On a hill not far from the Gaza border, Israelis gather in the twilight. Some perch on the edge of a shabby white sofa. Others pull up rugs, pull out binoculars and snacks. Polite conversation and the fizzing of soft drink bottles being opened fill the air. Pregnant minutes pass, like in that empty space just before a party starts, when all that is required for the spell to be broken is the first guests. Then, not much more than a kilometre away, there is a massive explosion. Black smoke billows over a building; it could be an apartment block or a textile factory. Or a hospital. Crackling crisp bags are silenced, bodies crane forward, binoculars are pressed to sometimes nervous, sometimes grinning faces. Somebody applauds.
This is Sderot, population around 25,000, a city in the Southern District of Israel that has been called the bomb shelter capital of the world. The people (some have brought their children) who have gathered on this night are used to explosions. When Barack Obama visited in July 2008 he stood in front of a pile of Qassam rockets that had been fired into the city from the Gaza Strip and told the citizens of Sderot that he was their friend, that ‘America must always stand up for Israel’s right to defend itself against those who threaten its people.’
Like almost everything about the latest Israeli assault on Gaza that has, as of this writing, claimed around a thousand Palestinian lives, what is happening today on Sderot’s hilltops is not without precedent. Five years ago, a report on Danish television showed a group of Israelis watching shells falling on the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead. A young Israeli woman, Keren Levy, was interviewed. ‘I think they should just clear off all the city [Gaza],’ Levy told the reporter, ‘just take it off the ground. Yes, I’m a little bit fascist.’
The world, nevertheless, seemed underprepared for when, earlier this month, Danish Middle East correspondent Allen Sørenson tweeted a photograph of Israelis gathered to watch a bombardment of Gaza. The journalist’s wry caption was ‘Sderot cinema’. Condemnation, fuelled by thousands of retweets, was swift and unequivocal. ‘If this is true,’ wrote baydu.co.za in reply, ‘then God help us all. What’s become of the human race?’
But, in reality, nothing except the medium had changed. Back in 2009, a young American-Israeli told Sørenson’s newspaper, Kristeligt Dagblad, that he was there on the hill to ‘see Israel destroy Hamas.’ A little bit, we might say, fascist.
‘There are two ways,’ Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, ‘by which the spirit of a culture may be shrivelled. In the first – the Orwellian – culture becomes a prison. In the second – the Huxleyan – culture becomes a burlesque’. If the Gaza Strip is a prison – and even David Cameron has said it is – and, by extension, Israel its gaoler, then it is primarily via Huxley’s burlesque that we in the West are directly affected by the current events in Gaza.
Syed-Makki Shah tweeted that Sørenson’s photograph showed the ‘morality of a people so skewed that murder is a public spectle (sic)’. The circular bloodshed engendered by Israel’s illegal occupation is indeed a public spectacle – not only for the settlers of Sderot, who have both practical and political stakes in the conflict’s outcome, but also for us, who do not.
The power of the standalone image to galvanise moral positions has been well understood for decades. Our permanent reminder is, perhaps, Nick Ut’s 1972 photograph of a naked Vietnamese child, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, fleeing the scene of a napalm bombardment. The image catalysed America’s disillusionment with the war in a way that no previous document of it had been able. The rise of social media has increased photography’s ability to influence public sentiment beyond anything Susan Sontag could have imagined when, almost forty years ago, she wrote of the medium’s ability to provide us with ‘ethical reference points’. But, in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, of Twitter, Facebook and Flickr, Sontag’s warning that the moral content of photographs is fragile rings truer than ever.
I’m thinking, for instance, of Marie-Andrée Paquet’s tweet in June that purported to expose the sexist convening of an all-male panel at the Global Summit for Women. The picture, Paquet claimed, was worth a thousand words. But it wasn’t, because the panel was atypical, and its purpose had been to engage an important stakeholder – the male CEO – in the debate around the advancement of women in business. The photograph was, in fact, worth nothing, but that didn’t prevent a flurry of retweets and a breathless rush to denounce the entire conference.
There are other, more pertinent, examples. An image of shells being signed by Israeli children with the words ‘From Israel with love’ was recently widely shared on social media, contextualised in such a way as to suggest the image was contemporaneous. In fact, it had been taken eight years ago, during 2006’s Israel-Hezbollah war.
Sørenson’s image is different, yes, in that its authenticity – and thus its import – cannot be doubted. It troubles us because it symbolises a collective and repugnant failure of ordinary human decency, and so we wring our hands, confused and sickened by the subjects’ lack of empathy towards the hundreds of innocent, out of frame Palestinians whose deaths and displacement they are voluntarily, even gladly, observing. But moral outrage on its own assures only that the outrage, like the conflict itself, goes on. It is this impotence that lies at the heart of the Huxleyan burlesque, the West’s endlessly self-effacing spectatorship that allows us, in the space of just a few years, to forget that the Sderot cinema exists. ‘Without a politics,’ Sontag said, ‘photographs of the slaughter-bench of history will most likely be experienced as, simply, unreal or as a demoralising emotional blow.’
The emotional blows will keep on coming for as long as we continue to mistake abbreviation for profundity, the rapid-fire sharing of emotive, disassociated images as a valid substitute for, as Huxley put it, ‘the vast, ramifying reality from which these notions have been so arbitrarily abstracted.’ Sørenson’s reminder of the Sderot cinema did not, unlike Ut’s epochal image of Kim Phuc, lay bare a shattering injustice – its value lies in the fact that it speaks to the power of ideology to radically dehumanise individuals through propaganda and terror. It is, though, merely one piece of an infinitely larger puzzle. The real story – the one that does take a thousand words to tell – is that a photograph or a TV news report has little or no significance, and will be swiftly forgotten, if the political consciousness that meets it is corrupt or absent. We would do well to remember this at a time when our own government has announced it will stop referring to Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem as occupied, a ruthlessly myopic decision that elicited scarcely a ripple of criticism in this country. We are all spectators of Gaza’s heinous ruin for as long as our mindfulness of its human cost stretches only as far as a tweet.