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How NPR talks about Israel/Palestine

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on 19 Comments

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.

Steinberg was pitted against Sayed Kashua, the author and veteran Haaretz columnist. (Etgar Keret, the other scheduled guest, couldn’t join much of the conversation for technical reasons.)

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.]

Yarden Katz
About Yarden Katz

Yarden Katz is a fellow in the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School.

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19 Responses

  1. CigarGod
    October 22, 2015, 10:25 am

    Good to see an honest report on what NPR really is. National Propaganda Radio
    They use the same lynch mob format as FOX.

  2. Atlantaiconoclast
    October 22, 2015, 11:17 am

    What I don’t get is the fact that the media only notices violence in Israel/Palestine when Jews are being killed. We have seen scores of Palestinians killed by IDF, Israeli police and settlers since the massacre in Gaza last summer, and yet somehow, the media only sees an end to “relative calm” once a Jew is killed. How can they not see that they value Jewish life more than non Jewish life?

    • JWalters
      October 22, 2015, 6:29 pm

      A key question. It seems to me the most plausible theory is that most reporters and editors do see what is going on, but they are constrained from reporting honestly. The constraints are most logically from the controlling owners. The controlling owners are in the one percent and don’t give a damn about justice. They probably have large profits riding on this cover-up. A logical kind of profits, given the conflicts that persist due to this cover-up, are war profits. The role of war profits in the “Zionist project” is discussed in this article.

  3. HRK
    October 22, 2015, 2:13 pm

    I’m not a “Rah-rah” multiculturalist, but then neither am I a my-ethnic-group-first kind of guy, either. I consider myself conservative because A) on social issues I am conservative and B) anyone who isn’t a Rah-rah multiculturalist is basically conservative in this day and age (as I see things, anyway).

    From my standpoint: I have to say, I find it very interesting when American liberals give Israel a pass when it comes to the dictates of multiculturalism and yet grill their own country over the smallest of sins. Darren Wilson: What temerity! He actually tried to save his life! Racist!!!

    Israel: Well, you know the Jews need a safe haven, don’t you? You DO KNOW history, don’t you?

    Of course, even if we accept that the Jewish community had nothing to do with historical European anti-semitism (I don’t think this is reasonable, but I’ll entertain the notion for the sake of argument), it simply doesn’t follow that Israel should be an ethnostate.

    Why, after all, ASSUMING ONE IS COMMITTED TO MULTICULTURALISM (definitely the impression NPR-type liberals would like to give us), would one throw the baby out with the bath water? If European gentiles were the problem, then by all means bar them from Israel. By don’t bar anyone else: Arabs, Africans, Muslims, Buddhists, Shamanists–anyone and everyone else should be let in! And there’s no need for Jews to maintain a majority–because that implies that different people groups (again, the European gentile group excepted) have conflicts of interests which can’t be resolved easily through reason and by adhering to standards that “everyone knows” are correct: No negative generalizations (never! –and very rude, according to Annie (not that I completely disagree with her, by the way)) and a commitment to dialogue–which, we know, will solve everything.

    “Brother! I hear you say you’re concerned about Jewish persecution in faraway lands. I hear you say that your co-ethnics must come to Israel to escape such persecution. Now, brother, I may not be Jewish, but I am your brother and your fellow countryman, and as your brother I deeply care about you. In fact, you could say: Your concerns are my concerns. And, of course, the deeper your concerns are, the more my heart goes out for those concerns. (How bizarre to think I would only be concerned about minor issues but not about the deepest ones you care about!) So, of course there will be no conflict of interest. Why would you think otherwise? Again, because you are my brother, your concerns are my concerns, and, I know, vice-versa. Ethnicity and religion would never get in the way of our humanity!”

    But! But! pro-Zionists say! (I can hear the pro-Zionist crowd saying this): The Arabs have done horrible things to Israelis! They would push us into the sea!

    But! But! I could say in return: No justice, no peace, right? 700,000 Palestinians were expelled. Many discriminatory laws exist right now in Israel. Right the wrong and then everything will be fine. It’s so simple. Sooo simple.

    Again, I’m (really) sort of in the middle. I do think Jewish Israel is treating Palestinians poorly, but I also have doubts hyping multiculturalism because I have concerns about such societies living even relatively conflict free. My writing above is simply to show all of you folks in left-wing internet land how a conservative views matters: How hypocritical and two-faced (unprincipled) the mainstream liberal crowd is on Israel vis-a-vis America.

    • Atlantaiconoclast
      October 22, 2015, 5:30 pm

      I am one of the less “progressive” folks here, and I get your point. Most pro Israel liberals want open borders or a very lax immigration policy for the US, but would never expect Israel to change its immigration policy. Americans are not allowed to have an immigration policy that fits their desires, yet Israelis are. Israel alone gets to exclude people simply due to ethnicity. It makes no sense that so many Jewish Americans are extremely liberal about immigration here in the states, but think it perfectly fine for Israel to forcibly preserve its Jewish character.

      • Mooser
        October 22, 2015, 6:23 pm

        “It makes no sense that so many Jewish Americans are extremely liberal about immigration here in the states, but think it perfectly fine for Israel to forcibly preserve its Jewish character.”

        I know what you mean, I do. Wouldn’t it be better if they felt the same way about the American character as they do about the “Jewish character” of Israel?
        (And when I think about the effect that “immigration” has had on the good old normative character made in the USA for Americans by Americans, factory air-conditioned from our air-conditioned factory, well, it doesn’t make me wanna go and smoke a peace-pipe, or even light the barbeque on the patio. I can tell you that!)

        But I mean, wow, what an insidious character, this “pro-Israel” liberal is, who wants what is good for Israel, but doesn’t want the same good thing for the good ol’ USA!

      • Mooser
        October 26, 2015, 11:06 am

        Gosh, you two “Atlantaiconoclast” (it is to laugh! I can hear them shattering!) and “HRK” have really given me the shames!
        What perfidy we Jews persist in pursuing!!
        Upholding ethnic purity in Israel, but acting as miscegenators, integrationists, and worst of all multiculturalists (ptoo! ptoo! ptoo!) in the US.

        Guys, if it’s any comfort to you, I’m pretty sure the survey says that American Jews who are bigoted about Palestine are just as bigoted about people in the US.

    • Mooser
      October 22, 2015, 6:28 pm

      “I do think Jewish Israel is treating Palestinians poorly, but I also have doubts hyping multiculturalism”

      I don’t know, maybe I’m just a Polly-anna, an irregular (can’t have everything) Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but somehow, I don’t think a lack of “multiculturalism” in Israel is the issue.

    • Mooser
      October 22, 2015, 6:32 pm

      ” Darren Wilson: What temerity! He actually tried to save his life! Racist!!!”

  4. peacenotapartheid
    October 22, 2015, 6:44 pm

    Disappointed in Tom Ashbrook’s intro for sure, but reading the comments on the hour’s web page suggests many came away with the same impression I did, that Steinberg sounded irrational and uncompromising, if not rabid. Not quite as bad as Caroline Glick on the show in September of last year (, but not far off.

    Possibly Tom’s giving Zionists the time and rope to expose their true beliefs to the segment of his audience that wouldn’t be receptive to direct criticism of these guests.

  5. Walker
    October 22, 2015, 10:45 pm

    I used to live in Boston and listened to Ashbrook before he went national. He has always been a lamebrain, particularly on this subject. Only in American would a public radio correspondent get away with this kind of stupidity.

  6. Helena Cobban
    Helena Cobban
    October 25, 2015, 6:51 pm

    It is highly relevant to note that NPR nationally– and also many of its affiliate stations in crucial media markets– has been subjected for many years to intensive, Zionist discourse-policing by the brownshirts of organizations like the Orwellianly-misnamed, Boston-based CAMERA (Committee for “Accuracy” in Middle East Reporting in America.) Back in the aughts, Camera and its allies organized numerous “donor boycotts” of NPR affiliate stations that it wanted to discipline for NPR being, to their mind, too “even-handed” re the Palestine Question… and those boycotts were stunningly effective, leaving NPR-central essentially emasculated re doing any serious, hard-hitting, objective coverage of Palestinian-Israeli issues.

    CAMERA and its allies realized that the vulnerable underbelly of NPR was the reliance of so many of its affiliate radio stations on (mainly local) fundraising. And given the prevalance of PEP (Progressive “Except for” Palestine) donors among the general donating-to-NPR crowd, they were stunningly successful.

    Now, however, it strikes me that PEP is an anachronism; and we need to think of organizing a bit of PIP (Progressive Including on Palestine) pressure on NPR affiliates. That is, all those people who regularly donate time or money to their local NPR station should consider explicitly raising the issue of the nature of NPR-national’s sadly lacking-in-objectivity coverage of Palestine/Israel with the stations when donation time comes around. Of course, it is not the individual, $50 donors who are really effective in swaying the stations (and thereby, NPR-national), but rather the much larger donors, megadollar “Family Foundations”, and such. So our campaign should be very broad, and seek to include as many people as possible from such larger donating entities.

    Who says boycott campaigns– or even threat-of-boycott campaigns– don’t work? Not CAMERA, that’s for sure.

    And here, for extra credit, is a little taste of how closely CAMERA bird-dogs, polices, and eventually organizes its brownshirt supporters to discipline NPR: (Explore their website. It is truly fascinating.)

    • CigarGod
      October 25, 2015, 7:21 pm

      Fantastic Camera link, Helena.

    • Boomer
      October 26, 2015, 7:11 am

      re: “Now, however, it strikes me that PEP is an anachronism; and we need to think of organizing a bit of PIP (Progressive Including on Palestine) pressure on NPR affiliates. That is, all those people who regularly donate time or money to their local NPR station should consider explicitly raising the issue of the nature of NPR-national’s sadly lacking-in-objectivity coverage of Palestine/Israel with the stations when donation time comes around. Of course, it is not the individual, $50 donors who are really effective in swaying the stations (and thereby, NPR-national), but rather the much larger donors, megadollar “Family Foundations”, and such. So our campaign should be very broad, and seek to include as many people as possible from such larger donating entities.”

      Even without knowing all the interesting details you provide, I had inferred that something like that must be the case. It has made me less enthusiastic about my small donations, but I have not bothered to explain or complain, because I knew that NPR wouldn’t listen. Not being in the mega-dollar class, or part of a well-organized group, I know that my views are not relevant (as is true for politics more generally). Perhaps if enough smaller donors do speak up, it will have some impact, but it’s hard to get them organized and active, especially when they are kept in the dark.

      I second the thanks for the link. I was aware of CAMERA, but didn’t know the specifics.

  7. Sibiriak
    October 25, 2015, 10:39 pm

    It’s a conflict where one side “doesn’t want the other side to win.”


  8. talknic
    October 26, 2015, 8:35 am

    The Zionist Federation has had over a century honing the skill of having their money and people in the right places to suit their agenda

  9. talknic
    October 26, 2015, 9:02 am

    “48 years of advanced military occupation”

    It’s actually 67 years of occupation according to the Israeli Government

    1) May 22nd 1948

    UNSC S/766 the Provisional Government of Israel answered questions addressed to the “Jewish authorities in Palestine” was transmitted by the acting representative of Israel at the United Nations.
    Question: Over which areas of Palestine do you actually exercise control at present over the entire area of the Jewish State as defined in the Resolution of the General Assembly of the 29th November, 1947?

    Answer: “In addition, the Provisional Government exercises control over the city of Jaffa; Northwestern Galilee, including Acre, Zib, Base, and the Jewish settlements up to the Lebanese frontier; a strip of territory alongside the road from Hilda to Jerusalem; almost all of new Jerusalem; and of the Jewish quarter within the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. The above areas, outside the territory of the State of Israel, are under the control of the military authorities of the State of Israel, who are strictly adhering to international regulations in this regard. The Southern Negev is uninhabited desert over which no effective authority has ever existed.” … ” the Government of the State of Israel operates in parts of Palestine outside the territory of the State of Israel

    “international regulations” at the time:

    Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV); October 18, 1907 Art. 42 SECTION III
    “Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.”

    2) 12 Aug 1948

    the Provisional Israeli Government proclaimed Jerusalem Declared Israel-Occupied City- by Israeli Government Proclamation 12 Aug 1948

    Although occupation existed long before 1967, it is not mentioned in any UN/UNSC resolution because it occurred prior to Israel joining the UN. The UN cannot directly censure non-members and it cannot censure Members retrospectively for their actions prior to becoming Members. A point Israel must have been aware of given its hoards of legal experts. So it took as much as it could beyond its borders before applying for membership.

    In fact, prior to becoming a Member, the only mention of “Israel” by the UNSC is in the recommendation for Membership. Thereafter, Israel has been afforded hundreds of opportunities via UN/UNSC resolutions to comply with the binding International Laws and UN Charter as re-affirmed and emphasized in those resolutions for the illegal actions Israel has taken after becoming a UN Member State.

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