When a family of nine is killed in an airstrike, what is the proper way to grieve?
That question might not occur to you, but readers of the New York Times (11/20/12) were treated to correspondent Jodi Rudoren's unusual critique of a funeral for members of the Dula family, whose home in Gaza City was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike on Sunday.
"There were few if any visible tears at the intense, chaotic, lengthy funeral," she wrote. "Instead, there were fingers jabbing the air to signal 'Allah is the only one,' defiant chants about resistance and calls for revenge, flags in the signature green of Hamas and the white of its Al Qassam Brigades."
At the destroyed Dalu family home, a man climbed atop the pile of rubble where a dozen photographers had positioned themselves and hoisted the body of one of the four dead children into the air several times, as though a totem.
Much of the militant pageantry most likely was meant as a message for the news media, and thus the world, given how the Dalus had instantly become the face of the Palestinian cause. But the tone, far more fundamentalist than funereal, was also a potent sign of the culture of martyrdom that pervades this place, and the numbness that many here have developed to death and destruction after years of cross-border conflict.
Rudoren added that "the mourners, except for a few close relatives inside the mosque, were neither overcome with emotion nor fed up, perhaps because the current casualty count pales in comparison to the 1,400 lost four years ago when the Israelis invaded Gaza."
It's not hard to believe that mourners who are not close family might react differently at a funeral in the middle of what has become a war zone. But many readers couldn't help but notice that Rudoren's point seemed to be that there was something a little off about the behavior she was witnessing. What kind of people, she seemed to be wondering, grieve this way?
A more unfiltered glimpse into Rudoren's mindset came via her Facebook page. As reported on Mondoweiss (11/20/12), Palestinians in Gaza "have such limited lives than in many ways they have less to lose" than Israelis. "I've been surprised that when I talk to people who just lost a relative, or who are gathering belongings from a bombed-out house, they seem a bit ho-hum."
Rudoren also shared that her "first tears in Gaza" were for a friend and her children back in Jerusalem.
Away from the tearless funeral procession, things were different. A Reuters account from the hospital:
"Is this your wife?" asked a medic inside the morgue.
"Ahh, what happened to your face sweetheart?" her husband said, weeping and collapsing into the arms of his spouse. The woman's face was burnt beyond recognition.
Rudoren objected to the Mondoweiss piece about her Facebook post, explaining that writer Phillip Weiss
provided his own inaccurate context or embellishment, rather than doing what any good journalist–any decent person?–would have, which is to ask what I meant.
Reporters like Rudoren have space in the newspaper to describe the world, and their written words are supposed to convey their meaning to the paper's readers. It's the job of critics to analyze those words as they are published–not as they would be understood if the writer were standing by the reader's elbow ready to clarify.
It's been observed that warmakers can dehumanize an enemy by making their cultural values seem bizarre. General William Westmoreland's famous comment that the "Oriental doesn't put the same high price on life as does a Westerner" comes to mind.
If one were to ask Rudoren whether that's "what she meant" by her comments, the answer would surely be no. But just as surely, the more important question is not what she meant, but what message readers received from her words.