If you want to understand what’s happening in Israel/Palestine now, here is how it goes, according to NPR. The Israelis (we must start with their viewpoint) are “facing murderous attacks, random knife attacks and more.” Not just in Jerusalem, but “well beyond.” Intrepid journalists want to know who started it this time (always the most pertinent question), and the answer is clear: the Palestinians, with their “knives flashing suddenly in the streets” and “Israeli Jews dying, assailants, suspects shut down.” It also turns out that there isn’t an occupation of Palestine; at least one expert doesn’t recognize such a thing, when you get another expert to utter the term. And if there were such a thing as “occupation”, it’d be silly to think it might have something to do with the current situation. At least according to the worldview of NPR’s popular “On Point” show with Tom Ashbrook.
The recent murder of the Dawabsheh family by settlers isn’t considered relevant background for NPR. Neither are the cases where Palestinians were gunned down (like 18 year old Hadeel al-Hashlamoun killed by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint), or lynched, while even “centrist” Knesset members call for shoot-to-kill policy. The assault on Gaza last summer is too ancient to merit mention. 67 years of land grabs and erasure of Palestine and its inhabitants, 48 years of advanced military occupation and dedicated efforts of dehumanization. History, political context, and the dire conditions in East Jerusalem aren’t taken for granted as important factors in this conversation. Whether these are relevant depends on who your expert source is.
As his guide to the current crisis, Tom Ashbrook chose Gerald Steinberg from the “Program on Conflict Management and Negotiation” at Bar-Ilan University (the pun is surely not intended.) Steinberg founded “NGO Monitor”, a right-wing advocacy group that picks on human rights groups and leftist nonprofits under the guise of “NGO accountability.” It is enough to read their reports on a couple of respected nonprofits to see what NGO Monitor is really about.
It’s hard to find a good analogy for what it means to have Kashua debate Steinberg on East Jerusalem. Perhaps it’s like having the world’s leading evolutionary biologist—who on the side is also an accomplished painter that produces impressionist renditions of Darwin’s voyages—debate the slickest public relations representative of an Intelligent Design think tank, on the theory of evolution. Except that it’s the public relations representative who gets to lead and set the terms of the debate.
NPR’s grossly misleading introduction framed a narrow question: where did this out-of-the-blue violence against Israelis come from, and how can it be managed? The “Palestinian fury and Israeli response.” Ashbrook lets Steinberg start off the discussion. Steinberg is introduced as the founder of a group that “critiques NGO coverage of the Middle East and more” and as an expert on “conflict management.” Ashbrook is walking on egg shells, making sure not to say “occupation” as he feeds Steinberg softball questions, starting with: “How would you assess the conflict management that we’re seeing or not seeing now?”
Steinberg uses the usual maneuvers to confuse listeners. First, the conflict must be “managed” by obtaining security (for Israelis). Steinberg then appeals to the rhetoric of complexity: these “deep identity conflicts” aren’t to be resolved—even “trying to discuss the tradeoffs” of a resolution would be pointless. Reaching the security point where a “civil conversation” might some day be possible will “take generations.” But why is this erupting now? According to Steinberg, these bloodbaths instigated by Palestinians happen every ten years, starting in 1929, usually over Jerusalem. Religion and incitement from leaders and social media are what drives it. It’s a conflict where one side “doesn’t want the other side to win.” Israel can only manage the cycle of violence, which is fueled by deep-seated elements that lie beyond comprehension. Finally, Steinberg pulls the ISIS fear-mongering card. He invites listeners to drive three hours north of Jerusalem to the Galilee, where they “can see the fighting going on in Syria…can see Daesh fighting” and where “occasionally they [Daesh] come over our border.” There’s “tremendous violence” in “Iraq, Syria, Iran, Yemen”, and Steinberg says it’s “inevitable that it’s going to spill over.” This is what we’ve been seeing.
Ashbrook doesn’t challenge Steinberg’s ludicrous account, but delicately suggests that maybe all of this has something to do with the “Palestinian perception” that Israel “has been moving toward changing the security and control arrangements on Temple Mount.” Ashbrook, the otherwise excellent interviewer who has no trouble probing his guests on other topics, can’t ask a single pointed question when it comes to Israel and Palestine. Per usual, the American media treads carefully behind an Israeli lens.
On social media, Ashbrook selectively quoted fragments from Steinberg that sound remotely liberal-moderate, but that weren’t at all representative of Steinberg’s views. He quotes Steinberg’s assertion that “Ministers going up to the Temple Mount did not contribute to conflict management” but not that “There’s been a strong erosion of Jewish rights, this is a city we’ve been in for 3000 years.” The selected snippets maintain the impression that NPR delivers the leftist perspective that the right-wingers caricature it for. NPR’s debate is rigged toward the Israeli Hasbara viewpoint, and the traces are covered.
When NPR gives Steinberg this stage, it not only elevates Steinberg’s credentials to that of a legitimate expert and creates false symmetry between the two sides. It also sets up a nearly impossible task for Kashua, who joins the conversation after Steinberg’s opening.
Faced with the groundwork of distortions laid by Steinberg, the burden of proof that falls on Kashua is so immense—and so hard to package into radio sound bites—that it’s nearly impossible not to lose.
Steinberg can throw out casually: Occupation? It doesn’t exist. You think it affects the situation? Prove it. If the default assumption is that there isn’t such a thing as “occupation” (or that the term is wide open for debate), then proving its existence and linking it to the current situation is unimaginably harder than Steinberg’s use of the ISIS scare tactic, or declaration that these generational conflicts are too complex for listeners to understand.
There is an amusing interview with the French philosopher Jacques Derrida that illuminates some of these discursive traps. Derrida was interviewed by an American who appears to have pushed some of Derrida’s buttons. Derrida told the interviewer that it’s “very American” of her to “just give him [Derrida] a topic and ask him to speak”—to tell him “to elaborate” on a topic. Elaboration, according to Derrida, is: “Here’s a word, now go and work.” Derrida complains that “hurried, manipulative journalists” ask him to speak on command on topics like “Being” or “love”, just because he’s a philosopher, “as if there’s a ready-made discourse on Being or love.” But no discourse is ready-made, Derrida says.
Like “love” or “Being”, discussing the situation in Palestine without context is impossible. NPR and much of the American media fail to provide this context. Unlike for abstract philosophical concepts, the challenge here is much harder, since the very existence of occupation is questioned by the way the debate is framed.
Kashua has no choice. As an interviewee put on the spot, he has time to only quickly gesture to what is being missed in the avalanche of confusion that Steinberg created for listeners. Kashua suggests that instead of taking Steinberg’s three-hour drive to the Galilee, perhaps it’d be worthwhile to spend 15 minutes in East Jerusalem neighborhoods and see how the other half lives. But undoing Steinberg’s multiple layers of distortion, in the narrowly framed debate, is a monumental task. In a few minutes, what can you really say?
NPR’s failed conversation can be summarized with a pernicious version of Derrida’s pet peeve. This so-called “Occupation”, Mr. Kashua? And the idea that it might be relevant for the present? Elaborate.
Tom Ashbrook’s full introduction to the show:
“Nobody should have to live this way. Not Israelis, facing murderous attacks, random knife attacks and more, in Jerusalem and now well beyond. Not Palestinians, up against years of frustration, failed negotiation, roadblocks, crackdowns. What started in Palestinian attacks out of East Jerusalem – knives flashing suddenly in the streets, Israeli Jews dying, assailants, suspects, shot down – now threatens to rage wider. Secretary of State John Kerry, now heading to meet with Mideast leaders. This hour On Point, the bloodshed this time. Palestinian stabbings, Israeli response, and what now.” [emphasis added, Y.K.]