Jon Stewart, host of Comedy Central's popular Daily Show, has won a wide audience for his skillful use of satiric comedy to cut to the essence of serious political issues. But on October 27, 2009, he waded into a deeply contentious issue and got in over his head. In a segment dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Stewart hosted Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti and anti-Israel agitator Anna Baltzer. Barghouti presented a familiar narrative of Palestinian grievances of the kind often heard. But it was the pairing with Baltzer that sparked indignation among many viewers. Fortunately, the segment's producers edited out much of Baltzer's misinformation about Israel, making the version that was broadcast substantially less objectionable than the original taping.
Baltzer, a fellow traveler with extreme anti-Israel groups like the International Solidarity Movement, routinely invokes her Jewish heritage as a ploy to lend credibility to her defamatory anti-Israel message.
She portrays Israel as a criminal state, relying upon her audience's lack of familiarity with the facts. Immediately after the show's airing she sent out a call to flood the Daily Show with letters of support for her. A constant refrain in her supporters' and sponsors' defense on her behalf is that she "has a right to be heard." But Baltzer's pretense of being a Jew who saw the light does not give her the right to appear on major television shows to spread misinformation and incite hatred of Israel.
In a rare occurrence, there was some outspoken negative audience reaction. A member shouted out "liar" in response to Barghouti accusing Israel of "segregation." Later, another disruption took place in response to Baltzer denying that Israeli measures were taken in self-defense. In the brief time allotted to them, the pair depicted Israel as an intransigent, apartheid state similar to South Africa, while casting the Palestinians as blameless victims.
One can only wonder whether Stewart was blindsided by his staff and bookers regarding the nature of his guests. There's little to indicate that he intentionally sought them out in order to boost their campaign to cast the Jewish state as illegitimate and racist. In fact, Stewart effectively challenged them at times, although he seemed more comfortable seeking a conciliatory, middle-ground position.
In the full, unedited version, Baltzer rolled out her usual themes that the so-called "wall" and other Israeli measures to stop suicide bombers were not really defensive measures. She also raised the phony issue of Israel "denying Palestinians water" when in reality Israel is a net-exporter of fresh water to the West Bank and Gaza. Many of her positions resemble those of Hamas, as evidenced by her claim that "there is nothing defensive in denying materials to build [Palestinian] homes." This is an oblique reference to Israel's impounding materials like metal pipes and cement from going to Gaza where they are often used by Hamas to build rockets and bunkers.
Both Barghouti and Baltzer rely heavily upon the tactic of moral inversion, by turning the victimizer into the victim. Barghouti claimed that: "Israel has tried the language of power for sixty years... the only road that was not tried fully was to have peace with the Palestinians."
In reality, it is the Arabs who for sixty years have refused to accept Israel's right to exist and have incessantly waged war against the Jewish state, starting from the day after Israel declared its independence. Where Israel has had a partner for peace, as it did with Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, peace has ensued. Furthermore, to suggest in the wake of the 2000/2001 Camp David/Taba negotiations during which Israel proposed sweeping concessions for peace that Israel has not "tried" the road to peace is willful deceit. That effort was only the most recent of many similar ones.
In a telling moment, Stewart innocently asked: "You both believe in a state of Israel?" Neither Barghouti nor Baltzer answered.
Stewart's own knowledge of the conflict seemed limited. At one point, in an attempt to appear evenhanded he asserted: "Both cultures have gotten dysfunctional so far away from believing in each other's humanity."
Again, the facts are otherwise. There is a sharp contrast between how the two communities characterize each other. The Palestinian media, religious leaders and educators frequently demonize Jews as animalistic and blood-thirsty monsters, promoting intolerance. There is no such counterpart in the mainstream Israeli media or in its educational system. On the contrary, Israel has for decades even before the Oslo peace efforts taught its people that regardless of aggression by some Arabs, wrongdoers should be judged individually. For example, a 1988 publication of Israel's Ministry of Education entitled Jews and Arabs: Confrontation and Neighborly Relations urges teachers to tell children not to generalize about Arabs and to understand only a small percentage are involved in cruel events.
Stewart did make several attempts to challenge the guests. For example, he noted that Israel is confronted with the challenge of a nuclear Iran and that Arab nations have been prone to scapegoating Israel for their own shortcomings. He also attempted to raise the issue of anti-Semitic indoctrination in Palestinian children's television shows. However, he was unclear about the facts on this and most viewers who aren't familiar with "Farfur" (the anti-Semitic childrens' figure on PA TV) would not have understood his reference.
Immediately after Stewart raised the Iran issue, Barghouti blamed Israel for overreacting to the threat, mockingly suggesting the Jewish state might end up claiming Azerbaijan as the next threat. Stewart did not challenge the absurdity of this obnoxious comment.
The unedited version of the segment contains the second disruption by an audience member. Evidently uncomfortable about the ejection, Stewart jokingly responded: "You can certainly visit our seder!" Baltzer and Barghouti laughed at this along with the audience as the protester was thrown out.
It is unlikely that the comedy host intended to join the two anti-Israel extremist guests in mocking the lone Jewish voice standing up against outright falsehoods about the Jewish state. But reviewing the tape and thinking about what actually happened on The Daily Show should give pause to those who understand the power of popular culture to distort and mislead. Let's hope Jon Stewart's foray into the treacherous waters of Middle East politics either prompts him to learn more and offer his audience a fair hearing about Israel's perspective or to leave the issue to others who know the terrain.