Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s culinary adventure show, “Parts Unknown,” knew that doing an episode on Israel, Gaza and the West Bank would stir up controversy. So, he preempted his critics with a disclaimer “By the end of this hour, I’ll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, an Orientalist, socialist, a fascist, CIA agent, and worse. Well here goes nothing.” Bourdain’s self-deprecating humor subconsciously foretold the trap he would fall into; only briefly showcasing Jerusalem, “Parts Unknown – Jerusalem” quickly transformed into familiar Palestinian grievance theater.
Asserting he is part-Jewish, Bourdian made sure to distance himself from his Jewish background and deny any attachment to Israel. He described himself as an “enemy” of religious devotion and claims to have never been in a synagogue. While Bourdain’s narrative initially avoided taking sides, his host in Jerusalem, Israeli-born expatriate, Yotam Ottolenghi, was less careful. Ottolenghi’s recounting of Jerusalem’s status, “Basically, this city was divided into two until 1967 when there was the famous Six-Day War,” misrepresents the city’s history. In fact, Jerusalem was only briefly divided after the Jordanians occupied the eastern neighborhoods in 1948, expelled the Jewish residents and expropriated their property. For most of the city’s long history there was no division.
Ottolenghi also erroneously describes how Muhammad (along with Jesus and David) set foot in Jerusalem, most likely intending to equate Jerusalem’s importance to the Muslim faith with that of Jews and Christians. In fact, Muhammad, most likely, never set foot in Jerusalem.
Bourdain’s visit to a Jewish settlement in the West Bank, however, marked the point of departure from any semblance of balance. Borrowing directly from Palestinian talking points, he states, “half a million [Jewish] settlers have moved here, all in contravention of international law.”
While many hold the opinion that Jewish settlement in the West Bank is illegal, the framers of the authoritative document, United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, classified the West Bank as disputed territory, rendering the status of Jewish settlements as indeterminate until the conflict is resolved. UNSC Resolution 242 is the official American position.
Bourdain and his cameramen focus on anti-Arab graffiti and so-called “price tag” attacks by Jewish settlers. Later at the home of a settler-chef, Bourdain chides his hosts over why they haven’t remove the offensive scrawl as the camera records their evident discomfort. No similar challenging questions are directed at his Palestinian hosts, even though Arab attacks on Jewish settlers–e more frequent, more brutal – often targeting entire families including infants – and far more lethal. Even according to figures from the pro-Palestinian advocacy group B’Tselem, in the past thirteen years, 23 Arabs have been killed by Jewish settlers in cases that were not clearly acts of self-defense. During that same period 215 Jewish settlers were murdered by Arabs.
Bordain never broaches the subject of Palestinian support for suicide bombings or asks his hosts for their thoughts on Article Seven of the Hamas Covenant which states, “The hour of judgment shall not come until the Muslims fight the Jews and kill them…” The fact that the government of Gaza invokes religion to sanction murdering Jews apparently doesn’t exercise Bourdain’s indignation as much as anonymous anti-Arab graffiti.
During Bourdain’s visit to the Aida refugee camp, his host, Abed Abusrour, the founder of a children’s theater, laments, “unfortunately, with the continuing degradation of political and economic situation, we are in the situation where we have no playgrounds or spaces anymore.” This politically veted comment is out of sync with current trends. In the last five years, the West Bank experienced strong economic growth .
Bourdain continues, “Here, kids 4 or 5 years old every day, they’re looking at somebody who, you know, brought down a plane.” Abusrour responds, “Yes.” Bourdain then politely adds, “I’m not questioning why that is.”
Bourdain should question why that is. He considers it inappropriate to challenge his Palestinian host over why Palestinian children celebrate terrorists who murder people, but has no problem questioning Jewish settlers over offensive graffiti.
It is tempting to give the affable Bourdain the benefit of the doubt. After all, he is a chef, not a journalist. But the scene in Bethlehem is too contrived to chalk up to naivete. Abusrour, unlike most of Bourdain’s hosts, has no evident connection with the culinary theme of the show. He is a well known political activist promoting “non-violent resistance.” His answers are well-rehearsed. The detour to the Aida refugee camp is political theater, pure and simple.
A frequent device used in Palestinian political theater is to recount a tragic personal incident of being victimized by indiscriminate Israeli military violence. Abusrour tells the story of a colleague’s sister who was killed in her kitchen by an Israeli sniper on October 29, 2001. Substantial liberties can be taken with such stories because the specifics are often difficult to confirm or disprove.
An analysis of Palestinian casualties by Don Radlauer of the Institute for Counter-Terrorism provides some perspective. The majority of approximately 4,000 Palestinians killed by Israeli troops during the Second Intifada (2000-2004) were males between the ages of 16 and 40, and most (about 80%) were engaged in militant activity. Deaths among those not participating in militant activity and who were not in close proximity to militants were a small portion of the total. Females accounted for 103 fatalities, about three percent of the total.
Radlauer identified three female Palestinian fatalities during the entire month of October, 2001 and only 13 during the calendar year 2001. This is a tiny fraction of the nearly 4 million residents of the West Bank and Gaza. But the unusual circumstances described by Abusrour, which allegedly involved a sniper, who would have had to carefully select his target, would be rarer still. Abusrour may promote non-violence, but he inverts reality by showcasing alleged indiscriminate violence by Israeli soldiers, when it is Palestinian terrorists who are routinely the perpetrators of such violence.
After the interview with Abusrour, the episode follows a predictable path. Bourdain travels to the Gaza Strip where he establishes that “Israel decides who comes and goes. What gets in and what stays out.” He leaves out the crucial fact that Egypt also controls a border with the Gaza Strip. Bourdain does not inform his viewers of that fact or divulge that Egyptian authorities have now clamped down on their border with the Gaza Strip for the same reason as the Israelis; because of terrorism.
Here are some facts Bourdain left out. 95 percent of the security barrier’s length is fence, not wall. The wall portions are located in built up residential areas to block snipers positioned in the upper floors of buildings from firing on Israelis. Since the construction of the security barrier, suicide bombings have virtually ended. In 2002, 452 Israelis were murdered by terrorists, many in suicide bombings. In recent years, the numbers have ranged from 11 to 32. A safer Israel also means fewer Palestinian lives lost. The barrier has saved countless lives on both sides, a fact admitted by Islamic Jihad leader Ramadan Abdallah Shalah.
Did Bourdain and his producers intend the show to transform into Palestinian grievance theater? It’s possible that Bourdain was easily manipulated in an unfamiliar environment. But it is more likely that Bourdain felt compelled to play to the perceived political orientation and pro-Palestinian sympathies of his audience. It is an approach that can’t be bothered with the facts, especially when they don’t support emotion-laden preconceptions. Bourdain should apologize to his audience for allowing his show to be hijacked by a political agenda. But don’t hold your breath. As he said at the outset, “Here goes nothing.”