The relationship between the Israeli populace and the country’s military is vastly different than the equivalent here in the US. That may sound like an obvious statement, but it’s one that kept coming to mind when I read Hyperallergic staff writer Alicia Eler’s post last week about the Insta-aesthetics of war.
In her piece, Eler draws on Huw Lemmey’s essay in the New Inquiry about the social media campaigns of the Israeli Defense Forces. Lemmey discusses the IDF’s official Instagram account and the emerging “IDF brand,” while Eler brings in personal photos shot by soldiers themselves, wrapping the two strands together into an “Instawar aesthetic.”
There is overlap between the two — as Lemmey points out, on the official IDF Instagram account, “[c]ontent is aggregated from individuals and fed back into the social networks of the target audience,” plus the Instagram filter retro aesthetic unifies pretty much anything that passes through it. Still, I think it’s both interesting and important to break these two categories of photos apart for a minute, to consider the context of each.
In Israel, military service is mandatory for anyone over the age of 18. Exceptions are made — sometimes for certain groups, like Israelis of Arab descent, and sometimes for individuals, such as ultra-Orthodox Jews — but generally speaking, army service is a fact of life for most Israelis, far less of a choice than it is here in the US. In America, we’re very touchy about our soldiers and their photos, particularly since Abu Ghraib, because as a nation we have a tentative relationship with our army. We try not to blame the soldiers themselves, but many of us feel increasingly dismayed by the wars they’ve been sent to fight in the past decade. So unless we have personal connections to the military, we tend to just quietly let it be; it’s easier to ignore the complicated realities of Iraq war veterans, after all, by focusing our political energy elsewhere.
In Israel, it’s impossible not to have a personal connection to the military. Most likely, you’ve served in the armed forces yourself, and if not, then you have a purposeful reason for that refusal. The conflict between Israel and Palestine is among the most insidious and crippling in the world, and yet there’s something almost quotidian about being in the Israeli army. Everyone does it, for two or three years, when they’re in their late teens and early twenties. So it seems not only unsurprising but also inevitable that soldiers are now Instagramming photos of themselves in uniform, or even topless while holding guns. Instagram is what people in their late teens and early twenties do. Why would we be “shocked” that they’re smiling? Do we really expect human beings, even human beings carrying out their government’s ruthless operation, to not smile for weeks at a time? That would be, to put it mildly, naive.
This isn’t to let all Israeli soldiers and all their photos off the hook. As has been documented elsewhere, there are some disturbing pictures that have been Instagrammed, including one showing a Palestinian boy in the sight of a gun. Such photos are chilling, largely because they seem to reveal a profoundly unsettling reality that’s often cast in dispute. Many Jews, particularly American ones, like to harp on the vilification of the Israelis by Palestinians, but a lot less gets said about the indoctrination on the Israeli side of things. (That silence may be a defensive measure against anti-Israel sentiments that often bleed into anti-semitism from other groups.)
All of this, I think, is distinct from the IDF’s official Instagram feed. There, the photos are clear propaganda, lifestyle branding, an attempt to gloss over the realities of war. Particularly through the use of filters, which, Lemmey writes:
… [remove] the images of today’s IDF from their context within the current campaign of blockade and air assault and reframes them as part of the Israeli foundation story. These images are not to be judged alongside the grainy cameraphone footage of bodies being pulled from rubble, Hamas propaganda on forums and youtube channels, or Al-Jazeera coverage of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh and Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi visiting wounded Palestinians in hospital. Instead the historic imagery invoked is of conflicts that have already been morally justified — the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War, for example.
Many of the official IDF photos do depict individual soldiers, but they’re so polished as to be almost comical. Soldiers hug dogs, hold hands with children, grin through the stripes of their war paint, cheer during physical exercises. This is Propaganda 101. These are the posters in your Jewish Zionist day-school classroom. They may inspire pride in some Israelis and Jews, but from where I sit, their staginess is the exact opposite of what makes social media engaging.
Compare those with the pictures coming from the personal accounts of soldiers — tired faces attached to bodies weighted with gear, blurry nighttime shots of raids, cocky guys pointing guns at the camera — and the difference is stark. The former attempt to soften the IDF through a message of universal humanity; the latter reflect the messiness of actual humanity, opening up a space of moral and psychological complexity and ambiguity.
It’s for this reason that I find the official IDF photos more nefarious than soldier selfies, even though the former may seem, at first glance, less harmful. State propaganda sprinkled into your Instagram feed is the stuff of which Orwell novels are made; photos by Israeli teen soldiers are windows onto a conflict that remains, for all of the writing and fighting and policy making, shrouded in misinformation, perpetually in the dark.