“Just as they film, so we film as well”
How powerful is a photographic medium? In Israel, thirty seconds of it is enough to arrest a man and keep him incommunicado for days without access to his lawyer. Enough to prompt from the Prime Minister a vicious condemnation of those who would hide behind the hypocrisy of “caring for human rights,” and, from the Defense Minister and the Education Minister, even more extreme attacks against human rights organizations. At best, there are calls for the “moral left” to repudiate the man who is under arrest, to condemn him without a trial, as well as “to thank the two journalists for their courageous, professional work.” You can read this piece by Ari Shavit here. The officials posted their remarks on their respective Facebook pages.
So: how powerful is a photographic medium? The question has occupied me for a few decades. Most recently, on-and-off over the last year and a half, I have been using my own camera to investigate how human rights groups in Israel use their cameras. One especially has absorbed my attention, the group Ta’ayush (the name is Arabic for “living together”), a rather small all-volunteer organization that works through legal channels to win back land stolen from Palestinians in South Hebron and prevent further robberies and demolitions. On Saturdays members accompany Palestinians to their lands to protect them from settler violence while they plow, graze their sheep, plant and harvest crops. Their cameras are always in action. You can see some of my results and a few of my anxieties in past posts on this blog. Their work is heartbreaking but still manages to inspire hope. To me the group means far more than an academic exercise.
But my epigraph is not from my own research. It is a translation of some of the first spoken words in an incriminating half hour video that appeared on January 7 on Uvda, a major Israeli investigative news program. Author of the report is Omri Assenheim, an award-winning journalist. The report is about two members of the far right organization Ad Kan (meaning literally “up to here” and figuratively “enough is enough”), who “infiltrated” Ta’ayush, filmed its activities, and zeroed in on its most loud-mouthed member. The two, a young man and his girlfriend, eventually succeeded in goading him into saying something outrageous. He said that he hands over “them” (we eventually find out that “them” means Palestinians who sell land to Israelis) to the Palestinian Authority. The infiltrator asks him what happens to the people after that, and he answers that the Authority kills them, after first subjecting them to beatings. There are many problems with the “facts” that the video claims to document, and some good commentary on the film points them out. In English I recommend David Shulman’s report here. You might also read the report in Haaretz by Amira Hass here. I will add only that I know Ezra Nawi through Ta’ayush and while he might say anything at all, he would never knowingly send anyone to his/her death. Indeed this case is no exception.
Here I want to concentrate on the video itself. When I first saw it I found it hard to imagine that anyone could take it seriously; it has all the hallmarks of a hack job, a video tabloid. Clips taken on different days are bunched together randomly and accompanied by scare music and voice-over narration that romanticizes the investigators. Images of Ad Kan members setting up their cameras are interspersed with those of scary-looking Ta’ayush volunteers. It is possible that one of those alarming “lefties” hiding behind a camera could be this writer, an aging, but not-very fearsome scholar like several other members of Ta’ayush. The founder of Ad Kan says he was horrified to hear a few such people make demeaning remarks, right in front of a young soldier, about his failure to remember the values he must have been taught in high school. The identities of the moles are hidden. The young woman’s face is blacked out in an interview, but not before we are treated to a tantalizing silhouette of her slim body in profile as she tosses back her long silky hair. I have seen many similar videos, some, for example, from anti-abortion groups in the United States seeking to discredit Planned Parenthood. The word “heavily edited” was on everyone’s lips concerning these videos, but other methods are often used to enhance such editing. Shooting so as to conceal the lips of the speaker for example, can hide the cuts that leave out words central to the speaker’s intentions.* Most of the planned-parenthood videos are far more subdued than this sensationalized video by Uvda, however. While watching it eyes roll. At least they should.
The crux of the video from Uvda centers on Nawi. There is a good deal of discussion of a putative land sale by a Palestinian who, we are given to understand, Nawi wishes to lead into a trap. But perhaps the decisive moment takes place in a car, in footage made with a hidden camera and first aired two minutes into the program. There, in less than 30 seconds, Nawi makes the above-mentioned incriminating remarks. The visuals are terrible. It is impossible to see him as he talks. Lights flash twice in the middle, blotting out everything.
But this is just a teaser toward the beginning of the program. The same conversation reappears twenty minutes later in the course of a longer discussion of the deal with the Palestinian selling land.
Or rather, the same audio reappears, but the video is different. This new video, also in the car, has a different time stamp about 15 minutes later than the first one. Or perhaps it was taken on a different day altogether, since there is only a time stamp and no date stamp on the first video. The camera angle is different. A paper in the foreground on the first run-through has mysteriously vanished and there are no blinding flashes. Only in the later video does Nawi wear sunglasses. In the middle of this new video, after Nawi says that he turns people over to the Palestinian Authority, but before he is asked what happens to such people next, there is a cut, and suddenly the time stamp registers a six-minute long gap. Were there two – or three – hidden cameras? I doubt it. Did Nawi repeat the same words with exactly the same inflection after fifteen minutes, then after another six minutes, or on other occasions altogether? I doubt that as well. Only the speaker, whose mouth is invisible in both versions, connects the visuals. At the end of the new 30-second clip you can finally glimpse his mouth and it is smiling. Is Ezra’s “vicious smile” (in the words of the Jewish Press) the reason that the conversation was attached to these visuals and not to others?
Why does the altered video matter? Am I acting like an academic book reviewer who discredits someone’s hard-won argument because of a misplaced comma or a typo? I don’t think so. At best the discrepancy reveals sloppiness in the television producers and at least one place where the video takes words out of context. We should consider the possibility that there may well be more. The incriminating words could have been spliced into the program at nearly any point. Perhaps this thirty seconds is indicative of the false premises on which the entire thirty minutes were constructed.
On this basis, a man has been subjected to death threats and then arrested. Worse, all human rights groups and especially Ta’ayush are immediately drawn in and subject to wholesale condemnation although there is no suggestion that they had anything to do with the land deal. And this at a moment when the government is in the midst of a campaign against them. As I write, Ezra Nawi is about to come before a judge. His guilt or innocence or whether he is charged at all will presumably be decided without the help of this doctored video. I hope he is released unharmed and soon, but whatever happens, it should not affect the work of Israeli human rights organizations. Any Jerusalem resident reading this might consider accompanying Ta’ayush to South Hebron one Saturday.
Epilogue: Soon after I posted this, two more arrests were made; two more dedicated activists were held behind bars with no access to lawyers, without formal charges, their names under a gag order. They were released after about a week. Thankfully, all charges were eventually dropped.
*On March 28, 2017, the two moles who infiltrated Planned Parenthood were indicted in California on 15 criminal counts of illegal recording and conspiracy and a warrant was issued for their arrest. I am not informed that any members of Ad Kan have been subjected to anything similar.
Thanks to Yagil Eliraz for assistance with Hebrew.
Text and photographs © Margaret Olin 2015