Usually photographs contribute to the construction of the news. It is more rare that photographs themselves are newsworthy. An instance of the latter was the reporting in mid-August of the discharged Israeli soldier Eden Abergil posting photographs of herself in uniform posing in front of bound and blindfolded Palestinians on her Facebook wall.
The newsworthy-ness of these photographs has now passed, to be replaced by attention given to the ‘peace’ talks in Washington between Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas. But obviously the political conditions that generated these particular images in the first place have not gone away. It is these conditions that doom the talks in Washington to inconsequentiality, because they are premised on the misperception that what has to be resolved between the Israelis and Palestinians is a conflict rather than a situation of domination of one side by the other.
So after the Eden Abergil furore in which she was the focus of commentary that either attacked, or defended her actions, what can we learn from her photographs? The first thing to say and this was a key point made by various commentators at the time is that her photographs are not really out of the ordinary either within the Israeli military, or within the age of military conflicts when soldiers have access to cheap and portable photographic equipment. Soldiers take these kinds of photographs and the denial made by the IDF that these photographs are a ‘phenomenon’ will not change this fact. Abergil’s incredulity towards the suggestions that she had done something wrong was probably partly based on the understanding that ‘everybody does this’.
The second related thing to note is that the only thing that distinguishes Abergil’s photographs from others taken by Israeli soldiers is that they were projected into the public realm. Thousands more photographs of this kind that make light of the brutalisation of Palestinians, probably exist in the private realm, on personal computers, or in boxes of photos related to the taker’s period of army service. The photographs that ‘Breaking the Silence’ revealed from their archive the day after the Eden Abergil story broke are the tip of the iceberg.
These photographs will mostly remain hidden, but it is reasonable to assume that they exist, not because young Israeli soldiers are monsters, but because cameras are a technology that allows them to explore and manifest a power-relationship towards Palestinians that is structural to the Israeli occupation. What opened Abergil up for criticism is obviously her wrongheaded assumption that the normalcy of this kind of photograph within the culture of the IDF extended to Facebook.
The third thing to say in relation to the photographs and the way that the posting of them on Facebook has been reported is that Abergil has functioned as a kind of scapegoat for the IDF and the Israeli state. In this context denigrating Abergil constitutes an ‘inoculation’ of the kind discussed by Roland Barthes in his essay ‘Myth Today’ from 1956, where he identifies the admittance of the ‘accidental evil of a class-bound institution the better to conceal its principle evil.’ Continuing: ‘One immunizes the contents of the collective imagination by means of a small inoculation of acknowledged evil; one thus protects it against the risk of a generalized subversion.’ Abergil has been defined as an aberration in the hope of inoculating the Israeli state and its occupation in the eyes of observers outside of Israel. Abergil also fleetingly became a figure of hate for people who should really be focussing their attention on the occupation regime rather than the actions of individual Israelis. In both her new found guises as scapegoat for the Israeli state and as hate figure, Abergil reminds me of Lindy England, the young women at the centre of the Abu Ghraib scandal. I am not sure about Abergil’s background is, though within the blogosphere some Israelis have labelled her an ‘arsit’ (which I understand translates as ‘white trash’, or as a Hebrew equivalent to ‘chav’), but in the case of England I know that she was working-classed and relatively powerless within the context of US society, someone easy to blame for violence that was structural to and a natural result of the occupation of Iraq. England brings to mind the white female ‘cracker’ characters in Civil Rights era films about segregation in the American south such as To Kill a Mocking Bird and In the Heat of the Night. Whatever happens in these narratives, the working-class ‘trashy’ woman is always to blame for what is obviously the racism of a social system.
The fourth thing that we can learn from the photographs is that a key element of what they depict is not as visible as it should be. The question I want to pose is: if you take away Abergil from these photographs, do they become acceptable? Obviously not, for they depict bound and blindfolded Palestinians. Such photographs would only be acceptable if one internalised the logic of Israeli state ‘security’ discourse that defines the treatment of people in this way as being absolutely necessary for a greater good. If one does not accept this logic and, indeed, if one has any critical understanding of the occupation regime, which is really a regime of conquest given its forty-three year duration, then such photographs are unacceptable. The main thing people seem to have objected to about the Abergil photographs is her posing for the camera that suggests that she is making light of the plight of the Palestinian detainees in a rather distasteful and callous way, but what people should be equally, if not more, disturbed by is the fact that the Palestinian men in the pictures are bound and blindfolded at all. It is almost as if it took Abergil posing in front of bound and blindfolded Palestinian detainees for this familiar scenario of the occupation to actually be seen. Photographs of bound and blindfolded Palestinians are rather common. Enter ‘blindfolded Palestinians’ into Google Image and you will get a good number of results.
I presume, again, that this is the tip of an even bigger iceberg. What these pictures show is an IDF standard operating procedure that is integral to policies aimed at keeping the Palestinian population in the West Bank subordinated to an order that separates Palestinians from their land and enables the process of Israeli colonisation. Such images have become part of the iconography of the occupation, especially since the outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000, but their commonplace nature should in no way make them acceptable.
So criticise Eden Abergil if you feel so inclined, but at the same time do not lose sight of the bigger picture of the occupation. Abergil’s actions are really nothing that out of the ordinary, nor are her explanations of why she has been attacked for these actions. As Daniel Dor has argued, since the end of the 1990s a dominant discourse within Israel has articulated the understanding that whatever Israel and Israelis do, they will always be criticised because Israel is hated and because they are Jews (Daniel Dor, The Denial of Guilt: The Israeli Media and the Reoccupation of the West Bank, Pluto, 2005). This belief is obviously linked to a longer standing aspect of Israeli identity relating to conceptions of the eternal persecution of the Jewish people and the culture of memory around the Holocaust (see Jacqueline Rose, The Question of Zion, Princeton, 2007). Aiming vitriol at Abergil might feel satisfying for some people, but it is of little political value. More significant is finding ways to focus attention on those ‘ordinary’ aspects of the occupation that have somehow been inoculated within the international media as ‘just the way things are over there’. We need to de-immunize images of bound and blindfolded Palestinians and from there move to the position where we can firmly assert that the occupation regime is intolerable however well, or badly Israeli soldiers behave.