Archive for February, 2013
On Great Photographs and Their Impact — An Analysis (24 February 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – Emotionally Moving Pictures
Some images move us, or at least should move us, to sudden insight into the consequences of our actions. Images of innocent victims of violence, particularly children, should have the capacity to penetrate the most hardened defenses and touch our hearts. However, the truth is that this does not always occur. Skewed information environments, operating over time, may condition us to react with compassion only to images depicting the suffering of our own community. When many of us see the anguish we have caused an “enemy,” we feel not compassion or regret but annoyance. The reaction is: “Why are you showing me that? Don’t you know it is their (the other’s) own behavior that made us hurt them? It is their own fault.” That we react this way to the horrors we are capable of causing is a sure sign that those same actions have dehumanized us.
Part II – The Pictures in Question
— On 15 February 2013, The World Press Photo of the Year 2012 (pasted above) was made public. The winning image (selected from 103,481 photos submitted by 5,666 photographers from 124 countries) was taken by Swedish photojournalist Paul Hansen, working for the daily newspaper Dagens Nyheter.
The photo depicts a funeral procession in the narrow streets of Gaza. Two men, visibly expressing the emotions of anguish and anger, are leading the procession. They are carrying the bodies of two-year old Sahaib Hijazi and her four-year old brother Muhammad. Both children are wrapped in white shrouds. Both were killed when their house was hit by an Israeli missile strike on 20 November 2012.
In making the announcement of the winning image, Santiago Lyon, vice president and director of photography for The Associated Press, said, “A picture should engage the head, the heart and the stomach….This picture for us on the jury reached us on these three levels.” Winning the prize with such a photo brought mixed emotions to Hansen, “I was very happy on one level, of course….And, I was also very sad. It was a very sad situation.
— On 15 November 2012, five days before Hansen’s photo was taken, another photograph showed up on the front page of the Washington Post. This image showed Jihad Masharawi, a Palestinian journalist resident in Gaza, in deep anguish as he holds the body of his dead 11 month-old son killed when an Israeli bomb landed on their home. Mary Ann Golon, the Post’s director of Photography,explained, “When we looked at the selection that night of Middle East photos from the wire services, this photo got everyone in the gut…it went straight to the heart, this sobbing man who just lost his baby son.” It should also have spoken to the head, but for some of the Post’s readers, that was not the case.
The fact that this image found its way onto the front page of the Washington Post meant that it was noticed by many more Americans than the Hansen photo. As a consequence Zionist readers and organizations wrote to the paper’s ombudsman and the editors, “protesting the photo as biased.” What they meant was that the Post should have somehow made it clear that the Palestinians had “made the Israelis do this” by periodically launching their small rockets into southern Israel. In other words, they wanted to know why the paper had not “balanced the photo of the grieving [Palestinian] father with one of Israelis who had lost a loved one from Gaza rocket fire.” The answer was that, as of that date, there were no such victims in this round of fighting. “No Israeli had been killed by Gaza rocket fire since Oct. 29, 2011, more than a year earlier.”
The Post readers who complained were obviously ignorant of this fact. It is probably the case that the Washington Post itself had done nothing to enlighten them about the asymmetric nature of Israeli-Palestinian violence. However, even if the protesting readers were aware of this factor, it might have made little difference. The grieving man was a Palestinian and, in the eyes of the staunch supporters of Israel, that made him responsible for his own grief. His enemy status delegitimized his emotions and thereby undercut the legitimacy of the photograph.
— As soon as the the Washington Post image appeared, the Israeli military started posting images of wounded Israelis, particularly children. One emotionally moving photo of a wounded baby also ended up on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s official Twitter account.
Thus began a sort of contest of emotionally moving pictures. Which ones would be seen and move the largest audience?
By virtue of their superior firepower and readiness to use it the Israelis could not win this contest. They simply were out there killing and maiming more people than the Palestinians ever could. Thus it would be Palestinian suffering that was bound to provide the most newsworthy pictures. This asymmetry was compounded by an apparent need, on the part of some Israelis, to advertise their willingness to be brutal. And so, Israeli images that were at once threatening and disturbing were posted on the internet.
— For instance, on 15 February 2013, an image was posted on Instagram, an image sharing website, by an Israeli soldier, Mir Ostrovski, who apparently belongs to a “sniper unit.” It shows the head and back of a Palestinian boy in the cross-hairs of a rifle. One assumes it is Ostrovski’s rifle. The photo was commented upon by the organization Breaking Silence, which represents Israeli veterans critical of their government’s policies toward the Palestinians. “This is what the occupation looks like,” the group wrote, “[such] pictures are testaments to the abuse of power rooted in the military control of another people.”
We can be pretty sure that was not Ostrovski’s take on the situation. The head in the crosshairs, despite its youth, belonged to an enemy.
Part III – Conclusion
The old cliche that tells us a picture is worth a thousand words, says nothing about what those words might be. As it turns out, they are not determined by the image alone. They are also determined by the state of mind of the viewer and that mind is, in turn, embedded in an information environment. In respect to Israel and Palestine, the West’s informational environment was once dominated by the Zionist narrative. That is no longer the case. The Palestinian narrative is now also present. That the first two images pasted above are in the news at all is a sign of this change. As a result, the Zionist readers of the Washington Post cry foul and speak of “bias.” It would be better if they stopped complaining and tried to look at those images with an “unbiased” mind.
Perhaps it would help them do so if they considered the words of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice and their application to the Palestinian frame of mind.
If you prick us, do we not bleed?…if you poison
us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not
revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will
resemble you in that….The villainy you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction.
The Israelis and their supporters should look long and hard at those images that depict the consequences of their own actions. They should think long and hard on the fact that they may pay for that action in kind. For it is primarily they, the stronger party, who must overcome the barriers to compassion and regret.
War and Institutionalizing Abuse — An Analysis (15 February 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – What’s War?
In the halls of Congress and confines of the Oval Office, the perception is that the U.S. is at war with an enemy called al-Qaeda. Is this actually the case or is the claim an exaggerated piece of propaganda that has conveniently captured the minds of leaders whose abuse of power has become institutionalized?
In modern history “war” most often describes a condition of armed conflict between two or more states. War is also a condition that has a discernible beginning and a definite end. Your state officially declares war, you take territory, destroy the other state’s army, its government raises a white flag, signs a cease fire or, preferably, a peace treaty, and that’s that. Sometimes, a national government will want to hide the fact that the nation is at war and, as in the case of the United States in Korea (1950s) or in Vietnam (1960s), it does so through a blatant, but no less effective, bit of propaganda: in place of a declaration of war it goes about calling its violent behavior a “police action.” In truth, however, these add up to wars waged against other states. So, at least from the point of view of custom and tradition, not just any category of hostilities can be a “war.” For instance, feuds, vendettas, punitive actions, ethnic violence, tribal hostilities and the like, as bloody as they might be, are not traditionally thought of as wars.
Part II — al-Qaeda and the War Against Terror
Unfortunately, the traditional definition of what constitutes a war is changing and not for the better. Back in 2001 the United States was attacked by a shadowy organization called al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda was not a nation nor a government nor a state of any sort. Perhaps it was a loose collection of several thousand like-minded people bound together by an ideologically similar worldview, as well as a stark sense of being wronged. I think it is accurate to say that al-Qaeda devotees saw themselves “at war” with the United States because, they believed that the U.S. had attacked the Muslim “umma,” or community. Osama bin Ladin, the head of al-Qaeda, said as much in his public “declaration of jihad” released in 1996.
However, al-Qaeda’s perspective was not binding on the American government and, in truth, it makes no sense at all for the United States to say it is at war with an entity that, from the Western point of view, was, and to some extent still is, little more than a bunch of saboteurs.
Perhaps the speech writers and government public relations officers back in 2001 understood this dilemma and so, instead of declaring that the U.S. was at war with al-Qaeda, they concocted the term, “war on terror.” It was an interesting side-step, but it too made no sense. As has been said so many times before, terror is a tactic, and one that is used by many more groups than al-Qaeda. Governments too, even the U.S. government on too many occasions, use “state terror” against other peoples. Nonetheless, it was not long before U.S. officials and politicians were using the war on terror to justify all of its reactions to the 9/11 attacks.
Under the Bush administration this may have started out as propaganda. The president wanted war, but his targets were as yet conventional nation states. Bush was a cowboy, a “bring’em on” kind of guy, who was also prone to playing fast and loose with language and rules, to say nothing of truth. He did all of this to get at those on his “enemies list.” Al-Qaeda and the “war on terror” then, were tied to those states that Bush wanted to invade. Afghanistan was an obvious one, but really, for the administration, was an unavoidable diversion from more important targets. Soon after the 9/11 attacks Bush demanded that the Taliban rulers in Kabul turn over Osama bin Laden (who was a “guest” in that country). When they equivocated and asked for evidence that bin Laden was involved in the crime, Bush did not even answer. He just pulled the trigger.
Iraq was harder to bring off. The administration had to contrive a connection between bin Ladin and the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Then they arranged to supply themselves with falacious intelligence about alleged weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If “operation Iraqi freedom” had gone as they expected, the next target was to be Iran.
None of this would have been possible if the 9/11 attacks had not put the entire country into a panic. It is moments like these when no one is thinking straight that one makes the mistakes which, in the future, one can’t help but regret. So, with nation running scared, our Congress passed the Authorization for the use of Military Force, which allowed the president to use military force against countries and groups that supported the 9/11 attacks. That was the turning point. With the “war on terror” as a one-size-fits-all cover, the government could say we were “at war” with the anyone allegedly tied to al-Qaeda and 9/11. Now, George W. Bush and his compatriots were unleashed.
Thanks to the Orwellian Patriot Act, another 2001 piece of legislative panic, the U.S. got suspension of habeas corpus, indefinite detention, searches and seizures without warrants, wiretaps without effective court oversight, and the FBI asserting the right to force your local librarian to tell them what books you borrow. All of which the American Civil Liberties Union correctly identifies as serious erosions to U.S. constitutional rights.
Part III – Institutionalizing Abuse
There is something disturbingly common about all of this. The “war on terror” that seems constituted to never end and the Patriot Act with which no real patriot could ever rest easy, are at once products of and facilitators for abusive impulses that, historically, people in power are both loath to admit to and equally loath to surrender.
To wit: Barrack Obama’s claim that he has “legal” justification (no one bothers claiming a moral justification) to kill anyone, including U.S. citizens, identified by some anonymous “informed high U.S. government official” as an al-Qaeda member posing an “imminent” danger to the United States.” There are all kinds of problems with this claim. As Marjorie Cohn has pointed out, clear evidence of an “imminent” attack is, in practice, not required. Just some official’s belief will do.
However, right now these are not the problems I wish to focus on. What interests me is that just about every modern U.S. president has broken domestic and international law in one way or another. While some turn out to be worse than others, they all do it. It doesn’t matter if it was Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush Sr. and certainly Jr., or Barack Obama. Nor, of course, is this loathsome phenomenon unique to our leaders in Washington. How come?
Here are some possible answers:
— An historical lack of accountability. Right from the founding of the nation there has been an unspoken assumption that, under certain circumstances, the president can break the law. Here are just a few early examples of this sort of notorious behavior: Andrew Jackson’s ignoring the Supreme Court in order to rob the Cherokee; James Polk’s lying to Congress so as to start a war with Mexico; Woodrow Wilson’s deplorable record of arresting and jailing non-violent dissidents during World War I. And, in each instance nothing happened to these presidents. They got away with breaking the laws they were sworn to uphold. This record inevitably has created a precedent that is for all intents and purposes institutionalized. Our modern presidents are just following the historical bearing.
I remember when Richard Nixon was exposed as a the “master mind” behind the Watergate burglary. Most people were going about saying that it was unthinkable to send a president to jail. My response at the time was that it was exactly because Nixon was the president that he must be sent to jail. Instead, he was pardoned and reemerged as the publicly acclaimed guru of foreign policy.
— Groupthink. When politicians run for office their constituency is the pool of voters who are eligible to elect them. They will speak to the likes and dislikes of the voters and propose policies that cater to their concerns. What happens after they are elected? The fact is that their constituency changes. In office, their immediate constituency becomes the political party to which they belong, its needs and, most significantly, its perceived obligations to the interest groups and lobbies which supply most of the party members with campaign funds.
This reorientation to a new constituency creates a narrowed informational environment. For instance, in the case of the president, information gathered by the mired intelligence agencies becomes acceptable or unacceptable according to its compatibility with the demands of the new constituency. The situation must influence who a president chooses for his advisers and cabinet members, for the entire group will now go about creating policies and proposing legislation shaped under the influence of these special interests. The whole process restructures the perception of what is politically desirable and what is politically possible.
Within this narrowed world, there exists the unspoken acceptance of criminal behavior on the part of the president, particularly in the realm of foreign policy. If there are disputes between Congress and the executive branch in regard to such behavior, the best one can hope for is a Congressional demand for oversight. So, in terms of drones and assassination, what you now have is the demand for some sort of judicial court (a sort of Star Chamber) to oversee the foul play. Otherwise, Congress and most of the special interest constituents accept the abuse as almost normal behavior. This makes the president’s cabinet room a safe haven for the creation and rationalization of criminal conspiracies.
Part IV – Conclusion
There are no doubt other social forces at work that facilitate the creation of such policies as assassination, indefinite detention, torture and entrapment. But, with the exception of a handful of civil liberties organizations, there has been no popular resistance to the long term drift into official criminality. Today’s public, reconciled to all of this by propaganda and the fear it creates, will not protest in any politically significant way, even though polls indicate that, when asked, they are uneasy with all of it.
One suspects that none of this institutionalized abuse of power is really necessary to assure national security. With a bit of imagination and a lot of public discussion, other ways, compatible with the Constitution, can be devised to meet the safety needs of the community. But, alas, from within the walls of Washington’s narrowed informational environment, no one thinks outside the box, and no significant change for the better can be expected.
The Gatekeepers –An Analysis (5 February 2013) by Lawrence Davidson
Part I – The Film
There is a new documentary movie about Israel, called The Gatekeepers. It is directed by Dror Moreh, and features interviews with all the former leaders of the Shin Bet, the country’s internal security organization. The Shin Bet is assigned the job of preventing Palestinian retaliatory attacks on Israel and, as described by Moreh, the film “is the story of Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories as told by the people at the crossroads of some of the most crucial moments in the security history of the country.” Along the way it touches on such particular topics as targeted assassinations, the use of torture, and “collateral damage.”
The Gatekeepers has garnered a lot of acclaim. It has played at film festivals in Jerusalem, Amsterdam, New York, Toronto and Venice, and elsewhere. It has received critical acclaim from critics and won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association’s Best Documentary Award. It has been nominated for an Oscar.
Part II — The Messages
In order to promote the The Gatekeepers, Moreh has been doing interviews and recently appeared on CNN with Christiane Amanpour. He made a number of points, as did the Shin Bet leaders in the clips featured during the interview. I shall review and critique some of these below.
— Moreh says that “if there is someone who understands the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it’s these guys” (the Shin Bet leaders). Actually, this not necessarily true. One might more accurately claim that these men, who led Israel’s most secretive government institution, were and are so deeply buried inside their country’s security dilemma that they see it in a distorted fashion (with only occasional glimmers of clarity). For instance:
— Avraham Shalom (head of the Shin Bet from 1981-1986), tells us that “Israel lost touch with how to coexist with the Palestinians as far back as the aftermath of the Six Day War in 1967….When the country started doubling down on terrorism.” But is this really the case? One might more accurately assert that Israel had no touch to lose. Most of its Jewish population and leadership has never had any interest in coexistence with Palestinians in any equalitarian and humane sense of the term. The interviewed security chiefs focus on the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza because they are the ones who offered the most resistance to conquest. But what of the 20% of the population of Israel who are also Palestinian and who actually lived under martial law until 1966? You may call the discriminatory regime under which these people live “coexistence,” but it is the coexistence of superior over the inferior secured largely by intimidation.
–Moreh also insists that it is the “Jewish extremists inside Israel” who have been the “major impediment” to resolving issues between Israel and the Palestinians. The film looks at the cabal of religious fanatics, who in 1980, planned to blow up the sacred Muslim shrine of the Dome of the Rock on Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, as well as the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin in 1995. Yet, as dangerous as are Israel’s right-wing extremists and settler fanatics, focusing exclusively on them obscures the full history of the occupation.
By the time Menachem Begin and Israel’s right-wing fanatics took power in 1977, the process of occupation and ethnic cleansing was well under way. It had been initiated, both against the Arab Israelis from 1948 onward, and against the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza after 1967, by the so-called Israeli Left: the Labor Party and such people as David Ben Gurion, Golda Meir, Shimon Peres, and Yitzak Rabin himself. Amongst the Israeli leadership, there are no clean hands.
— Finally, Dror Moreh repeatedly pushes another message: “a central theme of the documentary is the idea that Israel has incredible tactics, but it lacks long-term strategy…if [security] operations do not support a move toward a peace settlement, then they are meaningless.”
Again, this erroneous assessment is a function of being so deeply situated inside of a problem that you cannot perceive it clearly. Moreh assumes that achieving peace with the Palestinians is the only “long-term strategy” Israel ought to have and, in its absence, Israel pursues no strategy at all. However, an objective assessment of Israeli history tells us that there has been another strategy in place. The Zionist leaders have in fact always had a long-term strategy to avoid any meaningful peace settlement, so as to allow: 1. occupation of all “Eretz Israel,” 2. the ethnic cleansing or cantonization of the native population, and 3. settlement of the cleansed territory with Jews.
It is because of this same naivete that Moreh confesses himself “shocked” when Shalom compares the occupation of the Palestinian territories to “Germany’s occupation of Europe” which, of course, had its own goal of ethnic cleansing. It is to Shalom’s credit that he made the statement on camera, and to Morah’s credit that he kept the statement in the final version of the film. But then Morah spoils this act of bravery when he tells Amanpour, “Only Jews can say these kind of words. And only they can have the justification to speak as they spoke in the film.” Well, I can think of one other group who has every right to make the same comparison Shalom makes– the Palestinians.
Part III — The Retired Official’s Confession Syndrome
For all its shortcomings, the film is a step forward in the on-going effort to deny the idealized Zionist storyline a monopoly in the West. Indeed, that The Gatekeepers was made at all, and was received so positively at major film venues, is a sign that this wholly skewed Israeli storyline is finally breaking down. Certainly, this deconstruction still has a long way to go, but the process is picking up speed.
On the other hand there is something troubling about the belated nature of the insights given in these interviews. They are examples of what I like to call the “retired official’s confession syndrome.” Quite often those who, in retirement, make these sorts of confessions were well aware of the muddled or murderous situation while in office. But, apparently, they lacked the courage to publicize it at the time. It would have meant risking their careers, their popularity, and perhaps relations with their friends and family. One is reminded of the fate of Professor Ilan Pappe who did stand up and live his principles, and eventually lost his position at Haifa University and was, in the end, forced into exile. For most, however, including these leaders of the Shin Bet, their understanding was clouded and their actions skewed by a time-honored, but deeply flawed, notion of “duty” to carry on like good soldiers.
Part IV – Conclusion
To date, Israel’s leaders and Zionist supporters have shown an amazing capacity to ignore all criticism. The newly re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has let it be known that he has no intention of watching The Gatekeepers. It is also questionable how many of those who voted for him, or other right-wing politicians, will bother to seek the documentary out.
Israel’s government has recently made the decision to ignore the country’s obligations under the United Nations Human Rights Charter, a decision signaled by its representatives refusal to show up for the country’s “universal periodic review” before the Human Rights Council. Nor is there any sign that any new right-wing led government coalition will stop the ethnic cleansing and illegal colonial repopulation of East Jerusalem.
The only reasonable conclusion one can come to is that it will take increasing outside pressure on Israel, in the form of boycotts, divestment and sanctions, to convince a sufficient number of that country’s Jewish population that they must change their ways. To not change is to acquiesce in Israel’s evolving status as a pariah state. The irony of it all is that that status will have little to do with their being Jewish. Yet, It will have everything to do with the fact that, in this day and age, even the Jews have no right to maintain a racist state.