The “Pro-Con” Con: Curating Criticism of Israel

For the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, NPR’s All Things Considered broadcast four interviews over four days that, on their face, appeared to ensure a sort of “ethnic balance” among those interviewed. Listeners heard from two Jews, and two Palestinians.

NPR’s Robert Siegel made a point of highlighting the equilibrium. In his June 6 segment, he opened by saying that, “This week, we’re asking a couple of writers — an Israeli and a Palestinian — what the Six-Day War and its consequences have meant for them.” And his June 7 broadcast: “Yesterday we heard from Israeli writer A.B. Yehoshua about what it was like for an Israeli for him during the war,” he said. “Well, today, the Palestinian writer and activist Raja Shehadeh is going to share his memories of the Six-Day War and his sense of its legacy and consequences.”

The broadcasts featuring Yehoshua and Shehadeh followed another set of interviews with Jewish editor Jane Eisner on June 4 and a Palestinian named Omar Omar on June 5. Listeners might have been tempted to feel satisfied that all things were indeed considered, having ostensibly been exposed to a balanced and broad range of views on the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in actuality, of course, “balanced” doesn’t necessarily mean “broad.” Particular ethnicities aren’t bound to particular opinions.

Particular guests, on the other hand, do often have known opinions. And in this case, NPR surely would have known what they, and their listeners, were getting: Two generally self-critical Jewish voices. And two Palestinian voices that view Israel through a harsh lens.

You can call it the “‘pro-con’ con”: A range of presentations that are meant to give the impression of balance, but that are in fact curated to reinforce a narrow message.

Jane Eisner’s views were certainly known. As NPR’s Michel Martin explained in his broadcast, Eisner was invited to speak to discuss her column, recently published in the Forward, about the war’s anniversary. That column argued that Jews “must figure out how to hold two very different narratives simultaneously, even though they conflict at their cores.” As a journalist in particular, Eisner says, she feels “duty-bound to understand other perspectives.”

Prompted to elaborate about her “conflicted feelings,” Eisner delivered as would be expected. The victory in the Six-Day war felt like a miracle about which she is “proud and grateful.” On the other hand, she argues, it means Israel shares in responsibility for Palestinian suffering. She says she’s seen young Israeli soldiers act “kind of brutally,” and references the occupation as “a moral stain.”

So, too, would A.B. Yehoshua’s views be known to NPR. The New York Times once described the famed Israeli author as “a long-standing critic of the occupation,” albeit one who “doesn’t lionize” the Palestinians. Robert Siegel did his research, telling Yehoshua during the interview, “You place the settlements on the West Bank as a central obstacle to peace with the Palestinians.” (“Yes,” the author responded, before criticizing Israeli “blindness” and Palestinian “stubbornness.”)

In short, NPR looked to two outspokenly self-critical Jewish or Israeli guests to opine on the Six-Day War anniversary. This type of self-criticism, though, was absent from All Things Considered’s interviews with Palestinian guests. In the segment with Omar Omar, NPR’s Daniel Estrin set the scene thusly: “Since 1967, as hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers moved in, Palestinians have faced life under occupation. Over time, that meant army checkpoints, road closures, nighttime arrests, clashes.”

After Omar described being hassled by Israeli soldiers at a checkpoint the conversation turned to Omar’s son, who murdered a young Israeli. “Omar rationalizes what his son did as part of a never-ending conflict with Israel,” Estrin said. The guest elaborated: “They killing us. They humiliating us. They doing everything to make us less than human being.”

Omar didn’t direct a word of criticism at his own society. If Palestinians have “agency” in the conflict, something Eisner at least acknowledged during her interview, there would be no discussion of it in this conversation.

Nor in the conversation with Raja Shehadeh, who did, however, make sure to indict Israel: “No colonial situation has lasted,” he says in an attack on Israel. “No discriminatory situation so glaring has lasted.”

It isn’t intrinsically wrong for NPR to expose listeners to any of these voices and worldviews. But a media organization striving for balance and breadth — and NPR promises as much in its code of ethics — needs to do better. By inviting these four guests, producers could be almost certain that there would be no serious focus on Palestinian responsibility for the continued conflict.

If it fell to NPR journalists to pick up the slack, they failed to meet the challenge. Consider how Siegel “challenged” his guest Shehadeh with an Israeli perspective: “And to Israelis who say the Palestinian leadership is just too weak, perhaps because of Israeli policies, but for whatever reasons – and too divided and the leadership can never reach a tough agreement with Israel, what do you say?” Shehadeh didn’t miss the cue. Yes, he agreed, Israeli policies weaken the Palestinian leadership.

Siegel’s softball question shut out the voices of thoughtful, mainstream Israelis who have more pointed criticism of the Palestinian leadership. It’s not that they are too weak and too divided to end the conflict, a typical Israeli might say. It’s that they’re too unwilling. Too inclined to reject Israeli peace offers. Too inflexible to accept a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian one. Too focused on encouraging and rewarding anti-Israel violence. Too illegitimate in the eyes of their people, having refused to to hold presidential elections for years after the president’s term expired.

Such views are hardly unusual, or unreasonable. Even a majority of Palestinians don’t believe their government supports Israel’s right to exist, a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found.

NPR’s listeners might be able to conscientiously evaluate what they hear on the air. But it’s much more difficult for them to take into account what isn’t being heard. In this case, despite the announcement that they would hear from both “an Israeli and a Palestinian,” Israeli (and Palestinian) views exploring Palestinian responsibility for the continued conflict weren’t represented in All Things Considered’s coverage of the Six-Day War anniversary.

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