“So What if Al Durah was Staged?”: Meditations on the Colonization of the Israeli Mind

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Originally posted at The Augean Stables, January 18, 2008

I recently gave a talk at a conference on Media and Ethics in Jerusalem, where I presented the case against Enderlin’s version of the Muhammad al Durah story. Apparently, the presentation was relatively convincing since one of the first criticisms I immediately received from a prominent Israeli professor of communications was: “So what? According to reliable statistics, the Israeli army has killed over 800 Palestinian children since the second Intifada. So what difference does it make if this case is staged or not?” His intervention was followed by a round of applause from about a third of the 200-some person audience.

The remark should not have surpised me. Gideon Levy and Tom Segev have already offered the same response. It did, however, seem unusual coming from a professor of Political Science and Communications, who specializes in media (including focus on their role in peace processes), who would, therefore, presumably know this “one” case was hardly “interchangeable” with the hundreds of others.

These remarks seemed even more misplaced given the conference’s keynote address delivered just before our panel by Daniel Dayan, the French sociologist of the media. In that talk Dayan discussed the ways in which the media frame the problem of terrorism, and among the issues he raised, one seemed particularly relevant to the issue of al Durah. The terrorist, in this frame, is a “victim fighting back” while the “hegemonic forces” against which he struggles – occupation, invasion, colonialism – are the true terrorists. This kind of media narrative erases both the identity of the terrorist (he is a freedom fighter who “has no choice”) and the victims of the terrorist (they deserve what they get).

This framing works particularly well, Dayan noted, in terms of a “Politics of pity.” Pity, he pointed out, is not a good mathematician. It can only count to one. But from that one it then manages an algebraic transformation where that one stands for all the victims of the (newly defined) terror emanating from the oppressor. As Osama bin Laden put it so eloquently: “In killing this boy, the Israelis killed every child in the world.” Thus the “freedom fighter,” or, as Michael Moore refers to the Jihadis in Iraq who blow up their fellow Muslims with alarming regularity, the “Minute-Men,” use the “weapons of the weak” to assault the atrocious foe. Or, to quote ISM activists: “Resistance is not terror,” and since all Israeli children will eventually become soldiers of the occupation, Israel has no civilians.

These conceptual remarks shed a fierce light on the significance of al Durah since this icon was a spectacular and unprecedented event in the history of TV: not only the first “live TV-recorded” death of a child in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but perhaps any conflict, and it was presented to the world as a murder. It thus carried an emotional impact equivalent to a nuclear blast, and became a symbolic matrix that defined the second Intifada and redefined Zionism. The “martyr” Muhammad al Durah became not only the “icon” for the Arab and Muslim world, he became the touchstone of Western perception about the nature of the conflict and the nature of Israel.

This defenseless 12-year old murdered by Israelis became the symbol of all Palestinian “children” killed in the Intifada, whether they were 18 years old and fighting Israel, or 10 years old carrying a bomb pack, whether, even when killed by Israelis, it was unintentional or not. Muhammad “explained” the terror against Israelis – “What do you expect when you kill their children in cold blood?” – and rendered every Israeli victim guilty. So symbolically speaking, this “one case” not only stands out from all others, but redefines the meaning of the others.

The media – purveyors of this pivotal tale – subsequently remained loyal to the framework they had helped shape, reporting virtually every and any Palestinian claim of Israeli brutality, piling up statistics of Palestinian civilians, children, and non-combatants casualties that made Israeli soldiers look like ruthless mass-murderers, despite the fact that there are no documented cases of the IDF deliberately murdering innocent children. When the real mass-murderers of children, the suicide bombers and struck Israeli domestic sites, the media found few problems empathizing both with the victim and the terrorist. Moral equivalence and the politics of pity had obliterated the difference between firemen and arsonists; indeed for many it had inverted the moral universe: the arsonists were rebel heroes and the firemen hegemonic oppressors.

But his symbolic potency went well beyond even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For Muslims around the world the al Durah story became a wake-up call: his image became perhaps this single most recognizable global Muslim icon until (and even after) 9-11. Within months, Osama bin Laden had given his tale a central place in his recruiting video for global Jihad. Mali in sub-Saharan Africa has a huge stone monument with a reproduction of the father and son behind the barrel in their capital’s main square. For Muslims he signaled the final revelation – the Apocalypse – of Israel’s true nature: malevolent, merciless, murderous, and he awakened an atavistic and toxic mix of genocidal anti-Semitism, paranoid conspiracy theory, and apocalyptic violence.

Nor did this icon of hatred lose much momentum as it entered the Western sphere. While some resisted instinctively the accusation that Israeli soldiers had killed an innocent boy in cold blood, the vast majority accepted Talal’s narrative, as affirmed by France2: the Israelis targeted and killed the boy. As a tale of “murder pure and simple” as one scholar in Budapest recently told me, the story resonated in Europe and the West with a completely different, but equally potent issue: the Holocaust. Al Durah, the blood libel, the icon of hatred, the symbol of the murder of children which “the Israelis do every day,” as my European interlocutor continued, freed Europe from Holocaust guilt. As one prominent French news analyst noted: the death of Muhammed “erased, replaced” the icon of the Holocaust, the boy from the Warsaw ghetto. Indeed, the comparison of Israel with the Nazis, long a marginal trope of the demented extreme-left moved rapidly to the center of public discourse under the aegis of this icon.

So my answer to that Prof. of Communications and his applauding audience is: I make a stink about this particular case because this is not “just one of many.” On the contrary, it is the framing narrative – indeed, to use Daniel Dayan’s term, a “sacred narrative.” It serves as the procrustean bed in which all subsequent data is crammed no matter how mutilated it becomes in the process. Your 800 dead minors – presumably an “objective” “fact”, but also a source of great moral indignation –is both a construct of that sacred narrative and it obtains its ability to solicit moral outrage within that framework. “We’ve killed 800 of their children!” as if they were all innocent, defenseless 12 year olds whom the IDF wantonly killed. And the applause that greeted your remark with all the force of a flagellant’s whip, comes from their approval of your defending that sacred narrative against my blasphemous assault.

So either you want to become a statistician – in which case examine how “cooked” your data – or you remain in your field of communications, which means you pay attention to semiotics. Do not confuse the semiotics of numbers (which give a false impression of “objective accuracy”) with the semiotics of blood libel (which give your “statistics” their moral reproach). Why would you dismiss in one swoop both the base and genuinely malevolent culture of genocidal hatred which produced and exploited this icon on the one hand, and the inexcusably shabby, advocacy-ridden, intimidated Western media’s role in its dissemination? Just so, as an Israeli ashamed of your army’s excesses, you can beat your breast in public? Are you aware that you do service to no one but the hate-mongers? Does it matter to you that, as a result of the al Durah Affair and its progeny – Jenin, Gaza Beach, Kfar Qana – the poisons of hatred that rouse primitive violence and paralyze civic resistance spread daily? Or is it more important to self-criticize?

There was something in the applause this professor’s remark elicited that struck me. To paraphrase Anthony Julius’ acerbic comment on the anti-Zionist Jews in the diaspora: “Proud to be ashamed to be an Israeli.” Indeed, if there were any one deed which made many Jews – Israeli and Diaspora – ashamed to be Jewish, it was Muhammad al Durah. And here we come to the core of the issue, the complementary roles of Israeli self-criticism and Palestinian demonization in radically distorting the moral issues involved.

Perhaps the single greatest asymmetry in the Arab-Israeli conflict – beyond the power differentials, beyond the contrast between suicide terrorism that targets civilians and IDF procedures that go out of their way to avoid civilian casualties – is the difference between Palestinian demonization of Israel on the one hand, and the Israeli tendency towards self-criticism on the other. And here we see the role of the media – so populated by (largely self-critical) Jews – in obscuring this crucial dimension of the problem.

Imagine a Palestinian saying, “we’ve deliberately targeted so many Israeli children – and here it’s true, not a staged libel – that we are not in a position to complain when, in trying to kill our terrorists, the Israelis kill some of our civilians as collateral damage. Hard to do? Of course. What’s amazing in all this, is the inability of so many Israelis to say something like that in their own defense. No culture on the planet is as critical as the Israelis, and in their readiness to admit to things they have not done – like murder Palestinian children in cold blood – they completely disorient an outside world which, based on their own experience, assumes that nations at war don’t admit to things they haven’t done. “If they admit to this, how much worse must the situation be in reality?”

The result, amplified by an Augean media riddled with inveterate malpractice, is an inversion of reality. By any impartial standards, the army with the highest ethical standards and practice in the world has become a symbol of brutality, and the resistance with the ugliest record in the world, a symbol of brave resistance. And a good deal of the blame goes to Israelis for whom it is not enough to have a standard at least three times higher than the US or the British in Iraq and Afghanistan, and to sacrifice far more of their men in avoiding civilian casualties on the other side than any army in the world.

No, for them, the sins of their own army are so painful to behold, that they willingly and publicly participate in the defamation of their army before the world in the hopes that enough criticism might get them to behave better. It does not seem to occur to them that in so doing they spur the vicious forces that confront them daily with impossible violence. Having ingested the sacred narrative of which Al Durah is the patron saint, any further violence must be their own fault.

Meditating on this response, I realize how much the Palestinian framing of the conflict has colonized even the Zionist imagination, inscribing therein the images of their own imperialism and the innocent victimhood of their foes. No wonder Israelis – and any Jews who care about Israel – experience such intense cognitive dissonance since 2000! On the one hand we feel guilty, on the other when we dare to look, we see a monstrous enemy to whom apology and concession only invites further violence.

One of key conceptual failures in the case of al Durah is the way it has become politicized. The line-up is clear:

Left wing “progressives” sympathize with the Palestinian underdog, are quick to criticize Israeli militarism, and therefore seized upon this image exonerate the Palestinian leadership for the failure of Camp David earlier that year. Al Durah – the victim of Israeli malevolence – offers the perfect icon for the “left-wing” framing of the conflict: The Israeli Goliath and the Palestinian David. The tale offers the perfect club with which to beat the Israelis for their intransigence. In order for peace negotiations to succeed, the Israelis must make more concessions; only then will the Palestinians accept and be willing to renounce their vendettas. It strengthens the hand of people like David Landau, whose “wet dream” is that the USA “rape” Israel by forcing them to make the necessary concessions for peace.

On the right, people with a dim view of the Palestinians do not hesitate to use the al Durah fake as a way to demonize them, even claim that they killed the boy intentionally for the sake of a PR coup. Al Durah – the fake, or even worse, the sacrificial victim – offers the perfect example of the “right-wing” framing of the conflict: The Israeli David fighting off the Arab-Muslim Goliath who readily sacrifices his own children on the altar of his relentless hatreds. It offers the perfect illustration of why concessions will not work. No matter what Israel concedes, when it’s time for the Palestinians to live up to obligations, they’ll start another vicious war, with a major assist from the easily manipulated western MSM.

Neither reality-testing nor concluding about the dynamics of the conflict should flow from these pre-determined political positions. We need to start with empirical reality – as best as we can assess it – and think about how to achieve our political goals from that basis, not fantasize solutions and look for evidence that will enable us to push for them no matter how divorced from actual forces at play.

So if al Durah was staged – and the evidence is deeply troubling for France2 – then it represents one of the most damaging errors of judgment in the history of the news media, unleashing an icon of hatred with few parallels in the history of demonization. The big losers in this process were the forces of moderation on all sides: many Palestinians eagerly threw themselves into as total a war with Israel as they could muster; moderates could not brake their momentum; they could not even talk with their Israeli partners in dialogue without appearing to betray their people.

In one sense, one could argue that in this particular case, the “right” is right. Al Durah is not a symbol of Israeli brutality and Palestinian victimhood, but of duplicitous Palestinian war-mongering and Israeli victimhood. If any side of the Israeli political spectrum has behaved badly in this, it’s the left, who preferred a narrative they deemed “useful” over a truth they found problematic. “A hundred percent the Israelis killed him” said left-wing journalist B. Michael to me in 2003, who then proceeded to heap contempt on Shahaf and his conspiracy theories. So eager were they to get this club with which to hit the right wing, they enabled this terrible blood libel. What’s an outsider to think if even informed Israelis so definitively admit guilt?

Does this mean that the “right” is also right about the impossibility of negotiating with the Palestinians? Ironically, by failing to resist this vicious blood libel, specifically designed to create irreparable hatreds and hostilities, the left actually contributed to creating the conditions in which negotiations could not work. No Palestinian moderate could urge calm and negotiations after al Durah’s image hit the screens. The media’s and the “left’s” imagined “pro-peace and negotiations” behavior in the al Durah affair – adopting and protecting this icon of Palestinian suffering – offers one of the best illustrations of how the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

And the news media played an analogous role. In asymmetrical warfare, the media of the strong side can – wittingly or unwittingly become a weapon of the belligerent weak. When Bob Simon did his piece for 60 minutes on al Durah, he began by commenting that “In the Middle East, a picture can be worth a thousand weapons.” How many reporters think along the lines of “Israel has all the weapons, so why not ‘level the playing field’ by giving the PR victory to the Palestinians”? European reporters formalize the point: when presented the evidence for Pallywood – deliberately staging events like al Durah – they accept it as “a weapon of the weak.” And yet, how many journalists who think this way go on to consider how, in leveling the playing field, they contribute to war? When a reporter asked one of Arafat’s aide’s why he didn’t try and rein in the violence of the second Intifada, the man responded, “Why should he? The whole world is on his side.”

Our judgment of Enderlin’s performance, therefore, deserves to come not from the demands of a political agenda – or those of professional courtesy or friendship – but from the validity of the evidence. This is what “reality testing” is about – with all it demands for impartial, even self-critical, judgment. The very bases of our ability to assess the world around us, and the key to a free media’s ability to help us in that process, depend on accuracy and self-correction. Such matters cannot be held hostage to ideology.

Elias Bickerman, one of the great ancient historians of the 20th century, remarked: Communities “cannot survive the present without knowledge of the past… Thus, a historian can serve his group either by falsifying the past, or by telling the truth about it. Dishonest history can ruin the group, and ruins the historian himself.” To paraphrase: civil societies “cannot survive the present without knowledge of the world around them… Thus, a journalist can serve his readers either by delivering false information, or by telling the truth. Dishonest journalism can ruin the society, and ruins the journalist himself.” Put differently, the media’s job is not to tell us what to think by manipulating “news” to accord with their political agenda, but inform the members of the public so it can make their own judgments.

In the history of information warfare, al Durah – the blood libel – was a nuclear blast, strengthening the war-mongering demonizers and paralyzing those working for a consensual peace. And if, as it looks, the MSM, starting with Enderlin, played a key role in detonating the blast rather than playing their proper role of filtering out false news and war-mongering propaganda, then we may have an important insight into the systemic weaknesses of societies committed to freedom in this era of growing authoritarianism and violence. One of the news media’s main tasks is to keep poisons out of the information system like a dialysis machine; with al Durah it pumped – and continues to pump – toxic poisons.

If we want to know why this story is still alive, it is not only because it continues to shape opinions around the world, but because it is emblematic of repeated errors that the media has made and continues to make in its coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is, like the Dreyfus affair, a test of the maturity of our culture: like the French church and army, our media is faced with the need to admit error, or at least to let the public judge. Do they have the maturity, the commitment to “the truth and nothing but the truth” to allow that to happen? Or will they, like this well-informed professor, seek at all costs, to hold on to his sacred narrative and trivialize the media’s problem.

As for the Israeli government, which is only now beginning to respond to the Al Durah affair, Ehad Ha-am once had some good advice: during a time of ferocious blood libels at the turn of the 20th century, “it is very dangerous for individuals, or nations, to confess to sins which they have not committed.”

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