Effort can be appreciated. But when the effort is spent on lazy, privileged journalism that belittles a struggle and an entire population, that is when the effort needs to be stopped in its tracks and addressed.
+972 Magazine co-founder and contributor Yuval Ben-Ami recently published a piece recounting an evening he spent watching over Gaza’s skies as Israel shelled the territory from above and as Palestinian fighters returned fire, arguably in response to the four Gazans that had been killed earlier in the day.
He had bravely chosen to leave behind his cappuccino that morning and make his way from Tel Aviv to a kibbutz just beyond Sderot, about as close to Gaza’s border as a civilian could get.
There he joined a group of likeminded photographers hoping for the best shots. In essence, they were banking on human tragedy, a military assault, quite possibly the deaths of innocent civilians, to give them a photograph and a story they could use for their own personal gain.
They waited, “looking down at impoverished, futureless Gaza and at neglected southern Israel, secretly hoping for them to burn for our amusement,” Ben-Ami writes. It is a chilling sentence. What is worse, though, is that this problematic language, its self-righteous tone, and its patronizing attitude toward Palestinians is reflected in virtually every letter of every word of every sentence in this piece.
One can easily — word emphasis: easily — make the argument that this privileged and rather offensive reportage is common to +972, because it is. But Ben-Ami has provided us with an excellent example and that is what we will examine for the time being.
Language and the festival of oppression
Ben-Ami’s narration of “life & culture”, as the piece is so inappropriately categorized, is rife with words and phrases downplaying the occupation and seemingly touting Israel’s aggression in Gaza as a festive thing.
It begins in the title: “The beautiful south: An afternoon in the Gazan firing range”. It takes a little over one second to get over the nonsensical juxtaposition before the issue of word choice resurfaces.
What exactly is a firing range? It is a place where people go to fire weapons in a safe and controlled environment, a place designed so that nobody gets hurt and nobody’s life is on the line. People visit firing ranges for practice, for a fun hangout, or even to boast about shooting off a round of slugs.
Gaza’s reality is far from a firing range, aside form the fact that it too is controlled to every possible extent. But this control isn’t meant for safety. There is nothing safe about a shell exploding over Gazan heads, like the one Ben-Ami captured falling over Beit Hanoun. There is nothing fun about a missile landing in a densely populated city already coping with the effects of a crippling siege. People do get hurt and people do die.
And then there are the “fireworks” that Ben-Ami is ready to see: the night shillings and the night shootings that come with aerial flybys and broken sound barriers. But in the clear, away from the carnage that can potentially befall the Gaza Strip every day it remains under Israel’s occupation, are Ben-Ami and his colleagues at +972 who seem more concerned with admiring the lights than condemning the deeds behind them.
Remember, Ben-Ami looks “down” at a Gaza he defines as “impoverished” and “futureless”.
Maybe he is simply trying to crudely emphasize his privileged point of view. In the most physical sense, if a Palestinian were to stand as close to the border as he can, the Palestinian would certainly be sniped or arrested. But his privileged reportage relies heavily on a very skewed and clearly derogatory perception of Gaza.
Impoverished? Try “impoverished according to Israel’s plan”. Futureless? Try not to belittle the achievements of students like Nader who defy Israeli restrictions — on movement and on the educational resources allowed into Gaza — and move on to the world’s top undergraduate and graduate schools.
The right to self-righteousness
Equally offensive is the idea that Ben-Ami is doing Palestinians a favor with a piece like this, or that he is positively contributing in some way to a just solution.
He opens with a tiny personal anecdote about being put down for sitting detachedly behind a cappuccino while a great humanitarian disaster rages on. He is given an opportunity to do something about it, to prove to his antagonists that he is more involved than it seems and that he is quite adamant about his opposition to the occupation.
Instead, Ben-Ami takes a one hour trip to the south and, of all thing, stares at the sky. He has accomplished so much. “I’m the Tel Avivian with the cappuccino,” he was proud to say as he “wait[ed] for action” near a place that wants nothing to do with the action he hopes to see.
There is one specific part that reads so unbelievably childish and out of place. Right after he makes the bold decision to travel closer to Gaza to celebrate another festive night of shelling, he makes a second bold move and — brace yourself! — tells a bus driver that Israel pounds Gaza harder than Gaza responds.
I’d like to pause for a moment to give Ben-Ami the thanks he must have been expecting for doing something so courageous.
For a major and mature publication, this useless dialogue serves one purpose: to boast that Ben-Ami’s views are so radical that he takes a big risk by simply having them in the first place.
These radical views are what take him to the south — not to document crimes but to, essentially, take scrapbook snapshots of his experience out on the front lines, bravely wielding an opinion about the occupation that world just isn’t ready for, he seems to think.
Patronizing attitudes on the “equal playing field”
The more I read his piece, the more numb I wish to become to the way it deliberately belittles Palestinians.
The suffering of the Palestinian people is something worth touring. It is worth a story, a thoughtful one but still a story. It is a struggle that is equivalent in effort to Ben-Ami’s decision to leave his cappuccino behind for a few hours, and his equally egregious decision to flaunt his achievement.
The humans are the Israelis, the subjects are the Palestinians, the Others. The chilling line comes to mind again. Impoverished. Futureless. Gazans are only worth the mayhem they bring to themselves, it appears.
But then he writes a comment that includes an explanation which, I really do believe, is just a late disclaimer.
Ben-Ami says the post is meant to reveal or at the very least discern the disturbing imbalance in equality between Israeli and Palestinian. The former is humanized, the latter dehumanized.
It is a “problem of perception,” he argues, but he does nothing to challenge that. Ben-Ami goes to great lengths to avoid dehumanizing Israelis. His solution, then, is to humanize Palestinians, to put them on a level playing field.
In theory, this is a wonderful idea. But there is no level playing field, so long as an occupier-occupied reality exists. In his piece and in his follow-up comment, Ben-Ami brings up the occupation just once, and only to make the point that settlers are largely responsible for it when, in fact, they are just one of the many components of an institutionalized system of oppression.
What Ben-Ami fails to do, what defeats his quest for that radical idea of equality, is to do something at all. He has an opportunity to level the playing field, to call out the occupation in its entirety, to speak with and not down at Palestinians. But instead, he makes a great deal of noise about leaving behind his cappuccino.
It is almost as if this is meant to be a sick joke that nobody is supposed to get. And there is nothing funny about occupation.
This is a highly insensitive piece. From a personal standpoint, it has become a model of what I expect from +972. It is privileged writing, and the fact that Ben-Ami flauntingly alludes to the privilege (in the disclaimer-comment) makes it that much worse. The Palestinian voice shall not and will not be marginalized in its own struggle.