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January 9, 2009

The Grotesque


I stumbled upon this This image moved from the file to on the newswire yesterday (searching “U.S. Congress” and “Israel”) spurred by the spurred and troubled by the anonymous voice-vote in Congress in support of Israel the Israeli campaign in Gaza.

It was taken ten months ago during a meeting between US Congress members and Prime Minister Olmert at the Knesset. In the light of the throughly hideous events taking place in Israel and Gaza, the photo is an effective one in expressing expressed for me that side of man — especially, and specifically, one venal agent of power keyed off one mired in corruption charges — that is thoroughly grotesque.

Even more hideous, Even more hideous to me, given the relation and proximity of the flag, is how that expression is how, in this admittedly incidental expression — at this time, and in its in what I read in as bitterness and side-long contempt — assumes the I also saw it assume to represent the face of a nation.

Peace Groups Lose First Major Gaza Challenge On Capitol Hill (Jewish Daily Forward)

Both parties cheerlead still more loudly for Israel’s war (Greenwald/Salon)

(1/9 – Edited for presumption, and run away subjectivity)

(image: Dan Balilty/AP. Jerusalem. February 18, 2008)

  • Sergei Andropov

    Why not just use this?

  • richard dent

    This is a strange post.”This image moved from the file to the newswire yesterday spurred by the anonymous voice-vote in the U.S. Congress in support of Israel.”
    In other words, someone chose an old and negative image to juxtapose with a vote supporting Israel. Where is the comment about mis-using an older photo (like in the Jan. 6th post about Pelosi viz the pic of Axelrod and Emmanuel?)
    The post also seems to be just a launching pad to demonize Olmert and israel. I mean, why call Olmert venal? Even the Irish Times article linked to that word doesn’t say Israel attacked Gaza simply to burnish Olmert’s legacy, as Bag implies. It notes how Hamas cranked up the rocket attacks leading to Israel’s response.
    The “face of a nation” as we are learning so well in BNN, is shaped in part by selection and presentation of images. Who knows where this odd expression of Olmert’s came from? Maybe he was about to sneeze. You can find bad “moments” in photos of anyone. In my humble opinion there is no fair basis for saying “…and in its bitterness and side-long contempt–assumes the face of a nation.”

  • Saleema

    “Face of a nation.” SPOT ON!

  • steve

    He probably was squeezing the neck of a small child under the table in front of him.
    Israel is not real.

  • jonst

    I was saddened to see you post this Michael.

  • jtfromBC

    ~ great image for a Pharmaceutical Ad
    ~ after reading(Greenwald/Salon)link : ‘On a related note, MediaBloodHound has the details on the very interesting story of how AP caused to vanish into thin air the tough questioning by its reporter of the U.S. State Department regarding Gaza.’
    ~ here’s a two minute skit which exemplifies the exchange between Correspondent Matthew Lee and Deputy Secretary of State Sean McCormack.

  • OldGregg

    Ol’ m’ert’

  • theWalrus

    Pop this image into Photoshop, make a caricature of it, label it “The Grotesque” and it would be perfect propaganda, circa Germany 1938.

  • demit

    A couple of questions:
    What do you mean ‘this image moved from the file to the newswire’? Did it appear somewhere? Why don’t you link to it? What is your evidence that this ‘move’ was spurred by the vote in Congress? Does your switch to the passive voice mean that the move spurred only *you* to publish the photo here but you wanted to avoid saying that? Your writing is maddeningly vague.
    And I agree with the poster who says you can find odd expressions of anyone. I’ve made a face like that when someone says they like okra. I thought the purpose of this blog was to deconstruct others’ use of photos—what context they’re used in and why. Not to create your own context and then claim it has meaning.
    And, finally, how does how you present this photo jibe with what you suggested a few days ago—the photo of the teenagers (children, you called them) watching the bombardment of Gaza with enjoyment—when you seemed to argue that it was unfair to present it next to a story of Gazan civilian casualties because it had been taken five days earlier?
    I think you are on very shaky ground here. But I am honestly puzzled, and these are sincere questions.

  • Johanna

    Thank you Richard Dent. And Bag, really, I mean really. You might not know the history of this kind of labelling of a photo of a hideous moment in the face of an elderly Jew, and calling it the image of a whole people, a nation. But it has a history. Countless times was such a picture shown in the third reich, saying look, look, here is the image and aspect of the Jew. And honestly, for anyone over, say fifty, have we not caught a particularly ugly glimpse of ourselves in a car mirror during a stressful road incident, for example? Who knows what was going on in Olmert’s mind (or more likely, body) when this was taken? No one.

  • ZuniVerse

    yah, well…it ain’t circum 1938…it’s 2009 and this is the zooface of all keepers of animal offenders

  • arty

    For someone who likes to stamp his heels and “demand” high standards from the mainstream media, you might at least pretend that you have standards yourself.

  • AJ

    Well, this one brought out the knee-jerk accusations in the comments from the ‘anything Israeli is good’ crowd. The fact of the matter is that the actions of Israel ARE grotesque – and there are mounds of evidence that Olmert IS venal – no human being of conscience would say differently. This is analogous to the actions of the US being grotesque in Iraq and Guantanamo – and Cheney being venal – it is not a comment about a people, per se – it is about the actions of a criminal government committing war crimes right now.
    It’s not about the idea that anyone can be caught ‘making a face’ – it is the symbolic truth; a glimpse behind the mask of sanity that the Israeli government can no longer hold up very well. I, for one, think it is brilliantly refreshing to see the truth – instead of Israeli apologists. This is 2009 and heinous war crimes – crimes against innocent humanity – are being committed by Israel right this minute – time to face the music and stop living in the past – or using the past as an excuse for inhuman behavior. Good job, BAG.

  • cmac

    Your meaning behind the photo moving from the file to the wire is that someone put it out there to balance the kneejerk ‘Israel can do no wrong’ voice vote by the Congress?
    I disagree with those here who compare the publication of this photo to Nazi demonization of Jews. In this case, Israel is the aggressor. Israel has become an oppressive and brutal occupier, and its present action in Gaza seems to have no purpose other than to kill as many members of Hamas, and people who voted for Hamas, and relatives of people who voted for Hamas, as possible.
    Israel seems to have lost its way. Balancing the bizarrely one-sided coverage of the situation by the American press with an unflattering photo of Olmert is hardly demonizing. I might quibble with its characterization as the ‘face of the nation,’ but then we come up against the hard fact that those tasked with leadership by the Israeli public for the last decade or so have consistently been people who are the least sympathetic to the Palestinian plight, and the most likely to use military power against them.
    That said, Olmert might be starting a sneeze in this picture, rather than grimacing over something somebody said…

  • arty

    “…this one brought out the knee-jerk accusations in the comments from the ‘anything Israeli is good’ crowd…”
    So sorry. Sometimes we forget that “single minded” is often code for “simple minded.”

  • Al Gomas

    Just how many dancing Israelis are there in Amurka? They are falling all over themselves responding to this image!
    Years ago, i was tombstoned over at Democratic Underground for suggesting that Israel needs less weapons and more psychiatrists to establish peace and security. Imagine my surprise at how pervasive their Lobby is- a lowly peon scrubbed from one of the few “progressive” media outlets because of one unfriendly remark!
    Nazi is as Nazi does.

  • tweety

    He looks like a very evil man.

  • jtfromBC

    Al Gomas
    I don’t think you will be scrubbed from this site, but your “Nazi is as Nazi does.” is an inaccurate and reprehensible statement. Given the terror and trauma I agree that a hell of a lot of psychiatrists, and social workers are required for both sides, in particular for the children.

  • Zima

    Ask your doctor if Beano is right for you.

  • yg

    how does how you present this photo jibe with what you suggested a few days ago—the photo of the teenagers (children, you called them) watching the bombardment of Gaza with enjoyment—when you seemed to argue that it was unfair to present it next to a story of Gazan civilian casualties because it had been taken five days earlier?
    are you really arguing they went to watch a bombardment to enjoy in spectator fashion with the expectations of zero casualties? did they go to the hilltop just to see things go “boom!”?

  • yg

    yes, this out of context photo was unfair.

  • Lightkeeper

    LOL Zima. Al Gomas: there is something really disturbing about calling the Israeli government Nazi.
    Johanna: WE ARE NOT LIVING IN 1939. GET IT? WE ARE NOT LIVING IN 1939. This is 2009, and even though you find it hard to grasp, the times have they achanged. Israel is not the Eternal Victim anymore. If you can’t see that, no point in arguing, methinks.
    I’d like to applaud the Bag for posting this. It is high time Israeli’s & Jews start to do a little soul searching of their own…

  • Michael (The BAG)

    Without addressing the many thoughtful points here, I accept that the post is problematic for a variety of reasons. Specifically, I have edited it (with strike-throughs) for the very clear problem of assumption/presumption, as well as run away subjectivity. The issue of Israel and Gaza is not the easiest one for me to blog about. That’s not an excuse, and also should not be a reason to look away. On this post, however (which doesn’t happen very often), my own feelings and frustrations clearly carried me.

  • grammarian

    The photo reminds me more of characters in Bruegel’s hellish landscapes than Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda.

  • yg

    is bag being intentionally ambiguous (in order to provoke a mixed response?) or are readers not reading carefully enough? some read him as objecting to the use of the photo, others think him using the photo to attack israel. i took his use of the underlined word “venal” as objecting to classically hateful anti-semitic stereotyping where he thought the image-maker was looking to make olmert look venal.
    but this also made me think back to all the photo-ops where bush was caught doing something ridiculous. i didn’t read that as an attack on the character of all americans.

  • arty

    If one makes the same search on Google, what pops up, among other things, is the context for this picture, as presented in the caption on the site: “10 months ago: Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reacts as he adjusts his shirt during a meeting with US Congress members at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem, Monday, Feb. 18, 2008. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert gave his military a “free hand” to hit Gaza militants after a rocket slammed into a house in an Israeli town following a visit there by the new U.N. humanitarian chief, who called for an end to the daily salvos.”
    So the guy is adjusting his shirt. So much for presumption.
    Also, close by is the photo’s twin brother,, which is by the same AP photographer, same event described in above caption, everything except for the nasty face. There’s nothing like leaving out an available caption to make a picture suit one’s needs.
    It would seem that a way to stay out of BAGNews is to tuck your shirt in before leaving the house.

  • lytom

    It is interesting that some of the protesting commentators here had no qualms to describe other politicians that Bag has posted previously in vile terms, yet this photo seems to offend them. Why is that, is it because they think it is unjust? and then what does that mean?
    Is it because they happen to agree with the politics Olmert represents?
    I am amazed that the defense goes so deep as comparing it to Nazi propaganda…
    Frankly, any picture of Olmert brings to mind the dead in Gaza and a revulsion… same as the faces of Bush,Rice,Cheney and other criminals in the US, no matter how “pretty” they look.
    Try to defend them too.

  • john griffith

    It is who it is.

  • jtfromBC

    Wow, I’ll enjoy observing this face when its knickers get caught in a knot, when Hamas is accepted at the negotiation table in the not to distant future. I hope also he is not under house arrest, in jail, in a coma, or holed up at some undisclosed site, when this inevitable event occurs.

  • DW

    Popeye was always looking for a fight too. Although it was always that evil Brutus’ fault…

  • sabine

    did the image maker ask Olmert to make the face? Or is Olmert making the face, because it is his face?
    And i agree with grammarian, it does look like a face from a bruegels painting.
    Full circle, we have come full circle, rinse forget repeat…..

  • jtfromBC

    One of Olmert’s Messengers:
    Mark Regev, Israeli Spokesman offering his point of view, should we be impressed with these responses ?

  • bystander

    Works for me, Michael. Every time I had to imagine Bush’s smirking face, or Cheney’s sneer, smacked on the front page of newspapers abroad, I figured they were the regrettable face of the USA. As the quagmire and brutality that is Iraq dragged on, and continues, I figured a smirking/sneering POTUS/OVP was probably about right. For better or worse, the image of those two was the face of the American people to the rest of the world. And, because we democratically elected them, as such, they are the face of our nation as well. I’m quite willing to turn the tables here – for all of the same reasons.

  • mad_nVT

    Very good job, BagMan. Millions feel your anguish and frustration.
    Your edits strengthen your post.
    For Olmert in this photo, it may be that Beano would be better.
    But for a government that sends rockets and tank fire into densely populated neighborhoods, the leaders should stand before a War Crimes Tribunal.

  • Gone

    Who is this person?
    Ehud Olmert will be remembered for fighting two bloody and wasteful mini-wars in less than three years in power. The first one, in Lebanon during the summer of 2006, punished but failed to defeat or even permanently injure Hezbollah, which is politically and militarily stronger today than it was before Olmert took office. Thrust into office in January 2006 by the incapacitation of Ariel Sharon, Olmert won his own mandate by promising to unilaterally withdraw Israeli soldiers and settlers from most of the West Bank.
    He will leave behind scorched earth in Gaza, a Lebanese front bristling with Hezbollah’s missiles and an Israeli West Bank presence that has expanded rather than contracted during the past two years, with thousands of new homes for Jewish settlers under construction while distracting attention from the more serious threat of Iran. Despite his bold intentions, Olmert proved unwilling or unable to stand up to the Jewish settlement movement in the West Bank; his government failed to dismantle even those outposts it has repeatedly declared illegal.
    To top it off, Olmert may well go to prison on the corruption charges that have forced him from office.
    The front-runner for prime minister in the Israeli election scheduled for February is Binyamin Netanyahu, who aspires to indefinitely postpone Palestinian statehood — and to use military force against the Iranian nuclear program. If Netanyahu is elected, Barack Obama will be more likely to preside over a crisis in U.S.-Israeli relations than a Middle East peace.
    So Olmert, like Ehud Barak eight years ago, will end his term as prime minister by bombing rather than liberating Palestinians. He will be remembered for his wars — but it may be many years before Israel again has a leader as willing to make peace.

  • Johanna

    Lightkeeper is not a student of history if he believes that every event is sui generis, bearing no relation to or connection with what went before. Of course it is not 1939, when the demonization of Jews became lethal. But it still has a long history, sometimes with deadly consequence, other times not. Oddly, it has often involved a picture of a Jewish man of a certain age, with a big nose, and a hideous expression. This picture could serve as the frontespiece of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion (which did not appear in 1939, btw.) Especially when presented as the face of a people. What bearing an unflattering picture of W has on this is beyond me. There is no tradition of pictures of a man serving as a travesty of the American people. It would be hard to imagine such a thing, Americans being after all more diverse than Jews, and therefore harder to stereotype or represent by a single face.

  • jtfromBC

    ~ recommended reading for novice, intermediate and advanced students:
    To Help Palestine, Be Pro-Israel Too. by Ira Chernus. January 6 2009

  • cenoxo

    Shoot enough cheap images at unflattering moments, toss in some out-of-context comments, and you too can put unspoken words in anyone’s mouth.

    Olmert or naught, you need to eat your words in this post, BAGman.

  • Saleema

    I like this picture of Obama. It’s not unflattering at all. He seems to be enjoying his waffle. Good for him!

  • Lightkeeper

    Johanna, that is the same as saying that every time we view the same picture, we do not do so in a new context. For instance, the postmodern gesture par excellence is that context *is* everything: take the image on the cover of Vogue a while ago of LebRon James & Gisele Bundchen, which could be seen as having overbearing racist tones as it seemed to echo the racist posters from the 40s and 50s (its on the BAG). But the fact that we view this image in a totally different context makes it hard to take that seriously, and to me it seemed like Lebovitz was not so much reiterating the racist overtones as slightly mocking them and even asking readers how much things have really changed.
    To keep insisting that every little act – every blog post, every image – is *like* what they used to say in Germany 1939, is to not be a student of history – but to be stuck in history. I will repeat again: 2009 is not 1939.
    If I may humbly suggest, read Tony Judt excellent essay “The ‘Problem of Evil’ in Postwar Europe”, published in the NYRB, adapted from his Arendt lecture of 2007.

  • demit

    yg: I hope you see this comment. I’ve come back to the thread kind of late. I don’t know how what I said made you interepret it the way you did, but to be clear:
    I thought those kids had to be aware of the civilian casualties that had already been reported by the time that photo was taken, and the number was sizeable. Therefore it made me sick to see the happy expressions on their faces. Bag had suggested that, because the number of casualties hadn’t yet ‘escalated’, maybe the photo was unfairly portraying them as ‘bloodthirsty monsters’. I disagreed and said so (see the original thread “On the Hilltop”, posted January 6, 2009).
    This photo of Olmert, on the other hand, was not taken in any proximate time to the present action in Gaza. Bag is making his own symbolic connection, in effect arguing the opposite of what he was arguing a few days ago. That’s what I was questioning.

  • lukitas

    When the photo was taken has little importance. The extraordinary thing is how effectively the leader of Israel caricatured himself.
    Look at that face! Confrontational, suspicious, a disdain so strong it becomes anguish, a smell; the look of a man preparing to smite particularly horrifying vermin.
    A man who can express such emotions must have those emotions. He may have been thinking about broccoli, or about an itch in his armpit, but I suspect his feelings about Palestinians call up the face he is making here.

  • cenoxo

    Lightkeeper: …read Tony Judt excellent essay “The ‘Problem of Evil’ in Postwar Europe”, published in the NYRB, adapted from his Arendt lecture of 2007.
    Professor Judt’s essay was the subject of this MetaFilter post and discussion. Quoting from the essay:

    If there is a threat that should concern Jews—and everyone else—it comes from a different direction. We have attached the memory of the Holocaust so firmly to the defense of a single country—Israel—that we are in danger of provincializing its moral significance. Yes, the problem of evil in the last century, to invoke Arendt once again, took the form of a German attempt to exterminate Jews. But it is not just about Germans and it is not just about Jews. It is not even just about Europe, though it happened there. The problem of evil—of totalitarian evil, or genocidal evil—is a universal problem. But if it is manipulated to local advantage, what will then happen (what is, I believe, already happening) is that those who stand at some distance from the memory of the European crime—because they are not Europeans, or because they are too young to remember why it matters—will not understand how that memory relates to them and they will stop listening when we try to explain.

    After 63 years, how much longer can “Wolf!” echo off the hills of Israel? The bombs and artillery are drowning it out…

  • cenoxo

    I like this picture of Obama. It’s not unflattering at all. He seems to be enjoying his waffle…
    He’ll be President in 10 days: before the Assimilation they need all the waffling practice they can get.

  • Lightkeeper

    Thanks for reading cenoxo, and posting that quote.

  • bystander

    Indeed, cenoxo, it would appear that Hannah Arendt, as well as some other notables, was concerned about the formation of Israel in the first place. She was one of the authors to this 1948 letter to the editor at the New York Times.

    Among the most disturbing political phenomena of our times is the emergence in the newly created state of Israel of the “Freedom Party” (Tnuat Haherut), a political party closely akin in its organization, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties. It was formed out of the membership and following of the former Irgun Zvai Leumi, a terrorist, right-wing, chauvinist organization in Palestine. …

  • Cactus

    The solution to our problem in America, vis a vis Israel, will not start until we can recognize as separate Jews and Israel. That is, the state of being a Jew in the modern world and the State of Israel and its actions with and upon its neighbors. A good start would be to read an article referenced by a poster on another day here on The Bag, by Tony Judt:
    When I was in school, there were several Jewish students in my extended circle and the hot topic of discussion was frequently the guilt felt by American Jewry for having ’sat out’ the Shoah in the comfort of the US. I suspect the guilt is still there, but the discussion is not. Or perhaps has been replaced by the unwavering support for Israel without regard for its faults.
    Without getting into the provenance of the photo above, it seems to me that all Aryans (Jews AND Arabs) and many Mediterranean peoples have large noses. It is interesting to note that the media frequently use angles highlighting such proboscises only when they wish to denigrate the person/race/religion of which they are speaking. In that sense, it does recall all those old cartoons of the ’30s in our collective memories.

  • Sergei Andropov

    Jews and Arabs are Semites, not Aryans, or even Indo-Europeans.

  • mcmama

    I’m been reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. It’s not a terribly good book; in attempting to make his point that instincts may be based on subtle perceptions which can be amazingly accurate, he occasionally argues vigorously against thoughtful analysis. Still, his discussion of micro-expressions – fleeting expressions which cross our faces in a split-second, but which often represent our deepest truth – may apply to this photo.
    And would it really be a surprise to learn that Ehud Olmert might secretly loathe Palestinians? I’ll bet if you searched tapes of Hamas leaders, you’d find similar expressions in abundance.

  • yg

    apologies, demit.

  • Cactus

    Sergei, you are right, of course. My bad. Not enough coffee yesterday.

  • Lightkeeper

    bystander: that is an extraordinary letter. Thanks for the link.

  • mister

    I’ve come to this post really late, but what is most ridiculous about this post is the last paragraph.
    As an American as far removed from the conflict as we are, how can you see this “grotesque” expression “assume the face of a nation?” How many Israelis have you talked to about their politics?
    Do you enjoy carrying the baggage of Bush’s sneering face and his policy with you in the eyes of foreigners?
    At least grant the Israeli population the dignity of their own opinions, because even if it isn’t the hate of 1939, you’re furthering a contemporary stereotype about Israelis that visually extends to Jews everywhere.

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