Saturday, March 19, 2011

On photos and narratives

Exactly a week ago I was in Oslo, capital of Norway, at a conference convened by the Norwegian Quakers and other people who care about what is going on in our region. Five Israeli peace activists came to take part, along with Norwegian activists (and some from other Scandinavian countries). Serious and profound discussions were held on the crucial issues: Is it still possible to end the occupation and reach a peaceful solution between the two states, Israel and Palestine, or had the accomplished facts established by successive governments of Israel already created an insurmountable barrier to implementation of this option? And what is the meaning of "a Jewish and democratic state"? Can this be a truly democratic state which guarantees equal rights also to citizens who are not Jewish?

During the morning discussion, whispering began in the audience shocking news which appeared in the Norwegian and Swedish morning papers. "Terrible, small children murdered with a knife," said the man sitting next to me, a middle-aged clergyman who had come to the conference from the far north of Norway. Suddenly, the scheduled agenda was interrupted by a woman organizer taking the floor to read out a statement expressing grief and pain and an unequivocal condemnation of the murder.

After returning to Israel I read about the debate between policy makers in Israel which took place during these same hours. "To publish or not to publish the photos? To maintain respect for the dead and play it down, or to distribute them worldwide in the hope that this time Western public opinion will not ignore the cruelty of the Palestinian terrorists?" was how Yediot Aharonot put it.

As we now know, ultimately it was decided to publish throughout the world the horrifying photos of the children's bodies lying in pools of blood - though Israeli embassies were instructed not to distribute them officially, but only help in the distribution by unofficial sources. The result was disappointing - it turned out that also this secret weapon failed to get rolling the creaking wagon of the "Hasbara" international public relations drive.

One after the other, Yedioth Ahronot's reporters in Rome, London, Paris, Barcelona and Copenhagen recounted their disappointment with European colleagues. It turned out that even after being presented with the horrible pictures, the European media insisted upon mentioning that Itamar where the murder took place is an illegal settlement established in Occupied Territory.

The Rome correspondent quoted with great anger an Italian journalist "who is considered honest" and who actually dared to compare the Israeli children killed by stabbing in Itamar with the Palestinian children killed by airplane bombing in Gaza. She said that "For me, it's the same horror" and completely rejected the suggestion that the Gazan children were killed when Israel resorted to "justified self defense".

In short, the paper concluded, "when such are the views prevalent in the European public, it would be naive to think a series of photos, however shocking, can change the situation."

In Makor Rishon yesterday, Uri Elitzur provided a sober explanation to his friends on the extreme right: the problem is not a specific murder, the problem is "the narrative." As long as the Western world takes up the "narrative " that Israel is the occupier and the Palestinians are occupied and oppressed, that the settlers have illegally grabbed land in an occupied Palestinian territory, even a shocking murder documented by bloody pictures would not convince the world that the settlers are right and the settlement project is justified and the government is right in building for them hundreds of new building units.

Elitzur continued by setting out a more ambitious project: "The mission of the Israeli hasbara is much more difficult than to create a one-day shock within the existing narrative. Its mission is to fundamentally change the narrative." Elitzur explains what the true "narrative " is which Israel must instill in the world's consciousness: "We are a small and diligent Jewish minority among hundreds of millions of Arabs; we represent the Jewish people which returned to their homeland after 2000 years, and we are being brutally attacked by the evil Arabs."

Instilling this "narrative " in the international public opinion was characterized by Elitzur as "a job for very many years, an almost impossible task. " In my humble opinion, the word "almost" can be left out. There does, indeed, exist a narrative which the State of Israel can still hope to introduce to world opinion: the narrative of a peace-seeking Israel, an Israel which is ready – in deeds and not just in words - to put an end to the occupation and settlements, to reach real peace with the Palestinians and with the entire Arab and Muslim world. Such a narrative may still find takers all over the world, should our government choose to take it up – first of all, towards itself. But even for that, time is quickly running out.