07 March 2005 - Breaking the Silence?
One of the classic propaganda techniques is to show an image with an unrelated or distorting caption. (It’s an image like that in the New York Times that provoked HonestReporting.com to get started.) A traveling exhibition by the dissident soldiers of Breaking the Silence, which is at Harvard this week, relies on that propaganda technique to demonize the Israel Defense Force and the State of Israel as a whole.
The images themselves are really rather lame. You don’t see soldiers performing acts of brutality. Most of the snapshots are of racist graffiti. The most graphic images are of soldiers posing by the corpse of a dead Palestinian guerilla fighter in a Gaza hothouse. The captions identify the dead Palestinian as a “militant”—that familiar euphemism from the media dictionary of moral (or immoral) equivalence.
You see a few petty crimes—soldiers watching a football match inside a Palestinian living room they have commandeered, sending the family outside. But that’s as bad as it gets. The captions, filled with profanity, are used to make the images seem worse than they actually are. One image shows pedestrians walking along a street peacefully; the caption tells of a group of soldiers breaking up a funeral procession.
There is almost no mention in the entire exhibition of suicide bombing. There is a poster on the “historical background” which parrots the Palestinian narrative of the intifada—that it was Sharon’s fault. The organizers don’t want you to walk through on your own, lest you draw your own conclusions. So they supply a “tour guide,” a former IDF soldier who make sure you understand how awful the occupation is.
I asked our “tour guide” why the exhibition felt it necessary to supply captions that didn’t actually explain the images. He said it was necessary to provide “context.” OK, I said—then where is the context? Where’s an accurate timeline of historical events? Many of the images are from Hebron—where’s the information about the suicide bombing in the Hebron market? Well, you can’t include everything, he said.
An interesting exchange took place when our guide insisted that the occupation turned every soldier into a war criminal. OK, we responded, maybe you did some terrible things, but not every soldier did. He immediately became defensive. It wasn’t his fault he had mistreated Palestinians, he said. It was the occupation. The army turns you into a monster. You would have done the same, he said.
So this fellow believes in his country’s collective guilt, but not his own individual culpability. It’s a form of selling out, really, a sort of inverted show trial where these guys “confess” to everyone else’s sins. I found the whole thing ridiculous—most of all the fact that they felt it necessary to accompany visitors to the exhibition with a minder who made sure they didn’t have any undesirable thoughts.
If there is anything to praise about the whole affair, it is not the open-mindedness of the Harvard Hillel, which hosted the exhibit. (They had to, you see, otherwise they would have been part of “the Silence.”) No—it is the self-sacrifice of Hillel’s Orthodox congregation, which sacrificed its own prayer space so that the exhibition could be held in the Jewish community and not in one of the government buildings.