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'This American Life' in Israel-Palestine

Breaking the mould of uncritical US media reporting on Israel-Palestine, a recent broadcast by This American Life draws attention to the routinised disruption of Palestinian lives as central to domination under occupation, but fails to pick up on a gender perspective which sheds critical light on power, says Katherine Natanel  

"From WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I’m Ira Glass. Two mysteries will unfold. Stay with us."

On April 19, 2013, Chicago Public Media broadcast an episode of This American Life which had me running faster than usual in my local London park. Entitled ‘Picture Show,’ episode #493 centres on "how the story that we tell ourselves about a picture totally determines what we see when we look at it." Between an introduction questioning the civilian surveillance mobilised during recent bombings in Boston and ‘Act Two’ which details emotional opportunism in the contemporary art world, the episode’s first act unfolds in the West Bank – the Occupied Palestinian Territories. In airing ‘Picture Show,’ This American Life importantly broke its own relative silence on Israel-Palestine and also the mould of US reporting. Yet the programme misses out on two crucial issues: the relationship between Jewish Israeli ‘normalcy’ and the perpetual disruption or destabilisation of Palestinian lives; and a gender perspective which sheds critical light on power.

Mapping territory

Broadcast weekly on over 500 stations to an estimated audience of 1.8 million listeners, This American Life airs themed snapshots of everyday life in the United States, revealing the extent to which the ordinary may be anything but. The recipient of much acclaim, this radio programme is uniquely situated to spark debate and discussion as it highlights the presence of politics and power within the mundane. At times venturing beyond national borders, producers and contributors draw important connections between American life and the everyday experiences of those living in contexts shaped by US foreign policy and interests – places like Guatemala, Iraq, Afghanistan and China. Therefore the relative silence of This American Life around Israel-Palestine has always struck me as strange. Though infrequent, a number of segments have admittedly engaged with questions of peace and conflict in Israel-Palestine, most airing during the early 2000s. Yet the gaps between these programmes have contributed to a particular picture, one in which the stories left untold do as much work as those recounted.

With ‘Picture Show’ this story begins to change.

Produced by Nancy Updike, the programme’s first act – ‘Photo Op’ – attempts to find an explanation for why Israeli soldiers in the West Bank now routinely wake young Palestinian boys in the middle of the night for purposes of capturing their images on camera.  Contextualised by Updike’s 15-year history of reporting from the West Bank and protests against the occupation held weekly in the Palestinian village of Nabi Saleh, the segment describes the practice of night time image recording as part of the shifting procedures adopted by the Israel Defence Force (IDF) in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. These photography raids emerge as one method – among many – through which the Israeli state and military “control so many people so effectively for so long.”

Linked to a history of “mapping” as detailed by Yehuda Shaul, a former Israeli soldier who created the group ‘Breaking the Silence,’ various (male) Israeli soldiers testify to the ways in which the collection of images, forms of identification and building diagrams in the West Bank functions less as an anti-terrorism or counter-insurgency tactic but rather as a strategy aimed at “making your presence felt,” hafganat nochechut. Here, the aim is not the collation of data within a centralised policing or surveillance system, but rather the creation of a sensory panopticon among Palestinian residents of the West Bank – a feeling of being constantly watched or recorded, susceptible to forcible entry or detention without notice. Repeated at will, with collected data ultimately relegated to rubbish bins or erased from memory cards, night raid photography exercises combine with the practice of “mock arrests” to “create the feeling of being chased in the Palestinian population.”  During these arrests, after Shabak – the Israeli internal intelligence agency – verifies that a chosen target is explicitly not suspected of violence, the ‘suspect’ is detained by Israeli soldiers only to be returned home hours later without charge. This produces in one special forces soldier a critical realisation: “I’m not here to protect Israel, I’m here to control Palestinians.”

Airing tensions

Throughout ‘Photo Op,’ what becomes increasingly apparent to the listener is the fluidity and pervasiveness of practices employed by the IDF in the West Bank, as well as how these procedures become routinised interruptions of everyday life.  “Mapping’s not violent, and months can go by without any mapping. So it’s not something that usually makes the news.  It’s just one more part of the overall routine in the West Bank these days,” Updike states. However, as Updike rightly highlights, this routinisation does not go without resistance – the village of Nabi Saleh is one of the main West Bank protest sites each Friday, where Palestinian, Jewish Israeli and international activists come together beneath the banner of ‘popular resistance’ to confront the occupation, its forcible annexation of land and brutalisation of bodies. 

Described to me during research in Israel-Palestine as one of the most “hard core” demonstration sites due to the frequency and intensity of violence, Nabi Saleh sits atop the hierarchy of Friday actions, a badge worn proudly by those visiting solidarity activists who take part in the protest. Yet, so too Updike points out, the protests are themselves a part of the wider routine, “practically a script” rehearsed and performed each week. This fluidity, routinisation and resistance form the material fabric of everyday life for many Palestinians living in the West Bank, at the same time as normalisation – ultimate acceptance of these conditions as ‘normal’ – remains contested.

Following the broadcast of ‘Photo Op’ on This American Life, the critical news forum Mondoweiss: The War of Ideas in the Middle East published a commentary on the episode.  Here, Henry Norr recaps the practices and tensions uncovered by Updike’s investigation, weighing the segment’s shortcomings against the potential impact of further such reporting from This American Life and its host/executive producer Ira Glass.  Despite citing Updike’s “balancing” of the investigation’s content with Israeli security concerns, “the obligatory acknowledgement” that some Israelis remain concerned with what happens in the West Bank, and the glossing of the occupation’s consistent reliance upon violent practices, Norr contends that ‘Photo Op’ should be celebrated and encouraged as a rare critique in American media. While not the first time that This American Life has taken on Israel-Palestine, Updike’s investigation breaks with the norm in American reporting which sees explicit criticism of the Israeli state and military as taboo, challenging the reluctance to humanise Palestinians living subject to Israeli rule.

Cracks in the wall

I agree with Norr that this kind of critical reporting from This American Life holds the potential to create more “cracks in the wall” of American public opinion regarding Israel-Palestine and Israeli state policy. Yet as progressive and challenging as Updike’s report is, it still obscures issues that need further unpacking. At two points in the broadcast, Updike points to these issues explicitly, setting the stage for an investigation and analysis which would hold not only the Israeli military to account, but also Jewish Israeli society.  By extension – specifically through American foreign policy – these tensions would also implicate This American Life’s listening audience, countering the claim that two ‘sides’ remain locked in conflict in Israel-Palestine. These tensions appear near the end of the segment, the first after IDF spokesman Peter Lerner denies the practice of “mock arrest” and the disposal of data collected during “mapping” operations. Updike states, “the years since the Second Intifada ended, around 2006, have been the quietest in a long time for Israelis, with some brutal exceptions. People don’t worry about getting on buses the way they used to or try to find tables in cafes far away from the door in case a suicide bomber gets in." A second tension appears moments later as Updike recounts, " the soldiers who came to Bilal Tamimi’s house and photographed his kids were notably polite. It’s part of what makes the video compelling, the disconnect between how they're speaking and what they're doing. All of the soldiers I spoke with talked about feeling a version of that disconnect.”

Quietude and disconnect. These are the prevailing textures and sensations of occupation, colonisation and domination as experienced by Jewish Israelis living within Israel’s internationally recognised borders post-Second Intifada. Rather than spectacular rupture, conflict and violence, relative calm and disengagement increasingly characterise everyday life for many who reside west of the Green Line – this is the new ‘normal.’ Though distanced from occupied territory and military operations to various degrees, Jewish Israeli daily life often unfolds ‘as if’ in Europe or America, those contexts deemed standards of ‘liberalism,’ ‘democracy’ and ‘modernity.’  In recent years a small number of American media outlets and independent press have begun to remark on this state of normalcy and flourishing which appears to exist despite conflict. ‘Why Israel Doesn’t Care about Peace,’ published by Time Magazine on 2 September 2010, describes the active pursuit of "the good life" by Jewish Israelis in the absence of a peace process against the background of economic prosperity. Bob Simon’s 60 Minutes piece entitled ‘From Fear to Fortune: Tel Aviv’s Attitude’ aired on 20 March 2012, again highlighting the seeming incongruity of packed beaches and nightclubs with the political conflict which appears to hold Israelis locked within a "war zone." So too Allison Deger, the assistant editor of Mondoweiss, reflected upon the visible absence of occupation in the insularity of Tel Aviv as she wrote of her arrival on 2 October 2012, ultimately looking beneath the sheen of commerce and capitalism to find signs of what she deemed "the failure of the Zionest dream."

In these rare breaches of American media norms and narratives, journalists related the quietude, disengagement and normalcy of Jewish Israeli everyday life found in place of expected instability and violence. However, this is not to say that conflict, rupture and uncertainty are entirely absent from normalcy in Tel Aviv or elsewhere. Whether living in ha buah – "the bubble" of Tel Aviv – or in West Jerusalem near to ha tefer – "the seam" with the Palestinian ‘East’ – violent conflict remains sewn into the fabric of everyday life, actively creating the conditions for normalcy. Jewish Israeli normalcy depends upon the continued presence of instability and threat, while seemingly constructed against, or in spite of, these very conditions. Normalisation in Tel Aviv is made possible through the routinisation of occupation in Nabi Saleh. Here photography raids and mock arrests become visible as destabilising mechanisms which ultimately make particular (Jewish Israeli) lives liveable – instability in the West Bank generates normalcy inside Israel. Then the rupture of Palestinian everyday life as perpetrated by Israeli soldiers actively manufactures those precarious conditions upon which Jewish Israeli society depends. 

"Heavy touch and a light hand"

This dependency of normalcy upon the routine destabilisation and disruption of Palestinian lives remains largely unarticulated in Updike’s ‘Photo Op,’ concealing a critical link binding Israel with Palestine, and leaving unexplored how practices of everyday life underwrite domination. How might we best investigate and make visible these relationships of politics and power? Through introducing a key lens largely missing from analyses in This American Life: gender.  Within Updike’s report, gender is everywhere and nowhere, absent and present within the words and worlds of fathers and sons, combat soldiers and military spokesmen. Gender structures experiences, rationales, practices and narratives, informing the construction of ‘suspects,’ ‘subjects’ and ‘service’ – these are men searching, mapping, resisting, recording, speaking and acting. Teenaged Palestinian boys are woken in the middle of the night, and adult Palestinian males are driven around villages for hours without arrest.  

What does it mean to leave gender un-addressed when we consider these modes of rupture and intrusion which make presence felt in the West Bank?  Through a gendered lens, these practices of domination appear even more politicised in texture. Imaging and arrests construct certain (male) subjects as suspect or perpetrators of terror, attaching gendered meanings to ‘guilt’ and ‘innocence.’ Interactions among combat soldiers, fathers and sons unfold in the space of the domestic, binding intimacy with politics and collapsing the assumed boundary between public and private. Glow sticks randomly thrown into open windows during night patrols take on a more nefarious hue, as when linked to metaphors of penetration they ostensibly feminise an entire population and potentially catalyse re-masculinisation. Even heroic (masculinised) acts of confession such as those recorded by Updike might be seen as central to soldiers’ ability to execute uncomfortable orders, providing a safety valve which ultimately preserves Israeli state image and interests.  In short, through a gendered lens the personal indeed becomes deeply political. 

Yet in this move to politicise, we must also ask what is lost in the omission of Palestinian and Jewish Israeli women’s narratives from Updike’s investigation. Hers is the lone female voice made audible throughout the segment. What do we miss by maintaining our focus on men and masculinity, fathers, sons and male soldiers?

We miss the centrality of normalcy to conflict. Updike indeed shines critical light upon the fluid practices and rationales which sew Israel’s occupation deeply within the Palestinian Territories, adding texture and complexity to prevailing American media accounts. Yet ‘Photo Op’ remains trained on the masculine – conflict and violence, men and boys. In the language of gendered dualisms, this is paramount to failing to comprehend the interconnection, dependency and mutual constitution of masculine and feminine, the ways in which both gender and power are relational. This is not to argue that normalcy is essentially ‘feminine’ in accordance with the logic of binaries, rather it is to take seriously the implications of gendered constructions and meanings. With conflict, violence and resistance historically judged masculine in both Palestinian and Israeli nationalist discourses, normalcy may be imagined, desired and pursued in terms valuated as ‘feminine’: calm, secure and stable. Including the voices of Palestinian and Jewish Israeli women would not ‘balance’ a prevailing focus on rupture and violence; rather these narratives would illustrate precisely how conflict becomes ingrained in family, society and wider culture, central to the fabric of everyday life.

Then I would ask Nancy Updike to consider further the relationship implied by her closing words in ‘Photo Op’: "that's how 46 years go by, sometimes with a heavy hand, sometimes with a light touch." How else might we see this (feminised) light touch in relation to a (masculinised) heavy hand?  How might we expand our depth of field through gendering conflict and normalcy in Israel-Palestine as suggested here, shedding new light on processes and practices of occupation, domination and colonisation?  What else might we learn about the disconnect which allows some of Updike’s Israeli interlocutors to fulfil reserve duty after confessing their misgivings about participation in regimes of fear and injustice?  We need to know much more about the light touch in order to understand and resist the heavy hand, ultimately holding both to account. In this we might recognise our own implication – the entanglement of this American life with those in Israel-Palestine.

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