‘This American Life’ shines some light on that Palestinian life

ActivismIsrael/PalestineUS Politics
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Israeli soldiers in the village of Nabi Saleh arresting a Palestinian (Photo: Nariman Tamimi via Haaretz)

Last week’s episode of “This American Life,” the popular public-radio show hosted by Ira Glass, included a striking 23-minute segment about the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The piece was reported by Nancy Updike, an award-winning producer who’s been with the show since it began in 1995.

Titled “Photo Op” (audio here; transcript here – scroll down to “Act One”), it begins with Updike describing a video taken by Bilal Tamimi, a resident of the village of Nabi Saleh, as Israeli soldiers invaded his home at 1:00 a.m., woke up his children, wrote down their names and ID numbers, and took their pictures – then proceeded to do the same at a dozen other homes in the village.

Although Nabi Saleh, even more than other West Bank villages that frequently host protests, is well known for army violence, on this occasion there’s “no violence, no yelling, no confrontation.” But Updike, who mentions that she’s “been coming to the West Bank reporting on and off for 15 years” (and has also reported from Gaza, Iraq, and Egypt), perceptively suggests that the kind of quiet, routinized harassment the video depicts is also a big part of the answer to a fundamental question: “Israel went into the West Bank 46 years ago. What does it take to control so many people so effectively for so long?”

The villagers tell Updike that the Israelis use the photos of the children they take in the middle of the night to help them identify and then arrest stonethrowers they videotape during Nabi Saleh’s weekly demonstrations. But – and this is the most interesting part of the segment – she gets a different answer when she starts asking former Israeli soldiers who have taken part is such nighttime operations, which they call “mapping,” about their purpose. Yehuda Shaul, the heroic co-founder of Breaking the Silence, and several other vets explain to her that their superiors actually had no interest in the notes and photos they collected during such exercises – in fact, they routinely directed the soldiers simply to discard everything.

The real goal of these operations, the former soldiers explain, is to “make your presence felt,” to convince every Palestinian that “We’re breathing behind you. We’re always there. We’re always watching. You never know where we’re going to be, when we’re going to show up, how it’s going to look like, what we’re going to do, when it’s going to start, when it’s going to end, right?”

The vets go on to explain another type of operation they routinely carried out, the mock arrest:

Nadav Weiman, former intelligence chief for a special forces unit: And we’d go in the middle of the night, and we surround the house. And we shout, come out with your hands in the air. And we throw stun grenades, or we fire bullets at the walls of the house. Or we throw smoke grenades.

And then somebody comes out and is afraid, and he doesn’t know what is happening. And we arrest him. And we shout a lot in Hebrew and Arabic. We arrest him. We put him inside a Jeep. And then we do like two or three rounds–

Updike: Driving around the village.

Weiman: Driving around the village. And then after, like, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, maybe the whole night, we put him back inside his house and drove away from there. And the goal in that operation, the goal is creating the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population.

Updike: To create the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population was an explicit goal that Nadav says he saw many times typed out in the PowerPoint presentation his team would be shown before a mission, right there along with all the other official information.

One telling touch: the soldiers explain that before they could carry out one of these mock arrests, they were required to check first with the Shabak, the Israeli internal intelligence agency, and get confirmation that “everybody in the house is innocent and not connected to terror.”

Predictably, the piece includes several passages clearly intended to provide “balance”: “For sure, there are people in the West Bank who want to kill Israelis,” and some army operations are actually directed against such targets. A Palestinian was recently convicted of throwing stones that caused an accident that killed an Israeli father and his baby. “You could argue that creating the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population has worked, that mapping is important to Israel’s security. And it doesn’t matter whether data is kept or not.” And of course there’s the obligatory acknowledgment that some Israelis are troubled about what their sons and daughters do across the Green Line: Tamimi’s video of the nighttime operation in Nabi Saleh even aired on Israel’s Channel 10 and generated a flurry of discussion on Facebook and Twitter.

I suppose Updike could also be accused of glossing over the worst of the occupation: after all, real arrests occur every day, and they’re obviously worse than mock ones; violent raids are probably more common than the quiet ones in the video she focuses on. 

Still, her report offers an unvarnished look at at least some of the routine abuses that underpin the occupation, and that’s still rare enough in American media to be worth celebrating. “This American Life” has an enormous and devoted audience, and it’s hard to see how anyone except hardcore Zionists could sit through last week’s episode and not come away appalled by what Updike describes.

Now if Ira Glass himself would produce something similar…

15 Responses

  1. justicewillprevail
    April 24, 2013, 10:44 am

    Fascinating, if disturbing insight into the moral depravity and corruption of the IDF and all the other so-called ‘security’ agencies. So their purpose is not a military or security one, but a cynical, vindictive and supremacist one of cold, calculated harassment, causing trauma and distress, terrorising innocent people into making them feel destabilised, subject to violence and arrest at the capricious whim of a totalitarian force (not to mention the appropriation of their land and water, and the destruction of their infrastructure). Now that is what i would call an existential threat , and not just a threat, but a reality. You know, the kind Israelis always wheel out to hide their crimes, and one which they are not remotely in danger of. The sadism is appalling – this is what Israel has become. Thuggish, brutish and merciless. An example to dictatorships and totalitarian states everywhere.

  2. Krauss
    April 24, 2013, 10:48 am

    I think we’ve been critical of NPR on this site for a long time – and for damned good reasons, too.

    Updike’s report is a welcome addition, but it’s still only an abberation from a long-standing bias. Most of their foreign policy journalists are old, Jewish white men who are Zionists. One of them even volunteered to interview Lieberman(!) when he was in D.C. and smiled with him when Lieberman made a joke. That’s how bad it is.

  3. Susie Kneedler
    April 24, 2013, 11:27 am

    Thanks, Henry, for great work, as always. About Ira Glass: I hadn’t heard “TAL” for a while, til a friend played this fascinating reflection for me yesterday,
    Audio: link to thisamericanlife.org
    Transcript link to thisamericanlife.org:

    “This guy I know, David Rudis….is concerned about the fact that… fewer Jews are joining Jewish organizations and identifying as Jews. He thinks those organizations need to make themselves more relevant to modern Jews.

    “And I[said], that’s fine for him, but that is just not my thing. Yes, I’m Jewish, but I don’t believe in God. I married a non-Jew. I’ve been eating bread all this week during Passover. I have plenty of interesting Jews in my life and feel no need to meet any more. Why would I ever join a Jewish organization?

    “This, of course, led to the brief obligatory discussion of the Holocaust, which is what we Jews always talk about at a point like this in a conversation like this. And David was very insistent that it doesn’t matter if I think of myself as a Jew. I just am a Jew.

    “David Rudis: I think, Ira, you don’t even begin to realize how much this identity has affected your life. As an avid listener to your show, there is something profoundly Jewish in the contents of what you’re producing, whether you know it or not.

    “Ira Glass: I’m so surprised to hear you say that you think of the show as a Jewish kind of cultural product, because I don’t think of it that way at all.

    “David Rudis: See, I actually think it is. If you’re playing morality plays to get into the hearts and heads of people on a weekly basis, what is more Jewish than that, than telling and interpreting a story? It’s in your DNA.

    “Ira Glass: I suggested to him that telling stories is kind of something that every culture does, not just the Jews. David says sure, but so what?

    “David Rudis: Literally what you’re doing really is profoundly Jewish.

    “Ira Glass: It was a weird conversation. David thinks that in our big, multicultural world, of course it is just old-fashioned for people to identify strictly with their own ethnic tribe….But at that same time as he was saying this he says– no contradiction here– he just likes having his own tribe and would like me to come join the herd.”

    The audio’s intriguing, especially the urgency in David Rudis’s tones, anxious that Glass discard a universal kinship in favor of a particular bloodline. I wonder when Ira and the other storytellers at “TAL” will join us here–not as part of a herd–but because they’re now grappling with the mysteries Phil, Adam, you, and all our online friends at MW.net search out and sort out, each in different ways.

    • Susie Kneedler
      April 24, 2013, 12:11 pm

      Part of what enthralls in Glass’s anecdote is how he and his friend use similar words, but convey different meanings–to me at least. Or don’t they? Glass paraphrases Rudis: “it doesn’t matter if I think of myself as a Jew. I just am a Jew”–lines that appear to repeat what Ira had already said of himself, “Yes, I’m Jewish, but I don’t believe in God.” But Ira’s distinction seems almost opposite to his friend’s notion. So, though I haven’t yet heard all the Updike or the show on “Tribes,” I can only rejoice that “This American Life”‘s chiming in on the riddles of identity and the horrors that tribalism spawns.

    • marc b.
      April 26, 2013, 11:04 am

      TAL is extremely well done, but this goofy, precious, contrived modesty of glass is nauseating. glass isn’t consciously aware of his ‘jewishness’ and its effect on the show as a ‘jewish kind of cultural product’? jee-sus. maybe a good slap or some cold water might snap him out of his stupor.

      I love the show, notwithstanding legitimate criticism of its I/P coverage. the interviews broadcast in the aftermath of Katrina were incredible. (did I mention I love the show?) but come on. I had heard glass at some point do this whole shtick with shalom auslander, the author of ‘hope: a tragedy’ a year or so back, with the author playing the stereotypical, paranoid neurotic type, and glass playing the relatively relaxed, assimilated, Americanized jew.

      I believe that I have heard similar exchanges or conversations with glass and others. so he’s not aware that his work is a sort of jewish cultural product of the American species, but he has regular professional conversations (confessions of sorts, actually), with rudis, auslander and others, dealing with the relative differences between his jewish identity and that of other American jews. I guess we all have our blind spots.

  4. tokyobk
    April 24, 2013, 12:05 pm

    Wait, are you saying that Ira Glass did not produce this or consent to its being produced and reported on his show? Or, is it not his show and he is just one of several hosts or just a spokesperson for someone else’s show?

    • Henry Norr
      April 24, 2013, 2:03 pm

      >are you saying that Ira Glass did not produce this or consent to its
      >being produced and reported on his show?

      No, Tokyobk, I’m not saying that at all – I’m quite sure it wouldn’t have aired without his approval.

      I’m just suggesting that Glass has a kind of personal stature and authority with much of his audience that no one else on the show does – not even Updike, who’s been there from the start, has occasionally filled in as host, and has won a slew of prizes in her own right. So if Ira Glass himself were to do a piece in one way or another exposing the horrors of the occupation, that would have more impact on public opinion, at least in certain strata, than anything Updike or anyone else on his staff could do.

  5. kma
    April 24, 2013, 12:22 pm

    thank you, Henry. I was a little put off by Glass’ intro to the segment explaining that it’s no surprise that people would disagree about the photos because they are from “a part of the world where people disagree about how to interpret so, so many things”. I expected the segment to include a Palestinian viewpoint, but Updike only presented two very slightly different versions from IDF soldiers! (neither of which explained that Palestinians protesting on their own land were being abducted and killed by the IDF.) I was so bummed.
    But more than that, I was stunned by the explanation that “mapping” is probably successfully keeping violence against Israelis down. After the two shows on the violence suffered by high school kids in the southside of Chicago (“Harper High School” etc), would Updike and Glass consider “mapping” to solve things there?

    Can you imagine that?? If it works for Israelis, why not here?? How can it not sound sick and twisted to Updike? Maybe people in THIS part of the world disagree more about how to interpret things than they do in the middle east??

    And today in the news, there is an FBI sting that effectively eliminates a Muslim kid from Chicago by hooking him into joining fighters in Syria… is this the FBI’s form of “mapping”?

    • Henry Norr
      April 24, 2013, 2:17 pm

      I’m mostly with you, kma. In fact, in the first draft of my piece I also objected to Glass’s intro – that whole bit about people interpreting things differently, the whole “two narratives” thing, always serves liberals as a convenient excuse for not confronting the plain facts of the situation. Your message makes me regret cutting that part out.

      It’s also absolutely true that the piece would have been stronger if she’d given more time to the people of Nabi Saleh themselves, in particular to explain why they protest in the first place.

      I think I disagree with you, though, about what Updike is trying to communicate about “mapping.” To say such tactics may be effective to some degree in intimidating people, and therefore may have contributed to the relative calm Jewish Israelis have enjoyed over the last years, is not necessarily to approve of them. In fact, my guess is that these tactics do sound “sick and twisted,” as you put it, to her – I think she was just trying to head off a justification the Zionists might offer. But maybe I’m giving her too much credit…

      • kma
        April 25, 2013, 11:09 am

        it may be progressive for NPR to do a segment on “mapping”, but it didn’t do much to chip away at the average American misperception that Palestinians are trying to take something away from the Israelis rather than the other way around.
        The general context was the same: Palestinians protest, throw rocks, get killed. We don’t know why or whose land they are doing it on. Israel is the nice policeman (white) trying to avoid the terrorism/intifada/jihad (muslim). I know lots of people who listen to this stuff and still don’t know that “settler” refers to the Israelis. When NPR is on in my car, I have to keep interrupting with corrections to the context so my passengers aren’t misled. It gets old.

        And I’m completely serious that if ThisAmericanLife groupies think that questioning how we feel about “mapping” is so deep and thought-provoking, especially without proper context, then they need to be able to imagine doing it here.

        Put it this way: I never imagined my country torturing people like evil South American dictators did to nuns. I never imagined my country occupying middle eastern countries and shooting families at checkpoints. I never imagined my country fearing muslims. I never imagined my country being a target for random bombings. But now I know that whatever I see Israel doing, it’s coming here.

  6. Kathleen
    April 24, 2013, 3:28 pm

    Have been wondering when Ira Glass and his program would get there. Again better late than never crowd. And now Ira hope you step up to the plate and do your own program. Way way overdue

    Another crack in the wall

  7. DICKERSON3870
    April 24, 2013, 3:57 pm

    RE: Yehuda Shaul, the heroic co-founder of Breaking the Silence, and several other vets explain to her that their superiors actually had no interest in the notes and photos they collected during such exercises . . . The real goal of these operations, the former soldiers explain, is to “make your presence felt,” to convince every Palestinian that “We’re breathing behind you. We’re always there. We’re always watching. You never know where we’re going to be, when we’re going to show up, how it’s going to look like, what we’re going to do, when it’s going to start, when it’s going to end, right?”

    MY COMMENT: This sounds just like Sharon’s philosophy of ‘maintained uncertainty’.

    ALISTAIR CROOKE, London Review of Books, 03/03/11:

    [EXCERPTS] . . . It was [Ariel] Sharon who pioneered the philosophy of ‘maintained uncertainty’ that repeatedly extended and then limited the space in which Palestinians could operate by means of an unpredictable combination of changing and selectively enforced regulations, and the dissection of space by settlements, roads Palestinians were not allowed to use and continually shifting borders. All of this was intended to induce in the Palestinians a sense of permanent temporariness. . .
    . . . It suits Israel to have a ‘state’ without borders so that it can keep negotiating about borders, and count on the resulting uncertainty to maintain acquiescence. . .
    . . . Israel’s vice-premier, Moshe Ya’alon, was candid when asked in an interview this year: ‘Why all these games of make-believe negotiations?’ He replied:
    Because … there are pressures. Peace Now from within, and other elements from without. So you have to manoeuvre … what we have to do is manoeuvre with the American administration and the European establishment, which are nourished by Israeli elements [and] which create the illusion that an agreement can be reached … I say that time works for those who make use of it. The founders of Zionism knew … and we in the government know how to make use of time.

    SOURCE – link to lrb.co.uk

  8. Peter in SF
    April 25, 2013, 4:23 am

    Henry Norr writes:

    if Ira Glass himself were to do a piece in one way or another exposing the horrors of the occupation, that would have more impact on public opinion, at least in certain strata, than anything Updike or anyone else on his staff could do.

    Actually, Ira Glass, Nancy Updike, and Adam Davidson devoted an entire hour of This American Life to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on August 2, 2002:
    link to thisamericanlife.org
    Ira Glass himself begins the program with these words:

    Nothing prepares you for what the border between Israel and the West Bank can look like. In the town of [UNINTELLIGIBLE] on the Israeli side, there’s a bedroom community that looks like it was airlifted from Scottsdale, Arizona. Rows of houses with white stucco walls and red roofs and yards where you could see plastic slides and other kids’ toys. And then a perfectly paved street, and then on the other side of the street, a wire fence and some no man’s land, then an electrified fence, then more no man’s land, and then a tall, concrete wall with sentry posts and armed Israeli soldiers.

    We hear a number of voices of Palestinians living under occupation, including Sam Bahour. Now one thing I didn’t like about this program was the way it promoted Mustafa Barghouti, not because I have anything against Mustafa Barghouti, but because it’s not Americans’ role to decide who Palestinians should choose as their leader.

    Ira Glass also went to Israel to do a story for This American Life about the Nakba on Feb. 14, 2003:
    link to thisamericanlife.org
    He interviewed Benny Morris and Tom Segev, as well as B.Z. Goldberg of “Promises”.
    Transcript here (see Act Two):
    link to thisamericanlife.org
    I thought it was well done, except for the fact that all eight people whose voices are heard in this segment are Jewish. But who else on NPR ever talks about the Nakba in a serious way?

    • Citizen
      April 25, 2013, 12:23 pm

      They can’t. They are Gentiles. They must give Israel a blank check forever because, while fighting Hitler and Tojo, they didn’t do enough to save Europe’s jews. And they most also always atone for medieval blood libel and the fact that the Christian bible and Roman history seem to imply that the Jewish Establishment at the time induced Pilate to kill Jesus to placate said Establishment, which Pilate needed to assure Jews would continue to pay taxes to Rome without a big fight.

    • Kathleen
      April 25, 2013, 3:57 pm

      Over the last 10 years many more folks have been willing to cover what has been going on for decades. A good thing.

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