New York Times Jerusalem Deputy Bureau Chief Isabel Kershner is married to Hirsh Goodman, an Israeli citizen and prominent liberal Zionist intellectual. Goodman works at a military-linked Israeli think tank called the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS), where he serves as a senior research fellow in a position endowed by the billionaire Jewish philanthropist Charles Bronfman. On the INSS website, Goodman described his job as helping “Israel devise a strategy to impact positively on international and Arab public opinion and overall disseminate its message more effectively” — in other words, media spin. In a recent column for the Jerusalem Post, Goodman urged the government of Israel to treat threats to its image as acts of war, and to respond in kind.
An ethical reporter on a politically sensitive assignment might have avoided allowing intimate relationships they maintained with people at the center of the conflict to impact their reporting. But not Kershner. As Alex Kane just revealed in a devastating report published by the media watchdog FAIR, Kershner “overwhelmingly relies on the INSS for think tank analysis about events in the region.” According to Kane, Kershner has quoted her husband’s think tank a whopping 17 times — far more than any other comparable policy outfit. However, she has yet to publicly disclose her connection to the INSS and the media spin strategist who doubles as her husband.
The Times’ former Jerusalem Bureau Chief, Ethan Bronner, left his job last month after a string of humiliating scandals. First, the Times public editor called for his reassignment when he attempted to conceal from the public his son’s enlistment in the Israeli army. However, Times editor in chief Bill Keller rejected the recommendation. Bronner suffered further embarrassment when I exposed his business relationship with a pro-Israel public relations firm operated by an illegal settler. Once again, the Times editorial leadership let him off the hook.
Last month, at a farewell party for Bronner in East Jerusalem sponsored by the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs (PASSIA), international diplomats and members of the Israeli and Palestinian intelligensia grilled the outgoing bureau chief about his conflicts of interest. One Israeli journalist in attendance told me Bronner expressed no misgivings about his conduct, treating his questioners with a mixture of dismissiveness and smug condescension. After a group of young Palestinian intellectuals and activists stormed out in disgust, a South African diplomat reminded Bronner that he could not “determine his own objectivity.” The rancorous scene illustrated the deep stain Bronner’s legacy had left on the Times’ reputation in Israel-Palestine.
Though Bronner is gone, Kershner’s clear violations of Times ethical guidelines are likely to compound the damage to the paper’s credibility in the region. Will the Times ignore Kane’s reporting, exempting Kershner from rules other reporters are required to stringently observe, or will Public Editor Arthur Brisbane treat the revelations with the seriousness they deserve?
Tel Aviv University was built on the ruins of the Palestinian village of Sheikh Muwannis. The university’s faculty lounge is the village mukhtar’s former home. At the corner of Arlosoroff and Ibn Gvirol streets, where the Century Tower skyscraper stands, a Palestinian village named Sommeil used to exist.
When activists from the Israeli group Zochrot set out into the heart of Tel Aviv’s “Independence Day” festivities to educate revelers about these facts, they were accused of engaging in criminal activities.
As soon as the activists attempted to exit an office building to place small placards on Ibn Gvirol Street memorializing Palestinian villages destroyed during the Nakba, riot police surrounded them with metal gates, blocking them inside. The police informed them that they would be arrested if they attempted to interact with the crowds celebrating Israel’s birth. “We will not allow you to enter the celebrations with your pictures or your fliers,” a cop told Zochrot’s Eitan Bronstein. “We will not allow this form of protest. It might disturb the peace so we won’t allow it.” Another police officer told Bronstein his placards represented “inciting material.”
Though the police repression can hardly be excused, there is some reason to believe the Zochrot activists could have been subjected to harsh violence if they had been allowed to proceed with their action. While caged behind the metal gates, passersby surrounded the activists and held forth. “You’re lucky the police is here. You should thank them,” said a bald, beefy man who had to be led away.
Another hulking character who identified himself as a member of Unit 51 from the Israeli army’s Golani Brigade paratrooper corps barked at the activists, “The only thing you are is a bunch of traitors. Every day people here are fighting… This is unbelievable. You are traitors and if we had the chance we would shoot you one by one. One by one we would shoot you…”
The demonstration concluded with police violently arresting three participants including one man for the crime of reading aloud the names of destroyed Palestinian villages.
Lia Tarachansky of the Real News Network filmed the melee. Her footage is below:
The repression of Zochrot’s educational action was the street level manifestation of the campaign the Israeli government has waged to mute discussion of the Nakba and punish those who violate the code of silence. Last year, the government passed a law that allows the denial of state funding to NGO’s that participate in Nakba commemorations. In 2009, it banned the use of the term “Nakba” in school textbooks. Limor Livnat, a right-wing Knesset member who co-sponsored the so-called Nakba Law and banned textbooks using the word during her term as Israel’s Education Minister, declared that merely allowing students to learn about the mass expulsion of Palestinians during 1947 and 1948 would encourage them to work against the Jewish state.
The images of brawny riot cops — literal thought police — roughing up the small band of Zochrot members for publicly reading “inciting” facts recalled a passage from a widely publicized book about the importance of promoting democracy around the globe. “If a person cannot walk into the middle of the town square and express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm,” the book read, “then that person is living in a fear society, not a free society.”
The book is called “The Case For Democracy.” One of its authors, Natan Sharansky, was a former Soviet dissident who currently heads the Jewish Agency, a key arm of Israel’s settlement enterprise. The other author is Ron Dermer, an advisor to Benjamin Netanyahu known as “Bibi’s brain.” Together, the two called for overthrowing repressive regimes around the world, inspiring former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to quote their so-called “Town Square Test,” while they actively guided Israel’s descent into authoritarianism.
How could Sharansky and Dermer fail to see the irony in their actions? As the scenes from Zochrot’s demonstration illustrated, reflection is never an option in a fear society.
Israeli Channel 10 military anchor Alon Ben David stands beside a graphic reading, "Death toll: Gaza, 25; Israel, 0" (via Ami Kaufman at 972mag.com)
I discussed Israel’s real motives for its recent attacks on the Gaza Strip and talked about my reporting on Israel-Palestine with Citizen Radio hosts Allison Kilkenny and Jamie Kilstein.
Citizen Radio happens to be one of the most refreshing and authentically progressive radio shows I’ve listened to. Kilkenny and Kilstein deserve enormous credit for bringing the issue of Gaza to their listeners.
Yesterday I reported for the Columbia Journalism Review that New York Times Jerusalem Bureau Chief Ethan Bronner is on the speaker’s bureau of Lone Star Communications, an Israeli public relations firm that pitches him stories. Bronner has provided extensive coverage to several of the firm’s clients, including those involved in major political controversies. What’s more, the firm’s CEO and founder, Charley Levine, is a settler, media advisor to several right-wing government ministers, and a Captain in the Israeli army Spokesman’s Unit. Today, Ali Abunimah reported on Levine’s casually racist attitude towards Arabs. So Levine and his firm — which yesterday removed all mentions of their connection to Bronner — have a clear ideological slant. I have trouble understanding how this relationship does not violate Times ethics guidelines.
The Times has been warned before about Bronner. When the Electronic Intifada reported that Bronner’s son had joined the Israeli army, then-Public Editor Clark Hoyt recommended that Bronner be reassigned. As with his son’s army service, Bronner did not appear to have disclosed to the Times his relationship with Lone Star Communications. When I asked the Times’ Standards Editor Phil Corbett if Bronner’s involvement with the PR firm violated Times ethics policy, he did not request further details or allow me to submit specific questions. Instead, I was informed through an intermediary, Times’ VP for Corporate Communications Eileen Murphy, that the Times viewed Bronner’s emailed response to me as sufficient, and had no doubts about his integrity. It seems fairly clear at this point, after two major conflicts of interest have been exposed, that the Times has afforded Bronner a level of impunity that no reporter should enjoy.
While reporting my story, I spoke to one of the country’s leading experts on journalism ethics, Robert Steele, who directs De Pauw University’s Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics. I described Bronner’s relationship with Lone Star in detail to Steele. His comments did not make into my report for CJR, so I have reproduced them below. In short, Steele concluded “with confidence” that Bronner has waded into “very dicey ethical territory.”
Israelis woke up to a front page Jerusalem Post story claiming flotilla passengers planned violence against soldiers. The story has completely unraveled.
Update: Neues Deutschland reported that chief army spokesperson Avital Liebovich claimed Israel infiltrated the US boat to Gaza with naval intelligence agents, who relayed the IDF with a report of the passengers’ violent intentions. The passengers denied the claim as baseless and hysterical. The ludicrous nature of Liebovich’s claim is underscored by my interview (below) with the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, where she works. A robot translation of the ND article is here.
On June 27, the Israeli army released a highly suspect claim that passengers on the flotilla planned to kill and maim Israeli soldiers. The claim looks like yet another anti-flotilla hoax emanating from Israeli government channels.
Today, I reached an official from the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit after placing several calls and an email to the office requesting proof to support the army’s claim. The official was unable to supply me with one piece of evidence. Instead, she said, “Basically there’s a trust between the IDF and reporters. And like in any other army, you know, a senior IDF source says something, people are inclined to believe it because this is somebody high up, this is somebody that has a lifetime of experience and credibility and this is like any other army.”
When I asked why anyone would report such a claim without seeing any firm evidence, the army spokesperson said, “If there were something we probably would give it but because of sensitivities we can’t expand further.”
Listen to the whole interview here:
Despite an apparent lack of evidence, the army’s disinformation found its way into top Israeli newspapers through a select group of military correspondents including the Jerusalem Post’s Yaakov Katz. Katz reported that flotilla passengers planned to kill Israeli soldiers and that they were bringing “bags of sulfur” to attack the soldiers. “This is a chemical weapon, and if poured on a soldier it can paralyze him,” an unnamed army source told Katz. “If the sulfur is then lit on fire, the soldier will light up like a torch.” Yedioth Aharanot’s Hanan Greenberg also reported, “IDF fears flotilla activists will try to kill Israeli soldiers.” And Haaretz hyped the claim in Hebrew.
Today, the army’s story was exposed as disinformation. First, Yedioth Aharonot military correspondent Alex Fishman reported, “There is no information that there is going to be a group of radicals on board that will form a hard core of violent resistance against IDF soliders. Nor is there any clear information about live weapons that will be on board the ships.” Then, a group of Israeli government ministers accused the army of “media spin” and “public relations hysteria” for claiming the flotilla passengers planned to attack soldiers with chemical weapons.
And now, an Israeli army official (who curiously did not want to give me her name) has refused to supply me with any evidence to support the army’s wild claims. As I wrote during Israel’s disinformation spree in the wake of last year’s flotilla, nothing the Israeli army says can be trusted. Unfortunately, many reporters still accept the army’s claims on trust, while others do not even bother to investigate.
Despite declaring an "all-out war" on suicide, the Israeli army saw the epidemic rise in 2010
On Israel’s Memorial Day observances for “fallen soldiers and victims of terror attacks,” the Defense Ministry’s commemoration unit claimed that 183 Israelis “were killed in the line of duty or in terror attacks since last year’s Remembrance Day,” according to YNet. The number appears to represent a wild exaggeration that is inconsistent with past statistics documenting the number of Israeli soldiers killed annually in combat operations versus those who died by suicide or in accidents. In recent years, suicide has been either the leading cause or among the leading causes of deaths in the Israeli army.
While I was having lunch in Tel Aviv last summer with my friend Ruth Hiller, a founder of the Israeli anti-militarization group New Profile, she told me that around 50 percent of Israelis buried in military cemeteries had died through suicide, accidents or fratricide. I asked my roommate at the time, Yossi David, a left-wing Israeli blogger who had served in occupied Hebron, if Hiller’s figures were accurate. “All I know is that there were two suicides a month in my unit during training,” David said. “It happened all the time.”
In 1989, the Israeli army’s personnel department put the rate of suicides at 35 a year. By 2003, during the height of the Second Intifada, 43 Israeli soldiers died by suicide, making it the leading cause of death in the army. By 2010, suicide was on the rise again. During the first seven months of the year, 19 soldiers had killed themselves, a ten percent spike from the previous year. That number exceeded the number of deaths that occurred that year in combat operations.
In 2008, an Israeli border policeman committed suicide in front of French Prime Minister Nicholas Sarkozy. A young soldier shot himself last year after learning that his friend had committed suicide moments before. The phenomenon continues to plague the Israeli army despite Brigadier General Avi Zamir’s pledge in 2005 to “wage an all-out war on suicide by soldiers.”
The suicide rate has been particularly high among Ethiopian members of the Israeli army. By 1997, six years after an airlift brought the second wave of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, Ethiopian soldiers accounted for 10 percent of army suicides — but comprised only four tenths of a percent of the army. Racism was a key factor in the epidemic. One soldier’s suicide note read: “Every morning when I get to the base, six soldiers are waiting for me who clap their hands and yell, `The kushi [black] is here.’”
During Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s last major combat operation, the army suffered its largest loss of life in an accidental incident of fratricide, when a tank shell killed three members of the Golani Brigade. This year, several Israeli troops died at the Gaza border when their comrades accidentally rained mortars down on their position.
40 Israeli prison guard cadets died weeks before in the Carmel Wildfire when their bus was trapped in the flames. The cadets presumably comprised the majority of the 70 “soldiers and civilians” whom the Israeli Army spokesman claimed (via Twitter) were “killed in operational duty and terror attacks since last Memorial Day.”
When I met Bassem Tamimi at his home in the occupied West Bank village of Nabi Saleh this January, his eyes were bloodshot and sunken, signs of the innumerable sleepless nights he had spent waiting for Israeli soldiers to take him to prison. As soon as two children were seized from the village in the middle of the night and subjected to harsh interrogations that yielded an unbelievable array of “confessions,” the 44-year-old Tamimi’s arrest became inevitable. On 25 March, the army finally came, dragging him away to Ofer military prison, a Guantanamo-like West Bank facility where he had previously been held for a 12-month term for the vaguely defined crime of “incitement.” His trial before a military court that convicts more than 99 percent of Palestinians brought before it is scheduled to begin on 8 May.
Like nearly all of his neighbors, Tamimi has spent extended time in Israeli detention facilities and endured brutal treatment there. In 1993, he was arrested on suspicion of having murdered an Israeli settler in Beit El. Tamimi was severely tortured for weeks by the Israeli Shin Bet in order to extract a confession from him. Tamimi said that during the torture he was dropped from a high ceiling onto a concrete floor and woke up a week later in an Israeli hospital. In the end, he was cleared of all charges.
With his wife, Nariman, and his brother, Naji, Tamimi has been at the center of Nabi Saleh’s popular resistance against the occupation since its inception in 2009. The village’s unarmed struggle has brought hundreds of Israelis and international activists to participate each Friday in boisterous and theatrical demonstrations that invariably encounter harsh Israeli violence, including the use of live ammunition against children. While other villages involved in the popular struggle have seen their ranks winnowed out by a harsh regime of repression and imprisonment, Nabi Saleh’s protests continue unabated, irking the army and frustrating the settlers of Halamish, who intend to expand their illegal colony further onto Nabi Saleh’s land.
Tamimi and I spoke amid the din of a stream of visitors parading in and out of his living room, from international activists living in the village to local children to a group of adolescent boys from the nearby town of Qurawa, who told me they came to spend time with Tamimi and his family “because this is what the Palestinian struggle is about.” Tamimi is a high school teacher in Ramallah and his professorial nature is immediately apparent. As soon as I arrived at his front door for what I thought would be a casual visit, he sat me down for an hour-long lesson on the history, attitudes and strategy that inform the brand of popular struggle he and his neighbors had devised during weekly meetings at the village cultural center.
Our discussion stretched from the origins of Nabi Saleh’s resistance in 1967 to the Oslo Accords, when the village was sectioned into two administrative areas (Areas B and C), leaving all residents of the Israeli-controlled portion (Area C) vulnerable to home demolition and arbitrary arrests. Tamimi insisted to me that Nabi Saleh’s residents are not only campaigning to halt the expropriation of their land, they seek to spread the unarmed revolt across all of occupied Palestine. “The reason the army wants to break our model [of resistance] is because we are offering the basis for the third intifada,” Tamimi said.
I put this question to my friend Said Amireh, a 19-year-old resident of the occupied West Bank town of Ni’lin. He said he’d like to see her perform in Tel Aviv, but he can’t. Why? Because his town is imprisoned behind the Israeli segregation wall. Meanwhile, the residents of the illegal Jews-only settlement of Hashmonaim who live just meters away, on the other side of the wall, travel to and from Tel Aviv on special bypass roads, and have annexed thousands of dunams of Ni’lin’s land.
Said is a participant in Ni’lin’s weekly unarmed demonstrations against the wall (see what it’s like here). Since the town rose up, the Israeli army has killed four of its residents, while injuring and jailing hundreds of others. Said was jailed for four and half months, then had to drop out of school and go to work when his father, Ibrahim, was imprisoned under specious charges of “incitement.” I attended one of Ibrahim’s trials in the Israeli military court at Ofer, and watched a military prosecutor and military judge railroad him despite scant evidence that he had committed any crime beyond organizing unarmed resistance against his dispossession.
“When I try to work my land,” Ibrahim Amireh said at the conclusion of the trial, “the Occupation comes and takes it away. When I try to resist them taking it away, the Occupation arrests me and puts me in jail. What else can I do?”
The South African Artists Against Apartheid has issued a letter to Macy Gray demanding that she take into account the voices of people living under occupation like Said and reconsider her trip to Tel Aviv:
We are writing to you to encourage you to reconsider performing in Israel. You might wonder what purpose refusing to perform in Israel (in line with the cultural boycott call) might serve? As a people whose parents and grandparents suffered under (and resisted) Apartheid in South Africa, our history is testament to the value and legitimacy that the international boycott had in bringing to an end the Apartheid regime in our country. When artists and sportspeople began refusing to perform in South Africa, the world’s eyes turned to the injustices that were happening here to people of colour. This then created a wave of pressure on politicians and world leaders representing their constituencies, to insist on a regime-change – this contributed to a free, democratic and non-racial South Africa.
Inspired by the boycott of Apartheid South Africa, Palestinians have called for a Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign of Israel. As you are aware, this call has been actively supported by some Israelis as well. The aim of the campaign is not to target Israeli civilians, but to draw attention to the unjust acts that the Israeli state commits on a daily basis in their name.
The belief that cultural activities are “apolitical” is simply a myth. Artists have greater followings than politicians do; millions of people admire them and look to them as role models. They have a moral obligation to stand up against injustice all over the world. By performing in a country whose government systematically makes life unbearable for a targeted group of people is to ignore all sense of justice and morality and creates the impression that “it’s none of my business, I’m just here to entertain”…
Tamir Kafri, Ben Gurion University campus coordinator for Im Tirtzu
Fresh off a campaign of nationwide intimidation against the New Israel Fund, countless damagingpersonalattacks against leftists and professors condemned as insufficiently Zionist, and an endorsement from Israeli Education Minister Gideon Saar, the self-proclaimed “moderate” student group Im Tirtzu gathered for a night of celebration. The venue was “Theodore,” a swanky bar in the wealthy Tel Aviv suburb of Herzilya named for the man who Im Tirtzu claims as the inspiration for its “Second Zionist Revolution:” Theodore Herzl. The evening’s agenda: to fire up the troops for the upcoming boycott targeting Ben Gurion University’s supposedly anti-Zionist faculty.
At the door of the bar stood a glowering young man munching on a slice of pizza. He was Erez Tadmor, Im Tirtzu’s director of media relations. Tadmor approached us and asked who we were. We described ourselves as clueless Jewish American tourists who were simply curious about his student group. “We just heard there was some kind of party here,” we said in English.
Without bothering to introduce himself, Tadmor discussed his man-size persecution complex. “At Hebrew University I did so much damage to the professors I can’t even walk around freely on campus anymore,” he remarked. “Most of the academics here are anti-Israel and anti-Zionist. They have the audacity to say that Israel is an apartheid state, that we’re colonizers, that we kill kids. And so we are simply trying to defend our Zionist values against what they’re doing.”
Despite the subversive culture on campus, Tadmor was confident he would crush the evil-doers: “The elites are on the losing side. They only represent like 3 percent of the population who are radical leftist. But we have 70 to 80 percent of the people on our side.”
Im Tirtzu's Tamir Kafri, presumably performing in a production of "Rocky Horror"
Who is Tadmor? The scion of the only secular family in the fanatical Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba, Tadmor now lives in the settlement of Efrat with his wife and two children. He made his name directing the student cell that fought the evacuation of the settlement Gush Katif, then turned his attention to assailing cultural critics of Israeli maximalism. “The [Oscar-nominated Israeli film] Waltz With Bashir is a vehicle to destroy Zionism,” Tadmor once declared. “The director should have made a film about Herzl in the place of this.”
In an interview with Maariv, a leading Israeli newspaper, Tadmor admitted to stealing small-scale explosives and ammunition magazines from the army during his service. Despite insisting that he needed the weapons for “personal security,” Tadmor was stripped of his rank and slapped with a 45-day prison sentence for “breaking the trust” of the army.
During Operation Cast Lead, Tadmor orchestrated a series of violent confrontations between Im Tirtzu activists and Palestinian Israeli students at Hebrew University. An Im Tirtzu banner warned the Arab students, “We will burn your villages and see you during our reserve duty.” Tadmor was implicated for physically attacking female students who called him a “Nazi.” The riots sparked by Tadmor and Im Tirtzu were only quelled when university administrators demanded the deployment of Border Police and special Yassam forces on campus.
After chatting with Tadmor, two Im Tirtzu activists approached us to discuss campus politics in the United States. One of them, a chubby, slouching young man with a crew cut, asked, “Have you ever read ‘The Professors’ by David Horowitz? Horowitz was a former leftist so he knows the truth about the left in your country.” With his failed “Academic Bill of Rights” campaign, which would have allowed conservative students to sue their professors, and his annual “Islamofascism Awareness Week,” the ex-Stalinist Horowitz seemed like a natural role model for Im Tirtzu’s McCarthyite missions.
Kafri targets the enemy
The other activist, Tamir Kafri, a bespectacled and chipper student with a long ponytail and newly budding facial hair, mentioned another American inspiration: “You should read the book, ‘Liberal Fascism,’” Tamir said, referring to neocon writer Jonah Goldberg’s screed linking American liberalism to Hitlerian fascists. “I’m not saying all liberals are fascists, but on campus here in Israel, the liberal professors really are.”
Tamir led us inside and perched beside us at the bar. As dozens of his comrades filed in, he ordered a pony size Goldstar and opened up about the struggle he was waging as coordinator of Im Tirtzu at Ben Gurion University.
Tamir dismissed the hundreds of thousands of donations pumped into Im Tirtzu’s coffers each year by the apocalyptic Christian Zionist preacher Pastor John Hagee, who has said the anti-Christ would be “half-Jewish, as Hitler was.” “Who cares about who takes the money?” Tamir said. “People should focus on the donors and not on us. Like this neo-Nazi American pastor [John Hagee]. He’s the idiot! He’s giving all his money to a bunch of ZIonist Jews in Israel!”
As the beer flowed, Tamir entertained us with his opinions on everything from Zionism to domestic violence.
Tamir on campus politics: “[The Israeli communist party] Hadash is a bunch of pro-Palestinian radicals. But we’ve worked with Meretz. We even have some members of Meretz in our movement. They are the sensible left. They’re Zionists, not radicals.”
On the left: “Radical leftists are like gunpowder. By itself it’s harmless but next to a gun it becomes violently dangerous.”
On the Palestinians: “Actually there is no such thing as a Palestinian. Really. You know, the idea of the Palestinians was invented in the 1970’s?”
On the Eden Abergil photos: “The pictures were just funny. Face it.”
On Zionism: “Zionism is about securing a Jewish state where human rights are unconditional for everyone, including Arabs, but civil rights are conditional, based on someone’s loyalty to the recognition of Israel as a Jewish, Zionist state… I even know a couple Muslim Zionists. Like my friend from the army, he was Druze and he went to jail because he beat his cousin so badly.” Why did he beat his cousin? “Because he said he shouldn’t be fighting for Israel.”
On feminism: “I’m a true feminist. If a woman hits me I’ll hit her back just as hard. That’s feminism!”
Kafri performs in Rocky Horror
While Tamir continued riffing beneath a thumping soundtrack of 70’s disco hits, we looked around the room and noticed an almost total absence of women. Indeed, the bartender seemed to be the only member of the female gender interacting with the dozens of Im Tirtzu activists hunched over the bar. “Were any women invited your party?” we asked our new friend. “Because this is starting to look like the mother of all sausage-fests.”
Tamir looked around nervously, then exclaimed, “People show up late in Israel because we have no last call.”
20 minutes later, a woman appeared. But she was just the wife of Tamir’s pal, a short, bookish-looking character, who greeted him with a hearty bear hug. “This guy acted with me in the Rocky Horror Picture Show,” Tamir said about his friend, referring to the 70’s era British drag-show that has become popular across Israel.
“I actually had to borrow a corset from my wife for the show!” the friend told us with a giggle.
Besides working as a genetic engineer at the Weissman Institute, Tamir’s friend was a front-line soldier in the Im Tirtzu struggle. He said he became enraged when he saw an art exhibition in the city of Holon that depicted Israeli army helicopters bombing civilians and soldiers humiliating Palestinians at checkpoints. He immediately called Im Tirtzu founder Ronen Shoval to complain. The next day, he was a full-fledged activist.
“If the army did this sort of thing, it would be okay, because the art would have been factual,” the friend remarked. “But the army doesn’t do that! I was in the infantry so I know.”
Despite his indignation, the friend was intent on talking about the Rocky Horror Picture Show production he and Tamir starred in. “You know what the play really was?” he said to Tamir. “It was a hook-up scene for geeks!” They burst into mischievous laughter, as though they were watching scrambled porn while their mother did laundry in the basement.
The Im Tirtzu theme song: “A weakling weighing 98 pounds, got sand in his face when kicked to the ground…”
Tamir related one of his favorite Rocky Horror-related conquests. “There was a radical leftist girl who acted with us in the play,” he recalled.
“She was so radical she thought Noam Chomsky was a fascist!” the friend interjected.
“Yeah, so anyway, I fucked her one night,” Tamir boasted. “And while I was fucking her, I said, ‘Oh you’re so against Israel, and the occupation is so evil. Okay!’ Then, as soon as I came, I pulled out and said, ‘Sorry, no orgasm for you!”
At this moment, as we glanced around the room full of twenty-something guys huddled around on couches, fiddling with their cellphones and exchanging jocular back-slaps, we gained a new understanding of Im Tirtzu’s essential function. The movement was not only a street-level proxy for rightist forces in the government. It also served as a social sanctuary for aimless young men unable to locate productive outlets for their pent-up post-army aggressions. Long sessions of Playstation and back issues of Maxim were simply not enough for the rejects of Israel’s warrior class. They needed a glorious battle — even if the targets were defenseless and marginalized. And so they have identified enemies in every faculty lounge and editorial page, hoping to quell their sense of isolation by defining themselves as heroic Zionists waging jihad against the “elitist” fringe. Their sensitivity to “anti-Zionist bias” is in fact a projection of their own psychological insecurity.
Im Tirtzu has been portrayed by critics as a fearsome gang of dangerous thugs, but in the more casual setting of the Theodore bar, we saw the movement for what it really was: a well-financed dork squad.
After Ronen Shoval gave a speech announcing the coming onslaught against Ben Gurion University — “My grandmother was so proud to see us on the front page of Ha’aretz!” he announced — we noticed two young women downing shots of liquor across the bar. We went over to meet them.
“Are you guys with Im Tirtzu?” we asked.
“You mean the disgusting fascists?” one of them snapped.
“We hate them!” the other one said.
After a long interview process that included the examination of our ID cards, they established that we were not members of the “fascist” crowd. Only then did they invite us to drink with them.
The women eventually apologized for vetting us, explaining that an Im Tirtzu member seated beside them at the bar had attempted to chat them up earlier in the evening.
One of the women grabbed the Im Tirtzu activist’s arm and shouted at him, “Are you ready to stop being a narrow-minded racist? Then you can talk to us.”
Eden Abergil during "the most beautiful time" of her life
Is there anything shocking about the Facebook photos showing the Israeli female soldier Eden Abergil posing in mocking positions next to bound and blindfolded Palestinian men? While her conduct was abominable, I did not find it especially distinct from the documented behavior of Israeli soldiers and Border Police in the Occupied Territories.
Below is a photo I took in Hebron in June before soldiers demanded that I stop shooting (I will release video from Hebron as soon as I get the chance). Scenes like these can be witnessed on any given day in the West Bank. Not only do they show the dehumanization that the Palestinian Morlocks are subjected to on an hourly basis, they depict the world where Abergil spent what she called “the most beautiful time of [her] life.” It is easy to see how young Israelis (or anyone) would be sapped of their humanity in such an environment.
In July, I waited inside the cafeteria of Israel’s Guantanamo-like Ofer Prison after watching Ibrahim Amira, a leader of the Ni’ilin popular committee, be sentenced by a kangaroo court to six months in prison for the trumped-up charge of “incitement” (he was accused of paying kids to throw rocks at the Israeli soldiers who invade their village at least every week, as if they needed encouragement). While I stood at the counter to order a coffee, I watched four female jailers gather around a laptop to check their Facebook pages. I wondered what their status updates looked like. If they wrote anything relating to their work, would their Facebook pages look different than Abergil’s? Of course not. Just take a trip to Eyal Niv’s blog and look at some of the photos other young Israelis are posting.
I took this photo in Hebron in June before soldiers ordered me to stop shooting. A Palestinian man was being near the Ibrahimi mosque in Hebron.
You don’t have to go to the West Bank or into an Israeli prison to recognize that Abergil is a typical product of Israel’s comprehensively militarized society. Just watch the documentary, “To See When I’m Smiling.” In the film, which tells the soul-crushing stories of four young women conscripted into the Israeli Army, one of the characters recounts posing for a photo beside a dead Palestinian man who had an erection. She was smiling from ear to ear in the photo. However, at the end of the film, when she is compelled to look at the picture for the first time in two years, she does not recognize the monster who bears her image. Her contorted facial expression seems to ask, “Who was I?”
“To See When I’m Smiling” was produced by Breaking The Silence, a human rights group formed by ex-Israeli soldiers who collect testimonies from their peers. Incidentally, Breaking The Silence has published a 132-page booklet of testimonies by female soldiers (PDF here) who participated in acts at least as hideous as those depicted on Abergil’s Facebook page.
Here is Testimony 63, by a female sergeant from the Nahal Unit who served in Mevo Dotan:
I recall once, this was after we moved to Mevo Dotan, to the base there, some Palestinian was sitting on a chair and I passed by several times. Once I thought: Okay, why is he sitting here for an hour? I feel like spitting at him, at this Arab. And they tell me: Go one, spit at him. I don’t recall whether anyone did this before I did, but I remember spitting at him and feeling really, like at first I felt, wow, good for me, I just spat at some terrorist, that’s how I’d call them. And then I recall that afterwards I felt some thing here was not right.
Not too human. I mean, it sounds cool and all, but no, it’s not right.
You thought about later, or during the act?
Later. At the time you felt real cool.
Even when everyone was watching, you felt real cool.
Yes, and then sometimes you get to thinking, especially say on Holocaust Memorial Day, suddenly you’re thinking, hey, these thing were done to us, it’s a human being after all. Eventually as things turned out he was no terrorist anyway, it was a kid who’d hung around too long near the base, so he was caught or something.
Blindfolded and all?
Yes. I think that at some point no one even stood watch over him.
The female sergeant recalled the Holocaust when she reflected on her actions. If you are raised in a Jewish home, it is difficult not to see the ravages of the occupation in the light of the Holocaust, regardless of whether you know that the Israeli army’s violence bears little comparison to the exterminationism of the Nazis. Just as when I watched “To See When I’m Smiling,” Abergil’s photos made me think of Costa Gavras’ haunting Holocaust film, “Music Box.” If you have seen it, you will understand my reference. If not, rent it.
I also thought of the first stanza of “Vision,” a poem by the Palestinian writer Muhammad al-Qaisi. The poem reminded me not only of the Abergil’s public unmasking, but also of the many Israelis who told me about their experiences in the army as though they were describing some morally debased person they had never met: