Terry Gross has no empathy for Palestinians

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Tomorrow night, Terry Gross, the longtime host of Fresh Air on National Public Radio, will submit to questions in an event at Town Hall in New York, hosted by Brian Lehrer, a talk-show host at WNYC. Both radio personalities bend over backwards for Israel. Maybe someone will ask Gross to speak sincerely about her personal attachment to Israel–how many times have you been there? Do you have family there? Do you think it’s necessary because of antisemitism in the West? Meanwhile, Susie Kneedler goes back to the audiotape.

Terry Gross once ended an interview with Palestinian human rights lawyer Raja Shehadeh by asking whether he wanted to "mov[e] someplace else so that you wouldn’t be subjected to this… Israeli incursion."   Shehadeh retorted gently, "life…under Occupation" has "never been as difficult and as dangerous…and as frustrating as it is now.  But, no, I will not leave."  NPR transcript here.

Terry Gross boasts in her new ad that "often when I’m interviewing people on Fresh Air, they give me a different way of looking at the world," but her condescension to Shehadeh, a founder of Al-Haq (The Truth), shows how blind she is to Palestinian rights under International Law and how much she assumes Palestinians must make way for Israel’s expansion.

Gross has done no reports on the flotilla raid, and this just bears out her historical pattern. I’ve wondered for years about Gross’s cowardice in the face of Israeli injustice. She truly sides with the oppressors, imagining that they’re still victims. I listened to all three interviews that Gross had with Raja Shehadeh. And each time she administered an immediate antidote of airing an Israel booster, and not just any Israelis, but rightwingers: Yossi Klein Halevi, February 6, 2002; Michael Oren, June 11, 2002; and now Jerusalem Post editor David Horovitz,.October 28, 2003. 

In the prologue to her interviews with Shehadeh, Gross palms off Israeli propaganda as truth: "his town Ramallah was occupied by the Israeli army…This was part of a larger Israeli military operation to root out terrorists in response to suicide bombings" (Oct. 28, 2003). Gross omits the then-35-year Occupation, depicting Israeli aggression rather than Palestinian resistance as self-defense. No, only Ramallah was "Occupied."  Context is all, with news and with history. 

Having introduced Shehadeh by reciting Israel’s hype, Gross heralds David Horovitz by peddling Horovitz’s own claims as fact:: "He told me that in Israel fear of suicide bombers is profound and unrelenting."  Gross’s preconceptions bow to establishment stereotypes: Occupied Palestine is riddled with homocidal attackers; mighty Israel is besieged by terror. Gross poses different questions to her two guests, and gets similar replies about great threats.  But Gross responds unequally to the comparable answers–not least in neglecting to point out the false equivalency of their suffering. For Shehadeh is Occupied, whereas Horovitz speaks for Occupier.  Worse yet, Gross ignores Shehadeh’s plight, the devastating fear in every bit of life–and death–in living under Occupation.  Her only reaction is to change the subject.

By contrast, Gross chortles appreciatively when Horovitz chats about the ordeal of being searched at stores, despite being so blond–with a blond family–"we all look like recent arrivals from Sweden."  Terry Gross’s rare talent–one I used to love–is her engaging laugh. Gross’s mirth graces her interviews with ingenuous delight (especially compared to many witless hosts’ awkward guffaws).  She could just as easily find glimmers of fun in Shehadeh’s self-deprecating relief that, when the IDF invaded his house, at least his gate kept the soldiers from terrifyingly banging on his door. Or the IDF’s bewilderment about how unmenacing he was: "I’m not a big person and perhaps that disarmed them."  Gross cuts Shehadeh off from her sympathetic sense of the ludicrous.  She withholds empathy even when Shehadeh winningly confides his dread–"Would I break down?"– or describes his efforts to brave danger calmly, without belligerence.  

That’s the pattern: Terry Gross refuses to converse with Shehadeh, but, rather, issues a series of insulting non-sequiturs that allow for no actual interaction. When she switiches the topic to Israel’s "barrier fence," Shehadah corrects her by explaining why it is an "Apartheid Wall," stealing Palestinian land as it encircles their towns. But when Gross later asks Horovitz about the Wall, she reverts to "barrier," not deigning to press Horowitz on links between Israeli tyranny and South Africa’s Apartheid.

With Horovitz, rather than changing subjects, Gross follows up with concern: "Has [suicide bombing] affected your views of Palestinians?"  Horovitz generalizes: "Well, I can only relate to the Palestinian people by the opinion polls," which "troublingly," say that "most Palestinians say they support the bombers."   Horovitz  justifies Israel scuppering peace talks. 

Raja Shehadeh by contrast, speaks sadly of how extremists on both sides try to de-humanize the other. During the soldiers’ raid, " I found young people dressed in such gear that you could hardly see them." However, "I tried to make some human contact with them, but it was impossible….So I…felt some pity for them."  He could imagine how "they’d been told perhaps that every Palestinian hates them, and they live with this burden." What largeness of mind.

But Gross doesn’t  inquire whether IDF actions have embittered Shehadeh’s views of Israelis.  Instead, Gross prods him to deprecate the president of Malaysia’s "anti-Semitic" remark, which he emphatically does.

Gross examines Shehadeh on his opinion of current Israeli-Palestinian informal peace proposals, but she locks out Shehadeh’s point, that Palestinians would accept compensation in lieu of Actual Return to the land of their ancestors.  Gross hears intransigence rather than qualified enthusiasm: "Sounds as though you couldn’t really back this plan because it has no right of return." Gross’s deafness betrays her prejudice: she imputes to Shehadeh Israel’s obstinacy–and her own?

Gross hops on again, insinuating that Shehadeh might "know anybody who’s directly connected to" "suicide bombers."  No, of course not, but Raja Shehadeh opens his conscience to say that he wants never "to compete in the horror and the tragedy because both sides have suffered horror….But I know victims… Israelis and Palestinians."  Shehadeh "cannot understand why [bombers] are driven to this," but reminds us, "life in the Occupied Territories is to live in such despair." 

"The fact that Israel is killing babies and children does NOT justify such acts" he declares, explaining that there was "No possibility that anyone would do something like" blowing himself up before 1994, when [illegal] settlers killed worshippers. 

Raja Shehadeh offers a beautiful introspection: "What has happened to us?  We are at the edge." 

Gross leapfrogs; Shehadeh offers leaps of faith: "The beauty of Palestine historically has been a place of tolerance between the three religions…because Christians, Jews, and Muslims were living side by side….My struggle is for attaining freedom and…tolerance."

Gross jumps on, disdaining to invite Shehadeh’s exploration of how despair warps the tyrannized–a logical, though deplorable–concomitant of more deplorable Israeli aggression, or his vision of a harmonious future Palestine. She fixates instead on her abhorrence of the bombers: have you, she prods, "witnessed extremist groups manipulating the despair, to try to create the environment where people are willing to blow themselves up?" Terry Gross misses his point: Israel created the environment of despair.  Shehadeh though gives Gross the benefit of the doubt, describing how extremists on both sides take advantage of their people’s suffering.  Gross might condole with him for all his endearing admissions, but she moves on.  Nothing to see here, folks.

David Horovitz extends no such self-examination; he simply blames others, demanding that Palestinians: "stop the bombers," "because then we can settle down to peace talks."  Horovitz even promises that the Israeli leadership then "would be rushing back to the peace talks." 

Of course, Palestinians have now stopped such bombings. Has Horovitz urged Netanyahu to "rush back to the peace talks"?  No.  Horovitz now proves his bad faith.  He demands new concessions from Palestinians:

"Let Abbas speak in Arabic, to his own people – with his leadership colleagues on hand to publicly support and applaud him – and let him tell them that the Jews, too, have historic rights to Palestine."  

We need to study what Israel’s incessant moving of the proverbial goalposts does to the people of Palestine.  Humans perceive such trickery with standards as taunting, and taunting–I know from being a child and now a parent–creates the greatest rage. 

Gross surmises that Shehadeh might want to solve his problems by just leaving his home and people seems almost exasperated.  She’s in a muddle: as if she wants to commiserate–except that she can’t–for that means acknowledging Israel’s crimes–so she niggles Shehadeh to abandon all that’s right–though what’s right is giving up whatever Israel covets.  Gross’s graceless query reminds me of the false concern and real prejudice of the father, Yaakov Levinson, in Heart of Jenin, to the Palestinian man, Ismail Khatib, who saved the life of Levinson’s tiny daughter.  Khatib hoped to create ties through his acts of mercy, but the best gratitude the illegal-colonist Levinson could muster was a patronizing rebuff, "Can’t he emigrate?….There’s nothing for him here." 

What would have been really new sights–and sounds–from the show that labels itself as offering fresh air, is Gross truly listening to those our culture demonizes as Other.  But Gross would have to care enough about the unexpectedness of the world–if not her job–to stretch beyond her preconceptions.  Emily Henochowicz gives us an exquisite image for such elasticity of vision in an entrancing work of art (below), "Me to then-Me."  Henochowicz depicts her 2010 canvas stretching out to pull her 2009 model forward to catch up with her always-growing self.  She posted it on the very eve of the protest where the IDF shot out her eye.  Not many of us can equal our Emily’s indomitable ardor–her glorious sense of motion, of play–, but we can try.  

Perhaps Terry Gross, the host who sells new ways of looking, can learn from Emily Henochowicz’s "Visual Adventure" to discern anew.  Yesterday, Gross’s show featured the one-year anniversary of Newsweek correspondent Maziar Bahari’s arrest by Iran, then John Powers’s review of Philip Kerr’s thriller about the Nazi era–topics that are both acceptable to the Israel lobby.  Why hasn’t Gross tackled recent Israeli attacks, asking Emily Henochowicz to describe her work defending the people of Palestine she has come to love?  So brilliant an artist and dedicated a peace-worker has much to teach.  When will Gross invite surviving activists from Free Gaza to speak?

Maybe Gross will then reminisce about Raja Shehadeh’s generosity of spirit, his long-suffering valor, to discover new perspectives on Palestine.  We all can exercise our spirits, extending ourselves to catch up with Shehadeh’s charity and mercy.  We’re lucky to have such reaching souls, among many in Palestine and around the world, to inspire. We, too, can imagine, and thus create, a future that sees the alien, that perceives beyond our expectations, and onward still. 

Me to then Me


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