The telegenically dead
Why Israel and its supporters fear Gaza’s dead.
In the beginning, they were the “telegenically killed”. That is what Charles Krauthammer, in his July 17 Washington Post column “Moral Clarity in Gaza”, called the victims of Israeli airstrikes. Children shelled while playing on the beach, a father holding a plastic bag of his two-year-old son’s remains: To Krauthammer, Palestinians are not people but production values. War does not destroy families: It “produces dead Palestinians for international television.”
Three days later, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed the Palestinians “telegenically dead”, lifting Krauthammer’s language in one example of the US media-Israeli government echo chamber that has been reverberating all summer. “You forfeit your right to be called civilians,” a Wall Street Journal columnist told Gazans on July 21, stating that children of Hamas supporters are fair game. “There is no such thing as ‘innocent civilians,'” proclaimed Giora Eiland, the former head of Israel’s National Security Council, on August 5.
Unthinkable sentiment has become sanctioned, commonplace. You begin to have nostalgia for disappointment, because at least that means you had expectations.
Who are the telegenically dead? The telegenically dead are the dead, plain and simple. That we see them is the novelty, that we grieve them is human, and to be human, today, is a hostile act. To grieve is to acknowledge loss, to acknowledge loss is to affirm life, to affirm life is to contemplate how it was taken.
A child is not a shield or a lawn to be mowed. “Telegenic” means you see a body where you were supposed to see an abstraction.
In 1960, Elie Wiesel published Night, a memoir of the Holocaust which portrayed, in intimate and graphic detail, Nazi cruelty and public complicity.
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“Was I still alive? Was I awake?” Wiesel wrote, describing Nazis throwing Jewish babies into a bonfire. “I could not believe it. How could it be possible for them to burn people, children, and for the world to keep silent? No, none of this could be true.”
In July 2014, Wiesel took out a full-page ad in the New York Times to support Israel in what he terms “a battle of civilisation versus barbarism”. As Palestinians stored corpses of babies killed by Israeli strikes in ice cream freezers, Wiesel proclaimed that “Jews rejected child sacrifice 3,500 years ago. Now it’s Hamas’ turn.” He condemned the “terrorists who have taken away all choice from the Palestinian children of Gaza.”
He is right. The Palestinian children of Gaza do not have a choice. But Israel does.
Hamas is a violent organisation which commits reprehensible acts. But it was not Hamas who killed Palestinian children playing on the beach. It was not Hamas who killed children sleeping in UN shelters. To argue, as many US and Israeli authors have, that merely being in the proximity of Hamas renders one a legitimate target is terrorist logic – particularly in Gaza, where there is nowhere else to go. In what other “hostage situation” are the hostages targeted – and their deaths justified by stripping away their civilian status, their innocence, their humanity?
A baby killed by soldiers is a baby killed by soldiers. It is not a shield and not a pawn. The death of any child is a tragedy regardless of their race, religion, or parentage. That this is debated is its own tragedy.
In 1941, Nazi official Joseph Goebbels complained that Jewish children captivated too much public sympathy: “One suddenly has the impression that the Berlin Jewish population consists only of little babies whose childish helplessness might move us, or else fragile old ladies. The Jews send out the pitiable.”
Three years later, the Nazis sent the teenage Wiesel to a concentration camp.
Let me be clear: What is happening in Gaza is in no way comparable to the Holocaust in scope, scale, organisation or intent. Yet similar rhetoric portraying dead children as complicit or inconvenient emerges – rhetoric not unique to the Middle East, but used all over the world, all throughout history, to mitigate or justify the slaughter of innocents. One would hope that those who so vividly documented the killing of children would protest it being practiced. That hope seems in vain.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” George Santayana famously said. Those who can, repeat it too.
Who is human?
Social media has been described as “humanising” the Palestinian victims. Television may be decried by politicians and pundits, but the internet is where Gaza’s story is told firsthand by its residents, where graphic images of the grieved are shared.
If you are being “humanised”, you are already losing. To be “humanised” implies that your humanity is never assumed, but something you have to prove.
“What am I supposed to do/be to be qualified as a human?” Maisam Abumorr, a writer and student in Gaza, asks. “As far as I can tell, I live like normal humans do. I love, I hate, I cry, I laugh, I make mistakes, I learn, I dream, I hurt, I get hurt… I still have not figured out what crime I have committed to endure this kind of wretchedness. I wonder what being human feels like.”
For every group that uses media to affirm its humanity, there is another group proclaiming that humanity as irrelevant, or inconvenient, or a lie. One can see this not only in the Middle East conflict, but in movements like Nigeria’s “Bring Back Our Girls”, frequently proclaimed “forgotten” due to their so-called “nameless and faceless” victims. But the girls were never nameless and faceless to the Nigerians who fought, and continue to fight, for their survival. They have names that few learned, faces from which many turned away. The people who refuse to forget are the ones the West has now forgotten.
In all documentation of violence, from memoirs to social media, lies a plea to not forget. There is a reason Netanyahu fears the “telegenically dead”. They haunt the world like ghosts – a reminder of what we have done, what we are capable of doing, and the lengths gone to justify it.
Those dehumanised in life become humanised in death. With this realisation you mourn not only the dead. You mourn the living too.
Sarah Kendzior is a St Louis-based writer who studies politics and media.
Follow her on Twitter: @sarahkendzior