Conan O'Brien and his fantastic marketing campaign for Israel

Conan O'Brien and his fantastic marketing campaign for Israel
Comment: Conan O’Brien's now-famous visit to the Israel and Palestine is nothing but an advertisement wrapped up in the illusion of neutrality and interest, writes Amal Awad.
7 min read
27 Sep, 2017
Conan O'Brien's program resembles a piece of 'hasbara' - Israeli propaganda [Getty]
"Let's face it: it's impossible to do justice in 40 minutes to the incredibly complex and polarising country of Israel. But I did accomplish my goal, which was to make friends wherever I went."

So begins Conan O'Brien, US comedian and late-night talk show host, in 'Message to the people of Israel and Palestine', an editorial-lite of his time in the region. In the 40-minute special that aired last week, O'Brien befriends Israelis, sits with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his dog, and haggles with Arabs in a souk. Oh, and he drank a lot of coffee – cue the hilarity.

I'm not sure why O'Brien even bothered with the nod to Palestinians. His time in the West Bank was a cursory glance at life under occupation. When he wasn't haggling with Arab men in the souk, he was trying to find humour in the wall that separates Palestinians from their own land, making simple daily acts unbearably difficult. He stopped at Aida refugee camp, but by this point any sense of genuine interest was lost in O'Brien's loving embrace of modern Israel.

Here he lit up, free to joke about Israel's good-looking men, mock-train with the women of the Israeli forces, promote its beer and hummus, and float on the Dead Sea. On a tree-lined street, he was treated to a hero's welcome, holding up traffic to accommodate selfie-seekers and gatecrash a family picnic where he was offered cake.

Only a few years ago, an Israeli group placed advertisements in New York subways that referred to Arabs as savages

"I love this country!" he tittered, his mouth full of cake. "You're so giving!"

According to one report, Israel certainly was pulling out the red carpet, and claiming the benefits of a famous American normalising life in a conflict zone.

Israel's PR department could not ask for more. Haaretz called him a "patsy for Netanyahu's propaganda", a claim that seems only to be confirmed by The Jerusalem Post's gushing review of O'Brien's visit, giddy at the toothless tiger that is BDS.

"The most interesting aspect of his visit, though, is that he is defiantly ignoring his critics and treating Israel like it's an attractive (and normal) tourist destination," wrote Noa Amouyal, "That's because it is."

She continued: "Take a look at all of Conan's stops here: A visit to the set of the Israeli hit TV-show Fauda (which O'Brien referred to as a favorite of his); floating and singing "Hava Nagila" in the Dead Sea; meeting doctors from Ziv Medical Center who are saving the lives of Syrian refugees; and hitting up an Israeli hummus restaurant."

Also reported in The Jerusalem Post is what was missing from the Conan without Borders special - a segment featuring a grieving Palestinian father, whose son was killed by Israeli soldiers.

It would have been completely out of place in a show that summed up the region's complex history in a minute.

O'Brien is at his most strained when a soldier points out the sounds of Syria's civil war at the border, a situation he seems to find more crushing than the reality of occupation. He appears moved while visiting Syrians in an Israeli hospital, inexplicably without a shred of irony - given Israel's pounding of Gaza in recent years, and the disproportionate death tolls of Palestinians in general.

O'Brien explains the separation wall as a security measure. When "confronted" by 'pro-Palestinian activists", he takes it in his stride.

"What do you think of this wall? Is this a normal wall?" an activist asks him.

"Well, no, I don't think any wall like this is normal. Do you?"

She doesn't. "It's sad," says O'Brien, later trotting out the usual defences of Israel – that it's under constant threat as a Jewish state.

Make no mistake, while O'Brien addresses both Israel and Palestine, this special edition of his late-night show is very much an Israeli special. The flag is used in promos, O'Brien is feted as an important guest – even sharing his meeting with Netanyahu on social media – and his greatest lamentation seems to come when he must separate from his Israeli film crew when entering the West Bank, saying (with trademark O'Brien humour) that it's like "leaving one divorced parent to stay with another".

While the programme is disappointing for people who enjoyed O'Brien as a comedian (that would be me), what is most staggering is just how successfully O'Brien campaigns for Israel without meaningful acknowledgement of daily life under occupation. He seems uncomfortable with the inconvenience of this reality – a quick visit to a refugee camp is all he can muster.

Arabs, while participants in the show, are not to be taken seriously. They offer bitter coffee and rip you off in the marketplace.

It's great marketing for Israel as a modern country trapped among the undemocratic Arabs.

But to understand why landing the O'Brien visit is significant, one must first consider how well Israel does propaganda.

In his recently released book, Balcony Over Jerusalem, Australian journalist John Lyons narrates six years of living in and reporting from Jerusalem (among other hotspots in the region). He is clear from the start that he went in without having a 'dog in this fight', thinking that impartiality would sustain him.

But, as he notes: "We live at a time when more people are trying to shape reality than report it. The collapse of the traditional newspaper model means there are more people in public relations than journalism, and Israel operates one of the most effective public relations machines in the world.

"There's a Hebrew word for it - hasbara, or "propaganda". Hasbara is even the name of a government unit."

Read more : Peace for Palestinians begins with recognising the Nakba

Lyons recalls years of witnessing injustice against Palestinians – houses being demolished or taken over, heaving settlements that encroach on Palestinian land and stifle the lives of Palestinians (and prevent progress to ending occupation), violence against the population that is overlooked, and the imprisonment and mistreatment of children.

Lyons openly reported on the heavy pressure that Israeli lobby groups place on reporters in Jerusalem - to the point where they try to ruin a journalist's credibility if they report on injustice against Palestinians.

It's the humanising of Palestinians that gets you into trouble

In one incident, Lyons says he was under attack for making the subject of his story a man, complete with name, age and occupation. It's the humanising of Palestinians that gets you into trouble, you see.

Of course, the word 'humanise' seems ridiculous when talking about actual human beings. It's a word I used to avoid because of the insult implicit in its meaning. But I understand better now how useful the word is. Arabs in general are so often seen as being less than human. Only a few years ago, an Israeli group placed advertisements in New York subways that referred to Arabs as savages.

NYC subway poster Getty
[Click to expand] A poster in New York's subway
implicitly calls Arabs 'savages' [Getty]

Now, they're just those quirky souk peddlers trying to rip you off, or refugees to be pitied.

Palestine is a place of myth and crushing reality. Its tragedy is plentiful, but so is the humanity, so often lost in the narratives that try, at times in vain, to convey what life looks like under occupation. Somehow, even amidst checkpoints, restriction, shortages and lack of opportunity, people resist the desire to abandon their lives.

Gaza has been called the world's largest open-air prison, strangled by blockades and bombings that have decimated its infrastructure. In the West Bank, life is a series of checkpoints and permission slips. In villages that have close proximity to settlements, life gets considerably worse as the security of settlers takes away the ordinary comforts of everyday life for Palestinians.

For all of O'Brien's noble intentions – he did, for example, hashtag Palestine in social media, and he uploaded the full exchange with the activists (albeit with the strange disclaimer that he hasn't sought out the other side of the argument, despite being in Israel) – all he has done is produce a travel segment, a winking nod to Israel's modernity and youth. His tone is: Cut them some slack, they're young and under constant threat.

That he could find the humour in it when he was given luxury treatment beggars belief, particularly given the disparities between life in sun-soaked, tree-lined Israel and the West Bank are so striking – and that's a misdeed he can't haggle his way out of.

Amal Awad is a Sydney-based journalist and author. Her latest book, Beyond Veiled Clichés, explores the lives of Arab women. 

Follow her on Twitter: @amalmawad

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.