Suicide Bombing “for a Higher Ideal”?: Germany’s Central Office for Political Education on “Paradise Now”
Back in February, it was the smash hit at the Berlin Film Festival: Hany Abu-Assad’s “Paradise Now”, a sympathetic portrait of two young Palestinian suicide bombers. Now it is out in German theaters and Germany’s Federal Bureau for Political Education has produced a brochure to go with the film. Matthias Küntzel has seen the film and read the brochure. – JR
They are free in all German movie theaters where “Paradise Now” is showing: 24-page brochures published by the German federal government’s Federal Bureau for Political Education (BPB) about the suicide-bomber drama that is recommended as “especially valuable” for young people starting at fourteen years of age. The brochure is intended to be used for educational purposes, and indeed the Abaton Cinema in Hamburg is already offering special screenings for school classes. "It was important for us that the film should not be received without commentary," explained the President of BPB, Thomas Kruger, in conversation with the newspaper the Tageszeitung (29 September 2005). "If teachers discuss the film critically, this could prevent students of Turkish or Arab origin from watching it in a naive way. Thus, the basis for their possible need to identify with the main characters will be removed."
Leaving aside the question of why the BPB is recommending for educational use a movie that urges all viewers to identify with Palestinian mass-murderers: what makes Thomas Kruger think that his brochure will undermine such identification? The contrary is rather the case. With this brochure, Kruger’s public agency is acting as a Central Office for Middle East Disinformation and Terror Acceptance. While one could give the movie itself the innocuous label of an “artwork”, the brochure falls into another category: that of a state-sponsored political and educational initiative. These materials do not call into question empathy with anti-Jewish mass-murderers, but rather expect it. Here the history of the Middle East conflict is not set straight, but rather distorted in such a way as to encourage an uncritical reception of “Paradise Now”. The brochure is politically and morally unacceptable. It should be withdrawn from circulation as quickly as possible.
Firstly: In the movie, all Israelis are evil perpetrators, and all Palestinians are good-natured victims. The terrorist propaganda that is portrayed remains uncontradicted and gets integrated into this dichotomous framework. Thus, the designated suicide bomber Khaled legitimates his actions with the argument that Israel “[does not want to] accept any two-state solution.” The Palestinians, he maintains, have “exhausted every political means” to achieving this goal. Because they have gotten nowhere, there is no longer an alternative to suicide bombings.
Any, as Thomas Kruger puts it, “critical reception“ of the film should have disputed such a presentation. The Jewish side supported a two-state solution not only in 1937 and 1947, but also in 2000, when, in the course of the negotiations at Camp David over Prime Minister Barak’s Middle East peace plan, this solution was closer to being realized than ever before. However, Yassir Arafat left the negotiating table, and immediately thereafter gave the green light for the second Intifada.
Instead of correcting the mistakes in the film’s presentation, the BPB lesson plan pursues the historical revisionism still further. Thus, “Camp David” is not even mentioned in the included “Time Table of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict”. As though these efforts to achieve peace had never taken place, the chronology lists only the following events:
- 15.1.1997: Hebron Agreement
- 24.5.2000: Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon
- 28. 9. 2000: Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem leads to the beginning of the second Intifada
This gives the impression that the subsequent string of suicide bombings was not set in motion by Arafat’s breaking off negotiations, but by an opposition politician from Israel. This “time table” is also manipulative in other respects. For example, concerning the key year 1967, students learn the following: “June 5-10, 1967: Six-day War against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.” Is, then, the occupation of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank supposed to have been the result of Israeli aggression? One does not have to be a friend of Israel to reject the use of this kind of historical distortion for instructional purposes.
Instead of encouraging students to maintain a critical distance from “Paradise Now”, the BPB reproduces the movie’s anti-Zionist fury in its own “worksheet” for instructional use. In the presentation for the students, the policy of dialog and negotiation with Israel is not even mentioned as an option. Instead, Assignment 1 offers the following three statements for discussion: “Whoever fears death is already dead”, “No freedom without struggle”, and “Resistance can take many different forms”. Students are supposed to work in small groups to gather arguments that "either support or refute" these statements and to illustrate their arguments with examples. Resistance against Israel, struggle against Israel, killing yourself against Israel – just as in the movie, no other form of conflict resolution makes an appearance in this lesson plan.
Secondly, “Paradise Now” accentuates the anti-Semitic perception of the Middle East Conflict. Thus, in one incidental scene, Jewish settlers are accused of contaminating the Palestinians’ water with a poison that kills off their sperm. This accusation mobilizes the anti-Semitic stereotype of Jews as “well-poisoners” that has been widespread in Europe since the beginning of the Black Death. At the same time, the movie transmits an anti-Zionist form of anti-Semitism that gets expressed in the demonization and delegitimization of Israel.
The concept of the “collaborator”, which plays a central role in the film, thus serves as an anti-Semitic code word. On the one hand, in German usage this word bears the strong connotation of referring to Nazi Germany. Thus, its use covertly serves to equate Israel and Nazi Germany. On the other hand, the movie takes it for granted that any person who supports Israel or merely cooperates with Israel thereby signs his or her own death warrant. By virtue of this doctrine, which has its origin in the policy of the Mufti of Jerusalem between 1936 and 1939, Israel is delegitimized to an almost unsurpassable degree. Israel is demonized by Said – the main character in the film who eventually carries out his suicide bombing – as a power that is itself responsible even when Palestinians kill other Palestinians, such as occurred in the case of Said’s father.
Does the worksheet at least on this point live up to the demands of truly critical political pedagogy? Not at all! I quote from Assignment 2: “Form two teams. Each team is to write an internal monologue on one of the scenes from the perspective of Said. Use the following questions to guide your reflections: What does Said perceive? How does he feel? What does he think? What decision does he make? What factors influence these decisions?” Of all the question that could have been posed, does Thomas Kruger think that precisely questions like these will prevent students from identifying with Said?
A critical guide to the film would not only have deciphered the anti-Semitic code words. It would also have had to draw attention to Palestinian anti-Semitism, such as comes to light in its most radical form in the Hamas Charter and the Hizbollah TV channel Al-Manar. But the concept of anti-Semitism does not appear anywhere in the entire brochure. Even Hizbollah is presented innocuously as an “organization with an anti-Zionist orientation.”
Thirdly, as Alan Posener has noted, “Paradise Now” abstracts from the immediate results of the bombing: “Women without abdomens, men without heads, children without arms and legs, blood and entrails on the seats, burned pieces of flesh everywhere. None of that: after a close-up of Said’s eyes, the screen becomes completely bright and white and pure” (Die Welt , December 28 – for extracts in English, see here on Medienkritik). The minimum ethical response to such an act does not even appear in the BPB study aid as a possibility worthy of reflection. The authors of the brochure appear to consider suicide bombing absurd only when it hits the wrong target. Thus, we read on Page 6: “When Said returns to the West Bank again and wanders around with the explosives on his body, he suddenly becomes a danger to his own people – and in this moment the planned bombing is reduced to an absurdity.” Nota bene: “In this moment”! Would it thereby make sense in striking Jews?
In their support for Said and Khaled, the authors of the brochure go still further. They construct a link between Hizbollah and Hamas, on the one hand, and the French sociologist Emile Durkheim, on the other. Under the heading “A Short History of Suicide Attacks”, they write:
Emile Durkheim [analyzed] suicide “for a higher ideal” as a social phenomenon and coined for it the concept of “altruistic suicide”. 50 years later, the feared Japanese kamikaze pilots would fit in Durkheim’s schema.
In the Duden [German] dictionary, altruism is defined as “a mode of thinking and acting characterized by consideration for others”. For the BPB to associate anti-Jewish mass murder with the concept of “altruism” is scandalous. Since at the latest 2001, the suicide bomber has become the ultimate horror figure, because in him or her a constant of human nature, the instinct for self-preservation, seems to be absent.
A critical guide to “Paradise Now” would have set in relief the ideological driving force behind this horror and would have made clear that suicide attacks against Israelis always escalate when peaceful solutions to the conflict appears on the horizon; that Islamist propagandists have persistently and firmly rejected the idea that “desperation” is the motive for the attacks; and that as part of the program of the Muslim Brotherhood this form of jihad has since the 1930s always carried anti-Semitic connotations. In particular, however, the brochure would have had to have challenged the core message of the film: namely, that suicide bombers are just people like you or me and that the mass murder they carry out is just a topic for discussion like any other.
The BPB made a different choice. Just as in the film, also in its brochure, the few critical objections that one can find against suicide attacks are tactically motivated and subordinated to the broad anti-Israeli lines of the presentation. Let us consider as a final example the dialogue between the “human rights activist” Suha and the would-be suicide bomber Khaled, which is documented in the BPB guide:
Suha: If you go so far as to kill and to die for equal rights, why don’t you use this energy instead to find a peaceful solution?
Khaled: How? By working in your human rights organization?
Suha: That’s one possibility. At least we don’t give the Israelis an alibi to continue killing!
Khaled: You’re so naïve. Without struggle, there’s no freedom. Somebody has to do it: to sacrifice in the struggle against injustice.
Suha: Sacrifice? That’s revenge! You kill and you become just like them.
Here Suha formulates two objections. In the first place, one should not give the Israelis an “alibi” “to continue killing” – as if this was the principal occupation of “the Israelis”. In the second place, the suicide bomber would become “exactly like them”, like the Israelis. Of course, in the school assignment the use of this dialogue could have led to the analysis of Suha’s bad arguments, in order then to develop better ones against suicide terror. But far from it. In Assignment 3 of the work sheet as well, the pedagogical principle of learning through debate is reduced to one guiding question: how can Israel be combated most effectively? The last of the three exercises refers to the above dialogue and is formulated as follows:
Summarize Khaled’s motives for undertaking a suicide attack in some keywords. With the help of Suha’s statements, develop a plea that a family member of a suicide bomber might write against such an attack.
“Paradise Now” was largely filmed in Nablus and it is a product of the atmosphere of intimidation that has become a feature of every day life in the autonomous Palestinian territories. Thus, the manuscript had to be submitted to the terrorist militias (Jerusalem Post, 27 September 2005). It is hardly surprising that a movie filmed under such circumstances would avoid any principled argument against the killing of Israelis.
On the other hand, the BPB was under no pressure from armed bands when it took the decision to provide political and pedagogical cover for this plea for understanding for suicide bombers. The withdrawal of the brochure from circulation can only be the first step. There is no longer any reason to have confidence in the seriousness of the “pedagogical work” of those responsible for it. They have to go.
Translated from the German by Matthew Light and John Rosenthal for Transatlantic Intelligencer
[Note: Click here for the complete Trans-Int Dossier on "Germany and 'Paradise Now'".]
- October 10th, 2005