O’Brien has filmed a number of specials abroad, including trips to Cuba, Armenia, Mexico and South Korea. “Conan Without Borders: Israel” is arguably the comedian’s most controversial remote special — a fact he acknowledged throughout. In announcing the special last month, O’Brien deadpanned that “due to all the division and strife and intractable hatred and division in this country right now, I’ve decided to leave America for the relative peace, sanity and quiet of the Middle East.”
While in Israel, O’Brien visited Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Jaffa and Bethlehem, located in the occupied West Bank. He also visited the country’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an encounter that was not featured in the special.
The special featured its fair share of O’Brien’s often self-deprecating brand of humor. “Do I look more attractive?” he asked a local woman after slathering himself with mud from the Dead Sea. “More attractive than without the mud,” she answered bluntly. He tried in vain to grab a drink with Gal Gadot. He sang with an Elvis impersonator at a beach in Tel Aviv, and planted a kiss on the lips of a man walking through the streets of Bethlehem.
But the “Conan Without Borders: Israel” took a serious turn when TBS’s cameras followed O’Brien to the West Bank barrier. O’Brien explained:
Right now, I’m standing on the Palestinian side of the wall. It separates the Palestinians from the Israelis. According to the Israeli government, the separation wall is a security measure built to protect against terrorist attacks and has resulted in a dramatic drop in Israeli deaths and casualties. It’s also a flash point. There’s been a lot of violence here, a lot of clashes between the Israeli forces and Palestinians, rock throwing, tear gas, killings.
O’Brien noted that he was “confronted by a group of pro-Palestinian activists” while filming. One woman in the group asked what he thought of the wall. “Is this a normal wall?”
“Well, no, I don’t think any wall like this is normal,” O’Brien replied. “Do you?”
“I’m Palestinian,” she said. “Not at all.”
“No,” O’Brien said. “It’s sad.”
“Conan’s” official website posted a 24-minute version of O’Brien’s talk with the activists, who said they came from New York and California. O’Brien listened intently as they described attending the funeral of an eight-year-old Palestinian girl, who was run over by an Israeli settler in the West Bank. The group also discussed their issues with the Israeli Defense Forces, Zionism and U.S. military aid to Israel.
“The biggest problem to me, anyway, is when you have an area like this, there’s a psychological damage that’s gonna last generations,” O’Brien told the activists at one point.”You’ve seen the same thing in Ireland, northern Ireland, you’ve seen the same thing in many areas of the world, like South Africa where they’ve tried very hard…They’ve put up a wall, they’ve tried to separate and it creates a lot of damage.”
“I honestly don’t know what the answer is,” he added. “I’ve talked to a lot of Israelis, I’m talking to you, I’m talking to Palestinians. I’m a comedian on television. I don’t know what the answer is here.”
The special earned mixed reactions on social media, where many viewers praised O’Brien for confronting serious issues during his visit. Some questioned O’Brien’s decision to film segments with soldiers from the IDF. One such segment was filmed in the Golan Heights, where gunfire could be heard from Syria’s ongoing war. Others criticized the special as ignoring the realities of life in the Israeli-occupied territories.
“It is impossible to do justice in 40 minutes to the incredibly complex and polarizing country of Israel,” O’Brien said in the program’s final moments. “But I did accomplish my goal, which was to make friends wherever I went.”
“Negotiations at a government level are great,” he added. “But until people of different backgrounds can barbecue next to each other in the same park and their kids can kick the same soccer ball, you will not have a peace at a molecular level.”
This post has been updated.