Perhaps you are troubled by the atrocity enacted on the people of Palestine since 1948. Perhaps you are distressed by what you see as Israel’s very asymmetric “justice”. Perhaps you believe that a colony whose wealth and existence is predicated on the displacement or apartheid of millions has no right to call itself a democracy.

If so, there are a number of things you could consider doing to declare and reify your support.

You could contact the Foreign Minister and ask her for a statement about our nation’s involvement with Israel. You could donate to the relief efforts of the Red Cross or Red Crescent. You could consider the value of promoting divestment and boycott or you could read the broad range of academic opinion that has trended in recent years away from the Western Orientalist view of Israel as the Middle East’s most reasonable actor.

Or, you could just keep uploading pictures of dead or dying Palestinian children.

This is a great way to disrespect the dead, turn war into a sort of compassion pornography spectacle and prove to your Facebook friends just where you stand. Because the lurid and bloody display of your empathy, after all, is as urgent as the matter of a one- or two-state solution.

As social and traditional media continue to merge into a single Kleenex whose soggy mass serves the tears of the West and douses the tissue of political interpretation, we see a thousand “share-able” images of kids in various stages of gruesome death. The Independent is just one of many media organisations to offer graphic portrayals of very young Palestinian refugees bleeding, screaming and gasping for their last breath.

Millions of Facebook status updates affirm and reproduce the importance of these images and how much they impact the user. Twitter tells us how bad it’s feeling, and one user cried “Every time I close my eyes I see the innocent children of Palestine running, I hear them scream.” In other words, it’s not just the pain of children in Gaza that’s the problem. It’s our own.

Even if we tend, as I do, to the emerging dominant view of international relations and believe that these asymmetric battles and the cold Israeli hostilities that engender them must be resolved, there is not only no ethical rationale to reproduce  pictures of the private deaths of Palestinian babies, but there is no pressing evidence that the empathy they generate is of any great use.

“We need to engage with history deeply. Not our emotions.”

There was a time where we were not yet inured to images of the brutalisation of children in war. There was, perhaps, a time when their use could be morally justified. When photographer Nick Ut captured the flight of a burned nine-year-old girl from South Vietnamese attack in 1972, the image served as a smoking gun in a very different world. The picture of the woman we would come to know as children’s advocate Kim Phuc even jolted Nixon, who was prompted to suggest that it had been “fixed”. Such, then, was the power of photojournalism.

Now in an age of spectacular oversupply of both images and political perspectives, the gore loses its value. This is not for a minute to suggest that many of the pictures by embedded and citizen journalists in Gaza do not depict real atrocity. It is, however, to suggest that the impact of the “real” is diminished by reproduction. And it is also diminished by an occasionally false reproduction of the real. An image, for example, of healthy Israeli children writing “From Israel With Love” on missiles was shared recently on social media as evidence of the state’s brutal ideology. As it turned out, the image was taken from a 2006 conflict and the missiles were destined for Palestinian children long since dead.

But the absolutist rationale for the dissemination of this false image is identical to the rationale of real images of Palestinian fatalities. That is: if it helps the Palestinian cause,  it must be a good thing.

That it helps anyone at all is in doubt.

It is true that this week, the Palestinian people are winning the social media battle if not the battle for the long-overdue return of their homeland. It is also true that there is some merit in the idea that “people power”, if scrupulously organised, can demand action from a super power. What is neither true nor in any way verifiable is that an emotional reaction to a pornographic image of atrocity — which US President Barack Obama might very well determine, like Nixon, is “fixed” — does anything but serve the needs of a world hungry for high passion.

It is generally held that compassion for the individual, as depicted in these awful images, will heal the world. The view that holds that the intimate ministrations of a Mother Teresa can do anything but serve an individual’s need to serve is profoundly ahistorical. Crying for Palestinian babies comes not only at the expense of the dignity of Palestinian babies but at the understanding of the illegitimate foundation of the state of Israel that real social change demands. To think, in this instant, that Israel is populated by “baddies” is not enough. Well, it’s not enough unless you think that having a public moment of deep private feeling suffices to change anything but your mood.

Evil, as we know, is banal. But so, for that matter, is good. It is the case now as it has always been. What feels like a deep engagement with humanity might serve us but what will really serve the people of Palestine is a deep engagement with their extraordinary history.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that I have a working knowledge of the Balfour Declaration. I would not dare suggest a solution to a lopsided conflict of which my knowledge is scant — only sufficient to know that I do not want my nation to condone the illegal actions of Israel. What I am suggesting is that we need to engage with history deeply. Not our emotions. That empathy gets us anywhere is deeply in doubt.

Peter Fray

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