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Jewish Journal

Why circulate graphic photos of murdered family?

by Jonah Lowenfeld

March 15, 2011 | 11:59 am

The five members of the Fogel family killed in Itamar on Fri. night, Mar. 11.

[Note: Some links in this article lead to graphic imagery. Click at your own risk.]

On Monday, just days after the vicious attack in Itamar that left five members of the Fogel family dead, Glenn Beck spoke about the killings on his television show.

“I have the photos of the murder scene, but I can’t show them to you on television,” Beck said, holding a red file folder. “But I have two small children. What kind of monster can butcher an infant?”

By now, an untold number of people have seen the images that Beck couldn’t show. Many others chose not to look.

In a move almost entirely without precedent, Israel’s Minister of Public Affairs and the Diaspora Yuli Edelstein decided to release the graphic images on Sunday after receiving permission from members of the Fogel family.

In an interview with Ha’aretz, Edelstein said the decision was made in conjunction with representatives from the foreign ministry and the prime minister’s office. “The majority felt that since all red lines had been crossed, it would be impossible to just carry on normally, and so we decided to publish the photos,” Edelstein told Ha’aretz’s Nir Hasson.

According to a spokesperson from Edelstein’s office, the pictures were printed in all the major newspapers in Israel. Edelstein’s portfolio focuses on communicating Israel’s message beyond its borders, but the spokesperson could not say how many media outlets in other countries had printed the photos, if any.

The Israel Project’s Senior Director of Communications and Research Alan Elsner speculated that the decision to release the photographs was part of a broader effort to get people to see the members of the Fogel family as full individuals.

“There’s a way that the media relegates these people to not being real people,” Elsner said. “They become settlers and therefore anything that happens to them, they’ve got it coming.

According to Edelstein’s spokesperson, the only other instance when such graphic photos have been circulated in and outside of Israel was in Mar. 2001, when a Palestinian sniper shot and killed a 10-month-old girl, Shalhevet Pass in the Jewish settlement located within the West Bank city of Hebron. The chilling photograph of the infant’s lifeless face can be found on the LIFE website courtesy of Getty Images.

The photographs of the Fogel family members murdered in Itamar on Friday night, however, are being circulated largely on blogs and other sources outside of the professional media. They appear to have originated from a Picasa website administered by a settlers group.

“I have no problem with a journalist who decides not to print the image,” Edelstein told Ha’aretz, “but I want him to deal with it on his own and always remember the picture.”

The Los Angeles Times’ Edmund Sanders, who first reported about the killings in Itamar on Mar. 12, mentioned the photographs near the end of his Mar. 14 article about reactions to the attack.

“Fanning the public anger,” Sanders reported, “was the release by settler groups of what appear to be military crime-scene photographs, depicting the bloodied bodies of the victims with their faces digitally obscured. They said the family approved the release of the gruesome pictures in an effort to demonstrate the brutality of the attack.”

The photographs were not included in the Los Angeles Times’s print edition or on its website.

JTA declined to use the images, explaining in a statement that they only did so “out of respect for the victims and their privacy.”

Interested individuals can find the photos easily enough. “Who makes the call about which images to show is becoming an increasingly shared decision by non-journalists in today’s digital environment,” Barbie Zelizer, a professor of journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in an email. (Zelizer, an expert on journalistic images of war, crisis and violence, had not seen the images from the Itamar attack.)

Media consultant Esther Kustanowitz is one of those who chose not to look. “It may be important for people in the world to see these images and to be shocked by them,” Kustanowitz, said. She first found out about the events in Itamar on Saturday night from posts on Twitter and Facebook. “But I myself am already shocked enough and horrified enough, so I don’t feel the imperative to click on them.”

Individuals and groups regularly circulate images that are deemed too graphic for the nightly news. “Government officials, members of militias, human rights workers and bereaved parents are among those who push pictures or hide them from view,” Zelizer wrote. “In that regard, the Israeli officials are doing what others do all the time.”

In addition to focusing the attention of reporters on the brutal murder of five of Israeli civilians, the Israeli decision to release the photographs could be seen as a way to draw attention away from the government’s controversial reaction to that same event. Shortly after the attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced the approval of 500 new housing units in four other West Bank settlements.

Many observers have accused international media sources—including the BBC—of focusing more on the Israeli government’s reaction to the killings in Itamar than on the horrific events themselves.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an Israeli government official said that these newly announced housing starts were most likely projects that were already in the pipeline. “The projects will sit, pending approvals and [the government will] issue them when it’s comfortable,” the official said.

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