LOS ANGELES (Aug. 27)
Arab Americans have charged the Walt Disney company with alleged Arab-bashing and defamatory stereotypes in two Disney films.
A spokesman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, which organized a protest last week outside the Disney studio in Burbank, Calif., said in an interview he did not believe that there was a “Jewish cabal” in Hollywood orchestrating negative portrayals of Arabs.
But Don Bustany of the ADC said he “presumed” that the three top Disney executives, Michael Eisner, Michael Ovitz and Joe Roth, were Jewish.
“I don’t believe that the Disney executive board sits down to figure out how to get the Arabs,” Bustany said. “However, there may be a tacit agreement among some supporters of Israel, who believe that by vilifying Arabs they help Israel.”
Bustany did not call for a boycott of Disney films, as did conservative Protestant groups, which recently objected to the studio granting health insurance benefits to partners of gay employees.
The protesters’ ire was directed against two recent Disney productions, “Kazaam,” starring Shaquille O’Neal, which includes various Arab villains. Among them is a black marketeer named Malik, which is Arabic for “owner,” Bustany said.
Last year’s “Father of the Bride, Part II,” introduced a nasty, sharp-dealing neighbor named Habib, a character not found in the book on which the film was based.
ADC officials also charged that Disney executives had broken an oral promise to consult with the organization in the portrayal of Arab and Muslim characters. The alleged promise was given three years ago, after a flap over lyrics in the animated feature “Aladdin.”
The offending lyrics were changed when the film was released in home videos.
In the “Aladdin” controversy, the Anti-Defamation League publicly backed the Arab position, but not this time.
“We did think that the lyrics in `Aladdin’ were problematic, and said so,” said David Lehrer, regional ADL director. “But the current protest looks like a broad-scale attack on Disney and the movie industry, and we will not participate in it.”
However, Sanford Weiner, a veteran local federation and American Jewish Congress lay leader, said he fully agreed with the protesters’ dismay at the portrayal of “Habib” in “Father of the Bride.”
“I saw the film in a sneak preview and was outraged,” said Weiner. “It was a despicable portrayal. If the character had been labeled as Jewish, there would have been protests all over the place.”
John Dreyer, Disney’s head of corporate relations, declined to comment on any aspect of the controversy.
Meanwhile, Salaam Al-Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council in Los Angeles, is trying to get the attention of the film industry in another way.
He is organizing a Sept. 13 conference for Hollywood marketing executives to give them “a more sophisticated understanding of Arab culture, which is a subset of the Muslim world,” he said.
Al-Marayati will also discuss how to market films and videos in Islamic countries. So far, Steven Spielberg’s Dream Works and Warner Bros. have accepted, but Al-Marayati said he had not heard from Disney and other studios.
“Jews should be particularly sensitive to ethnic stereotyping, because they have suffered from it for centuries,” said Al-Marayati. “In a sense, Islam has replaced Judaism as the world’s new villain.”