A staple of late-night American television comedy talk shows for decades, Conan O’Brien spent a week or so in Israel recently, doing what he does best: engaging with everyday people going about their lives.
Of course his encounters are somewhat contrived and staged. It is television. But he and his crew were guided by a clear editorial vision – to show a more pedestrian Israel than Americans are accustomed to seeing.
He met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Kaia – his dog. Netanyahu’s the prime minister; of course O’brien did that. What he did not do is hector Netanyahu about how to run the country.
Writing in Haaretz
recently, Hagar Shezaf took a broad swipe at O’Brien’s cheerful sweep through Israel, maligning him and his approach for being a dangerously one-sided propaganda machine which could not have been surpassed even by Netanyahu, the wizard of dangerously one-sided propaganda.
Why? Because Conan dared, unapologetically, to see beauty in Israel.
His social media feeds were relentless and upbeat. He gushed about the buff Israeli men and jaw-dropping women; he floated in the Dead Sea reading a comic book; worked out with female combat soldiers and looked appropriately haggard, but happy.
And he did all of this without indulging in glum, didactic, all-knowing statements on how to resolve the “conflict.” O’Brien did not confuse his fame quotient, or net worth, with the importance of his personal political views, whatever they may be.
Conan O’Brien is a comedian. He came to Israel to make people laugh, and that, it seems, is a cardinal sin.
Furthermore, Shezaf objected, his limited forays into Palestinian society pandered to offensive, Orientalist caricatures: learning how to “haggle” in the Arab market in Jerusalem; a stop in Bethlehem to sample a hookah with a market merchant.
Most offensive, though, was a tweet which Shezaf either misunderstood or misrepresented in order to fit her grumpy paradigm.
Conan went to Aida refugee camp and tweeted a shot of him with three Palestinian youth, all smiling and laughing, quite genuinely, it appears, with this comment: “Hanging with some Palestinian children in the West Bank Aida Refugee Camp. They are not impressed with my showbiz stories. #Palestine” Shezaf bizarrely interpreted this as a distasteful episode in which Conan and his crew were utterly unaware of having been disparaged, writing: “Their [the Palestinian youths] lack of enthusiasm was an eloquent pushback to O’Brien’s attempt to turn them into a sycophantic audience and his utter lack of commentary about their lives as refugees.”
Wow. Talk about distorting reality.
Full disclosure: I wasn’t there. I have a hunch that neither was Shezaf. But, judging by the visuals and comment, I see it all quite differently. The kids were genuinely laughing. And O’Brien’s comment was self-deprecating and funny. Call me shallow.
Perhaps I see it that way because I do not feel compelled to manipulate every single thing in and about Israel to align with such bleak and unforgiving strictures. Yes, this is a country beset with very serious problems, but is it really necessary to constantly harangue on the occupation? Can we not pause, every once in a while, and, well, just be? Sometimes, even in Israel, a rose is just a rose.
Not remarked upon in Shezaf’s rant was Conan’s encounter with an Arab family, the matriarch in hijab, picnicking in a seaside park in Tel Aviv-Yafo.
They, too, seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Well, it seems, we cannot, must not, abide such heresy. Fun in Israel? A little levity? No. Such frivolity detracts from “the message,” which is that Israel is an occupier and those youth in the camp are suffering and those Arab merchants are being demeaned as theater props and, and, and... and sometimes, it’s ok to just have fun. Laugh.
It doesn’t mean O’Brien is stupid. It doesn’t mean he’s taking sides.
It means that he sat down with the prime minister and his dog and smiled. It means that he made efforts – to be commended – to drop into Palestinian and Israeli societies and that he tried to portray each as human; people living ordinary lives in an extraordinary place. It means that he chose to focus on something other than the unceasing, extreme security and political battles that plague this country.
Ironically, this rabid insistence on constantly hammering Israel reflects the historically subservient mindset of the Diaspora Jew, the ultimate “ghetto” mentality: do not celebrate our achievements. Do not draw attention to ourselves. Keep your head down. Show a humble, downcast face to the outside world. Never dare to think you are equal. Self-flagellate.
Without respite. Do not allow Israel to just be.
Another country. Always cultivate negative attention.
Focus on what it is not. Flaws and challenges.
Shortcomings. Then, maybe, they will not hate us as much. We – those who are self-critical – are, after all, different Jews. “Good” Jews.
That, sadly, is the most enduring and pathetic paradigm of all, this belief that the moment we allow ourselves to be “normal,” the moment we digress from our incessant incantations of “occupation bad, Israel bad, Netanyahu bad” – we lose our soul.
I think, and hope, that reality is more nuanced.
Thank you, Conan.
The author is a former ambassador to Israel from Canada.