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Aug 28 2012

When the Public Has Something to Hide

Hundreds of people, according to the Jerusalem police, watched the lynching of 4 Palestinians in Zion Square, at the centre of the Israeli capital, early morning on Saturday 19th August. One of the victims, Jamal Julani, was beaten to the ground and the mob kept kicking his head long after he had lost consciousness. He was thought dead, or as good as, and taken to hospital in what was defined as critical condition. Fortunately, he seems to be almost miraculously recovering; his condition is currently defined as “serious”. 5 suspects, between the ages of 13 and 19 have been arrested, and more arrests, according to the police, are yet to be made.

The incident sent shock waves across Israel, though the numbers of Israelis justifying the chilling racist attack is horrifying. The brother of one of the suspects said to the press: “Why should an Arab make passes at my sister? They shouldn’t be here, it’s our area. For what other reason would they come here if not to make passes at Jewish girls?”

The event follows a series of demonstrations and rallies by radical right wing activists joined by Members of Knesset in cities in central Israel all under the blood-curdling familiar racist old argument. “They’ve come to take our women.”

The landmark posed by this event and its resemblance to scenes from Weimar Germany bother me on a personal and political level, but this time I’d like to address another element of it that grabbed my attention. Despite the alleged presence of hundreds of eye witnesses on scene – there are no photos around the internet of the incident and hardly any quotes from eye witnesses, except from that of volunteering youth worker Batya Houri-Yafin, on her Facebook profile page (as quoted in +972).

This is quite rare. Violent incidents in the public domain with witnesses who watch in relative safety normally yield photographic evidence and written testimonials all over social media and those in turn find their way to established media in practically no time. The Instagram-silence on this occasion is deafening, and serves as a reminder that “citizen journalism” has its own shortcomings.

It wouldn’t be wild to speculate that at least every other person in the circle surrounding the brutal lynching had a mobile phone with a camera. It is hard to imagine that pictures were not taken and I’ll be surprised if some of them do not turn up in the prosecution’s material filed to court. But where are they now? How is it that not one of them found its way to the media? To be clear, there are, of course, photos of the scene from after the police and photojournalists arrived and the incident was effectively over, but none of the actual assault, which was witnessed by a large crowd.

Is it possible that the public is beginning to learn the lessons of previous such documenting; be it the Abu Graib torturers documenting their deeds or Israeli soldiers in the West Bank posing next to cuffed, beaten and humiliated Palestinians? The posters of such photos were met with repercussions, either in the form of legal prosecution or public criticism.

A lynching is one of those instances where eye-witnesses, even when not being instigators, are always more than innocent bystanders. The law in different countries varies in relation to a witness’s obligation to try and stop a crime taking place in front of their eyes, but in the moral-public realm the question remains: were you really watching a mob kicking a young man in the head, almost to death, and did nothing?

Some witnesses must feel guilty or fearful of “getting into trouble” with the police or with the instigators and their families. Others, unfortunately, may support the attack and its racist motives. Some are just ashamed to admit they were there. The fact remains that not only are photos absent from the public debate; but eyewitness testimonials are also unusually scarce.

This reminds us of a sometimes forgotten truth: there is no replacement to the presence of the one type of person on the scene whose only incentive is to expose the truth and show it to the world: the professional journalist, be it a cameraperson or a reporter. Citizens can decide to become “journalists for a moment” or opt to retreat and remain silent. Journalists are there to tell the story. Naturally, in an incident as short as the Jerusalem lynching, taking place in the late hours of night/early hours of morning, no journalist could have made it to the scene on time. But the mission of bringing the truth to light, including recovering now hidden photographic evidence, is still theirs. When citizens have something to hide, there is no citizen journalism.

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