Don’t Say You Didn't Know

Translation/Interpretation/Caption Text: 

Curator's note: See a later version of this poster here

The image depicted in this poster is that of two members of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) beating a prostrate Palestinian. The caption, “Don’t say you didn’t know,” was originally directed at those who denied any awareness of the Holocaust while it was occurring.

A list of the names of Palestinians who have been beaten to death by Israeli soldiers runs down the left hand side of the poster, echoing the solemn “Reading of the Names” ceremonies that honor victims of the Holocaust.

That Israeli artists are prepared to use elements of Holocaust history in a poster condemning Israeli treatment of Palestinians is an important development, because many people both inside and outside Israel consider any such comparison extremely distasteful. It is also significant that Israeli artists have shunned the anti-democratic notion of self-censorship, or "tactical silence" which seeks to protect Israel’s fragile public image from damaging images or embarrassing truths.

Produced in 1982, this poster is an eerie harbinger of the formal policy Israel would adopt in 1988, in response to the first intifada:

“The first priority is to use force, might, beatings”, Defense Minister Rabin said. Prime Minister Shamir announced that this policy was "decided upon and instituted by the Government as a whole”.

Source: The New York Times, January 23, 1988

We do not know the crime for which the Palestinian depicted here is being clubbed, or if there even was a crime, or if there was one, if it merited the brutality displayed here. What we do know is that rarely, if ever, are Israeli soldiers, police, settlement guards, or armed citizens indicted or convicted of charges for beating Palestinians. (Dispassionate statistics and reports on this subject are collected by B’tselem, the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories.)

This poster was originally designed for an Israeli audience, as evidenced by its Hebrew-only text. It takes on a completely different charge when translated into English and distributed outside Israel. For American audiences, a more relevant analogy to what is depicted in this poster is not Nazi Germany but police brutality in the contemporary U.S.

The Los Angeles riots of 1992 — the worst in 100 years; fifty-four people lost their lives — were not in response to the actual beating of Rodney King by police, as caught on videotape; rather, they erupted in response to the acquittal of the four police officers charged. The outpouring of anger among African Americans occurred because they saw in that acquittal the sanctification of King’s dehumanizing treatment and the formalization of their status as second-class citizens.

Despite the protests of the prosecutors, the first trial was moved from Los Angeles to an affluent white suburb and to a jury that was more interested in sending a strong “law and order” message than in reforming the police department. When the predictable acquittal occurred and the riots ensured, the federal government responded by indicting the four officers for having violated King’s civil rights. Two officers were convicted of those charges and served thirty-month terms; two were acquitted. There were no riots in response to this second trial. Through the federal intervention that brought about the second trial, the Constitution and its “equal protection” clause were maintained.

This simply could not happen in Israel. As a theocratic ethnocracy, Israel cannot by definition extend equal protection to members of all the ethnic groups within its borders. Its legal system is biased in favor of the interests and rights of Jewish individuals. There is no counterpart to the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees due process to all Americans, regardless of social standing, religion, ethnicity, race, gender, or national origin.

Though created ten years before the Rodney King incident and twenty years before the Al Aqsa intifadah this poster still resonates because it highlights the existential contradiction found in Israel’s penchant for describing itself as a both a democracy and a Jewish state.