Abusing the living and dead

By Dr James Zogby

I am not easily shocked. I’ve been doing this work for too many years and I’ve seen too much to become outraged by the bad behaviour or acts of indecency or inhumanity. But two stories that recently came across my desk were so disgraceful, and in some ways dangerous, that I feel compelled to write about them. Both featured players in the Middle East crassly abusing the living and the dead.

The first of these involved Israel’s Mossad and a practice they used to secure a fraudulent passport for one of their agents who participated in the January 19, 2010, assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai.

Germany’s law offers citizenship and a passport to the descendants of pre-World War II, especially the German citizens of Jewish faith who were forced to flee the country to escape the horrors of the Holocaust. Taking advantage of this provision, a Mossad agent claiming to be Michael Bodenheimer, the grandson of a German Jewish survivor, secured a German passport which he later used to enter the UAE where he was involved in the murder of al Mabhouh.

A few weeks back the Jerusalem Post reported that the real Michael Bodenheimer, an Orthodox Rabbi who emigrated from the United States to Israel, claimed that his identity had been stolen by the Mossad agent, and that he had “never asked for a German passport…[and] never had one.” The real Michael Bodenheimer and his family were, of course, concerned that their name was implicated in an assassination. More than just this abuse of one innocent citizen, there is the concern with the Mossad’s cavalier abuse of the German citizenship provision. Israel’s behaviour in this regard is dangerous. It put the real Michael Bodenheimer at risk while casting suspicion on an entire class of people, Jews who have in the past, and who may in the future, seek German citizenship. As such, it callously exploits those who were murdered and the descendants of those who survived.

Then there are the recent revelations about the Iranian woman who was murdered in the demonstrations that erupted protesting last year’s Iranian elections. The woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, quickly became internationally recognised as a martyr and symbol of the “Green Revolution”. Her face was used on CNN and BBC and plastered on the front pages of newspapers around the world where it appeared with the tagline The Angel of Iran. This photo was picked up by the Voice of America and spread to Iran where it appeared on posters and T-shirts.

The story is true, Neda Agha-Soltan was murdered, but the picture that spread virally is not of her. Careless journalism, to be kind, picked up the Facebook photo of one, Neda Soltani, a quite lovely Iranian teaching assistant and student of English Literature at Tehran University. Despite the mistaken identity, the photo stuck.

A piece on Foreign Policy’s website last week carefully traces not just the carelessness that led to the mistaken identity, but more disturbingly the consequences for the living Neda who is the innocent victim of this error. As she sought to reclaim her identity and her face, the Iranian regime claimed that “Neda lives”, that no murder had been committed. When she went online demanding that her picture be taken down, she received threats and abusive responses from supporters of the revolt who argued that she was threatening to deny their cause the martyred Angel of Iran.

And when the parents of the murdered Neda attempted to replace the mistaken photo with that of their daughter, they found that neither their efforts, nor the truth, could compete with the “symbol”.

Fearing pressure and frustrated by the loss of her identity, the living Neda has been forced to flee Iran and take refuge in Germany where she currently lives.

As disturbing as these stories are, equally troubling is the lack of attention they have received here in the United States. With the exception of the Foreign Policy piece, the story of Neda has received scant attention when compared with the coverage given to the use of the original photo last summer – while the Bodenheimer story has not been covered at all.

The lesson that emerges from all of this is when governments, media and movements abuse the living and dead to pursue their ends, truth and innocent people pay the price.

The writer is the president of the Arab American Institute, Washington DC.

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