The story behind a staged coexistence picture

Israeli and Palestinian boys embracing in famous image were actually two Jewish friends from Jerusalem

A photo of a Jewish and a 'Palestinian' boy overlooking Jerusalem and embracing each other, 1993. The picture was later uncovered to be a farce. (screen capture: YouTube)
A photo of a Jewish and a 'Palestinian' boy overlooking Jerusalem and embracing each other, 1993. The picture was later uncovered to be a farce. (screen capture: YouTube)

In the wake of the summer war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, an iconic 20-year-old photograph depicting a Jewish and a Palestinian boy embracing while overlooking Jerusalem reemerged on social media, with thousands across the world extending a message of hope and coexistence during an otherwise tumultuous time.

But the two youngsters portrayed in the 1993 photo, which illustrated aspirations for peace in Israel during the Oslo peace process, were actually both Israeli Jews — Zvi Shapiro, 11, wearing a skullcap; and Zemer Aloni, 12, sporting a Palestinian keffiyeh.

The photo, taken by American photojournalist Ricki Rosen, was originally shot for the Canadian news magazine Maclean’s and was reproduced countless times, often without Rosen’s consent.

“It was a symbolic illustration,” Rosen explained in an article published Sunday by the Jewish daily Forward. “It was never supposed to be a documentary photo.”

The picture was taken in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Tor, a mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood that was home to the two young subjects. Rosen, who at the time was living in Abu Tor as well, was on assignment covering the peace talks between Israel and the PLO, which later culminated in the Oslo Peace Accords between prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

Rosen said the photo was shot by specific request of Maclean’s photo editor, who even presented her with a hand-drawn picture of his expectations for the image.

“The magazine wanted a symbolic portrayal of the idea of a long road to peace,” Rosen told the Times of Israel. “[The photo editor] instructed me to find models and dress them up in order to convey this idea.”

To that end, Rosen recruited Shapiro, the yarmulke-wearing youth, and the boy’s friend Aloni, who wore a traditional Palestinian headdress known as a keffiyeh.

“Ricki told us to just talk to each other,” Shapiro told the Forward. “It’s also funny, because I don’t think we would have necessarily put our arms around each other the way we are.”

Shapiro also said his use of a skullcap was staged, since he was not religious.

While the integrity of the photo has been questioned since it was originally published, as the style of keffiyeh donned by Aloni is traditionally reserved for older Palestinian men, Rosen insisted that the image was purely illustrative, adding that recent accusations that the photo was fake were disingenuous.

“I didn’t ‘fake’ the photo for peace, as some have implied; I conducted the shoot in order to present a generic, symbolic idea of what may be in the future,” Rosen said. “It’s dismaying that some have chosen to trash me, as if my photo were in the same category of an image of a dead Syrian girl which was published as if it had been taken in Gaza.”

Rosen said she had no issue with recruiting a Palestinian boy for the shoot, but did not dwell on the matter based on the nature of her assignment. She also expressed outrage at claims that her photo was racist, saying such assertions were “disgraceful and slanderous.”

The photograph, staged or not, has become one of the most exemplary images depicting coexistence and the hope for peace between the two peoples.

During Operation Protective Edge, the photograph was famously tweeted by pop superstar Rihanna along with a message calling for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Twitter post, which followed a quickly deleted tweet that simply said “#FreePalestine,” was later retweeted over 46,000 times.

Shapiro, now 32, told the Forward he now felt strange about the picture’s origins.

“I think it’s probably less acceptable today than it was then,” he said.

Shapiro, who lives in the United States, went on to express his dismay at the perceived regression in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “One of the things I feel about it is just kind of sad,” added Shapiro. “There was a brief period where it didn’t seem as far-fetched as it does now… I think there is a genuine belief that if there is a peaceful solution, there can be not only peace but camaraderie and real friendship.”

Aloni, 33, also expressed skepticism in the hope for peace and, in the Forward, referred to the image as a “wishful thinking picture.”

“Then, it was almost a reality; and now, it is like a vision.”

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