During a drive across the United States with only his dog for company, Mishy Harman began listening to This American Life. Harman, a self-described “curly-haired Jerusalemite,” returned to Israel determined to re-create the three-act, human-centered show with voices from his own country. Israel Story now has listeners in 187 countries and all 50 US states. Harman shared his thoughts about the purpose and impact of his wildly popular show.
We’re not actually a Jewish podcast. We’re a podcast about stories about Israel, and Israel is a Jewish state, but the real premise of the entire operation is — this sounds super cliché — that a person is a person is a person. Their stories are worth listening to because they can teach us something about our own lives, even if they come from a very different segment of society. It’s not an attempt to resist some definition. We are Jewish, but I think that because we want to be more inclusive, and that happens to map on to the larger mission statement of what we do, we’d rather be seen as a podcast that tells stories about Israel.
Israel Story doesn’t have political stances. I do think there are both in Jerusalem and in Israel sort of simultaneous processes of drifting apart and going deeper into these bubbles of people who are more like us. The more you get away from people who are not like you, the less you can empathize with them.
We don’t have a Jewish Israel and an Arab Israel, a religious Israel and a secular Israel. There is a consciousness and a lot of forward-
looking young leaders. Maybe there could be a different reality here.
We are able to create these encounters that perhaps wouldn’t happen elsewhere. Like, you’ll be listening to a BDS activist or a settler. We don’t actually focus on those issues, but if we tell a story of a settler, it may be a story about how he took his daughter to school for the first time. It humanizes everyone.
When you only hear someone’s voice, often it’s easier to suspend your judgment and listen with empathy to what they’re saying. We get that time and again: “I turned on your podcast, and this is the first time in my life that I’ve thought of an Arab as a person.” Or substitute any other minority. Understand that people aren’t that different from you at the end of the day.
We once did an episode and we chose 12 different schools all over Israel. Every possible kind of school. Then we said, OK, we want to have a school in the settlements as well. We ended up going to Kiryat Arba, which is one of the more radical settlements. Lo and behold, the fourth-graders were more or less like fourth-graders anywhere. Which was surprising and completely not surprising. I think that stories are powerful, and people want to hear about other people. It’s a good way to learn about the world and complicated situations, and God knows Israel is a complicated situation.
It’s hard to argue with stories. Stories aren’t ideas. They’re not refutable. You can like a story or not like a story, and if you don’t like it you can get angry, but it’s hard to say to someone: No, that’s not your story.
Israel Story will record a live taping of an episode in honor of Israel's 70th birthday on April 19 at 7:30 at the Stroum JCC. Details and tickets.