I first understood that something had changed when I received a message to one of my WhatsApp groups saying “Gordon’s girlfriend.” This was followed by the snuff video of police officers shooting Asraa Zidan Tawfik Abed, a 30-year-old Palestinian mother from Nazareth. In the video, Asraa is surrounded by Israeli soldiers who are all aiming automatic rifles at her while she sobs and cries out. She clearly poses no threat whatsoever to those around her, and yet suddenly a police officer nonchalantly walks toward her, aims, and shoots, three times. Asraa falls to the ground, while someone in the crowd shouts, “Daughter of a whore!”
The video went viral, and, like so many Jewish Israeli viewers, the person who sent it to my WhatsApp group obviously found the violence amusing. I watched the disturbing footage several times before answering, “This is what woman hunting looks like.”
Two weeks later, an Israeli state prosecutor admitted that Asraa had had no intention of stabbing anyone, but he also added that the policeman who had gunned her down would not be charged. The message to the security forces was unequivocal: Shoot, no questions asked.
The snuff video of Fadi Alon from Jerusalem was even more horrific, and not only because Fadi was murdered by a police officer as he was trying to flee an angry mob, while Asraa was only wounded, but because the mob surrounding Fadi was caught on film taunting the police officers. They are heard demanding an extrajudicial execution while accusing the security forces of being spineless. Watching the police succumb to the mob, I understood for the first time what it must have meant to be in the Roman Colosseum in the midst of the madding crowd.
And, yet, the current situation in Israel is very different. Unlike ancient Rome, in Israel events are framed by a melodramatic political script that thrives on what Elisabeth Anker, following Nietzsche, calls orgies of feeling.
Indeed, the current popularity of snuff media in Israel is the product of a local melodrama industry that solicits intense pathos, which is aimed at encouraging heroic retribution against those considered responsible for so-called national injuries. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the ultimate melodrama king, and he has, throughout his long political career, spun many tales that produce extreme feelings of fear and self-righteousness.
Netanyahu presents Israel as an always honorable actor and the perpetual victim of villainous actions. For him, goodness is always located in the suffering nation, evil in its antagonists, and heroism in sovereign acts of violence coded as valiant. Such melodramatic framing, as Anker explains in her excellent book, which focuses on post-9/11 politics in the United States, evokes intense visceral responses to supposedly terrible injustices imposed upon the state and its citizenry.
For example, Netanyahu’s recent declaration that the mufti of Jerusalem was the one responsible for the Final Solution was aimed at creating a direct link between Palestinians and Nazis in order to produce and exacerbate intense feelings of pain and outrage among Israeli Jews. These emotions are then mobilized to produce the feeling that the state must forcefully punish the culprits. Finally, it also creates what Anker calls a felt legitimacy, the feeling among Jews that any response to the “Palestinian threat” is legitimate.
The fact that a few days ago Netanyahu retracted his original statement about the mufti is inconsequential. The script has already entered the public imaginary, and the environment that encourages violence and further repression has been ramped up yet another notch.
Unsurprisingly, many Palestinian citizens of Israel now refrain from speaking Arabic in public spaces. They have watched enough Israeli snuff films to know that the security forces as well as Jewish vigilantes are allowed to use lethal force with impunity. The melodramatic discourse and the orgies of feelings that Netanyahu and his political allies have managed to produce have been spectacularly successful. And while The New York Times’s Isabel Kershner may claim that “the more mainstream Israeli right and left have gravitated over the last two decades toward a less ideological center, approaching some kind of consensus on the Palestinian issue,” in reality a new level of acceptable retributive jingoism has been achieved.