Posted by: simonsteachingblog | April 2, 2010

‘We’ the population

I recently attended a conference in Tel Aviv entitled ‘The Winning Image’ (organised by the Faculty of Art and Design at Shenkar College in Ramat Gan). This title was derived from terminology used by the Israeli military during the 2006 Lebanon War and the attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. In these conflicts the Israeli military was concerned with establishing for themselves a ‘Winning Image’ and with denying such an image to its opponents. The conference was therefore concerned with the relationship between military conflict and visual imagery, a concern congruent with long-standing discourses on the relationship between conventional military logistics and what Paul Virilio termed ‘the logistics of perception’ in his well-known book War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception (1984). ‘The Winning Image’ in this context was not just a spectacle of military power intended to shock the enemy and thus hasten their defeat; a spectacle that Clauswitz defined as the ‘moral’ aspect of warfare, linking the image projected by an army to its morale and the morale of its adversaries. This ‘Winning Image’ could also be one projected back to the home population to encourage them to further commit themselves to the power that has provided them with victory. The first day of the conference was interesting for the panel with which it began and the presentation with which it ended. The former involved talks by Nachman Shai (a Knesset member for the Kadima party and the former Israeli Defence Forces spokesperson), Yaniv Levitan (from Haifa University), Ariella Azoulay (from Bar-Ilan University), and Farida Vis (from the University of Loughborough), while the latter was a keynote address by the artist Hans Haacke.

The opening panel could not have been more marked in its contrasts. Shai and Levitan’s presentations were premised upon the understanding that they spoke as part of and for an Israeli national ‘we’ defined as homogeneous and clearly demarcated from its enemies, designated as ‘terrorists’. Shai’s presentation in particular was structured in terms of a struggle between this Israeli ‘we’ and threats posed by Hezbollah and Hamas, the latter sometimes being incorporated into a generic Palestinian other. Within this struggle Israel is strong in conventional military terms yet, it was argued, weak in the realm of the information war. In relation to these strengths and weaknesses, Shai discussed the prospect of what he termed a new ‘White Intifada’ that would involve less violent confrontations between the Israeli state and the Palestinians than during the Second Intifada. This lower level of violence did not seem to be a particularly attractive prospect to him. Thus he observed that it might be better to have a more violent ‘Red Intifada’ that would enable Israel ‘to put an end to terror’. From this I could only understand that a less violent Intifada, without suicide attacks on Israeli civilians, would not allow the Israeli state to violently crush Palestinian resistance to the occupation without creating a ‘losing image’ for Israel on the international scene. Consequently, although not something explicitly articulated by Shai, Israel’s weakness within the information war in the international context is not the result of its militarily weak opponents producing better propaganda because they are undemocratic and thus not confused by notions of free speech and the plurality of voices this generates. Rather this weakness is the result of the ongoing occupation of Palestinian land against which Palestinians continue to resist by both non-violent and violent means.

The occupation will always be a weakness for Israel in terms of image simply because it is often seen in a negative light in the international political arena. This negative attitude is generally not the consequence of anti-Israeli attitudes, or because of old and new forms of anti-Semitism, as some would suggest, but because a lot of people view it as plain wrong to deny sovereignty to a people through an occupation that every year looks more and more like conquest. Because of the occupation, the Israeli state will always struggle to establish the ‘Winning Image’ it might desire for itself in the eyes of people living outside of Israel, in Europe and elsewhere. It may well be the case that for some international observers the Israeli state’s reflex to use military violence for political ends has given it a positive image as a modern day Sparta. The Retort collective have suggested, along these lines, that support for Israel on the part of the US state is not based on the role of Israel as a ‘strategic asset’ in the Middle East, but at the level of image in terms of ‘self-recognition’ – that Israel has functioned ‘most deeply as an image, and justification, of the US’s own culture of endless arms build-up and the militarization of politics.’ (Retort, Afflicted Powers: Capital and Spectacle in a New Age of War, Verso, 2005, p. 123) But Retort also suggest that whatever ‘image victory’ the Israeli state might secure in this way has to compete with ‘image defeat’ in relation to the spectacle of the occupation. Many Israelis probably also desire the ‘Winning Image’ that their state can, at least temporarily, give them; an image of military dominance and triumph. Such a ‘Winning Image’ can only function on the basis of an identification with a collective ‘us’ that is utterly exclusive and premised upon the utter abjection of the population that is defined as the enemy. Given public responses to Operation Cast Lead against Palestinians in Gaza this kind of construction of ‘us’ against ‘them’ seems to be a dominant and well functioning element of the Israeli national political imaginary. But this form of exclusivist ‘winning’ has to have its losers and the losers end up being an image that also says something about the supposed winners. Thus in terms of an image of international legitimacy, the Israeli state will always find itself on unstable ground as long as the occupation continues. This is why the Palestinian option of violent resistance is preferred by the Israeli state because it can be mobilised to undermine the legitimacy of the Palestinian demand for independence, or citizenship within a binational state, and because it allows for both non-violent and violent resistance to be suppressed through the application of sovereign power.

In the next presentation, Levitan continued aspects of Shai’s argument from what was ostensibly an academic position, though given what he said, he would not have looked out of character if he had delivered this presentation in an army uniform. What he said hinged on the not particularly persuasive argument that in the contemporary period ‘ideas [are] stronger than bombs’ and that ‘wars are ultimately decided in the media field’. From this, Levitan presumed, like Shai, that Israel was in a weak position and was open to information attack by ‘terrorist’ organisations and international supporters of the Palestinians. Thus the Israeli state was put in the position of being a victim of a ‘stronger’ opponent. A dubious equality was therefore set up between the Palestinians (successful in the information war) and the Israeli state (merely strong in its conventional arms) that ignored the massive disparity in economic, political, and military strength between the former and the latter. Israel was also understood to have made itself vulnerable through the openness of its communications to the extent that it had even given a platform to Hezbollah by broadcasting its propaganda. Thus Hezbollah made ‘use of the weakness of democracy’. One might wonder what the implications of this point are? Was Levitan lamenting the limitations for effective action in the field of information war on the part of liberal democracies, or moving towards the suggestion that it would be better for Israel to have a homogeneous and media with increased formal and informal censorship?

Ariella Azoulay speaking at 'The Winning Image' conference, Tel Aviv, March, 2010

Ariella Azoulay’s talk was not premised upon a taken-for-granted national ‘we’. Instead, it was concerned to problematize this ‘we’ from a ‘civil perspective’ that does not accept the delimitations upon citizenship set in 1948 with the establishment of the state of Israel as a Jewish state. Azoulay’s method was to reconsider certain iconic photographs, reading them in relation to the founding violence of the Israeli state and its ethno-centric policies. The photographs in question were the image of the raising of ‘The Ink Flag’ in Umm Rashrash in 1949 and the photograph of David Ben Gurion declaring the state of Israel at the Tel Aviv Museum in 1948. For Azoulay the latter image is a kind of ‘victory shot’, like the raising of ‘The Ink Flag’, or Joe Rosenthal’s famous image of the raising of the Stars and Stripes on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima during World War Two. This ‘victory shot’ depicts two Israeli flags hanging vertically against a wall on either side of a portrait of Theodor Herzl behind the assembled worthies marking the occasion of the declaration of the state, but Azoulay saw these flags as effectively thrust into occupied territory. Thus the declaration of Israeli sovereignty disguises the occupation of Palestinian land and the violence that this required. Azoulay’s reading of the photograph encouraged the viewer to reframe the photograph by bringing it into conjunction with an understanding of the ‘disaster’ that befell the Palestinians in 1948 and the refusal of ‘civil equality’ between Palestinians and the new Jewish Israelis this involved.

Within Azoulay’s presentation the establishment of a interpretive relationship between the foundation of Israeli statehood and the Palestinian ‘disaster’ was in part a matter of bringing the photograph of the declaration of the state into conjunction with other photographs of the Palestinian experience of 1948. The ‘Winning Image’ of the declaration of the state, became from a different perspective, a ‘losing image’; a transformation premised upon seeing the Palestinian ‘disaster’ as an absent presence within the photograph. Azoulay read the founding national icon ‘against the grain’ from the perspective of the defeated and the excluded. She therefore approached history, as presented through iconic photography, as a history of the those ‘lying prostrate’ in line with the ideas presented in Walter Benjamin’s famous ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’ (in Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, Pimlico, 1999).

In her presentation Azoulay also attempted to retrieve a silenced history of pre-1948 ‘reciprocal relations’ between Palestinians and Jews by considering photographs of members of these ethnic groups working together before the establishment of the state of Israel. She noted these images as evidence of a mutuality that was eradicated by the Israeli state when it constructed ideologically inviolable boundaries between populations resident in Mandate Palestine. This mutuality was conceived not just as something that was of the past but also potentially of the future, as something that might be found through the establishment of a binational state where Jews and Palestinians share the status of citizen, or at least through the reciprocity between Israelis and Palestinians involved in a shared struggle to establish some form of Palestinian independence through a two-state solution. Overall what Azoulay argued for was a consideration of the question: ‘Who does the state serve?’ The obvious answer to this question is that the Israeli state serves Jewish Israelis. But Azoulay sought to problematize this automatic answer in order to ask whether, or not all Jews resident within Palestine in the late 1940s supported the UN partition plan of 1947, and, moreover, whether or not they supported the eventual establishment of Israel as an ethno-centric state in 1948. Here the question ‘Who does the state serve?’ is turned from obvious answers to a consideration of whether or not the Israeli state actually serves well those people it was meant to be set up for. Turning these concerns to the present and future, Azoulay also sought to enquire whether any state established within the boundaries of what was Mandate Palestine should represent the entire population of this territory.

If there was a ‘we’ within Azoulay’s discourse it was the ‘we’ of all those governed by the Israeli state irrespective of formal divions between those with full rights as citizens and those without. This is an interesting and promising argument for the way that it opens up a space for the reconsideration of taken-for-granted relationships between ethnicity, national identity, citizenship, and the state, but in the context of ‘The Winning Image’ conference it was also interesting for the reactions it produced from members of the audience. The atmosphere seemed to become tense as the presentation progressed, with some people leaving their seats in the auditorium and others interjecting (in untranslated Hebrew). It was clear that Azoulay had touched nerves, revealing the difficulty of talking about certain things within Israel even to a liberal constituency. Shai’s observations about the prospect of violent confrontation between Israel and the Palestinians in the near future, to my surprise, produced no such reactions, suggesting that more disturbing than the idea of ‘the next war’ for some of the audience was the suggestion that Israeli Jews and Palestinians might come to share the same civil context. Perhaps equally disturbing for members of the audience were Azoulay’s attempts to question the standard narrative of 1948 and its aftermath through the discussion of photographs. Those who left their seats, or protested from the audience seemed to be performing their role as national subjects defined in terms of a clear division between a Jewish Israeli ‘us’ and a Palestinian ‘them’ and in terms of a standard national narrative based upon the invisibility of the Palestinian ‘disaster’. It was therefore interesting to note that the English edition of Haaretz on the same day ran an opinion piece by Gideon Levy about what he argued was the non-existence of the Israeli ‘peace camp’ in which he stated: ‘This illusory left wing never managed to ultimately understand the Palestinian problem – which was created in 1948, not 1967 – never understanding that it can’t be solved while ignoring the injustice caused from the beginning. A left wing unwilling to dare to deal with 1948 is not a genuine left wing … The illusory left never understood the most important point: For the Palestinians, consenting to the 1967 borders along with a solution to the refugee problem, including at least the return of a symbolic number of refugees themselves, are painful concessions.’ (Gideon Levy, ‘Never was and never will be’, Haaretz, Sunday 7 March, 2010, A5)

Farida Vis speaking at 'The Winning Image' conference, Tel Aviv, March, 2010

If Shai and Levitan focussed upon the military and political struggle to assert ‘Winning Images’ in the sincere belief that such things actually exist and Azoulay pointed to the absent presence of disastrous loss on the part of those defined as ‘the enemy’ within the ‘Winning Image’ itself, Farida Vis took a different approach, suggesting that although some parties within the contest over the logistics of perception might seem, at least for a while to come out on top, the idea of a winner in the realm of images is a problematical concept. Vis began with a discussion of her research on British and US broadsheet newspaper coverage of the period of the Oslo ‘peace process’ in the mid-1990s, focussing on the Beit Lid bombing in January 1995 and the Hebron Massacre in February 1994. Considering the representation of perpetrators and victims within the press in relation to these two violent events, Vis found that in both instances Palestinians were less visible in either role than Israelis. In the case of Beit Lid emphasis was placed on the young Israeli soldiers killed, while for the Hebron Massacre much attention was given to the attacker Baruch Goldstein and not the Palestinian dead and wounded, some of whom were children. Contrary to the perceptions of some in Israel and elsewhere that the Western media follow anti-Israeli tendencies, it seems in these instances that Israelis fare better than the Palestinians, and might even be bordering on gaining some sort of ‘Winning Image’. Yet Vis’ continuing discussion problematized such assumptions through a consideration of the iconic motif of the killing of Mohammed al-Durrah in September 2000 at the beginning of the Second Intifada. What she argued was that although the dominant articulation of this motif is one that can be defined as sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians under occupation, the motif itself remains contested and insecure and, moreover, it is this insecurity in terms of meaning that drives the need to assert its significance in specific terms and consequently enables the reproduction of its iconic status. One of Vis’ key points, made clear at the end of her presentation, was that within such struggles over images like the one of al-Durrah nobody ultimately wins except for the image itself that gets to live on within visual culture as a result of attempts to use or ‘kill’ it through efforts to discredit it as a fraud.

This sense that in the end nobody can really secure a ‘Winning Image’ can be related to Azoulay’s suggestion within her discussion of photography and 1948 that one group’s victory is always implicated with another’s loss. Yet, this sense that the very idea of a ‘Winning Image’ is unfounded can also be related to understandings that both the occupied and the occupier lose out when it comes to the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. For example, Edward Said discussed the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians in relation to Franz Kafka’s short-story ‘In the Penal Settlement’ (Franz Kafka, Metamorphosis and Other Stories, Penguin Books, 1963), stating: ‘In this story, Kafka shows how the invention of a fantastic torture machine – which is so detailed in its infliction of pain by needles that inscribe writing on the human body – in the end, captures the user and inventor of the machine himself. I think the same thing is happening with the Israelis. The Israeli military is used to humiliating and subjugating the Palestinians, but it may be hurting Israelis more than it hurts the Palestinians, who have triumphed in acts of heroism of just survival against all the obstacles placed in their way.’ (Edward W. Said, Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said, South End Press, 2003, p. 184) It is worth noting that Said made this observation prior to the extremes of Israeli state violence involved in the suppression of the Second Intifada and the attack on Gaza during ‘Operation Cast Lead’, however I think his point still stands. Azoulay has herself suggested something similar when she states in the introductory text to her exhibition The (In)human Spatial Condition from 2008 that: ‘The public sphere flawed by the ongoing disaster inflicted by the occupation regime upon its Palestinian noncitizens seeps into the Israeli side: the mobilization of Israeli citizens to take part in the production of the disaster and its justification, as well as its erasure and denial.’ (This text is also printed in Adi Ophir, Michal Givoni, and Sari Hanafi, eds., The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Zone Books, 2009) Though here there is an emphasis upon there being no winners in the context of the occupation, whereas Said suggests that the Palestinians do have winning images of sorts in the form of a heroism that the occupiers entirely lack. The general point made in both statements is that although the negative effects of the occupation are different for Israelis and Palestinians, both experience negative effects. In this sense, what we are addressing here is something close to Aimé Césaire’s classic characterisation of colonialism as a process of ‘Thingification’; a process that turns both coloniser and colonised into different kinds of thing: on the one hand ‘a classroom monitor, an army sergeant, a prison guard, a slave driver’ and on the other ‘an instrument of production’. (Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, Monthly Review Press, 2000, p. 42; the original was published in 1955)

Hans Haacke speaking at 'The Winning Image' conference, Tel Aviv, March, 2010

Finally, Hans Haacke’s keynote address was focussed on his own work, but it shared with other speakers concerns over the problematical nature of the idea of the ‘Winning Image’ and over issues of citizenship. Haacke’s address resonated particularly well with Azoulay’s presentation when he discussed an artwork he constructed in the northern interior courtyard of the Reichstag Building in 2000.

Hans Haacke, 'Der Bevökerung', The Reichstag, 2000

This piece involved a reworking of the slogan on the side of the Reichstag that declared ‘Dem Deutschen Volke’ (‘To the German People’) with the slogan ‘Der Bevölkerung’ (‘To the population’). The latter slogan was laid out in white neon letters within a 7 by 21 metres wooden trough on the floor of the courtyard. As part of this work Haacke invited members of the Bundestag to each bring 100 pounds of soil from their electoral districts to fill the trough with the expectation that all sorts of plants would grow from the seeds in the soil. These plants would be allowed to grow irrespective of their origin. The resulting display was thus a demonstration against ideas of indigenousness of the type that inform ethno-centric constructions of German-ness. The plants stand in for an actual German population that is ethnically diverse. The slogan ‘To the Population’ therefore points to the need for the redefinition of the relationship between the state and its citizens in terms of an ethnically inclusive definition of the latter; citizenship would be premised upon residency rather than upon some imagined ethnos. In a German context this would mean the extension of citizenship to Turkish residents. It was witnessing such members of the population picnicking in front of the Reichstag that inspired Haacke to produce the Der Bevölkerung piece in the first place. Transposed into the context of Israel/Palestine the declaration ‘To the population’ can be linked to Azoulay’s notion of a civil space shared by Israelis and Palestinians who constitute the population governed, albeit in different ways, by the Israeli state; a civil space defined by a shared political project involving the construction of a ‘we’ that transgresses the boundaries of ethnicity in agonistic opposition to the ruling state regime that divides the governed into citizens and non-citizens. This civil space defined by a commitment to the needs and rights of all of the population would be premised upon the idea that without some sort of equality within this population everybody would lose to some extent. This kind of understanding of the situation in Israel/Palestine was underlined by Haacke at the end of his address when he quoted from the statement of the 2007 exhibition ‘Desert Generation’ to which he contributed: ‘Freedom is indivisible, and as long as Palestinians are deprived of liberty, Israelis too cannot be free.’ This slogan points to a situation where in the end there are no winners; where there can either be a condition in which the two groups that make up the population of the governed suffer (in highly unequal terms) from a loss of freedom and from the deformation of civil culture, or a condition in which the need for both groups to work together for the liberty of all is recognised as the fundamental political project of the present and the future. The first option points not only to a loss of freedom but also to the continuation of violence, while the other option encapsulates hopes for a different prospect. Here we might think of the contrast articulated by Malcolm X in 1964 between the ‘ballot’ and the ‘bullet’ in a speech in which he declared: ‘It’s freedom for everybody or freedom for nobody.’


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