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Conan and the barbarians

Anti-Israel activists duped the affable TV comedian into giving their lies air time, starting with the origins of shakshuka

The anti-Israel activists who confronted Conan O’Brien as he walked along the West Bank’s security barrier were not pleased. The leader of the group, marching toward Conan and unable to contain herself, lobbed her first challenge while still 20 feet away. “Didn’t you say shakshuka was Israeli a couple of days ago?”

He replied as most of us might: “Shakshuker?”

Now close enough for Conan to hear, she repeated her cross-examination on behalf of the tomato and egg dish. “Didn’t you say it was Israeli?”

CONAN: “Oh, I don’t know what it is. I know that –”

ACTIVIST (shaking her head): “So why would you say that?”

CONAN: “Say what?”

ACTIVIST: “That shakshuka is Israeli.”

CONAN: “Well, they served it to me on El Al, so… I… but…”

The ringleader switched to a gentler tone, that of an elementary school teacher eager to show she was disappointed, not angry. “I mean,” she said softly, “it’s a Palestinian dish.”

“Okay, well I apologize. Alright.” What else could he say? He’s a television show host, not a culinary geographer.

But Conan had just been bamboozled on shakshuka. Although the dish as we know it originates in North Africa —Tunisia, Libya, Morocco, or Algeria, depending on whether you ask a Tunisian, Libyan, Moroccan or Algerian — its strong connection to Israel has been acknowledged by Saveur, The New York Times, Serious Eats and many others. For this we can thank the large population of North African Jews who brought the recipe with them when they emigrated to Israel, popularizing it there and, ultimately, across the world. These same North African Jewish communities are said to have been instrumental in creating the version of shakshuka recognizable to us today.

Sarah Elmusrati, a Libyan food writer who founded the Academy of Arab Cuisine, claims shakshuka for her native country, but still acknowledges a uniquely Israeli element:

Many would say that shakshuka is an integral part of Sephardic Jewish cuisine, indigenous to North Africa. This may explain why this dish has made its way to Israel being showcased in a way it has never been in the Maghreb states.

It’s not unusual for food to evolve, to embrace new identities, as it migrates across borders. The idea is as American as apple pie (isn’t). Shakshuka is North African, and in some respects has become Israeli, too.

It is not, however, Palestinian. And the activist who lectured Conan on the dish’s origins knew as much (more on that later). She lied to Conan because her goal wasn’t to inform, but to demonize Israel before the talk show host and, more importantly, his audience. “They’ve taken the land, the food, there’s, like, hardly anything left,” the ringleader proclaimed about Israelis, never mind that it was she who seconds earlier engaged in culinary appropriation.

The clan of activists certainly succeeded in getting their message to a wider audience. By the end of the encounter, after their dehumanizing cancer analogies, apologia for terrorism, and allegations of genocide, Conan eagerly assured them that he would feature the entire exchange online. And so it came to be that, among entertaining antics and one-liners, the official Conan O’Brien website now offers fans 25 minutes of the most noxious anti-Israel propaganda.

It is worth considering why, exactly, the amiable comedian was moved to offer his prominent platform to the radical activists, because the same forces that likely swayed him to indulge extremists tend to afflict the broader conversation about the Arab-Israeli conflict, too.

Like most Americans, Conan doesn’t seem to harbor any grudge against Israel. On the contrary, the very fact of his visit to Israel, for which he was surely set upon by BDS bullies demanding he boycott the Middle East’s small sliver of Jewishness, shows otherwise. The segments he broadcast were generally fun, funny, and focused on the beauty of the country and its inhabitants. So what happened?

Three notable forces were present during the session with the activists, and likely contributed to Conan’s decision to promote their bile: the TV personality’s reluctance to offend; the misappropriation of social justice language; and identity politics. Let’s look more closely.

There is certainly nothing wrong with Conan’s good-natured persona. But it is an unfortunate fact that when good-natured people meet people of ill will, the latter voices tend to dominate. Indeed, Conan’s reluctance to confront or offend the activists gave them endless space to express their vitriol. “You guys have done 95 percent of the talking, so there’s no way I can edit this so that you don’t get your point of view across,” the comedian joked toward the end of their encounter. “Because you’re very good at talking.”

He was right. For the zealot, talking comes easy. For those on the receiving end of the zeal, though, it can be more challenging to respond appropriately. For example, when someone from the group said Israel shouldn’t exist — “We have one solution: this is Palestine, from the river to the sea” — Conan replied with one unfortunate syllable: “Right.”

It’s not that he agreed with the sentiment. It’s that disagreement could make an uncomfortable encounter even less pleasant. In certain situations, “right” can mean I hope this ends soon. Still, whatever his intent, Conan’s repeated affirmations led the audience astray, as in this segment:

ACTIVIST: “Did you watch the video, in Hebron, of the young Palestinian man they had shot in the legs and then the settler came up to him, a very violent settler—”

CONAN: “Right.”

ACTIVIST: “…went up to him and the soldier gave him his helmet—”

CONAN: “Right.”

ACTIVIST: “…and he shot the Palestinian in the head and left him to die there, right?”

CONAN: “Right.”

ACTIVIST: “Did you know that 83% of Israeli society was in favor of the soldier doing that, and started an entire campaign in his support?”

CONAN: “Right.”

ACTIVIST: “Show me a Palestinian that would tell you that any child that was killed by another Palestinian in a way like that, executed—”

CONAN: “Right.”

ACTIVIST: “that they would celebrate it. They never would.”

CONAN: “Right. Right.”

ACTIVIST: “Because they know what compassion and humanity is. Israelis don’t, I’m sorry, and that’s something you might have to do a little more research on.”

Again and again, viewers heard that the activist is “right,” never mind that the facts show otherwise. The “child” she portrayed as an innocent victim was actually a 21-year-old Palestinian assailant. He had approached a group of Israeli soldiers and plunged a knife into one of them before being incapacitated by a bullet.

The claim that 83% of Israeli society backed the subsequent killing of the attacker, for which the renegade soldier was ultimately imprisoned, was also blatantly false. According to one poll, 83% of Israeli right-wingers expressed support for the act of vigilantism, as they were more inclined to accept the soldier’s claim that he fired in self-defense, fearing that the injured attacker might detonate explosives. On the other end of the spectrum, only 20% of left-wing Israelis supported the act.

The activist’s pronouncement that Palestinians would never celebrate violence was particularly absurd — and not only because she made the claim while wearing a T-shirt honoring Rasmea Odeh, a convicted terrorist who had murdered two Israeli students. Reuters and The Associated Press captured video footage of Palestinians cheering the September 11 attacks in New York City, for example, and The New York Times reported that “big crowds of Palestinians marched in celebration” while praising “beloved Bin Laden.” Polls have consistently found that large percentages of Palestinians justify suicide bombings against civilians. And Palestinian schools and summer camps are famously named after terrorists like Dalal Mughrabi, whose victims included 13 children. Conan and his viewers were lied to again.

When an activist told Conan that violence against Israelis is “not terrorism” but “resistance,” he responded: “Right.” When one said Israel is engaged in genocide against the Palestinians, in fact one of the fastest growing populations in the world: “Right.” When another corrected Conan for referring to Israel as Israel rather than Palestine: “Right.”

Again, it’s unlikely Conan agreed with the propaganda. At some points, his body language — arms crossed, slight grimace — seemed to contradict his verbal concessions. But as the encounter continued, he warmed up to the anti-Israel activists. This may be because, mixed in with their wild allegations and hateful speech, they used language, usurped from the social justice lexicon, that would likely resonate with the comedian and most Americans.

“You don’t create peace by segregating people,” the leader of the group told Conan early in the conversation. “Right?” (“No,” Conan assured her.)

Those peaceful words, though, gave cover to the illiberal, eliminationist message that immediately followed: “You don’t separate cancer in someone’s body from one part to another. Do you know what I mean? You get rid of the cancer. And then, those who can live in peace, who are human, who have compassion and aren’t okay with babies dying ….”

Because the anti-Israel activist never finished her sentence — in full control over the conversation, she quickly transitioned to another story about another alleged Israeli atrocity —we’ll never know whether those Israeli Jews “who are human” and “have compassion” are exempt from the prescribed excision. Not that it matters much. Recall that, to this same activist, Israelis as a whole don’t know “what compassion and humanity is.” To her, the cancer is the body.

Conan appeared not to notice that when the activist said “desegregation,” she really meant expulsion of cancerous Israelis. The shine of the former word obscured the ugliness of the latter ones.

The banishment of Israeli Jews came up again later in the conversation when another activist, a young man who described himself as a “former American veteran” told Conan, “If somebody invades your land, they gotta go. They gotta go.” Not long afterward, he made clear that he viewed not just the West Bank, but the entirety of Israel as “invaded” land that must be cleansed. “Israel’s gotta go,” he said. And yet again in his parting message to Conan: “Israel does not exist, Israel is not real.”

You don’t have to be fluent in the Middle East conflict to recognize that such illiberal language is a primitive relic, the type of cartoonish denial that is fading even in the Arab world.

But the activists understood how to distract from their regressive beliefs. With progressive words. To link Israeli Jews with American neo-Nazis, one of the group cited Donald Trump’s response to the recent white nationalist march in Virginia:

In Charlottesville, recently, a big tragedy happened. Our president came out and said, “There’s two sides,” right? And the world was outraged at this comment. So why is it that we can’t be outraged when people say there’s two sides here, Israel and Palestine? There is no two sides.

An endorsement was shouted by someone in the entourage: “It’s a genocide, colonialism!”

Paraphrasing Martin Luther King, Jr (though surely unaware that King and many of his fellow civil rights leaders were Zionists), someone explained to Conan: “We can’t have free people anywhere in the world if anyone is oppressed.”

Even healthcare got a mention, along with the suggestion that American support for Israel is somehow responsible for the high costs of health insurance.

The feint worked. “You’re right to be passionate,” Conan told the anti-Israel activists, before promising to broadcast their comments so that “millions of people would see this.”

Abetting the social justice jargon was another, related dynamic that helped the medicine go down. Conan is white. “The whitest man in show business,” he has said in one of many self-deprecating jokes about his pale skin. The group of activists that surrounded him, meanwhile, were mostly not white.

In a world where identity politics is gaining traction, racial sensitivities can blow an anti-intellectual fog over such conversations, says James Kirchick, a gay, center-right commentator. Writing in Tablet magazine, Kirchick lamented that “the discussion of vital issues today has been reduced to a game of Rock, Paper, Scissors, in which the validity of one’s argument is determined not by the strength of your reasoning, but by the relative worth of the immutable qualities you bring to the table, be it skin color, sexual orientation, or genitalia (or, in the case of pre-operative transsexuals, wished-for genitalia).”

Liberal journalists have noted the same thing. “Under p.c. culture, the same idea can be expressed identically by two people, but received differently depending on the race and sex of the individuals doing the expressing,” observed New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait.

Of course, these ground rules don’t guide every interaction. But identity politics did play a noticeable part in Conan’s talk with the activists. During a conversation about Israeli checkpoints, a young, tattooed activist, the one Caucasian among the group, leaned forward to deliver a lesson about racism. “Conan, they don’t check me,” he said. “Why? ‘Cause I look like you.”

This misinformed idea that overlays American racial politics on Israel in order to depict Israelis as white and the Palestinians as “of color” was pushed throughout the discussion, as the activists repeatedly referred to their Israeli foils as hailing from “Brooklyn” or “Europe.”

The activist was wrong about what color differences in the region mean — in part because he was mistaken about what those color differences are. In fact, half of the Israeli-Jewish population (including those who brought shakshuka to the country) is of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry, and their skin tone can be indistinguishable from that of most Palestinians. And large numbers of Israelis, including many whose families are from Ethiopia, have darker skin than the average Palestinian. Meanwhile, Palestinians — consider Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi, or the young Palestinian child nicknamed Shirly Temper after her theatrical attempts to provoke Israeli soldiers on camera — can be whiter even than Israelis descendants of European refugees. Conan might look like the tattooed activist. But more often than not, the soldiers in charge of checkpoint look nothing like Mr. O’Brien.

The conversation again turned to identity politics when a young black activist, the “former veteran” who insisted “Israel does not exist,” smeared Zionism as a supremacist philosophy. “The problem is Zionism, it’s the terrorism, it’s the supremacy — same thing as white supremacy,” he said.

Notwithstanding his use of anti-racist buzzwords, it is the activist’s own sentiments that are widely seen as bigoted. President Obama has linked anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism. So has United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, who agreed that “calls for the destruction of the State of Israel … [are] a form of modern anti-Semitism.” And Martin Luther King, addressing anti-Zionism of this very nature, exclaimed that “when people criticize Zionists they mean Jews — you are talking anti-Semitism.”

Even without the activists’ prompts, Conan was surely conscious of his own skin color, something he alluded to after being told to attend a performance by a Palestinian rap group. “Do you think rapping is how I get my information?” he replied. “I’m an old, Irish-Catholic guy.”

So the polite, socially just, and blindingly white talk show host deferred to the activists throughout the encounter, normalizing their view that “Israel’s gotta go,” that the country is actually Palestine, that Israeli Jews are incapable of compassion and humanity, and that, therefore, violence against them is legitimate. Why shouldn’t this message be broadcast to a million of comedy fans?

It’s hard to imagine Conan being as accepting of hateful stereotypes about other national groups. Would he have indulged the ugly claim that, say, Texans know what hard work is, but Puerto Ricans don’t? Surely not. The activist’s assertion that Palestinians understand humanity but Israelis don’t should be equally disqualifying. Would he have sympathetically promised airtime to a group of Israeli extremists who insist violence targeting Palestinian civilians is “natural” resistance? Again, unlikely.

There is a unique standard for Israeli Jews at play here. If you target and tar most groups, you might expect a well-deserved rebuke. But direct hateful stereotypes at the world’s biggest concentration of Jews and Conan might just reward you with space on his website. Such is the sway of insincere woke language and weaponized identity politics, particularly when these are faced by people who shy away from confrontation.

As the conversation finally ended and Conan began to leave the scene, he hesitated, turned back, and asked for one last piece of enlightened advice from the ringleader. “Your initial thing about shakshuka — that’s the information I was given,” Conan explained. “So what would you like me to call it from now on?”

“It’s actually North African,” she confessed, essentially admitting that her opening gambit about the Palestinian origins of shakshuka was a lie.

Here’s some better advice about shakshuka, not only for Conan but also for students on anti-Israel campuses and the rest of us who, in today’s polarized political atmosphere, might be tempted to jettison critical thinking for the sake of alliances or approval: if the eggs are rotten, send the dish back. It doesn’t matter if it’s decorated with alluring garnish. It doesn’t matter if it’s served by a waiter cloaked in North African garb. Don’t worry about coming across as rude. Turn the dish away. It’s not something you want in your body.

About the Author
Gilead Ini is a senior research analyst at CAMERA, where his writing on media coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict highlights how one-sided and inaccurate reporting can distort understanding of the Middle East. You can follow him on Twitter at @GileadIni.
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