UMass dismisses pro-Israel group’s complaint over professor’s film


Published: 12/7/2017 9:15:50 PM

AMHERST — A University of Massachusetts professor was recently the subject of a research complaint about one of his documentaries, and although the university quickly dismissed the accusation, the professor says it was an attempt to chill his free speech.

The complaint against communication professor Sut Jhally was filed by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or CAMERA — a Boston lobbying group that seeks to challenge criticism of Israel in the news media.

At issue was a single edit in the film “The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States,” a production of the Media Education Foundation in Northampton where Jhally is the executive director. The film “explores how the Israeli government, the U.S. government, and the pro-Israel lobby have joined forces, often with very different motives, to shape American media coverage of the conflict in Israel’s favor,” according to MEF’s website.

The documentary features clips from a 2012 piece on the show “60 Minutes,” in which reporter Bob Simon analyzes the exodus of Palestinian Christians from holy cities like Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and the role that Israel’s 50-year military occupation of the West Bank plays in that mass departure.

In the original “60 Minutes” clip, Simon discusses the Israeli-built barrier wall that separates Israel from the West Bank. Defenders of the wall say it is meant to provide security against terrorism, but Palestinians and their allies see it as an “apartheid wall” enforcing racial segregation.

The wall has faced international criticism, including overwhelming condemnation from the United Nations General Assembly and an International Court of Justice ruling that it is illegal under international law.

In Simon’s piece, he says the wall “completely surrounds Bethlehem,” but Jhally’s film does not include that portion of Simon’s segment. To CAMERA, that omission is important.

“In the part of the sentence that was spliced out, there was a factual error,” said Dexter Van Zile, a Christian media analyst at CAMERA and the person who filed the complaint with UMass.

Bethlehem is not surrounded on all four sides by the wall. Parts of the city, like a family’s home that Simon visited, are surrounded on three sides, and the city is under military occupation.

If the film’s audience had known that Jhally made that edit, Van Zile said, they would view the whole documentary in a different light. “Omissions like this are the hallmark of deceptive propaganda,” he said.

UMass officials, however, disagreed with Van Zile’s assertion. College of Social and Behavioral Sciences dean John Hird conducted the university’s preliminary review of the complaint. Hird wrote that Van Zile was right in stating that Jhally combined two of Simon’s quotes, which were roughly 40 seconds apart. But Hird said Van Zile’s allegation that the edit is a “distortion of the journalistic record” was unfounded.

“There is nothing in the MEF’s interpretation and rendering of the 60 Minutes broadcast that is deceptive, as it does not at all distort the segment’s overall meaning,” Hird’s review reads. “The 60 Minutes segment highlighted that the Palestinian Christians in Bethlehem are under the control of the government of Israel, and whether the wall ‘completely surrounds’ Bethlehem or not—an apparent error by Mr. Simon that Mr. Van Zile highlights—is immaterial to the larger point of the broadcast.”

Based on Hird’s review, Michael Malone, the university’s vice chancellor for research and engagement, determined that “there is insufficient substance to the allegation to warrant the convening of a Committee of Inquiry.”

To Jhally, who is listed as the film’s executive producer, the complaint was a pedantic attempt to chill legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies, and he worries about other scholars who might face these same types of complaints without the institutional backing that he receives.

“If I was a non-tenured professor, and I got a letter like this and I heard from the dean of research that I was being investigated, I would be so scared,” Jhally said. “They want to kind of chill the environment and the kind of questions that can be asked.”

Hird said official complaints about faculty research happen rarely — from two to six times a year.

“Our commitment to research and teaching is reflected in the principle that institutions of higher education are conducted for the common good, and that the common good depends on the free search for truth and its free expression,” Hird wrote in a statement.

Asked if his complaint was meant to have a chilling effect, Van Zile returned to his assertion that Jhally was distorting the historical record.

“He omitted a factual error that Simon made in the report,” Van Zile said. As for the university’s ruling against him, Van Zile said, “I would warn anybody that would study at UMass Amherst that if you want to be a journalist, they may not be all that interested in journalistic ethics at UMass Amherst.”

Van Zile said that in his work with CAMERA he has previously filed complaints against two professors at other institutions.

In a lengthy reply to Van Zile, Jhally said that CAMERA’s complaint is “an example of how Israel’s most extremist defenders are more offended by mathematical technicalities and meaningless semantic debates than they are about the impact of Israel’s brutal occupation on millions of Palestinians.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at
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