Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine

Screen Shots: State Violence on Camera in Israel and Palestine

Rebecca L. Stein, Stanford University Press, 2021, 162pp
(order from Hive here)
Reviewed by Deborah Maccoby

This book has two overall and intertwined contexts: a) a critique of extravagant claims about the power of the social media technological revolution to bring about political change; b) a study of the close relationship between colonialism and technology. To illustrate these two contexts, Stein focuses her own camera-sights on Israel-Palestine, in relation to Palestinian activists, Israeli human rights organisations and the Israeli military and settlers.

In 2007, the Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem gave hundreds of hand-held camcorders and rudimentary training to Palestinian families living in the parts of the West Bank where Israeli soldiers and settlers were most threatening. But the hopes of the Palestinians have often been frustrated by (as Stein sums it up) “repressive military policy — in the form of closures and curfews and capricious soldier vengeance – enacted on photographers and cameras” (p.160). And the belief held at first by B’Tselem that “the Israeli public just had to know what was being done in its name” (p.159) has proved to be an illusion, as Israelis move ever rightwards. Indeed, what emerges most powerfully from this book is just how far gone the Israeli public has become: ”Most Israelis are past caring and past pretending to care” (p.110)

While the book, with its pessimistic conclusions about the power of visual technology to bring about political change, was in production, the video of George Floyd’s public murder by a US police officer suddenly triggered huge protests around the world. In a “Coda” to her book, Stein engages with this phenomenon, which seems to contradict her thesis: “In this time of renewed global hope in the bystander camera, what can the analytic of failure provide?” (p.162)

Her response is that the other overall context of her book is “colonial logics” (p.162). By this, she means the typical claim of colonialists that they are bringing a new, advanced technology to a benighted and primitive part of the world. Stein points out that this was an important feature of early Zionism – a feature which has simply been updated for the 21st century. Even those (like myself) who disagree with her implication that Israel was always only a “settler-colonial project”, and nothing else, must acknowledge the continuity of these colonial attitudes:

“the ambitions of the Israeli settler-colonial project have long been reliant on technological discourses and developments, beginning in the early decades of Zionism, evident both in the 19th century dream of an electrified Palestine, and the twenty-first century dream of total surveillance.” (p.15)

Stein points out that, because the “Black Lives Matter” movement is driven by anti-colonialism, it has helped to bring back to life the Palestinian cause – which had recently appeared dead (thus appearing to justify her claims about the failure of Palestinian digital dreams).

As Norman Finkelstein has recently pointed out, there is a new acceptance by mainstream organisations that Israel has become a completely apartheid state and that the two-state solution is finished. [1] The uprising in May that began in East Jerusalem spread to all the Palestinian territories and triggered mass protests around the world. And at the Labour Party Conference this September, the entire Conference voted for sanctions against Israel. Although the leadership was swift to distance itself from the democratic vote of Conference (something Jeremy Corbyn would never have done), this was still a significant moment.[2]

Stein argues that her book “shares” with the Black Lives Matter movement “a commitment to colonial logics” and so carries a message of hope, since a central intention of Screen Shots is to help to “unsettle” the Israeli “colonial present” and thus help to prepare the way for “new futures”:

“If the narrative of technological modernity signals the endurance of the Israeli colonial project, then stories of military breakdown and belatedness might signal the inverse. It is my hope that such scenes of failure, with the Israeli state and its technologies out of synch, can provide a modest means of unsettling the colonial present. Perhaps in such failures, other political futures can become visible.” (p.162)

The main body of the book is in fact about Israeli “colonial logics”. Only one of the book’s five main chapters is about the Palestinian experience. All the others are about Israelis. One is devoted to B’Tselem, but the other three expose the failure of the technological dreams of the Israeli settlers and military.

One of these three main chapters — “Sniper Portraiture: Personal Technology in Military Theatres” focuses on the personal cameras issued to Israeli soldiers. One soldier, who became a founder-member of the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, describes being ordered to use his camera as a weapon of intimidation, taking pictures of Palestinian families and amassing details about them – none of which are actually used; the purpose of the pictures and data is just to intimidate. Another chapter, “Settler Scripts”, concentrates on the Trumpian claims of “fake news” that are promulgated by settlers and their Zionist right-wing supporters; again, this is an updating of traditional colonialist attitudes. Stein writes of the assertions by the Israeli and Zionist right wing that Palestinian videos are fraudulently “staged”:

“The script….was merely a new variant of a very old colonial storyline that had been updated to address the perceived threats of the early 21st century. Colonial denial had been given a new digital dressing”. (p.99)

One of the most bizarre and appalling examples cited by Stein in this chapter is Netanyahu’s claim that Palestinians were deliberately getting themselves killed so they could make Israel look bad by appearing “telegenically dead” on TV. (p.95)

Even the failure of the Palestinian photographers and of B’Tselem offers some flickers of hope.  Stein describes B’Tselem’s vast amount of Palestinian footage that, for various reasons, never made it into Israeli law courts or on to Israeli TV as an invaluable record for the future: “this archival portrait of the everyday occupation, ill-suited to national airtime, may have been the project’s most powerful contribution” (page 123).  The soldiers who founded Breaking the Silence were radicalised by the realisation that their photographs of Palestinian families were only used as “blunt instruments of terror, technologies designed to fail” (p.44) and began to take photographs to expose the Occupation. Stein is interested in the failed and the unrealised because of what they can “reveal about possible political futures.” (p.16)

In a brilliant last chapter, entitled “The Military’s Lament”, Stein portrays a Messianic fanatical dream of “winning the media war” by means of the perfect technological fix. It never occurs to the Israeli military that the solution to adverse media coverage might be to change oppressive Israeli policies and seek a just peace with the Palestinians; the answer to all the military’s PR failures is, to them, better technology: “With the camera to come, Israel would finally be redeemed. If only they could get the technology right.” (p.156)

Rebecca Stein is Associate Professor of Anthropology at Duke University; and she links Screen Shots to “media studies” and “post-colonial studies”.  One problem I have with the book is that Screen Shots is replete with academic jargon that renders the book somewhat inaccessible to the general reader.  In the Acknowledgements, the author thanks her father “Richard L. Stein for reading every page and engaging my prose with the persistent care of both a parent and a literary scholar”.  I can’t help wishing he had advised her to translate her prose into non-academic English. It is ironic that a book that is so opposed to the claims made for technology should itself be written in the kind of arcane language that we tend to associate with technology.  It is almost as though technology has coopted the critique against itself within the straitjacket of abstruse “media studies”, as a means of neutralising this critique.

A second problem (mentioned briefly above) is with the stark, blanket claim that Israel was always nothing but a “settler-colonial project”.  I can’t see that this can help towards “unsettling” Israeli settler-colonialism and making visible an alternative future; it can surely only drive Israelis further into intransigence.  With all her interest in the failed and the unachieved that can point the way towards the future, Stein never mentions failed and unachieved strands within the complex, diverse movement that was early Zionism, particularly the binational vision of Martin Buber and Judah Magnes.  Picking up these old, forgotten threads within Zionism itself could surely help to guide towards a “possible political future”.

In one of the blurbs at the back of the book, Ann Stoler (billed as “author of Duress: Imperial Durabilities in Our Times”),praises Stein’s “lucid account which strikes precisely and pointedly at witnessing that misses its mark”.  I don’t agree that Stein is lucid.  I do think that – once one gets past the jargon – there is much in this book that is fascinating, informative and valuable.  But ultimately it seems to me that Screen Shots itself – in its attempts to target a) the claims made for technology and b) Israeli settler-colonialism — misses its mark. 

[first posted 11 Oct 9.23am; updated 17th October with what was the previous final para reworked and two new paras added]


[1] tps://wallofcontroversy.wordpress.com/2021/05/13/norman-finkelstein-on-why-hrw-finally-turned-their-back-to-the-lunatic-state-of-israel/

[2]https://skwawkbox.org/2021/09/27/breaking-historic-labour-motion-passes-for-sanctions-vs-apartheid-israel/

Lisa Nandy: Labour leadership ‘cannot support pro Palestine motion’ at conference | Jewish News (timesofisrael.com)

 

Comments (2)

  • Kuhnberg says:

    I have commented elsewhere that so far as I know there is no single site displaying the many hundreds of videos taken by Palestinians as a record of Israeli human rights abuses. Such a site would be an invaluable resource for informing people about the realities of the occupation; it would also serve as a history of Israel’s oppression and a repository of evidence to present to the international court of human rights. If you know of any sites of this description please provide their urls on this forum.

  • Deborah Maccoby says:

    There is quite a lot of material on the ActiveStills website:

    https://www.activestills.org/

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