Friday, August 30, 2013
The Al Dura Case: White Hats, Black Hats, and Dunce Caps
The supposed death of 12 year old Mohammed Al Dura on September 30, 2000, captured in the famous video that showed him clinging to his father in terror at the Netzarim junction in the Gaza Strip as Israeli soldiers shot them both, has become the enduring image of the Second Intifada launched by Arafat--which was in part justified by that image in the world's media.
Unlike many of the gray area incidents that propel world events, this one has the clarity of an old-fashioned Western: there are white hats, black hats and--an addition to the standard formula-- dunce caps.
First in line are the Arabs who staged the fake atrocity and the Arab cameraman working for France 2 who took the video and vouched for its accuracy. It's hard to get too worked up about them--this is what Arabs do. It's up to those to whom they feed this material to be wary and if they are taken in, to correct their mistake as soon as they discover it--and fire those who mislead them.
Much more serious is the behavior of Charles Enderlin, the "respected" journalist who was bureau chief for France 2 in Israel, and that of France 2 itself, one of the three stations constituting publicly owned France Television, meaning that the government bears ultimate responsibility for what it broadcasts. Born in France, Enderlin moved to Israel at the age of 22, served in the Israeli army, later taking Israeli citizenship. He is one of those quondam Israelis whose attachment to Israel is supposedly attested by the vigor of his criticism of it. (His 2003 book Shattered Dreams blamed Israel for Oslo's failure.) Enderlin, who provided the dramatic narration for the video clip, may have been initially taken in by his cameraman--Enderlin was in Ramallah, not on the scene--but soon enough had to realize he was dealing with phony footage and dug in, misrepresenting the footage and clinging to the story.
The struggle to bring out the truth has become identified with the name of Philippe Karsenty who has been engaged in a court battle over the story for the last nine years. But it should be remembered that in 2005 Nidra Poller wrote an article about the case in Commentary which didn't even mention Karsenty, yet was already able to document major holes in the story. Poller herself had not then seen the France 2 cameraman's raw rushes, but she had seen the outtakes of Reuters and AP cameramen who had been filming at the same place at the same time.
Poller writes: "Palestinian stringers sporting prestigious logos on their vests and cameras are seen filming battle scenes staged behind the abandoned factory, well out of range of Israeli gunfire. The 'wounded' sail through the air like modern dancers and then suddenly collapse. Cameramen jockey with hysterical youths who pounce on the 'casualties,' pushing and shoving, howling Allahu akbar, clumsily grabbing the 'injured'....Split seconds of these ludicrous vignettes would later appear in newscasts and special reports; the raw footage that would reveal the fakery had been removed."
In the same article Poller wrote that France 2 had permitted three high-power journalists to review their raw rushes, 27 minutes of them. Two of them wrote an op-ed in Le Figaro revealing that Enderlin was caught out in a bald-faced lie (they put it more delicately). On October 25, 2000 Enderlin had given an interview to the French magazine Telerama in which he said: "I cut the images of the child's agony [death throes], they were unbearable." The op ed pointed out the agony had not been edited out, "it simply did not exist."
Nothing existed to bear out the France 2 story. Enderlin's description of the raw rushes was as much a fantasy as the staged footage for which his cameraman would reap a slew of international awards.
But instead of acknowledging error, France 2 circled the wagons. Indeed, in the name of "French honor," the entire French media and political establishment circled the wagons. While the al Dura case is customarily referred to by its critics as a blood libel, the parallels to the Dreyfus case are equally compelling. Then it was French military honor, now French media honor that was at stake. The parallel to the second trial of Dreyfus, five years after the first, is especially striking. By that time it took the most determined willful blindness not to know that Dreyfus had been blamed for the crimes of Esterhazy, yet Dreyfus was again condemned. This time, with Israel in the dock, French behavior is in some ways even worse. At least in the Dreyfus case the French intellectual and political class split, with large numbers rallying around Dreyfus. In the al Dura case, the establishment has rallied so solidly behind Enderlin that most of the small minority of Frenchmen well-informed enough to be familiar with the controversy relegate it to a few "nutcases."
The reaction to the 2008 court decision in Karsenty's favor is instructive. The Paris Court of Appeal--which to France 2's dismay had demanded to see the original raw footage--ruled that Karsenty was within his rights to call the al Dura video a hoax, overturning a 2006 decision that had found him guilty of defaming the network and Enderlin. The footage was key. The only shot in it relating to the al Dura tale that had not been aired showed the boy, after being pronounced dead, lifting his head, looking around, moving his leg and shielding his eyes from the sun. Even without the footage, the video's absurdities were obvious--supposedly blasted with high velocity bullets, the bodies of father and son showed no trace of blood. (It should be noted that the supposed "hard" evidence of al Dura's death, the body of a boy brought that day to Shifa Hospital in Gaza, was "soft" to put it mildly. One doctor at the hospital said he was brought in at eleven in the morning, another at one in the afternoon. The al Dura incident occurred at 3 p.m. Moreover photos showed this was clearly a different boy. )
In less than a week, French journalist Anne Elizabeth Moutet reports, Le Nouvel Observateur, France's chief left-wing newsweekly, had whipped up a petition going all out for Enderlin and France 2. The petition called Karsenty's solidly documented case a "seven year hate filled smear campaign" and expressed shock at a legal ruling "granting equal credibility to a journalist renowned for his rigorous work and to willful deniers ignorant of the local realities and with no journalistic experience." Three hundred of France's leading journalists signed on followed by six hundred assorted "celebrity intellectuals."
Moutet, who was friendly with a number of those listed on the petition, called them up to ask why they had signed. Most were quick to hang up on her, but of those willing to talk, none gave as their reason belief in the validity of the al Dura video. The dominant response was a version of "I was asked to. It was to support Charles." In other words, the guild calls, the truth be damned. Perhaps the most remarkable answer came from a former head of CRIF, the official umbrella representative body of French Jews. (The current head has been supportive of Karsenty.) Pressed as to why he signed he replied: "I haven't read this petition. I have macular retinal degeneration. I can no longer read."
As for the French government, clearly to signify support for the al Dura story, in 2009 Minister of Foreign Affairs Bernard Kouchner awarded Enderlin France's highest award, the Legion of Honor.
The most recent court decision, earlier this year, has gone against Karsenty. France 2 appealed the 2008 decision to the Supreme Court which ruled the Paris Court of Appeals should not have demanded to see the raw rushes. To get at the truth was apparently not the sort of thing the Supreme Court thought a judge was supposed to do. Nor was truth a defense. The Supreme Court sent the case back to be heard by a new panel of judges where Karsenty (without benefit of the footage) would not only have to show Enderlin and France 2 had perpetrated fraud but also that he had the evidence to prove it when he first denounced the video (i.e. before he had seen the raw footage which made the fraud incontrovertible). In the ensuing trial, the Avocate Generale, an independent figure in the French judicial system, reminded the judges that the truth of the al Dura story was not the issue. Mr. Bumble's remark in Oliver Twist, "The law is a ass" is tailor made for French libel rules. And indeed the new panel found Karsenty lacked sufficient evidence for his charge of fraud at the time he first made it and so was guilty of defamation. The court fined him 8000 euros ($14,000).
No one reads the Paris court's (absurd) justification for its decision. What matters is that France 2 and Enderlin can claim vindication since Karsenty was found guilty of defamation. Karsenty plans to appeal, and the case can go on indefinitely, bouncing yo-yo like from court to court as did Jarndyce versus Jarndyce in Bleak House, a case that had gone on for so many generations Dickens tells us, that no man alive knew what it meant.
The tallest dunce cap sits squarely on the head of the Israeli government.
The al Dura video quickly went round the world, immensely damaging Israel's reputation. For forty five minutes according to the cameraman's story, Israeli soldiers had shot at the terrified cowering boy and his father. Yet Israel, rather than immediately investigate this unlikely tale, apologized, in effect authenticating it. Israeli physicist Nahum Shahaf smelled a rat and approached Major General Yom Tov Sarnia, the commanding officer in the Netzarim area, who was convinced his soldiers had not shot the boy. Sarnia put Shahaf in charge of an investigation which reconstructed the incident and concluded that given where the two were crouching, the bullets could not have come from the Israeli position.
After this, incredibly, Israel not only remained silent as the al Dura story became the impetus for terror against Jews and Israel worldwide but also undercut the efforts of Karsenty to bring the truth to light. Al Dura's death scene was on posters, murals, even postage stamps. The killers who beheaded Daniel Pearl on video had the image of al Dura and his father displayed behind them. Streets and schools were named after him. Bin Laden cited al Dura in a recruitment video. Palestinian TV carried endless spots urging children to follow him to Paradise as jihad martyrs. The story, endorsed as fact by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (both of which have rarely, if ever, encountered an anti-Israel story they did not believe), was influential in the international campaign to delegitimize the state, starting with the UN's Durban race conference in 2001. Post al Dura, comparison of Israel to Nazi Germany became routine. French journalist Catherine Nay proclaimed: "The death of Muhammad cancels out, erases that of the Jewish child, his hands in the air from the SS in the Warsaw Ghetto."
Yet far from supporting Karsenty's efforts, the Israel establishment blamed him for keeping the story alive. After Karsenty's 2008 victory, one disgusted Wall Street Journal reader complained that Israel's main Foreign ministry site had only a few scattered references and there was nothing on its English and French sites on the story. Karsenty reports that following his victory the spokesman for Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared in an interview that no one had asked Karsenty to take on the issue, it was an internal French affair and his work was counterproductive. In fact, the strongest argument France 2 had for the validity of its story was Israeli government silence. Enderlin kept stressing that no Israeli authority had ever questioned the authenticity of France 2's September 30, 2000 broadcast. And his argument was persuasive even to many of Israel's supporters--if the story was a hoax surely Israel would be the first to vigorously press the case.
Shmuel Katz used to rant about the failures of Israeli information policy (he had wanted to take it over in a special ministry, but Begin backtracked on his promise, instead turning information policy over to Moshe Dayan's hopeless Foreign Ministry). Israel's handling of the al Dura case reveals all the worst traits--ignorance, arrogance, stupidity--that Katz pinpointed in those supposed to present Israel's case to the world.
Prime Minister Netanyahu finally set up a panel to investigate the al Dura case in September 2012. The findings of the so-called Kuperwasser Report were published in May 2013. Karsenty believes what made Israel act (twelve years after the fact) was the Toulouse massacre in March of 2012 in which Mohamed Merah, seeking, so he said, to avenge the death of "Palestinian children" at Israel's hands, murdered three children and a rabbi (the father of two of them) at a Jewish day school. No surprise, the Kuperwasser Report concluded the video was a hoax and the boy was not harmed. What was interesting was the reaction of France 2 and Enderlin who demonstrated their chutzpah--and contempt for Israel--by threatening to sue both Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon and Strategic and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz (who had overseen the investigation) if they were not given all documents pertaining to it. France 2 and Enderlin claimed the panel had "disregarded all basic rules of justice" in giving them no opportunity to present their version of events.
No doubt to the surprise of the "injured party" --as Enderlin and France 2 styled themselves-- Israel, rather than roll over, struck back. The legal advisor to Netanyahu's office listed six requests by Israel for input on the case from France 2, all of which had been ignored. She wrote: "There emerges a pattern of repeatedly complaining that your positions are not heard, while ignoring all requests made to you to receive the materials that you say your clients are not getting the opportunity to display."
Dunce caps also go to the American Jewish Committee and many leading French Jews. The American Jewish Committee, which has offices in France, and, Karsenty says, a great deal of credibility there, seriously damaged his efforts by supporting France 2. Jews have a prominent role in French media and many of those "news professionals" who signed Le Nouvel Observateur's 2008 pro-Enderlin petition were Jews. Silence was a form of complicity. It was understandable if many high profile French Jewish intellectuals (Alain Finkielkraut was an honorable exception) did not want to bring the wrath of the media and political establishment upon themselves, but their silence made it easier to isolate those who took up cudgels against the al Dura hoax, to portray them as equivalent to Holocaust deniers and "truthers" who claim the U.S. government was behind the destruction of the Twin Towers.
Karsenty is Gary Cooper in this High Noon, riding out against the black hats while most of those who benefit from his doing so scurry for cover, and only a very few give him support. Professor Richard Landes, an expert on millennial movements, and one of those supportive few, says Enderlin and France 2 made their big mistake when they took on Karsenty. As we noted earlier, he was not among the first to publicize problems with the Dura video. We mentioned Nahum Shahaf. German television producer Esther Schapira made a documentary on the al Dura affair in 2002. Both Shahaf and Schapira confined themselves to showing that Israel could not have been responsible for the boy's death; whatever their suspicions, they had not charged al Dura's death was made up of whole cloth. Karsenty also learned from the experience of French film maker Pierre Rehov. Rehov brought suit against France 2 for defamation and the suit was dismissed within weeks. Realizing he had no "standing" to sue France 2 under French law, Karsenty decided to make France 2 sue him. He wrote several articles on his internet site calling the al Dura video a "media hoax" and demanding that Enderlin and Arlette Chabot, then director of information at France 2, be fired. They rose to the bait and sued.
To their chagrin, when Karsenty lost the first suit in 2006, he did not go away. He appealed. Without his dogged pursuit of the case there is little question that Enderlin and France 2's blood libel would have stood as fact. The case (Karsenty says he naively thought the truth would be established in court in a matter of months) has taken over his life. His goal, he says, is to make the French government acknowledge the fraud. It took 12 years for Dreyfus to be rehabilitated, his rank restored. It is already 13 years that France has stubbornly hung on to the al Dura fraud so justice in this case will clearly take longer. But Karsenty is sure the day will come, the truth will out.
What are the broader lessons of al Dura?
1. Respond, don't duck for cover. The Kuperwasser report implicitly criticizes the Israeli government's behavior in the case. It urges that in future inflammatory claims be investigated immediately and the results made public.
2. Media executives must be held to account to enforce their own (disregarded) ethical rules to prevent dissemination of disinformation by their journalists. Richard Landes (whose website Second Draft provides a complete archive of the al Dura case) describes being appalled when he first watched the raw footage of al Dura at France 2's studio in Jerusalem in company with Enderlin in 2003. (Enderlin had assumed Landes was on his side because he had been recommended to him by a mutual friend). When Landes said "Everything seems staged, " Enderlin replied "Oh they do that all the time." Landes says: "Walking out of his office that Friday afternoon, I was in a state of shock. 'Oh my God,' I thought, 'they do it all the time...and the Western journalists just use the most believable seconds to run as news. It's a national industry!'" Landes coined the term Pallywood to describe the national Palestinian film industry that produces staged news footage for complicit journalists.
The media will not reform without significant outside pressure. Landes says he went to ABC, PBS, the Boston Globe, and got nowhere. He was told "they couldn't just do a program on this, they'd have to balance it with something the Israelis staged." When Landes responded "And if you can't find a case of Israeli staging?" the reply was "Then we wouldn't do it." One person at ABC told Landes "I don't know how much appetite there is for this." Given the extensive use of Pallywood material, which is edited by supposedly reputable journalists to look more plausible and then shoveled out to unknowing international audiences on world media, the appetite within the media is small indeed.
3. There must be moral reform of intellectual elites. It is hard to disagree with the assessment of theAlgemeiner newspaper that the French intelligentsia is in complete cognitive (and moral) disarray. For it must be remembered that at the same time that it buries the truth about al Dura, it celebrates some of the ugliestjihadis on the planet as heroes and martyrs, with the famed Jeu de Paume museum, to take but one example, showcasing a photographic exhibition portraying the murderers of Jewish children as heroic martyrs.
The moral disarray of elites is by no means confined to France. And obviously it's a lot harder to achieve moral regeneration than to implement the other recommendations. But if it does not occur, no other reforms will help.
Rael Jean Isaac is the co-author (with Virginia Armat) of Madness in the Streets: How Psychiatry and the Law Abandoned the Mentally Ill (The Free Press)