By Simon Vincent
The story of Israelis in Sderot gathered on a hilltop to watch the bombing of Gaza has caused quite a stir online.
The images accompanying this story are so potent that we are almost immediately imbued with horror and revulsion, needing, perhaps, only headlines, and nothing else, to match our convictions.
In the first catalytic image, tweeted by Allan Sorensen, we see the Israelis in question dressed in shorts and slippers, sitting down on portable chairs, and looking at the spectacle of violence nearby.
Sorensen likened this image to cinema.
As his tweet was shared by thousands of people around the world, various news agencies began to report on this grisly view from a hilltop. Whether Sorensen set the standard or not, the theatrical motif permeated most of the news reports.
Perhaps it is only natural for any story on the Israeli spectators on the hilltop to have invoked cinema. If Sorensen had not done it, someone else would have. And perhaps it is only natural that we are aghast with the apparent banality of the set with its homely paraphernalia.
The scene seems so morally reprehensible.
In his essay, Shoah Business, Mark Dery explores how the Holocaust has been trivialised over the years. Of particular note is his analysis on a video installation, At Auswich, created by artist Julie Dermansky and filmmaker Georg Steinboeck. Dery takes us through the nauseating scenes of the film in which Holocaust “tourists” eat nonchalantly in the museum cafeteria, apparently heedless of the horrors that were once inflicted on those same grounds.
Commenting on how inhuman these people are, Dery, “in a creepy, deeply disorienting turnaround” shows how our gut-reactions betray a complicity with the dehumanising rhetoric of the Nazis.
We would do well to take a reflexive cue from Dery when analysing the behaviour of the Israelis on the hilltop. If we switch lenses and zoom out from the Sorensen shot, or any other shot we chance upon of the Israelis, we see ourselves – the other spectators, logged into social media. We watch the spectacle of watching a spectacle of violence.
Our distribution and consumption of the Gaza tragedy, though only of sublimated images of the actual bloodshed, can be grotesquely spectatorial and exploitative. Ironically, the image that has most disturbed us is of the very act of watching.
Distanced from the turmoil, it is easy for us to forget how inured the Israelis and the Palestinians have become to an ecology of violence. It is easy for us to stand firm on our moral ground, when it may have never been severely tested before.
This does not mean that our moral conviction is wrong. The trivialisation of bloodshed in any form is indeed reprehensible. We are in good stead, as well, when we protest the asymmetric bent of the Israel-Gaza conflict. UN rights chief Navi Pillay has indicated that Israel’s current offensive on Gaza may amount to war crimes.
However, we should be wary that when we are filled with indignation and chastise the Israelis on the hilltop for being inhuman, we stand to dehumanise them just like they have the Palestinians.