When Monicagate broke out in the US, I remember a French friend saying to me, “You Americans are so bizarre, you would actually impeach a president for getting some nooky in the corridors of the White House” (or words to that effect). For them it was at once astonishing and laughable that a political career would founder on a sex scandal. Not unless there were treasonous pillow talk or something like that.
Now, as I speak to the French (largely to the Jews, almost no non-Jews I know have any knowledge of or interest in the al Durah affair, much less the upcoming trials), I hear things that would strike any American as astonishing, from the actual charges (criticizing the media), to the anticipated loss, to the assumption that the judges will rule narrowly on technical matters. Astonishing, perhaps, but no laughing matter, unless, of course, you read Nidra Poller.
French Justice an Oxymoron?
The Jews say:
“The atmosphere here is suffocating… when you read the press, the only breath of fresh air is Ivan Riouffol (Figaro)…”
At dinner, at a pause in the conversation (normally unbearable for the French), one person sighs deeply, looks in the distance, and says, “Mais, quand on pense à la France, c’est terrifiant…” [When you think of France, it’s terrifying.]
“If you had told me in the summer of 2000, that in six years many French Jews would be thinking primarily of how to time their leaving France, I’d have told you you were crazy. In six years, everything has been turned upside-down [tout a bousculé].”
The irony of that last remark is that Charles Enderlin began his report on al Durah, the turning point in this history of Jewish flight from France, with the remark:
Quinze heures, tout bascule dans le Carrefour de Netzarim dans la Bande de Gaza…” [3PM, everything flips at Netzarim Junction in the Gaza Strip].
And then he shows the scene of the man “shot” in the right leg by the jeep with which we began Pallywood. But nothing flips in Gaza at 3pm. The Reuter’s photographer wandered away from the site where, supposedly 40 minutes of withering fire was just getting under way (Segments 10-12). But everything does bascules when Enderlin makes his newscast.
I have been in Paris for two days, getting ready for the al Durah trials in which I testify on behalf of the defendant, Philippe Karsenty of Media Ratings.
The situation reflects the kinds of fissures in French society that I’ve discussed for almost a decade now. On the one hand a small embattled Jewish community, not clear on what to do, and how to plan a well-timed exit, feeling suffocated.
“No one listens, no one pays attention. Al Durah? No one even knows him, and if you mention ‘le petit Mohammed’ they’ll tell you, it’s so long ago…”
“Forget it, the French media will never cover this.”
“Yes they will, but only if Karsenty loses and France2 wins. If Karsenty wins, they’ll give it five lines in the back of the edition.”
And yet Paris shines in the late summer sun, beautiful women, good food, pleasant neighborhoods like Belleville (north-eastern Paris) where people of every ethnicity mix easily, including Muslims walking by Kosher restaurants with tables spilling out into the large sidewalks.
One can understand how the French can live in denial. “As long as they get their 35 hours (short work-week) and their vacations…” Paris, indeed France, is a nation of immigrants, like the US. And if you squint your eyes, and imbibe only French media, you can be excused for not realizing that real dangers loom ahead. And, of course, none even know that a trial over their press’ coverage of “le petit Mohammed” is coming up, much less what’s at stake.
Not even all the French Jews are worried. They read the media, talk with their colleagues, and mock the paranoids who wring their hands about the darkening clouds. Most of the leaders in the community, like the Israeli government officials, do not want to publicly challenge anyone on this case. For them it’s the express lane to getting dismissed as a conspiracist nut, and to rekindling people’s memory – and anger – over the death of this poor innocent child.
“French justice is an oxymoron,” explains one lawyer to me. “It’s deeply politicized, and it focuses on technicalities of law that can make any decision possible. Add to the situation, the fact that since 2000, French justice has been very hostile to any effort to use the law to punish attacks on Jews – verbal and physical – and the profound hostility to Zionism in the establishment, and you have a recipe for losing this case.” Just as there’s a book entitled “The Lost Territories of the Republic,” about the “quartiers difficiles” where the writ of Republican France does not run (the real cause of the riots in November), so there is an article about “The Lost Territories of French Justice,” and the radical unfairness in cases of defamation of Jews that had dominated French libel trials since 2000.
So what’s the likely outcome? Most people are pessimistic. I have long found the French to be inveterate zero-sum players with negative expectations about the outcome… at least as much from a desire to protect themselves from failure by not trying, as because they truly believe that things will go that badly. But almost everyone thinks that it’s a pipe dream to get the MSM to cover the trial.
It’s always revealing when I tell them about the blogosphere.
“Have you heard of Pajamas media?”
“Do you remember what happened to Dan Rather.?“
“Vaguement.” [Vaguely – what the French say when they don’t know.]
“Do you know about Adnan Hajj?”
“The photographer who got fired in Lebanon for photoshopping his pictures?”
After a brief explanation…
“Oui mais… c’est pas comme ça en France.” [It’s not like that in France.]
Assume a Can Opener
In theory, the logic of our strategy makes sense.
The French MSM show enormous resistance at speaking about the al Durah affair. Enderlin’s strategy is to ban its mention from responsible public discussion, emphasize how big and important he is, and how his critics are whacky conspiracy theorists. They are like the father in Anderson’s tale of the Emperor’s Clothes, who tells his child to shush. And they do so at least as much from a concern about their own appalling standards as they do out of solidarity for their colleague. Since I began working on this in 2003, Frenchmen (as well as close observers of France) assured me that France2 would never release the tapes, and that they would and could bury it.
How to crash the party?
The internet is to the MSM what the printed book and pamphlet were to the manuscript culture of the Middle Ages. They represent alternative forms of communication in which, to judge from the first round ca. 1500, new and powerful conversations sprung up, including a wide range of religious and intellectual ferment. The reasoning blogosphere, that remarkable product of 9-11 and blogging software the allowed a whole new arena of discussion and new players in a high-speed, high feedback world of instant communications, assembled people who built their audiences by the quality of their thought, rather than their institutional and honorific background. Freed from the straight-jacket of political correctness that does (and should) regulate the public sphere, but which, from 2000 onwards became a deadly and suffocating embrace, they tackled the problems of the day directly.
Does this burgeoning world of communication represent the early equivalent of what would, in the early modern period’s print world produce the “city of letters”? What about the chaotic world of religious zeal and paranoia that inhabited the fevered minds of the “early modern” Europe – the “Protestant Reformation” with its proliferation of new religious movements, the witch crazes, the religious wars, the apocalyptic nightmares?
Amidst the proliferating madness on the internet, the blogosphere emerges as the most promising of venues for a new “city of letters” – a global one, one in which everyone willing to assume a civil tone can have his or her say. A world in which the child can say, “the emperor is naked” and people will listen and consider his or her case. A world grown skeptical of MSM claims to “objectivity” and trustworthiness, where the transparent fakes that apparently quite easily fool our MSM gate-keepers get a punishing examination… a new and entirely unanticipated source of media oversight.
So the strategy is pretty simple. Use the blogosphere to crash the MSM. The story itself is amazing from every angle – an error (at best) of appalling negligence, consequences of untold magnitude, cover-up of characteristic arrogance… great story line. They’re ignoring it; we follow it, in the medium and addressing a self-selecting audience of people committed to “seeing things as they really are…” as the medieval Franciscan historian Salimbene put it after the apocalyptic disappointment of 1260. Tell them the story, and as with Dan Rather, the MSM’s defenses – ultimately built on public perceptions of their integrity – will crumble.
It made sense, but even at the beginning of the summer, it did not sway too many people, even insiders. But then Lebanon changed things. Wake-up calls everywhere – this is not about land it’s about existence; not about nationalism but religion; not about Israel, but about globalization… and the other side is using the media as a theater of war. Lebanon made clear what some of us have argued for some time now: not only does the Arab media culture systematically stage scenes with or without dead bodies – Gaza Beach, Qana, Red Cross ambulances – but the MSM is astoundingly credulous, recycling these cheap fakes as news without even seeming to notice. The firing of Adnan Hajj was the second “Gutenberg moment.”
And by the standards Hajj was fired, Enderlin should have fired (or trained) Talal probably on the second day he got the man’s rushes… Imagine the world had Enderlin either fired Talal on the spot when he got the rushes of September 30, 2000, or had done a piece on how crowds of unemployed youth staged scenes of conflict and tried to fake a story about how the Israelis deliberately tried to kill an innocent child? Imagine the depressing effect that might have had on the incipient Intifada… rather than so outraging the world at Israel that Arafat, inebriated with world-wide approval, unleashed the apocalyptic dogs of global Jihad. Such an alternative broadcast might have so humiliated the producers of Pallywood, that it might even have strengthened the real moderates in Palestine who could have argued that Arafat and Hamas and the rest of the hardliners who wanted to use this footage to go to war should step down, and people who wanted to build a Palestinian state should step forward. Who knows, Enderlin might not have shattered his own dream.
But, I digress… I dream… of a world where our MSM have minimal standards for what they consider reliable news.
On the Power of the Public Sphere
So it all comes down to the power of public opinion. Are the French too complacent about the world they have, too content to be misinformed to death, to take an interest? Are their elites too ideologically committed to that harrowing marriage of Islamism and anti-colonialism under the aegis of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism to show any willingness to reconsider? The common answer among those informed is, “yes”; and among the français moyens, “hein?”
But the French are notoriously susceptible to disapproval. Indeed, this affair resembles the Dreyfus affair less in its specifics (although Zola stood accused and condemned by the Law of 1881), than in the remarkable situation it created about admitting error. Those who have viewed the dossier are pretty clear that the report was wildly inaccurate (even if they don’t buy the “staged” hypothesis), and yet, for the sake of honor and reputation, this cannot be publicly acknowledged.
“The French cannot admit error, because it’s a sign of weakness,” someone told me, putting her finger on the classic dynamic of honor-shame culture that makes the Palestinians so much readier to demonize Israel than self-criticize. Just as Dreyfus had to be guilty to spare the honor, reputation, and therefore authority of the Army and the Church, so Enderlin must be innocent (and Israel guilty) to spare the honor, reputation, and therefore authority of the Palestinian cause and the French MSM.
Honor is a fragile thing, especially once the word gets out. Hence honor-shame cultures have extensive networks to assure omertà, the code of silence. And that’s just what the media in modern civil societies are supposed to break. The French, then, are particularly susceptible to outside shaming, especially (and paradoxically) from the despised Americans. They resent Americans deeply, but they also like and admire them; and at some level, they feel inferior, second rate. “The only way the French media will pick up the story is if it comes from America,” people assured me back in 2003 when I first got involved. No one will listen to us: we’re not only French, we’re French Jews, communautaristes [partisans]. And as someone commented to me in 2004, “The Jews cannot testify.”
What happens when a fourth estate, rendered immensely influential through the emotional power of photographs, adopts its own forms of omertà? What happens when you want to build a wave of indignation and a call to release France2’s tapes from that day and the next? How do you reach reasonable people who have the wit to discern the importance of this case?
Send out the call to the blogosphere. Here it comes to save the day…
And once the story does break, and the egg is on the beards, the very efforts of France2 and their supporting cast of omertà courtiers will become a sign of reproach… their very success in squelching this tale for six long years while it worked its poison, will testify to the dysfunctions of the system. The real question right now is: will the courts put an end to this naked procession – as they could do in a moment – or will they become one more episode in a tale of self-destructive woe that tumbled down on Europe at the dawn of the 21st century?
Epilogue: Last night at dinner, a journalist told me that pretty much everyone in French media circles knows that Charles Enderlin has been cheating on this one. But like some coterie in the Emperor’s court, they whisper among themselves without breaking the public consensus around his lovely new clothes.
This corresponds to a remark that Esther Schapira made to me about her movie. “No one actually admitted that the original reports were false, but they stopped using Al Durah in their discussions of the Intifada.” What Rafi Israeli calls, “between libel and silence.” And of course, the sister station of Schapira’s Hessische Rundfunk, France2, did not run her film for French audiences.
But in this case, that silence has played for us. Enderlin and France2 have assumed that silence meant support, and as a result, they went ahead with these trials, which, in terms of the opportunity it gives us to raise people’s awareness of the story and its stakes, is a gift.
Thank you Charles, we will do our best not to blow this magnificent opportunity.