Those of us who earn our living through words are wary of admitting the power of a picture, but sometimes it's best to know when you're beaten. So it is in the case of the video footage that surfaced last week in Israel. It showed a Palestinian musician, forced by Israeli soldiers to play his violin at a military checkpoint. The Israelis suggested that Wissam Tayem “play something sad.” Once he obliged, they jeered and laughed at him.
For some reason, and I think we can all guess what that is, the image of the musician at gunpoint shook Israel from its slumber. Playwright Yoram Kaniuk, who had written about a Jewish violinist forced to play for a Nazi camp commandant, demanded that the soldiers involved be charged — “not for abusing Arabs but for disgracing the Holocaust.”
In a rare move, the mass-circulation daily Yediot Ach-ronot moved columnist Meir Shalev on to the front page, where he echoed Kaniuk: “Once we were the people who played the violin. The Jewish violin played in weddings, at concert halls, and before the thugs in the camps. We played and joked: the violin is our instrument because it is so small, so easy to carry when you need to run away…”
But now Israelis are the ones demanding the music, not playing it: it must have been a shock to look in the mirror and see such a familiar, and ugly, face. But it was not the first shock of its kind. A matter of days earlier, the country had heard a tape-recording of an IDF captain in conversation with his men, defending his decision to kill a 13-year-old girl who had walked into a “security area” on the edge of the Rafah refugee camp.
Captain R told his anxious subordinates that even a three-year-old who had made the same mistake would deserve to die. What troubled the men under Captain R's command was not just that he had killed the girl, but that he turned around to fire a stream of bullets into her corpse. “Confirming the kill,” it is called.
And, as if to complete the picture, photographs em-erged of Israeli soldiers larking around with the body parts of their slain Palestinian enemies. One showed the head of a reported suicide bomber impaled on a pole, with a cigarette stuck in his mouth. So it's been quite a week. But if someone resorts to that old line, and says this week marked a loss of innocence for Israel, they would be wrong. For that was lost long ago.
Maybe it was during the first intifada, when Israeli soldiers were filmed kicking, beating and breaking the bones of young Palestinian men (how pale that crime seems now). Or perhaps it was on February 15, 1988, when a CBS camera caught a few more IDF boys burying three Palestinians alive with a bulldozer. What did Israelis say then? What did Jews around the world say? Some condemned it; others accused CBS of “anti-Israel bias.” Most said nothing.
And what will we say now? That these images have been “taken out of context”? That the young Israeli soldiers face an “impossible” situation? That the IDF remains the “most moral army in the world”? That these accusations have been “fully investigated”? That the ex-posure once again demonstrates media hostility to Israel?
Such clichés should stick in our throats until we gag. We cannot claim that Israel punishes these crimes: the IDF has charged Captain R with minor infringements, rather than murder, and the men who forced Wissam Tayem to play his violin were branded “insensitive,” no worse. They got a light slap on the wrists. As for the media, each one of these stories came to light thanks to the Israeli press. If the British media is “anti-Israel,” then so is Israel's — including its main TV channels and best-selling newspapers.
So why not put aside the clichés and speak the truth for once? Why not say that these repugnant acts are indefensible — and that they shame Israel, Zionism and every Jew? Why don't our rabbis say that, with the same energy they use to castigate our enemies? Why don't we as a community finally let our conscience speak and bellow, in one clear, loud voice: “enough”?
Or maybe we'd prefer to hide behind another comforting cliché: that this was the work of a few bad apples. Except these are not exceptional, one-off acts. In the last few days, Israeli soldiers have come forward to say that desecration of corpses is now a routine sport.
The daily, casual brutality at the checkpoints has been noted and reported a thousand times over, most unflinchingly by Israeli observers. No, this is no one-off. It is a pattern and it is a consequence of an occupation that must end — not for their sake but for ours.
There used to be two key arguments for a Palestinian state: morally, the Palestinians deserved it; pragmatically, it was in Israel's own interests. Well, now the moral and the pragmatic have converged. For this cursed occupation is corroding Israel from the inside. It is brutalising that country, as the figures on everything from road rage to domestic violence testify. But it is not only corrupting Israel. It corrupts every one of us who acquiesces in it, who turns the page, looks the other way or blames the messenger. It is eating away at our soul.
And if you doubt it, just take a look at the face of that violinist. What do you see?