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Terrorist Chic in France, From the Jeu de Paume Exhibit to Al Durah to Mohamed Merah

A controversial new exhibit celebrates mass murderers and raises war propaganda to the level of high art

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A poster of the exhibit ‘Phantom Home,’ by Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli, outside the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris, June 2013. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)
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This Summer the French National Museum, the Jeu de Paume, once famous for its display of Impressionist paintings, is hosting an astonishing photography exhibit, Phantom House. The work of an Israeli Bedouin woman, Ahlam Shibli, it assembles an eclectic series of photographs that depict a number of different groups whose homes are really not theirs, or who do not have homes—people who “live under oppression.” These include Bedouin “Trackers” who enlist in the IDF, “Palestinians” living in the Galilee and Jordan, Polish children in orphanages, Middle Eastern LGBTs who live in Western countries, the French of Corrèze during the Nazi occupation, and, in by far the most elaborate of the exhibits, the Palestinian families of “martyrs” who “resisted” the “occupation,” standing with the pictures, posters, and graves of their “disappeared” relatives.

The exhibit has elicited predictable controversy. These alleged “martyrs” who “took control of their own deaths,” the object of loving devotion by their families, are actually mass murderers who killed themselves in order to murder as many children, women, civilians as they could. Like so much of the Palestinian narrative, these photos give no place to the “other” except as faceless colonial oppressors. For one Jewish woman, a patron of the museum, the experience was horrifying. Looking at these pictures of “martyrs,” she recognized people who had blown up restaurants and buses, which were chosen precisely because there were children there.

Outraged objections poured in. The museum’s response was to post a notice that insisted that this was not propaganda and quoted the artist insisting that she was “not a militant, not judgmental.”

Of course, all of this is nonsense. If not propaganda (like the famous pipe that is not a pipe), it is a display of lovingly presented photographs of propaganda. The artist is decidedly judgmental, presenting her fellow Bedouin who serve in the IDF as pathetic sell-outs to a colonial regime (they appear strikingly comfortable and secure with themselves in the photos), peppering her exhibit on French victims of the Nazi occupation with comments on how they turned around after liberation and became colonial oppressors in Indochina and Algeria. The unalloyed admiration for the “resistance to occupation” of the Palestinians, juxtaposed with that of the French resistance to the Nazis, plays on a common, if grotesque, theme of Palestinian propaganda—that the Israelis are the new Nazis and the Palestinians the new Jews.

How can the French, who know what Nazi occupation was like, compare their experience to that of Palestinians in the West Bank? How they could not notice that while the Nazis killed hundreds of thousands of civilians in occupied Europe as part of their deliberate policy of collective punishment, the Palestinians kill thousands of civilians as part of their “resistance”? How could they miss the difference between an “occupation” that kills 6 million Jews and one that produces a Palestinian population with the highest standard of living in the non-oil-rich Arab world? How can they glorify a movement that embraces and intensifies Nazi Jew-hatred? And why do they view Jews who attempt to protect themselves from that aggression through the eyes of those who foment hatred? How did such a profound moral disorientation occur, and why has it been elevated to the level of high art?

The answer takes us back to the beginning of the Second Intifada, known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, on Sept. 30, 2000, when Charles Enderlin, the French-Israeli correspondent for France2 broadcast a news story on how the Israelis targeted a father and son, killing the son and badly wounding the father. The story rapidly gained mythical power in both the Muslim world and in the West. For some Palestinians, Al Durah became “the martyr of the world” and an inspiration to suicide bombers seeking to revenge his death; in the capable hands of Osama Bin Laden, he became a call to all Muslims to join the global Jihad.

In France and beyond, Europeans embraced this story as a liberation from Holocaust guilt. The respected French news anchor Catherine Nay spoke for many when she noted, “This death annuls, erases the picture of the boy in the Warsaw Ghetto.” In other words, the picture of one boy, caught in a cross-fire, replaces a picture that symbolizes the deliberate, cold-blooded murder of over a million children.

Under the aegis of this wildly popular image, which came to be known as an icon of hatred, the morally deranged (and sadistic) substitution theology of Palestinian war propaganda entered the European mainstream. From the first rally of French progressives and Muslims reacting to the Al Durah story—where at least one banner read “Star of David = Swastika = picture of the Al Durahs under fire” in 2000, and protesters cried, “Death to the Jews! Death to Israel!”—to the most recent ravings of the British Liberal Democrat Party, who compared Israel to the Nazis, the idea of Jews as Nazis became acceptable discourse among European elites.

Nothing better illustrates the danger involved in this moral derangement than the way this icon has operated in French society. Ironically, as French TV repeatedly showed this gratifying “get-out-of-Holocaust-guilt-free-card” to their French audiences, they waved the flag of Jihad in front of their restive Muslim youth. Not understanding that this Jihad targeted them as well, they assumed (for some strange reason), that those aroused to violent hatred of both Israelis and their cousins, French Jews, did not also consider them legitimate targets of Jihadi wrath. Thus as violence, both verbal and physical, against French Jews rose sharply, the French privately told Jews who complained that this is payback for Israeli deeds and publicly denied any anti-Semitism.

What might have been a brief disorientation, damaging but limited, has become a disastrous commitment to this new paradigm, even as the evidence for its deleterious effect on France (and, more broadly, Europe) multiplied. In 2004 and 2005, Spanish and English citizens found out that they, too, could be considered legitimate targets of Jihadi wrath. Several months later, in response to a false report that French police had killed two young French Arabs, the suburban “sensitive zones” erupted in rioting and vandalism, while the police stood aside lest intervention lead to photographs of police killing Arab youth and inspire suicide terror attacks.

Those French who, ignoring the plethora of minor subsequent incidents, might have thought their problems were more or less on a path toward resolution were shocked anew in 2012, when a young French-born Algerian Jihadi, Mohamed Merah, after killing three French Muslim soldiers, went to a Jewish school and deliberately killed three children and a father. Why? “To avenge those Muslims in Palestine murdered by the Israelis,” he said.

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Terrorist Chic in France, From the Jeu de Paume Exhibit to Al Durah to Mohamed Merah

A controversial new exhibit celebrates mass murderers and raises war propaganda to the level of high art