Israel Stooped to Al Jazeera's Level With Photos of Murdered Itamar Family

The release of the photos of the five slain members of the Fogel family reflects the frustration of Israel's PR machine.

Driving back and forth from Itamar this week, I stopped on Monday to have a quick coffee with a colleague in a tiny restaurant in one of the Palestinian villages along the Jerusalem-Nablus highway. It was a warm day and I put my jacket on the chair, inevitably forgetting it there when we left. I realized my absentmindedness only hours later, back in Jerusalem.

The loss of the old jacket would not normally cause me much anguish, but in its pockets were my two passports and a checkbook. I had no idea what the restaurant was called or how I could find its phone number, I only had a vague recollection of its location. There was no other option but to set out once again, as dusk set in, on the winding road northward through the heart of the West Bank.

I was just approaching Tapuah Junction when a Palestinian number flashed on the screen of my car phone. In halting English, the caller identified himself as the owner of the establishment. He had tracked me down through the details on my checks and wanted to know when I would be coming back to retrieve my jacket and its contents. He had kept the restaurant open, past its closing time, just for me. Ten minutes later, I was reunited with my belongings and thanking the owner profusely.

Driving back, I realized that my gratitude would have been better directed at one of the two waiters who had originally found the jacket. I am sure that the value of the documents in its pockets was not lost on him. If he had decided to purloin them, there is almost nothing I could have done to stop him. But he still chose to do the decent thing. I had considered giving a small sum of money, to him or to the owner, as a token of my gratitude, but something stopped me from pulling out my wallet and it wasn't just my inner scrooge. It simply seemed wrong, even insulting, to reward someone for a basic act of human decency.

Fogel family
Emil Salman

I was pondering this dilemma when I heard on the seven o'clock news about Propaganda Minister Yuli Edelstein's decision to distribute to the international media the graphic photographs of the bodies of the murdered Fogel family in Itamar. Normally, I am in favor of maximum exposure, putting all and any available information in front of the public and letting them make whatever judgment they feel. But "snuff" is different. We don't publish the photographs of the forensic evidence in murder and rape cases, photo editors take care to airbrush images from the scenes of suicide bombings (at least those in Israeli and Western media do, Al Jazeera is another story ) and frequently, even in our reporting, we omit certain gory details that may offend the sensibilities of the public and the victims' families.

None of these decisions are easy to make, but ultimately I prefer to belong to a code of journalism that still prescribes some limits to the incessant quest for ratings. I asked a number of people involved in making this decision to explain the rationale and all I got was mealy-mouthed answers about the need "to change the narrative." The real reason is much simpler. It is a result of the frustration of those who work in Israeli hasbara that even a barbaric massacre in which a 3-month-old baby girl is hacked to death, fails to alter the international media's fundamental view - in which Israel is to blame for the situation with the Palestinians, and the West Bank settlers are the source of all evil.

Edelstein's decision was an immediate failure, no serious news organization even considered publishing the photographs, but it is understandable when you consider the constant frustration inherent in his position. Still, even if he had succeeded in shifting the perspective of at least one reporter, it was the wrong call on just about every level.

I spent the first 350 words of this column boring you with a story of my forgetfulness and the decency of the staff at a Palestinian restaurant, simply to point out the irrelevancy of it all. My benefactors could well be cousins of the men who butchered the Fogels, who live in the same villages and probably have the same level of sympathy for the settlers. So does their conduct prove anything? And what does the bestiality of the murderers prove? Does it invalidate the Palestinians' claims? Does it make the occupation any less of a travesty?

Stooping to Al Jazeera's level

Sunday is Purim and also the 17th anniversary of Dr. Baruch Goldstein's massacre of 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron. Am I prepared to have his actions define me as a Jew and an Israeli? Would the settlers have him personify them? (Well some actually would, but I would like to believe they are a tiny, noisy minority. )

Edelstein hopes the world will see the images from Itamar and blame the entire Palestinian nation by proxy - but in truth, he is belittling and trivializing this terrible murder. By using these images for the government's political and diplomatic purposes, he is stooping to the level of Al Jazeera at its worst, if not lower. Al Jazeera is a news channel, Edelstein purports to represent a sovereign nation.

I met Rabbi Udi Fogel four and a half years ago; he did not look anything like a man who was about to lose his home. At the time, Udi, his wife Ruth and their three children were living in Netzarim, the most isolated of the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip and the last one to be dismantled in the disengagement of the summer of 2005. He smiled, with just a hint of what may have been sadness or irony, and spoke calmly when I asked him how he felt about the government that was about to force him to leave and destroy his home. He did not express any rancor or anger. Despite his deep regret, he said that he continued to have huge faith in the Jewish people and the state of Israel.

At Udi's funeral, his brother Motti said over the graves - "Udi, my younger brother, all I have to say are cliches. If I could, I would push away everyone who came here and whisper, 'Let's go and play soccer one last time.' All the slogans about Torah and settling the land, about Eretz Yisrael and Am Yisrael, are trying to obscure the simple fact that you are dead and nothing can make that go away. You are dead and no slogan can bring you back. You are not a symbol or a national event, your life had a meaning of its own and your terrible death cannot become a meaning to whatever end."