that portrayed the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust. During her acceptance speech, she mentioned “Zionist hoodlums” who protested outside the Academy Awards. Anti-Arab Jewish producer Paddy Chayefsky denounced her, as did most of the US news media.
Nearly a billion people saw and heard Redgrave’s speech condemning anti-Palestinian terrorists, but she suffered for her courage. Very few Arab media outlets and organizations made strong public efforts to support her.
The Arab world’s failure to take strategic PR and its sister profession public affairs seriously has undermined and damaged the Palestinian cause more than any other single act. It is not just Palestine that suffers.
Syrians, who are being brutalized by the military alliance of Syria, Russia and Iran, are suffering because of weak PR. The many great things that some Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia do for the American people (holding down the price of oil and thus gasoline, thereby strengthening the US economy) are suffering. Americans just do not know, not because they are stupid, but because Arabs are not doing professional or strategic PR.
Thank you Penn for your generosity. One day I hope the Arab world will see it for what it is: A principled act that deserves far more coverage and respect. It is an example of how we might educate the uneducated American public about what is happening to Palestinians.
• Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian-American former journalist and political columnist. Email him at [email protected]