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David-Seth Kirshner
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Optical allusion: Naked in Gaza

The photo of surrendering Palestinian men offers a Rorschach test for our views of the conflict

When one looks at the picture above, their eyes are drawn to one of two things: either a white chalice or the silhouette of two faces facing each other. One cannot see both at the same time.

The below image either draws you to a picture of the left side profile of a young woman or an older woman wearing a headscarf and looking downward. It is impossible to see both images at the same time. Our eyes only allow us to see one or the other. A trained eye and nimble brain can volley back and forth between the two images within the one picture, but they cannot separate them concurrently.

Optical Illusion – Getty Images

This phenomenon is called Rubin’s vase/face. Edgar Rubin, a Danish psychologist in 1915 wrote his dissertation about this optical wonder which he coined a bi-stable figure.

Rubin explains, “When two fields have a common border, and one is seen as figure and the other as ground, the immediate perceptual experience is characterized by a shaping effect which emerges from the common border of the fields, and which operates only on one field or operates more strongly on one than on the other.”

Palestinian men said to have surrendered to the IDF in the Jabaliya area of northern Gaza on December 7, 2023. (Social media: used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

This picture, taken Thursday in Southern Gaza, has become another form of a bi-stable image, depending on where in the world you are seeing it.

As an unwavering Zionist and someone adept at the language of the Middle East, this picture says the following to me:

It projects safety. Stripping militant-age Hamas men to their bare bodies ensures that none are suicide bombers hiding explosives on their person, seeking to detonate themselves along with scores of soldiers who come to place them under arrest. Handcuffing these men makes sure they are not armed and can do no physical damage to innocent people. Bound, they cannot hold weapons.

The picture shows dominance. Israeli forces have control over these men. They are subservient, meek and under the direction and will of the IDF. They will stand, sit, eat and sleep at the command of the Israeli officers presiding over them. These men also relinquished their arms. Surrender is the ultimate in defeat.

This image projects a sense of revenge. On October 7th, some of these same Hamas men illegally entered sovereign Israel dressed in black tactical gear with green Hamas bandanas on their foreheads. Many of the folks in this picture shot, murdered, beheaded, raped and tortured Israelis of all ages. In Be’eri, Kfar Aza and Kibbutz Magen, residents fought off these terrorists while in their pajamas. Two months later, the tide of power has shifted radically. Israel is wearing the combat fatigues, and these men are naked and vulnerable.

I see weakness within this photo. These are Gazan men who have lost a sense of sovereignty in their very own homes and country. They are powerless, hungry, homeless and ownerless.

I also see thick irony. The Hamas guerrillas who kidnapped 250 souls from within Israel just 62 days ago are now being bound, blindfolded and bussed to Israel where they will be held in prison for their crimes against innocents. Critical information will be extracted from them to gain intelligence. These people might be used as currency for future trades and barter to get Israeli hostages back home.

A feeling of astonishing power is projected in this snapshot. That muscle reverberates – by design – throughout the Arab world. This image certainly causes some Hezbollah terrorists along with Mullahs in Iran, Houthis in Yemen and Muslim Brotherhood folks encouraging Hamas in Egypt to pause at the least, and likely quake in their boots from fear of what can be their fate if they dare poke the bear called Israel. In the Middle East, projecting feelings of dominance is the most critical ingredient in generating deterrence from other evil doers. It reminds Jordan, Syria and Iraq of Israel’s allies, its might and its military proficiencies.

From my right eye, this picture speaks volumes. It conveys strength, deterrence, power, control and authority which is an important language to speak in the mean streets of the Middle East.

From my left eye, as a proud American and westerner, I perceive the same picture but come to a different conclusion.

I see middle-aged men who are humiliated. A range of ages from teenagers to their 60s, separated from children, spouses and parents amidst a brutal war. I see religious men who are unable to pray, since Islam forbids worship while not properly clothed. I see an image of power ruling over the defenseless. These men are helpless, feeble and pathetic. I see destitute and naked men in disgrace with their shame broadcast to the world. What my left eye sees is pitiful.

Depending on where you are and which proverbial eye you are looking out from, this is similar to Edgar Rubin’s vase.

Micha Goodman commented in the early days of this conflict, “Israel wants to be adored by the West and feared by the Middle East.” It is hard to offer a picture that can speak to both bases. I struggle to find words that deter enemies and soothe supporters. Can you?

The ubiquity of media has created Rorschach tests which evoke reflexive responses to images and sound bites. As American Zionists, we need to train our eyes to better synthesize one image through two lenses; to meld left and right eyes into one shared image. If we have a vision of peace for our future, we must find a way to integrate this single snapshot with two distinct stories into one shared narrative of reality and hope for the future.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC.
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