In 2023, nobody knows how to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 2013, Anthony Bourdain did

Instead of screaming past each other, try revisiting the 2013 "Parts Unknown" episode exploring "Jerusalem"

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published October 22, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)

American Chef Anthony Bourdain (Paulo Fridman/Corbis via Getty Images)
American Chef Anthony Bourdain (Paulo Fridman/Corbis via Getty Images)

Sweep aside the so-called “fog of war” engulfing live reporting on the Israel-Hamas conflict, and the plainest truth we may be able to agree on is our inability to have a constructive conversation about Israel and the Palestinians.

The sad part is, this statement would be true if it were published anytime over the last two decades, if not most of the last century. For proof, see X user @Cooperstreaming’s Oct. 11 post resurfacing a clip from “The Daily Show” . . . circa 2014.

The fun begins with Jon Stewart trying to settle into his opening monologue with, “We’ll start tonight in the Middle East, where Israel –”

At this the show’s correspondents at the time – which included Jason Jones, Jessica Williams, Michael Che and Jordan Klepper – encircle Stewart while erupting in common rebukes to critiques of Israeli government policies.  

"What, Israel isn't supposed to defend itself?" bellows Jones. Next Williams screams, “Oh yeah, if Mexico bombs Texas, would we exercise restraint?" Then Klepper demands to know what other country is held to the same standard as Israel before screaming, “Self-hating Jew!"

This happens a few more times, with Klepper popping up at the end of each howl-fest to yell slogans like “Traditioooon! Tradition!” and call Stewart a “Zionist pig.” Eventually Stewart balls up his notes and tosses them over his shoulder. "You know what? F**k it,” he says resignedly. “Why don't we just talk about something lighter like . . . Ukraine?"

That this clip's topical humor remains relevant nearly a decade later is almost entirely by design. Primary and secondary educational curricula in the United States barely discuss Middle Eastern geography let alone the region’s history and many cultures. What we learn about Israel comes to us through media coverage that is slight and slanted at best, mainly broadcasting government officials’ fiery declarations as a backdrop to scenes of rock-throwing protesters and explosions.

Of Palestinian day-to-day life we’re shown next to nothing, save for seconds-long clips of angry demonstrators, fighters wrapped in keffiyeh scarves or wailing victims of military strikes.

With this being the dominant lens, it’s no wonder that the Western audience conflates everyday Gazans and West Bank residents with Hamas militants terrorizing both their own civilians and Israelis.

There’s no better way to comprehend the humanity behind any longstanding conflict than to sit at a table with the people involved during peacetime, or whatever relative form of it one can witness.

We’re talking about "what is easily the most contentious piece of real estate in the world. And there's no hope, none, of ever talking about it without pissing somebody, if not everybody, off."

Those aren’t my words or Stewart's, by the way.  Anthony Bourdain opened the 2013 second season premiere of his CNN show “Parts Unknown” with those statements.

He was referring to Jerusalem, whose streets he walked in 2012 with fellow chef Yotam Ottolenghi, the Jerusalem-born British restaurateur who wrote the cookbooks “Plenty,” “Simple" and “Jerusalem.” Ottolenghi would later take Bourdain to visit Majda, a restaurant nestled in the serene village of Ein Rafa just outside of the city, where they would meet and eat with co-owners Michal Baranes, who is Jewish, and her Muslim husband Yaakov Barhum.

Had this been an ordinary gustatory-focused travel series its host would have played it safe – which is to say, Bourdain could have easily remained within Jerusalem and surrounding areas patrolled by Israeli military conscripts while he and Ottolenghi dive into controversial debates over, for instance, which culture gave us falafel. (Which they do, but briefly.)

Instead, Bourdain and his team escort his viewers into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank to dine with a Gazan woman in a Bethlehem refugee camp; and spend time with Laila El-Haddad, author of “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey,” who scores him invites to eat with a local family and a group Bedouin men who prepare a regional specialty starring fire-roasted unripe watermelon. He also breaks bread with a Jewish settler whose home sits in Palestinian territory, “in contravention of international law,” as he subtly puts it.

Recommending a culinary travel show episode as an entry point to understanding this conflict may seem trite. There is rarely a demand for context when obscene atrocities are playing out in real time in front of an international audience, especially when people around the world are still reeling in the aftermath of Hamas' coordinated attack on Israeli civilians that left more than 1,400 people dead and many more injured, with scores of people taken hostage.

Antisemitic violence has also spiked here and abroad in recent years; this crime fans those flames too. But I submit that there’s no better way to comprehend the common humanity behind any longstanding conflict than to sit at a table with everyday people during peacetime, or whatever relative form of it one can witness. Atrocities stir up emotions that make calls for calm consideration seem naive and insulting. Much of the mainstream media coverage compounds our anger as organizations, seeking authoritative voices in the region, end up platforming hawks who claim to speak for their entire people.

On Wednesday, for example, CNN's Anderson Cooper allowed far-right former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennett to declare that Palestinians — not the Hamas militants who slaughtered civilians, but Palestinians in general — "rape young girls," "tear apart limbs," "burn whole families and shoot five month old babies." Cooper let this fly unchallenged, perhaps planning to feature a voice from "the other side" to counter Bennett at some point. 

Without most people having seen much of Palestinian life before Israel declared war on Hamas, believing a former government authority's dangerous rhetoric is as easy to do as reflexively retreating to the post-9/11 defensive stance that allowed Islamophobia to flourish. Hence, this episode of a series that's been out of production for years takes on a fresh urgency.

By journeying into Gaza, Bourdain was visiting a place described by numerous international officials and organizations as the world’s largest open-air prison. The sister of one of his hosts was shot down by snipers while standing in her kitchen. Gaza was not officially at war with Israel when that happened. She was going about her day, something most Western viewers can't picture.

The “Jerusalem” episode of “Parts Unknown” penetrates that ignorance by capturing Palestinians cooking together, playing with their children and teasing Bourdain. One of his hosts chides him for talking while he should be eating her excellent food, as anyone's mom would do. These common moments look as revolutionary and informative now as they did a decade ago.

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It took a year and a half for Bourdain and his team to push beyond the Israeli government denying him the permits to enter Gaza and the West Bank. One can imagine why its officials may have finally relented. The primary aim of “Parts Unknown” was to eat wonderful food and discuss the tradition behind each cuisine. Lingering shots of a Gaza family’s maqluba preparation and that Israeli settler’s abundant, colorful plate fulfill that promise.  

The backdrop to Bourdain’s Gaza strip visit is that the people who opened their doors to him and fed him well have been subjected to limited movement in and out of the territory since 2007, a year after Hamas came to power by way of a democratic election, when Israel's government imposed a blockade on the territory. (Gazans haven't been able to vote in an election since, and with 47.3 percent of its population under the age of 18, that means nearly half of its 2.2 million population has never had a say in its leadership.)

During a visit to a local beach El-Haddad explains to Bourdain that Gazan fisherman can’t go more than six nautical miles from the shore, where the best catch is, because if they do the military will shoot at them or spray them with cold water, or "they'll destroy their boats, they'll cut their fishing nets, they'll detain them.”

Other side dishes materialize in Bourdain’s recurring confrontations with his own identity as a representative of a nation that supports a government that’s hostile to many of his hosts – although, as he points out near the end of the episode, they never show him anything besides kindness and hospitality.

What is there to fear, from what we're shown? The first residents he meets in the Aida Refugee Camp are grinning kids.

“Children play in the streets beneath walls covered in images of martyrs, plane hijackers and political prisoners,” Bourdain narrates, numbering the camp's population at 6,000 people with children making up 66 percent of that community. (Again, this is 2013.)

“The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity."

“I don’t care where that is in the world, that's pretty much a recipe for . . . unruly behavior, I think would be the best way to put it,” he says to his guide Abed Abusrour, the founder of a children’s theater center.

Abusrour agrees. “Especially when you don't have any possibilities to evacuate the anger and the stress in a creative way.” This is why he began using theatre “as one of the most amazing, powerful, civilized and nonviolent means to express yourself,” he says, calling it “the remedy to build peace within.” 

Later, when Bourdain points out to Abusrour that the kids are looking up at effigies of politicians and military leaders while they’re playing, Abusrour reasonably replies, “We are people who are under occupation. People honor their heroes. And their heroes are those who resist the occupation, whether they resisted it with armed struggle or non-violence.” But if Bourdain were to ask these kids who their hero is, he says, “They will recognize a young man from Gaza who is on ‘Arab Idol’ named Mohamed Assaf, a singer.”

In the main Bourdain trusts his viewers will watch with a critical eye and decode the meaning of what isn’t being said out loud. That begins with the full title of the hour, which is “Parts Unknown: Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza.” Israel and Palestine are mentioned plenty of times within the hour, but their absence from its title seems like an intentional effort to stave off prejudgment.

That doesn’t mean Bourdain doesn’t challenge some of his hosts’ views. When the chief executive of an Israeli settlement asserts that the Palestinians in villages surrounding it are happy that they’re here, saying,  “We gave them prosperity for the past 45 years, and wherever the PLO came, they lost it.” Bourdain says nothing to the man, remarking in his voiceover, “I'm guessing a lot of people would disagree with that statement.”

Later, Bourdain presses him about a swath of graffiti on an Arab house near the settlement, a menacing act Israeli settlers visit on Palestinian neighbors called “price tagging.” It reads, “Against Arabs, the state of Israel is alive, and death to the Arabs."

“Why not paint it over?” Bourdain asks, and the man pauses before saying, “Good question. I don't know. Maybe we should. You're right.”

In recent days El-Haddad appeared on CNN in a very different capacity from how she did on Bourdain's show 10 years ago, where both she and the host comforted her infant as they explored the place Israel recently ordered refugees to evacuate. An anchor asked her to explain where Gazans can go to seek safety. Nowhere, she answers, hammering home the ghoulish absurdity in this escalating violence.

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On Tuesday at least 500 Gazan civilians were killed by an explosion at the enclave's al-Ahli Hospital. The wanton obliteration of hundreds innocents, many of them children, quickly became secondary to debates over who was responsible. If you’ve never seen Palestinian kids playing or their parents nourishing their loved ones, it may be simpler to emotionally distance oneself from the horror of so much death, reducing murdered families and vanished futures to casualties while focusing on culpability.

Gaza Health Ministry said on Wednesday that 3,478 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli airstrikes in the 11 days since Hamas' attack, and more than 12,000 have been injured, according to a PBS NewsHour report. The Israeli government also cut electricity and access to fresh water and food, creating a humanitarian crisis.

As "Jerusalem" begins, Bourdain predicts that “by the end of this hour, I'll be seen by many as a terrorist sympathizer, a Zionist tool, a self-hating Jew, an apologist for American imperialism, and Orientalist, socialist, fascist, CIA agent and worse.” I’m not sure how much of that came true. The episode did earn him the 2014 Voices of Courage and Conscience award from the U.S. Muslim Public Affairs Council, however.

“The world has visited many terrible things on the Palestinian people, none more shameful than robbing them of their basic humanity,” Bourdain said in his acceptance speech for the award. “People are not statistics. That is all we attempted to show.”

The episode's more overtly lasting legacy is its clear depiction of a truth often dismissed in times like this, which is that people simply want to live in peace, and would not claim to support the brutality committed or promised by extremists, whether that describes rogue actors or bloodthirsty politicians.

Bourdain knew as much. "One can be forgiven for thinking, when you see how similar they are, that the two peoples — both of whom cook with pride, eat with passion, love their kids, love the land in which they live or the land they dream of returning to, who live so close, who are locked in such an intimate, if deadly embrace — might somehow, some day, figure out how to live with each other," he says near the end of the episode.

"But that would be very mushy thinking indeed," he concludes. "Those things, in the end, probably don't count for much at all." Knowing that shouldn't silence attempts to understanding this hostility that shows no sign of ending. Here, in a small way, some of us have a start.

"Parts Unknown: Jerusalem, West Bank and Gaza" is currently streaming on Max.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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