My Word: Photo essays and historical narratives

The propaganda war has no set battlefield. And anything goes.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, January 5, 2014. (photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)
US Secretary of State John Kerry, January 5, 2014.
(photo credit: Matty Stern/US Embassy Tel Aviv)

Here’s my dilemma: On the one hand, I hope that US Secretary of State John Kerry reads what I write (which journalist wouldn’t?); on the other hand, I hadn’t realized that the decorated war hero is so sensitive.

If the off-the-record comments by Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon leaked by an anti-government newspaper can cause a crisis with the US administration, I fear that the honorable secretary, medals for bravery notwithstanding, might be unable to take the public criticism I have dealt him and the administration he represents during his remarkably frequent trips to the region. By region, I mean his numerous visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah rather than his attempts to solve the bloodshed and revolutions going on elsewhere in the Middle East. But there I go again.
I know that some of my barbed comments have left a mark. One reader recently threatened to cancel her subscription because I wrote following the charm offensive by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani: “I’m not entirely unsympathetic to Obama’s predicament. I understand that he is tired of being ‘the world’s policeman.’ But that doesn’t mean he should act the global village idiot.”
Fortunately, other readers wrote in to compliment me not only on the turn of phrase but also on the sentiments.
Ya’alon has neither fully apologized for his comments nor claimed he was misquoted, the usual let-out of politicians in these circumstances.
For the record, unlike Ya’alon’s criticisms as reported in Yediot Aharonot, I don’t think that Kerry is motivated by a sense of messianism or an incredible longing for a Nobel Peace Prize. But I do sometimes get the impression that among the things that keep him going – there and back, there and back – is the belief that achieving even a temporary peace between Israel and the Palestinians could only help if he decides to run again for president. Obama, extraordinarily, received the Nobel simply for being elected. I admire Kerry for working much harder, whatever it is that drives him.
Actually, I think Kerry’s intentions are good. It’s where the road they are paving leads that worries me.
And not just when it comes to the Palestinians and Israel.
The Syrian situation is also unbearable.
Last week, a Facebook friend shared a photo purporting to show an orphan sleeping between the graves of his parents in Syria. The word “heartbreaking” appeared throughout the thread of comments in Hebrew, English and Arabic. This photo is touching wherever it was taken and is just as applicable to the victims of war in other places, noted my friend – a feeling with which I could concur even as I decided that the desert scenery did not look like what I know of Syrian terrain.
The touching photo had not been Photoshopped, as I suspected. It was in fact literally a work of art.
The picture originally posted by Syrian opposition leader Ahmed Jarba was not of an orphan and not taken in Syria. It was the work of a Saudi Arabian photographer who mobilized the help of his nephew for an art project on the theme of the bonds between parents and children. The (burial) plot thickened, however, as Jarba reportedly requested that photographer Abdel Aziz al-Atibi at least pretend that the picture was as Jarba claimed.
Jarba hoped to use it to mobilize support for his anti-Assad cause.
Later in the week, when truly shocking footage surfaced, reportedly taken by a Syrian military police photographer who defected and handed the material to the rebels, many people were too jaded or wary to believe it. And it is indeed hard to authenticate.
Not for the first time, I wondered what would have happened had the mass media (not to mention the social media) existed during the Second World War. Would they have been able to prevent or at least reduce the extent of the Nazi killing machines, or would people around the world have just tut-tutted and got on with their own lives? The one thing of which I am certain is that had Israel existed as an independent sovereign state – not as an entity subject to the whims of the British Mandate – millions of Jewish lives could have been saved.
The photos purportedly from Assad’s prison camps immediately raised associations of the Holocaust.
The starved, tortured bodies; the death and decay.
But as the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Monday, I am also incredibly aware of the difference. What became known as the Holocaust was not merely an attempt by the Nazis to kill the Jews; it was a systematic effort to erase all signs of their religion, culture and existence.
Next week will be full of activities around the free world aimed at educating another generation in the undoubted importance of tolerance.
The “Never again!” slogan will reverberate. And everybody will be able to feel good. The photos from Syria will be shown. Or perhaps from Gaza. Does it even matter any more? The message has become so trivialized that all means are accepted.
The attempt by the Syrian opposition to exploit the Saudi Arabian boy who had happily helped his uncle’s art project is not the first incident of its kind. Far from it.
It is still far from clear what actually happened to 12-year-old Palestinian Muhammad a-Dura. Israeli investigations show it is highly unlikely that his death was caused by the IDF, but who cares? He is an image. An icon. A Palestinian martyr whose name and face, distorted with fear, is known worldwide – even if he was accidentally shot by his own side. Even if he wasn’t shot at all.
Just over a year ago, during Operation Pillar of Defense, the images supposedly coming out of Gaza were similarly horrendous. Yet CNN’s Anderson Cooper, among others, had to apologize for screening footage of an ostensibly wounded Palestinian man who made a remarkable recovery as soon as he thought the cameras were no longer rolling.
Izzadin Kassam tweeted a photo of a father weeping over the bloody body of his child, as doctors looked on – a photo, it later turned out, that had been taken at a hospital in Aleppo, Syria. A particularly poignant picture posted by pro-Palestinian activists showed a baby, dazed and bloodied, in the hands of a rescue worker. It was the most audacious of lies. The infant was not a victim of Israeli aggression in Gaza; on the contrary, she had just lost her mother when a Gazan missile hit her home in Kiryat Malachi.
And the truth continues to be a victim in the regional turmoil. Just this week, Arab MK Ahmed Tibi heckled Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, claiming Israel is an apartheid state – his own political position and immunity notwithstanding.
The same day, more missiles were launched on the south of the country. Tibi managed to ignore them – each one a war crime – and instead tried to prove his point by yelling that his party colleague MK Taleb Abu Arar, a Beduin, lived in a community without water and electricity. It didn’t take long for photos to emerge of Abu Arar’s hometown, replete with street lights, and his house, equipped with air conditioning. In this case, however, the photos couldn’t correct the image the two Israeli parliamentarians had already conveyed.
The propaganda war has no set battlefield. And anything goes. A UNESCO exhibition, originally titled “People, Book, Land: The 3,500-year relationship of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel,” which was meant to open next week in Paris, was first renamed and then postponed at the last minute after the Arab states managed to convince UNESCO director-general Irina Bokova that showing the link of Jews to the land that features in all their prayers could harm the current round of peace negotiations.
Coming on the heels of the latest round of claims by Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas that Jesus was a Palestinian, the struggle to dictate the narrative is heating up. But the non-Muslim world should not be fooled, or fool itself. Not long after Jesus’s Jewish identity is erased, the rest of his history – and the world’s – will be rewritten. It won’t take much for the Last Supper to turn into a post-Ramadan iftar meal. Just consider the Christians already fighting to survive wherever Islamists are taking over. There will be those who shrug and say “Who cares?” And even worse, there will be those who see nothing wrong with the picture.
The writer is the editor of The International Jerusalem Post.
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