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Documentation and Donations: B’Tselem’s cameras | The Vision Machine

B'Tselem's Facebook cover photo (Hebrew version, January 2015)

B’Tselem’s Facebook cover photo (Hebrew version, January 2015)

In this blog, I write about a fund-raising video produced by Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem in the context of their practice of giving video cameras to Palestinians the human rights abuses entailed by occupation. Even though the video avoids sensationalism, it falls into a sentimentality that is tension with its usual “raw” aesthetic.

Documentation and Donations: B’Tselem’s cameras | The Vision Machine.

The Silliness of ‘Security’ and Puppets for Peace

Theatrical protest against closure of El Hakawati theatre. Photo: Guy Butavia.

Theatrical protest against closure of El Hakawati theatre. Photo: Guy Butavia.

For most Jewish Israelis, ‘peace’ means ‘security’. According to this mainstream ‘securitatist’ orientation (as Israeli sociologist Baruch Kimmerling put it in his 2001 book The Invention and Decline of Israeliness: State, Society, and the Military) ‘peace’ means that Israel will be secure when both the state and its citizens will not be subject to attack by their enemies. Any image or notion of peace connotes security, as peace entails the end of hostilities. The Israeli sense of ‘peace-as-security’ also refers to security guarantees and arrangements, in the form of territorial boundaries that provide strategic depth or advantage (such as the Jordan River), or the demilitarization of the proposed Palestinian state.

Yet, the very meaning and purpose of peace is undermined and obstructed by ‘peace-as-security’ as pursued in Israeli policy. Israeli political scientist Galia Golan argued this point in her paper, ‘Transformations of Conflict: Breakthroughs and Failures in Israeli Peace Efforts’, which she presented to the 29th Annual Association for Israel Studies Conference, June 24-26, 2013, at UCLA. In light of an underlying assumption that the other side, ‘the Arabs’ will never make peace with Israel because they do not accept Israel’s legitimacy, Israeli leaders have aimed not for peace but for ‘security’ in the sense of the optimal conditions for fighting the next war. ‘Peace-as-security’ is not peace at all, but an obstacle and alternative to peace. Successive Israeli governments distrust all but the most dramatic of Arab moves to peace, such as President Sadat’s visit to Israel in 1977. When there are peace negotiations, or, (as at present under US secretary of state John Kerry’s guidance) negotiations about negotiations, Israeli diplomats stick to the self-defeating ‘security first’ formula. As a result, Israelis get neither peace nor long-term security.

Prioritization of ‘security’ also turns into a doctrine whereby every political position of Israeli governments in the context of the conflict with Palestinians is framed in terms of ‘security’. The separation barrier is the most obvious current example of security as a doctrine. For Israel governments, the Israeli Supreme Court, and most of the Jewish Israeli public, the barrier is the ‘security fence’ which prevents terror attacks on Israeli citizens. For Palestinians, and Israeli peace activists such as Combatants for Peace (who offer educational tours of areas around the barrier), it is both a means to dispossess Palestinians of the land on which the wall is built and part of a whole network of walls, fences, gates, checkpoints and travel permits that separates them from each other, their land, and vital economic and civil services. In this and similar cases, Israeli ‘security’ concerns appear cynical, undermining the governments’ case that Israeli anxieties about security are genuine, rather than veiled efforts to perpetuate occupation.

Puppets4All Facebook page

Puppets4All Facebook page

Sometimes, however, it’s not a question of cynicism but outright silliness. Two weeks ago, on June 22nd, the 19th annual Palestinian children’s theatre festival was due to open in the El Hakawati theatre in East Jerusalem. But (as reported by Amira Hass in Ha’aretz), the director of the theatre, Mohammed Halayka, was summoned for questioning by what he said was the Shin Bet security service. Then the Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch issued an order closing the theatre for eight days beginning on the scheduled first day of the festival, on the grounds that the event would be held ‘under the auspices of or sponsored by the Palestinian Authority’, which would contravene an Israeli law passed as part of the Oslo peace process. The law is designed to rebut Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem, which Israel annexed unilaterally following the 1967 war. It’s a matter of sovereignty, not security.

Riki blich , actress -Israel Pupprts4all# — with Riki blich.

Riki blich , actress -Israel
Pupprts4all# — with Riki blich.

Aharonovitch’s move also exposes the silliness of the security doctrine. There have been several Israeli as well as Palestinian protests against the theatre closure, including a petition signed by many Israeli actors, playwrights and directors (as reported by Haggai Matar on the +972 blog). On Thursday, June 27th, a theatrical protest was held, a carnival of colour, masks, music, movement, and a wonderful spoken word poetry performance by Moriel Rothman. Perhaps the best response, however, has come in the form of a Facebook page ‘Puppets4All’, on which many Israeli and other performers have posted pictures of themselves and a puppet or two with a sign reading ‘I too am a security threat’. All of which leaves Minister Aharonovitch looking not only like a version of scrooge (children’s theatre? – bah humbug!) but also like a ‘total muppet’. If Israel’s security doctrine sees danger in these puppets, then that only proves that the danger is in the eye of the beholder. It’s well passed time for Israel’s leaders – and publics – to see that actual peace is the best – the only – security.

Pillar of Cloud, Pillar of Defense

Gaza, November 14, 2012, AP

William West, The Israelites Passing through the Wilderness Preceded by the Pillar of Clouds, 1845

When the Israeli government and military launched its latest assault on Gaza yesterday, November 14th 2012, by killing Hamas’ military commander, Ahmed Jabari from the air, it indicated it was ready for a sustained campaign by giving it a codename. Curiously, though, its name in Hebrew, “amud anan” which refers to the biblical term “pillar of cloud”, has been translated to English as “pillar of defense.” The difference in name indicates that the Israeli authorities are hoping to win the battle over the image of this war, unlike “Operation Cast Lead” in the winter of 2008-9. “Cast lead” sounds ominous in English, though it is a phrase taken from a poem by Chaim Nachman Bialik, one of Israel’s national poets, to mark the festival of Chanukah which coincided with the war. So, the image managers of this war are avoiding using what they take to be an internal, Israeli Jewish cultural association that might be “misunderstood” abroad, and might thus contribute to international condemnation of the Israeli military action against Hamas.

Yet, the phrase “pillar of cloud” is hardly an unknown expression in English and in Western culture generally, as illustrated by William West’s painting, just as the Bible is somewhat more widely read around the world than Bialik’s poetry.  Appearing first in the story of the Children of Israel’s exodus from slavery in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea in which Pharaoh’s army pursuing them was drowned, and their long journey through Sinai, the “pillar of cloud” symbolizes divine leadership of the Israelites’ progress. “And the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of a cloud, to lead them in the way; and by night in a pillar of fire, to give them light; to go by day and night” (Exodus 13:21).

An Israeli military spokesperson quoted on the Gawker blog states that: “The name is not a direct, word-for-word translation. Like most translations, it is an attempt to convey the spirit of the name, rather than a simple Google Translate.” One wonders whether the spokesperson is unaware that the Bible has been translated into English for centuries, or whether the image managers belatedly realized that the brand name for the war was open to “misunderstanding” once again. Indeed, the Gawker has already interpreted the choice of Hebrew and Biblical name to mean that “Israel Names Its New War After Biblical Story About God Terrorizing Egyptians,” on the grounds that the divine pillar threw the Egyptian army into confusion so the Israelites could escape.

The codename perhaps has been (mis)translated deliberately by the Israeli military to cloud the negative connotations that the “pillar of cloud” has. But the (mis)translation follows a deeply rooted cultural logic in Jewish Israeli, Zionist collective existence. Jewish Voice for Peace also condemns the choice of codename, but on the grounds that “it is unseemly to invoke the protection afforded the Israelites wandering in the desert when Israel is the dominant military power in the region”. The Israelites had no army when they fled Egypt, afraid and unsure of their path. But surely, now that Israel has such a powerful military, as the Israeli broadcast media were quick to boast in their cheerleading of the assassination of Jabari and the allegedly precise strikes on the Fajr missile sites, today’s people of Israel do not feel dependent on divine protection and leadership?

In choosing a codename that figures Israel as in need, still, of divine protection, the military image makers express, from behind a cloud, a deep felt need for a Jewish Israeli public to continue to see itself as defenceless despite its strength. True, the image makers’ have an explicit imperative to present this war as a military operation in which Israel is forced to defend itself against an implacable enemy, Hamas, that both targets Israeli citizens and exposes its own people to the harm of Israeli retaliation. That is certainly part of the motivation behind the mis(translation), part of the propaganda campaign to erase Israeli and global awareness of repeated Israeli initiation of armed attacks on Gaza, part of the legitimation of a regular pattern of “little” wars, each of which is “successful” only in so far as it is repeated, as Hagai Matar has pointed out.

“Cloud” is (mis)translated as “defense” because it does not matter how much military power Israel has, nor how victorious its armed forces, nor how precisely its intelligence and weaponry can target its enemies, it will not be enough to fill the felt need for protection, for defense. All the military manna in heaven could not fill that hole. The pillars of smoke and fire that the Israeli military inflicts on Gaza by day and by night are a substitute, though a poor one, for divine protection and presence. The pillars of smoke and fire are clouds that instead of leading today’s Israel towards a promised land lead us to repeat, compulsively, acts of war that bring not peace but situations such as the unilateral withdrawal from and siege of Gaza that demand never-ending military “defense.”  The pillars of smoke and fire that cloud our hopeless, mournful,  traumatic and traumatizising repetition of violence condemn Israel to wander in a wilderness of war until we can see through the clouds of war that only a pillar of peace will dispel the felt need for divine protection and defense that we seek, vainly and profanely, through the force of arms.

Cartoon bomb

Netanyahu at UN 27 Sept 2012

Cartoon bomb

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu’s speech to the UN General Assembly on Thursday, September 27, 2012 was constructed around a piece of visual rhetoric. Having tussled with the US administration and embroiled himself, undiplomatically, in the presidential election campaign by picking a quarrel with Obama, Bibi came to New York to make his case, yet again, for the immediacy of the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon. Verbally, he knew which analogies to draw on to press the importance of drawing a red line – at the enrichment of uranium at weapon-grade level – that the Iranian government must not cross if it is to avoid military retaliation. Playing hypothetical history, Bibi argued that the Nazi regime in the 1930s and the Iraqi regime in 1990 would have been deterred by the drawing of such red lines, and wars could have been prevented. “Red lines don’t lead to war”, he said “they prevent war”. Faced with a red line, Iran will back down. Red lines save lives.

In Netanyahu’s rhetoric, peace is the prevention of war, even by military means. His notion of peace is the absence of war, the avoidance of any attack on Israel, the quietude of the security of arms, of superior force. This is a powerful image of peace in Israel, one that resonates especially strongly on the day after Yom Kippur, which will forever be inscribed in Israeli public memory as the anniversary in the Jewish calendar of the war that began on October 6, 1973. The memory was kept alive in the Israeli media this year by reports about a new book about the war and its battles, some recently reworked sound recordings of the opening bombardment of Israeli positions by the Suez canal, accompanied by an item about a woman soldier who allegedly had hidden rather taken part in an exchange of fire a few days before along Israel’s border with Egypt. In his speech, Netanyahu invited the rest of the ‘modern’ world to feel equally threatened, equally in need of brave soldiers who wouldn’t hide from bullets, when he spoke of the battle it faced with the medieval forces of Islamic extremism.  Israel, Europe, America, he said, faced an enemy that would extinguish freedom and end peace. And the Jewish people have a track record of overcoming those who would destroy them. So, in other words, don’t worry America, Israel has your back – or can you push forward into the next war.

But Bibi’s visual gesture undermined the gravity of his verbal delivery. This was not Colin Powell at the UN in 2003 presenting ‘evidence’ of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, to his later regret. This was a man with a drawing of a cartoon bomb that seems to have been borrowed from the Spy v. Spy strip. All the complexities of an atomic bomb reduced to a black and white outline and a fizzing fuse. The black and white figures of the Spy v. Spy cartoon also tell us about Netanyahu’s equally black and white, West v. East, good against evil Manichaeism. With a Manichean view of the world, peace can mean only victory over your enemy, never making peace with your enemy. In the battle which Netanyahu pictures of ‘modern’ v. ‘medieval’, there is no room for compromise, no security without might, no rest from drawing red lines to keep the evil out.