Beyond the raw facts of the bruised and bloodied bodies, and the grief of those mourning the loss of loved ones, the unfolding story of the Israeli navy’s assault on the Gaza aid flotilla has wider symbolic significance.
Public opinion and political action are not shaped by pure rationality, but by the meanings that we make about social and political life. Particularly significant are those narratives about public life which draw on sacred forms and which cast political actors in the terms of the sacred and the profane.
As with public narratives emerging through media during its military assault on Gaza in 2009, the Israeli government is once again cast as profaning core sacred forms of Western modernity – human rights and the sacrality of the care of children – as well as the institution of international law which upholds these sacred forms.
In this context, Mark Regev’s comment to a BBC journalist that the flotilla crisis was a "bad story" for Israel reflects both an insensitivity to those grieving loved ones killed in the assault, and an accurate perception that the wider social and political significance of the crisis lies now in the way in which it is framed through public media.
As we have seen in the hours and days following the assault, the political significance of such sacred drama has meant that the conflict has moved from the decks of the boarded ships to various media spaces in which the narrative of the Israeli assault as a profanation of sacred values is being constructed and contested.
This conflict is not merely symbolic. The confiscation of activists’ cameras, mobile phones and laptops during their detention, attempts to hack the website of the Jerusalem Post, and the damage done to a BBC building in Manchester during a protest earlier this week, are all symptomatic of the physical ways in which people seek to control or attack public media spaces.
In previous centuries, church altars and the visual and material interiors of church buildings were the physical sites in which battles over competing sacred narratives were fought. Today those battles take place on websites, news bulletins and discussion shows, and even through the buildings and hardware of broadcasters.
Such conflict through the media now becomes a dominant reality for political life. As the media scholar Ron Jacobs has commented, "groups who find themselves continually polluted through media narratives, to the extent that they wish to engage with that public audience, must continually act from a defensive and reactive position".
In recent years this has increasingly been the position faced by the Israeli government as its military actions in the Lebanon war of 2006 and Operation Cast Lead, and its on-going policies in Gaza and the West Bank have come under increasing criticism from international institutions. Lessons learned from the media coverage of attacks on civilian areas during the last Lebanon war have meant that the Israeli government now has a sustained policy of trying to control media coverage of its actions, reflected in its policy of banning journalists from entering Gaza during Operation Cast Lead.
In the current drama this has meant blocking communication signals from the Gaza aid ships, preventing media access to activists to allow the Israeli narrative of the assault to be presented first, and confiscating activist recordings that might provide evidence which contradicts the official Israeli account.
Such attempts undoubtedly have some success. Both the cases of the police beating of Rodney King and the death of Ian Tomlinson demonstrate the power of film footage to challenge accounts by state institutions of violence against civilians. We can similarly imagine what the impact would have been in the past few days had media footage been made available of the moments in which Israeli commandos actually shot and killed activists.
But despite attempts by the Israeli government and military to control the unfolding sacred drama, the accounts of events by activists will nevertheless provide material for audiences to imagine what happened on the ships in ways that undermine the official account.
This may not be true, though, for those who still regard such Israeli interventions as the legitimate actions of self-defence of a liberal and democratic society. For them, the IDF film footage may be enough to convince them that the IDF had no choice, and that the deaths were the fault of pre-meditated acts of violence by ‘ultra-violent’ activists. How could it be otherwise? How could Israeli commandos have fired on so many civilians?
The British public have similarly gone through such moments of denial over profane acts of official violence and negligence, often wittingly or unwittingly abetted by the media. How could British paratroopers have shot Irish civilians on Bloody Sunday if they weren’t armed terrorists? How could the police control of the crowd at Hillsborough lead to the deaths of 96 people if it were not the consequence of unruly and uncivilised football fans? How could police marksmen shoot an unarmed man at point blank range on the London underground if he was not clearly carrying a bomb that he was about to detonate?
As we have learned – often only after many years of official obfuscation – the truth is that state institutions do act, at times, in ways that profane our most sacred values. Attempts to portray the dead and wounded activists on the Gaza aid ships as solely responsible for their harm is just another example of the denial of such uncomfortable realities.
But despite the denial, and despite the efforts to manage the narration of the sacred drama of the Gaza aid ships as a legitimate military operation, there is a growing sense that a tipping point may soon be reached in which it becomes increasingly difficult for the Israeli government to defend its policies against the moral backdrop of the sacred and the profane. One can only hope, if so, that it does not come too late for the suffering people of Gaza.
(c) Gordon Lynch is Professor of Sociology of Religion and Director of the Centre for Religion and Contemporary Society in the Department of Psychosocial Studies, Birkbeck, University of London. His academic interests and publications are detailed here: http://www.bbk.ac.uk/crcs/people/director