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Around the Jewish World Film Blasting Media Coverage of Mideast Galvanizes French Jews

February 10, 2003
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Even after 10 screenings a day for the past two weeks, a film charging that the French media is biased against Israel is still playing to packed houses in Paris.

The film, “Decryptage” or “Decoding,” has caught the mood of French Jews who long have felt that the French media’s depiction of the Mideast shows a pro-Palestinian slant.

The film’s producers, Jacques Tarnero and Philippe Bensoussan, say it is “an opinion piece rather than a documentary.” But the film has succeeded in provoking widespread debate in the French media, not only for its content but also for the fact that it appears to have struck a chord among French Jews.

Each day, French Jews have gathered outside the Arlequin cinema in the heart of Paris’s movie district on the Left Bank of the Seine, in what often appears more a gesture of solidarity with Israel than a desire for a night out.

The lines stretch down the street, and people who can’t get tickets are forced to return for later showings.

“People come to feel united. It’s something between personal therapy, a family visit, the synagogue and a football game,” Bensoussan explained.

Indeed, the vast majority of viewers are Jews, a fact that irritates some in the audience.

“I knew everyone in there,” student David Biton, 17, told JTA. “It’s a good film, but it’s much more important for non-Jews to see it. They should put it on at other cinemas. It’s difficult enough as it is just to get tickets here.”

Biton came to see the film with three friends, all classmates from his Jewish school in Paris. Most of his family and friends had seen the movie, he said, but he had had little success persuading non-Jewish friends to come.

“They should put it on TV,” Biton said. “Then people might see the truth instead of the disinformation they constantly feed us.”

“Decryptage” claims that there is a persistent campaign by important sections of the French media — most notably by the leading daily, Le Monde, and the international press agency, Agence France Presse — to blame Israel for the outbreak of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000.

The film charges that major French television channels consciously and deliberately blamed Israel’s then-opposition leader, Ariel Sharon, for the violence that began the day after his visit to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.

Moreover, the film details what it describes as evidence that the Palestinian Authority planned the intifada even while it was involved in peace negotiations with Israel, details that were ignored or glossed over by French media.

The film also includes footage of how Palestinian children are educated to hate Israel and Jews. It also strongly criticizes the portrayal by the France 2 television channel of the death of a young Palestinian teen-ager in Israeli- Palestinian crossfire in the Gaza Strip in October 2000.

The image of the boy’s death, captured by a French cameraman, became one of the indelible early images of the intifada and was used to whip up anti-Israel sentiment around the world — even though investigations later showed that he might well have been killed by a Palestinian bullet.

But the film is not simply an apologetic for the current Israeli government; indeed, both Tarnero and Bensoussan are somewhat left of center when it comes to the Middle East.

Rather, they were motivated to produce “Decryptage” by what Tarnero describes as “a hateful holding to account of Israel and an intellectual scandal in France and in Europe.”

“We have nothing against criticism of the policies of the government of the State of Israel,” Tarnero states in the film’s preamble. “But what we have seen for two years now, and under the appearance of political criticism, is just demonization, defamation and denunciation” of Israel.

The film takes as its starting point the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. It includes interviews with leading members of Israel’s peace camp — such as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and his foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami — as well as left-wing intellectuals in Israel and France.

From the moment of its release Jan. 22, “Decryptage” has gotten much publicity in the French media — though many publications accused it of presenting only one point of view.

Typical were the comments of Ange-Dominique Bouzet in the center-left daily Liberation, which itself comes in for criticism in the film. Bouzet described “Decryptage” as a “propaganda documentary” that is part of “a militant attempt at disinformation.”

However, Philippe Cohen of Marianne noted that “Decryptage” was very much “a symptom of the fracture between those who guard Palestine in their hearts and those who live Israel in their guts.”

Later, even Liberation ran a two-page spread on “Decryptage,” describing it as a “docu-mirror of French Jews.”

” ‘Decryptage’ has mobilized the community,” the paper said.

Interestingly, Marianne also wondered whether campaigns for more balanced media coverage of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict were starting to have an effect.

Criticizing the tendency of the French media to see things in black-and-white terms, Marianne’s publisher, Jean- Francois Kahn, wrote that the media was “generally pro-Palestinian, in the same way it was or is pro-Biafran, pro- Bangladeshi, pro-Bosnian or pro-Chechen.”

Nevertheless, there was an increasing attempt within the media to adopt a more balanced approach to matters both Jewish and Israeli, “and we can only rejoice about that,” he said.

Even among Jews lining up at the Arlequin, there was agreement on that score.

“You know, I watch TV here and I see the news, but I have children in Israel so I see both sides,” Suzy Soussan told JTA. “But it’s getting better here and there’s a lot less negative reporting because, finally, the community is doing something about it.”

“Decryptage” ends with the famous quote from Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me?”

With the seats at the Arlequin still filled to capacity, French Jews appear to have taken the message very much to heart.

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