NPR fails to see 'the Other'

Ra'fat Al-Dajani

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Drew Christiansen

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Right-wing candidates on the campaign trail have crassly demonized Muslims and their religion as targets. It was only a matter of time before the Palestinian people, the majority of whom are Muslim, would also be subjected to the vilest of stereotypes.

Appearing as a keynote speaker at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee annual policy conference in Washington, D.C., on March 21, Republican front-runner Donald Trump attempted to mollify the criticism he had received recently for saying that he would remain neutral in brokering negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians by bending over backwards to vilify Palestinians. Trump used the worst sort of stereotyping to claim that "in Palestinian society, the heroes are those who murder Jews," and that "in Palestinian textbooks and mosques, you've got a culture of hatred that has been fermenting there for years."

As racist and bigoted as that is, it is not unexpected from Trump. What was totally unexpected however, was a recent segment on National Public Radio.

The report, aired March 23, described the "journey" an Israeli woman, Tamar Asraf, took from being an opponent of the Israeli settlement of the Occupied Palestinian Territories and a supporter of returning of occupied land as part of a peace agreement, to becoming an Israeli settler herself.

While not as 'in your face' offensive as Trump's remarks, the underlying theme of the report completely undermined any Palestinian legitimacy or claims to a homeland of their own. It was insidious in the sense that the report seemed like it was just presenting information and one person's experience. Any listener could not have come away with anything but total sympathy for essentially an Israeli right wing, maximalist view.

The problem, however, seems not to have been reporter Emily Harris' laid-back interview style, but rather the selectivity of her editors. The very next day NPR posted online a blog from Harris which included a number of profiles of both Israelis and Palestinians who had changed their minds, several of them from hawkish to dovish positions, together with commentary by social psychologists about how people change their minds and why very often they don't.

Harris talks about Asraf's beliefs evolving from supporting the need to return occupied Palestinian land as part of a peace agreement, to viewing "all the land including the West Bank as given by God to the Jewish people from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea."

It was left to Asraf's father to challenge his daughter saying, "You see the history, you see the Bible, you see the Holy Land, but you don't see the Palestinians. What about the Palestinians?" To which Asraf replies "you're right. I don't see them."

The NPR reporter did not once challenge Asraf's change of views or even inquire about why she dismissed Palestinians as a people and a nation. Nor did the reporter point out that this type of dismissal is the flip side of the coin of a Palestinian saying that Israel has no legitimacy or Judaism has no claim to the land because Jews broke their covenant with God.

Interspersing soft songs in Hebrew throughout, the soft-spoken Asraf, who had a perfect American accent, lulled the listener into complete sympathy, akin to the folksy American 'Johnny Appleseed' frontier fable. The on-air radio segment, free of comment or context, could fairly be taken as a puff piece for the settler movement.

NPR host Audie Cornish seemed to suggest there might be other stories airing on the same topic. She led in to the piece saying, "This week, we're exploring what prompts people to change their minds. NPR's Emily Harris has been bringing us stories from Israelis and Palestinians whose views have evolved even as they're entrenched in a long-running conflict."

There was no reference to a story aired the previous day, March 22, of a Palestinian, Bassam Aramin, who had moved from being an angry teenaged stone-thrower to becoming a peace activist and a leader of Combatants for Peace, a group of Israeli veterans and former Palestinian militants.

Years later Aramin's 10-year-old daughter was shot by Israeli soldiers while walking to a friend's home. "Sometimes you say, 'why me,' especially me. I have no enemies," he said. "I don't hate anyone. Why this soldier shoot my daughter. Why? It's an open question forever."

Aramin believes retribution will do no good. It will not ease his pain. "It's nothing to do with your pain, to kill the rest of the Jews," he told Harris. "It's ongoing pain, forever," he said. He presses on working for peace, and he has convinced his once embittered son, Araab, to join him in that cause.

Had the story of Tamar Ashraf been linked to the story of Bassam Aramin ever so briefly, it would have still been offensive to Palestinians, but some of the sting would have been taken out of her confessed blindness to the Palestinian 'Other.'

One other story from Harris' blog did appear the next day, this about a Palestinian woman, Abla Masrujeh, who had lost faith in the peace process when the same Israeli left-wing peace groups she had been working with to promote coexistence, remained totally silent during the 2000 second Palestinian intifada. Despite her loss of faith, there was no hint of Masrujeh denying Israel's existence or Jewish claims to the land.

One wonders whether NPR's editors and producers were simply journalistically careless or whether some other motive lies behind airing the Tamar Ashraf segment without comment, when there were so many good tales to be found in Harris's blog.

How did they think that just a general note that the network was broadcasting stories of people who had changed their minds that week would save them from criticism on such a fraught issue? It mattered a great deal that the other stories included Palestinians, especially Palestinians who had lost their hatred of Israelis and work with Israeli counterparts for peace.

It's not that NPR shouldn't report on the views of any Israeli, far from it. Indeed we need stories on the settlers to learn who they are. However, it's in the way the segment was edited for "All Things Considered" that arouses concern. The report had the feel of one describing a person's struggle from alcoholism to sobriety.

Any report, at least from a station as prestigious and comparatively even-handed as NPR is, should probe what the ramifications for peace and coexistence are from such a denial of 'the Other.' Otherwise the effect is one of biased reporting, whether intentional or not.

In the late seventies, Palestinian-American academic and philosopher Edward Said published his precedent-setting book Orientalism. In it, he exposed and criticized biased western attitudes and portrayals of Muslim and Arab cultures. Said explained that the way the media reports on Muslims and Arabs reflects not just ignorance and bias, but has deeper and more damaging effects.

As a Palestinian, Said understood how stereotypical depictions which are disseminated and reinforced by the American media, created an image of Palestinians as inferior, genetically violent-prone and devoid of Western (read civilized) morals and values.

Almost 50 years later, little has changed. Whether outrageously bigoted statements by U.S. politicians and candidates, or careless presentation of stories by NPR, the results are the same: a constant and consistent favoring of one side's claims over the other, made all the more 'digestible' by the underlying implications of one side being children of a lesser God.

[Jesuit Fr. Drew Christiansen is Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Global Development at Georgetown University; Rafat Aldajani is a Palestinian-American businessman and political commentator.]

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