I just participated in a panel at American Jewish Studies Conference in Washington entitled Rethinking the “Other”: Problems in Post-Modern Jewish Thought, Politics and the Media. The first two talks by Susan Handelman and Jacob Meskin addressed the problem of the “other” in the philosophico-theological works of Emmanuel Levinas, a Lithuanian-born Jew who became one of France’s most notable philosophers of the 20th century, and a notable influence on Jacques Derrida, the founder of deconstruction and the works of Leon Ashkenazi, known by his scouts name, Manitou, a North-African Jew who first went to France and then after 1967 to Israel.
Their points, boiled down to a crude minimum were that Levinas and/or his followers have taken the manner in which he privileged the “other” to such a point that they have ended up failing to actually interact with the other and particularly in the Arab-Israeli conflict have given a hostile “other” an undeserved, even dangerous, priority. Handelman brought in a less-well-known thinker, Leon Ashkenazi, who, among other things, warned against a particular kind of “other”, namely Cain, the murderous and envious “other” against whom one can and must defend oneself. I was asked to give an example of how the “Cain” type views the other. Not surprisingly, my “text” was the Muhammad al Durah affair, which I post below.
The Media and the Construction of the “Other” in the Arab-Israeli Conflict”
[Note the bland title, done so as not to set off flags among the programming committee and get rejected. For those who already are familiar with the Al Durah affair, you may want to skip below to Analysis.]
My topic today concerns how Palestinians “narrate” the Israeli/Jewish “other.” Let me begin with a discussion of a particular case — that of Muhammad al Durah — and then analyze what it tells us about dysfunctional attitudes towards the “other” in post-modern Jewish and Western intellectual circles.
Let’s begin with our “text,” first by Charles Enderlin at France2.
Since we are very short of time [I had 20 minutes], let me cut to the chase. I think this is a staged scene, a deliberate lie and libel. In order to understand such a phenomenon, first you need to understand how, as a fake, it is one of many carried out that day. Indeed, I coined the term Pallywood in order to designate the existence of a whole school of film-making in the Palestinian territories designed to present the television news audience both at home and abroad with a constant stream of issues depicting the vicious Israeli Goliath crushing the plucky Palestinian David. Let’s begin with a scene from Netzarim Junction that day.
The picture seems to be a scene of Palestinians under fire, taking cover, running, and presumably looking at the position from which they are being fired at. Except that the Israeli position is behind the building in the upper right, and the Israelis never left their position that day. This whole scene is staged; they are looking at cameramen.
For anyone who wants to examine the nature of Pallywood further, I recommend viewing my movie of that name:
As for the analysis of the Al Durah staging, see my movie, Al Durah: Making of an Icon.
But this is not just a libel, it’s a blood libel, it’s about Israelis intentionally killing an innocent defenseless child, according to the cameraman Talal abu Rahmeh, “in cold blood.” In order to make the case, the Palestinian broadcast authority inserted into the footage taken by abu Rahmeh a scene of an Israeli soldier firing a rifle (rubber bullets) which was taken during the riots caused by the Al Durah footage. This billboard put up by Hizbullah in Southern Lebanon makes the point graphically.
When asked to explain how they could do something that violated every principle of modern journalist, a PA official explained:
These are forms of artistic expression, but all of this serves to convey the truth… We never forget our higher journalistic principles to which we are committed of relating the truth and nothing but the truth.
One could not ask for a better illustration of a pre-modern mentality: the (higher) truth is what counts, and any kind of dissembling is permissible to convey that truth, even if — especially if — it’s a blood libel against your enemies.
What’s even more tragic in this tale is not just that it appeared and spread (like wild-fire) in the pre-modern, scapegoating culture of global Islam, but that it jumped from there to spread (again like wild-fire) in the post-modern culture of the West. Sharon, who was not even prime-minister at the time of the incident was a particular target of venom.
Here in the Hartford Courant, the barrel is gone, the Israeli soldier has been replaced by a pistol-toting Sharon who smiles sadistically at his murderous deed.
Blood libels proliferated in the Arab world, and, via Palestinian and Muslim student groups, made it onto American campuses.
San Francisco State University flyer, Spring 2002
Dave Brown cartoon for the Independent, January 2003. The cartoon won the annual award as the best cartoon from the UK Political Cartoonist Association.
Europe was the Western cultural sphere especially in Europe, where it was hailed as a liberating narrative that freed from Holocaust guilt. In particular, the image opened the floodgates to comparing the Israelis to the Nazis.
Place de la République, Paris, October 6, 2000. For the first time since the Holocaust, “Death to the Jews” was heard chanted in a European capital.
Of course, in order to even approach a meaningful connection between Israel and the Nazis, this story has to follow the line of blood libel, that not only was the death a deliberate and cold-blooded murder (like the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews), but symbolic of much more. Osama bin Laden spelled out the logic of the blood libel in his first statement following 9-11:
The whole world has witnessed Israeli soldiers killing Muhammad al Durreh and many others like him… So in fact it is as if Israel — and those backing it in America — have killed all the children in the world.
Europeans, even mainstream ones, lept at this logic. Said Catherine Nay, major news anchor, editorialist, and author of books on French politics:
This death erases, annuls that of the little boy in the Warsaw Ghetto.
Picture from International ANSWER, Quote from Catherine Nay
This image used to appear at Ramsey Clark’s website for International ANSWER, an allegedly “anti-war” site that cheers on any anti-American violence in the offing.
In order for these images to be equivalent, al Durah has to symbolize the deliberate murder of millions of civilians, genocide. The colossal moral imbecility of such a comparison can only be explained in terms of the power of the blood libel to distort people’s imaginations. In this case, the we are witness to a combination of pre-modern and post-modern irrationality that ominously ushered in the 21st century.
Nothing better illustrates the madness such moral disorientation can produce than the twisted spectacle in August of 2001, literally weeks and days before 9-11, at the UN Conference allegedly dedicated to fighting racism which became an orgy of anti-Semitic and anti-American hatred at Durban, South Africa. Jamal al Durah came down on Yasser Arafat’s private jet to tell his tale of Israeli genocidal hatred to the assembled participants. His son’s body was paraded in effigy. Muhammad was the patron saint of this demopathic hate-fest.
Demonstration during Durban. Al Durah effigy in bottom center.
I want to focus on this narrative not because it’s the only one that Palestinians or Arabs or Muslims believe/adopt, but because it is the dominant one, not only in Muslim circles, but in many Western “progressive” circles. The image presides over the larger image of Israel as the sole evil cause of all the misery in the Middle East. As one HR activist put it recently at a party (so off-record) in Jerusalem, “Israel is the world’s greatest human rights violator and its disappearance would be a victory for global human rights.”
Given the pervasive hostility to human rights throughout the Muslim world – rights for women, for infidels, for the weak – such a “solution” to the problem of human rights in the Middle East represents a stunning misunderstanding of the forces at play. And this stunning inversion dominates discourse at the UN; at many if not all HRO’s; in many academic circles.
There’s a pervasive tragedy in this kind of inverted moral thinking. It not only despises people who genuinely care about tolerance and human rights, but it gives a free ride to those who genuinely despise such notions as efffeminate. And in the process, it ignores, indeed it dismisses both the immense effort, the real mightiness, the self-restraint needed to effectively institutionalize human rights in civil polities and accordingly, fails to appreciate how rarely such accomplishments have occurred in human history.
So how could such dangerous moral inanity have penetrated the progressive, the “reality-based” community, they who consider themselves at the moral cutting edge of global culture, i.e. of humankind? The obvious answer, one that will provoke rolled eyes in most progressive Jewish audiences is anti-Semitism. Certainly this almost instinctive response characterizes many on the Jewish “right,” who have given up trying to speak reason with irrational people: Esau hates Jacob” they say, as if that assertion represented some adamantine mystical truth that brooks no contradiction and needs no explanation. And surely the outburst of anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish sentiment that swept through not just Arab/Muslim culture, but European and “Leftist” culture in the West since the fall of 2000, strenghtens their case.
But as an historian, I find this kind of explanation uninteresting. If what we see occurring in the wake of Al Durah has indeed been the beginning of a wave of “new anti-Semitism” which continues to gain in amplitude – in Spain negative attitudes towards Jews has gone from 21% in 2005 to 46% at the end of 2008 – then I’m interested in understanding under what conditions this virus spreads.
I personally think, particularly in the case of the European Left, that at least one major factor has to do with the astounding appeal of moral Schadenfreude, the sheer delight with which people like to point their finger at the Jews and say, “You Jews! 2000 years other people oppress you. And no sooner do you get power than you turn around and do it to someone else.” And of course the ultimate thrill in this emotionally stunting game is to compare Israelis to Nazis.
But I’d like to make my concluding remarks here in a long and distinguished Jewish tradition of self-criticism – of both giving and taking rebuke, a tradition which I’d like to critique. I think one of the major contributors to this moral inversion, to the ready acceptance of hate-mongering lies by our MSM and in our “public sphere”, is a Jewish voice which, however well-intentioned, actually feeds the hatred.
Again let us turn to France, land of Levinas and Derrida, where the first and most virulent expressions of the new anti-Semitism occurred, datable to the very days after the al Durah blood libel hit their TV screens – and was constantly replayed in the following months and years. Here we find a peculiar Jewish voice so pronounced that Shmuel Trigano named its articulators “alter-juifs”, and defined them as Jews who, identifying themselves “as a Jew” then define Jews through the hostile gaze of the “other.” In other words, they confess to the most poisonous images of Jews produced by Judeophobes. Of the people in the French public sphere who virulently denounced Israel in the early years of the 2nd Intifada, about 80% were Jews, “alter-juifs” like Edgar Morin, people who insisted that “as Jews” they had to denounce the evil they found among their own people.
Note, I am not here accusing alter-juifs of being malevolent, or anti-Semitic even if, in the Marxian sense they are objectively anti-Semitic. On the contrary, I think their motives are honorable. I think that they, like the true Torah scholar depicted in the 6th chapter of Pirkei Avot, are “lovers of rebuke.” They go out of their way to privilege the voice of the Palestinian “other” and accept their rebuke.
In other words, the alter-juif has taken the blood libel as a symbolic truth. As one Jewish leader, who would not invite me to speak to his think-tank about al Durah, even though his subject was global anti-Semitism, said to me after viewing the evidence: “I don’t care; if we hadn’t had a settlement at Netzarim, this wdn’t have happened.” Or as one Israeli professor of media studies said to me at a public forum, “what does it matter if this is a fake? We’ve killed over 800 of their kids…” Or, to take it all the way, as Gideon Levy said before the camera, “We’ve killed 800 Muhammad al Durahs.”
This kind of self-flagellating discourse is, in fact, a prophetic voice, not so much in the sense that it is divinely inspired, but in the sense that it engages in a rhetoric of exaggeration to make its point, to “whip” the object of its rebuke into the right path. Thus, any impartial observer would have to admit that Israel isn’t a racist apartheid state like South Africa – a trip to any hospital makes that clear – or that it’s not committing genocide against the Palestinians – after four decades of occupation, their population continues to rise – but because we want her to be “better”, we engage in rhetorical excess. Nor is this uniquely “Jewish”. When the spokesperson for HRW defended the NGO’s equation of Gitmo with the Gulag Archipelago, he admitted it might be a bit exaggerated, but that it was an effort to stir moral indignation. Behind this progressive form of tochachah lies what I call a Masochistic omnipotence complex: it is all our fault, and if only we were better, we could fix anything.
Masochistic Omnipotence Syndrome is a form of messianic thinking. And while in some cases, it may be laudible, right now I think, it is very dangerous because it combines with and reinforces some of the ugliest, hate and war-mongering narratives now circulating in global culture. No matter how well-intentioned, this kind of behavior has terrible consequences.
Now I don’t delude myself into believing that a little, rational critique – “be careful what you say and how you say it because it will encourage very bad people” – will convince “prophetic progressives” to tone down their moral outrage and indignation. On the contrary, when Alvin Rosenfeld said it, he received an indignant chorus complaining that he was trying to silence any criticism of Israel. I know enough about the thrall that millennial ideas can exercise over the human imagination.
What I do want to do is offer a different kind of rebuke. Not one based on the “we/you are as bad as the men of Sodom” style of prophetic inflation, but one based on a call to sober introspection.
Consider al Durah in the context of lying. As anyone who has had children or still remembers his or her childhood, or does any serious introspection, or watches House on TV knows, people lie a great deal, especially when it comes to questions of moral responsibility. And the only thing the prevents most people from lying is a real fear of getting caught.
When people do the opposite — not lying to protect themselves, but lying by accusing themselves of things they haven’t done — they miss the mark on two counts.
- 1) the encourage lying, they make it clear to those who would lie, that they can not only get away with it, but have great success with it… hence Pallywood and its most brilliant achievement, al Durah.
- And 2) they throw off the moral compass of those who do not understand such behavior, who, as one American told me, “assume that people deny anything they can for self-protection, and therefore if you admit to x, you’ve probably done much worse.
Does this mean we should not admit to anything?
But then how do we decide? How do we measure our self-criticism?
I’d like to suggest the following introspective exercise. When Jews or Israelis are accused of something (like Al Durah) which is not true, we have two broad reasons to admit it: generosity of spirit or fear. The fear is double – on the one hand, the peer-group pressure of losing favor with fellow progressives – and the fear that to confront angry Muslims is a recipe for violence. Thus, when the pope alluded to Islam’s propensity to violence, and Muslims exploded in violent anger, Western progressives blamed the pope for provocation rather than pointing out to Muslims, however gently, that the very bad joke was on them.
When people lie to your face, why do you not challenge them? Because you’re being polite? Or because you’re afraid? And when the latter is the case, how often do you hide your cowardice behind the mask of moral grandeur? And if so, how much of your attitude is morally grand, and how much a combination of personal cowardice on the one hand, and moral condescension or contempt on the other? And if you only know how to confess, and do not know how to rebuke (except of course, fellow Jews who have the chutzpah to defend themselves and their people), then what kind of “free choice” do you exercise?
In any “real” relationship with the “other”, tochachah is a two-way street. Not only must we acquire the exceptional honesty and ego strength to receive it, we must also acquire the tact and courage to deliver it. When historians in the mid- to late 21st century look back at this tragic battle with Muslim apocalyptic rage in which we now find ourselves (and presuming the Muslims don’t win), they will not fault Jews not for a failure to receive tochachah, but a failure to deliver it. For when we Jews privilege the “other’s narrative” even when that narrative represents the basest form of self-exculpating scape-goating, we not only debase ourselves, we show profound moral contempt for that “other.” Just as we do not scold our cats for chasing and killing mice, so we do not rebuke Muslims for their barbaric words and deeds. In so doing, we do not privilege the “other,” we in fact reduce him to a two-dimensional role in our grandiose drama of masochistic omnipotence.
Generosity or cowardice?
Each of us must decide, honestly, every time.
Respectfully, the ball is in each of our courts.