On September 30 2000, France 2 broadcast a 58 second clip of a Palestinian, Mohammed al-Dura, cowering behind his father shielded by metal barrel at the Netzarim Junction in Gaza. At the end of the clip, the boy is apparently dead. Announcer, Charles Enderlin, one of France’s most respected broadcast journalists, intones that he has been killed by Israeli fire.
That clip has been rebroadcast thousands of times. It features in the video prepared by Osama bin Laden to celebrate 9/11, and in that of the beheading of Jewish journalist Daniel Pearl. Palestinian TV repeatedly shows a young boy named Mohammed al-Dura beckoning to his schoolmates to join him in heaven as martyrs.
At European anti-Israel demonstrations the iconic photo of Mohammed al-Dura is juxtaposed to the picture of the terrified little boy with his hands raised in the Warsaw ghetto under the banner Israeli=Nazi. To many Europeans, the clip of Mohammed al-Dura’s "death" justifies all Palestinian terror: What do you expect from Palestinians when the Israelis kill their children in cold blood?
The "death" of Mohammed al-Dura, however, is a fake. In 2004, media critic Phillippe Karsenty demanded the firing of Enderlin for his role in the fraud. Enderlin and France 2 sued for libel. Enderlin won at the trial court, even though he bore the burden of proof and introduced no evidence to refute Karsenty’s that the whole incident was staged by Enderlin’s Palestinian cameraman Talal Abu-Rahma.
Enderlin contented himself with a letter of approbation from then French President Jacques Chirac and the (false) claim that Israel had never denied responsibility. He did not produce the 27 minutes of raw footage from which the 58 clip was excerpted.
A French Appeals Court, however, ordered Enderlin and France 2 by to produce the raw footage, leaving France 2 with an unsavory choice: Either produce the full footage and be exposed as having perpetrated a fraud that inspired acts of murderous violence around the world or drop the libel suit. It did neither, but rather submitted to the Appeals Court only 18 minutes of the 27 minutes of outtakes shot by Abu-Rahma. Enderlin claimed the rest had been erased when transferred to a master tape.
In the 18 minutes of film screened in the French courtroom, there was not one indication that the boy in the film is even dead. The final three seconds of footage were lopped off the France 2 broadcast; Enderlin claimed because they were too unbearable to watch. But those three seconds do not show Mohammed’s death throes. The boys lifts his head, peeks out from under the arm shielding his eyes from the sun, and resumes a prone posture – albeit with his leg still in the air.
One hears the mob shouting, "The boy is dead; the boy is dead," long before the boy has even lowered his head in a death posture. Enderlin helpfully explained to the court that perhaps they were anticipating his death. Nowhere is there any sign of the boy being shot. The closest viewers come to seeing blood is a piece of red textile that the boy places on his stomach. Despite Palestinian claims that he was struck by a bullet in the stomach, he is not seen clutching his stomach.
Footage taken by other cameramen at the scene shows passersby strolling by without a care in the world, even though Abu-Rahma testified that the father and son were under sustained Israeli fire for 45 minutes. Those who have viewed the entire 27 minutes of raw footage have testified that the missing 9 minutes are filled with other obviously staged scenes.
Last week, I attended a lecture on the al-Dura case by Boston University History. Professor Richard Landes, an Orthodox Jew. Landes has made three compelling documentaries on the al-Dura case and other examples of blatant Palestinian media manipulation, for which he coined the term Pallywood. They are available at the two websites he devoted to the case. Landes was present in the French courtroom when the audience broke into laughter over Enderlin’s tortured explanations.
I asked Professor Landes whether the French press had covered the appeal. He responded that near total media silence surrounds the case. The same thing happened at the trial court level: Press silence until the verdict in Enderlin’s favor, at which point the press trumpeted the vindication of Enderlin and France 2. (LExpress had the verdict before the defendant Karsenty.) Landes said that a number of major international media organizations told him they were ordered not to cover the appeal.
But then he added that the mainstream media cannot keep a lid on the case as they once could have. Why? Because of the blogosphere they no longer have a monopoly on information.
HIS COMMENT ABOUT THE BLOGOSPHERE SET ME THINKING. When we think of the blogosphere, we think primarily of a cesspool of anonymous character assassination and violations of the rules of proper speech. Yet there is another aspect. The blogosphere is one of the most powerful agents of human freedom today. In dictatorships from Iran to China, bloggers risk their lives to ask questions that dictators would rather not have asked and to criticize the authorities. Many have been arrested. But dictatorships can no longer completely silence and terrorize their critics.
Whenever the government controls the press, an alternative samizdat press will always develop. And the decentralization offered by the internet makes such alternative voices more effective and more threatening to dictators than ever before.
Not only in absolute dictatorships is free expression suppressed. In Western democracies, the Left has long maintained a virtual oligopoly in elite humanities and social science faculties and the elite media outlets. But the proliferation of conservative think tanks and now alternative news sources on the blogs broke those oligopolies.
We Torah Jews have an ambivalent attitude to freedom. Frei, for us is a derogatory term, denoting someone who has thrown off the yoke of Torah. But freedom is also the necessary condition for all Divine Service. A Jewish servant who willingly extended his servitude was punished by having his ear bored, and even he went free in the Jubilee.
Only in conditions of freedom can we develop what Rav Yerucham Levovitz describes as every Jew’s most precious possession -- his "I", his own unique aspect of the tzelem Elokim. The "poor bread" of matzah is the symbol of the liberation we celebrate on Pesach, writes the Maharal, because only a poor man is truly free. He is neither thrall to the material, as is a rich man, nor, more importantly, is he subject to another’s will, like a slave.
Freedom is, at once, our greatest challenge and the condition for realization of our purpose in living.