Like most months, September was packed from beginning to end with news about Israel. Even Yom Kippur generated hundreds of social media posts about the fact that — for one brief day — Israel’s frenetic pace slows and its tight traffic disappears.
Yet there was one story that dominated Israel-focused news feeds this month. Every time you logged on to Facebook, there it was — another friend posting yet another video about it. In September, Conan O’Brien taped a show in Israel.
Why all the fuss? Yes, Conan is a celebrity. But bigger celebrities and world leaders have visited Israel without generating half this much buzz.
I think Conan thrilled so many of us because, finally, someone from outside our community helped to share the real Israel that we all know and love. He actually went out onto Israel’s streets and mingled with average Israelis. He brilliantly captured Israel’s charm and chutzpa, its energy and edge, its heart and its voice. He sat down with picnicking Israelis who promptly offered him all of their food. He wished “Shabbat Shalom” to passersby on the Tel Aviv beach. He spoke to the doctors treating wounded Syrians and told them that they deserved a Nobel Peace Prize.
In short, Conan provided us with “Israel beyond the conflict” at its best. And he actually helped to bring this truth about Israel beyond the tall walls of our pro-Israel echo chamber. I suspect that almost everyone who saw his show ended up with a more positive view of Israel. And that’s a valuable, rare thing. Thank you, Conan, for showing the real Israel to so many.
But Conan also demonstrated the limits of this feel good messaging. While in Bethlehem, he was confronted by a group of anti-Israel protesters. As he engaged them in conversation, they proceeded to tell him a series of terrible lies about the Jewish State. They accused Israel of colonialism and genocide. They told him that the Israeli public supports violence against Palestinians, while Palestinians would never support or celebrate the the murder of Israeli civilians. They said this with a straight face.
Conan listened. He nodded. He said “right” multiple times. But he had no answer. He did not challenge what he heard. Instead he told the protesters that he’d like to share their testimony with his online audience so that “millions” could hear it, and he did so.
It’s hard to be angry at Conan. He went to Israel to listen and learn, not to argue. As he noted to the assembled protesters, he’s just a television comedian. By his own admission he doesn’t know enough to sort fact from ugly fiction.
But the angry demonstrators who confronted Conan are not confined to the Middle East. They’re on many of our college campuses where they’re aggressively sharing the same lies. So we need to do more than equip our students with videos of hip Tel Avivis enjoying the sun. We need to teach them how to confront this anti-Israel narrative. Conan could listen, crack a joke, and then walk away. Our students don’t have the same luxury.
– David Brog, Executive Director