The Media Today

Q&A: Max Freedman, of Unsettled, on Hamas and the gaps in Israel-Palestine coverage 

November 15, 2023
Palestinians look for survivors after an Israeli airstrike on the Gaza Strip. (AP Photo/Mohammed Al Masri)

In the 2010s, Max Freedman, Emily Bell, Asaf Calderon, and Ilana Levinson met through a shared connection to a group called If Not Now, a collective of American Jewish activists that, in its own words, advocates for ending “US support for Israel’s apartheid system,” and for equality and justice for “all Palestinians and Israelis.” Spurred by that organization’s work and the podcast boom of the mid- to late 2010s, they decided to start their own show to tell stories they felt were missing from discussions about Israel and Palestine. They called it Unsettled.

The cofounders of Unsettled knew that they wanted it to be a journalistic, rather than an advocacy, podcast. It is now part of a group of outlets, also including +972 Magazine and Jewish Currents, that cover Israel and Palestine in depth, primarily through the work of Jewish and Palestinian journalists. “It is quite difficult for anybody, but especially for non-Jewish people, to speak up, because the Jewish establishment has put so much political capital into really stigmatizing criticism of Israel and labeling all of it as anti-Semitic,” Freedman told me recently. “People are really afraid not just to speak up but to even ask questions.” Freedman believes that the founders’ perspectives as American and Israeli Jews (Calderon is from Israel) can help listeners feel less daunted as they navigate fraught events in the region.  

Since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7 and Israel responded by bombing Gaza, the team behind Unsettled have found that the show’s listeners have spent time going through its archives, in search of deeper context for the current conflict. In 2019, Unsettled produced “Hamas, Explained,” an episode that was part of a series focused on Gaza and featured an interview with Tareq Baconi, a policy analyst and author of the 2018 book Hamas Contained: The Rise and Pacification of Palestinian Resistance. (In May 2021—amid Israeli air strikes that killed more than two hundred Palestinians in Gaza, according to the United Nations—Unsettled republished the episode with an updated epilogue from Freedman.) Baconi’s remarks in the episode were prescient: “Until there is a major tipping point, something that’s unexpected, which there will be of course…the current reality is one that is likely to persist,” he said. The episode has since become Unsettled’s most downloaded ever.

Since October 7, Unsettled has followed up with many of its past guests, including Baconi; according to Freedman, that interview and the 2019 and 2021 iterations of the Hamas episode have now been downloaded nearly twenty thousand times between them. Last week, I spoke with Freedman about the Hamas episode, the work of delving deep into difficult topics, and the narrative gaps that Unsettled seeks to fill. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

FM: What is the target audience for Unsettled?

MF: In the beginning, it was Jewish people. There are a lot of Jews in the United States and elsewhere in the diaspora who were taught certain narratives about Israel-Palestine; probably certain narratives about Israel that don’t really include Palestine. A lot of people are like, I only know one set of information and I don’t know who to trust or where to go to get other information

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What we have found is that our audience is definitely not Jews like us, and that’s exciting. There are a lot of people in general—and particularly in the United States, where so much taxpayer money goes to fund the Israeli military—who are like, I need to know more about this. I think we’ve tried to walk a really important line, where [the podcast] is journalism. We are really rigorous with our reporting and careful in who we speak to. What we’re trying to demonstrate is that it’s possible to be rigorous without losing moral clarity.

How do you draw the distinction between a journalistic podcast versus an advocacy one? And how do you select guests?

We go by our interests and our instincts. Our approach to October 7 and the month since has mostly been to follow up with people that we’ve interviewed on the podcast before and see how they’re dealing with all this, and then to try to fill gaps that we see in either the coverage or the discourse, so to speak. 

We certainly want to make sure that we have a balance of Jewish and Palestinian voices; probably more Palestinian voices to Jewish voices. We don’t necessarily give more airtime to people who believe things that we think are totally wrong or abhorrent, or who are going to spread falsehoods. In the seven or eight episodes we’ve done since October 7, one of them was with Ilana [Levinson]’s old camp counselor, who lives in Israel. I would say that I disagree with his perspective quite a bit. But we thought it was important to represent the perspective of somebody who is Jewish and lives in Israel, and some people in our audience may listen to that guy and be like, Oh, yeah, I totally get where you’re coming from. What we’re doing, through a lot of different episodes, is trying to give you a sense of the fabric of what’s happening—we weave together all these different perspectives and you get a sense of the whole picture. 

Let’s discuss the 2019 episode “Hamas, Explained.” That’s a tough subject to discuss for so many reasons. What was the thought behind it?

We had been doing the show for a year at that point, and everything we had done was pretty much about the West Bank or Israel. The four of us being who we are, which was young Jews in Brooklyn, we were like, Well, we don’t really know as much about Gaza. Gaza is less, it seems, accessible to us—both physically, literally less accessible to us, but also the perspectives of Gazans. So we did a series and we were like, We can’t do a series about Gaza without talking about who governs Gaza. And we got lucky: Tareq [Baconi] had published his book in 2018. I don’t know of another book exactly like it. He interviewed leaders of Hamas. He read every newspaper that they’ve ever published going back to the eighties. 

The public is frequently encouraged not to engage with Hamas as anything other than absolute evil. And they have done evil things. The things that were done on October 7 are horrific. But there’s nothing to do with absolute evil except to exterminate it—and that’s how you get ten thousand dead Gazans. And I’m not satisfied with that; I’m not satisfied with that intellectually, either. Where do they come from? Why do they exist? Why do they do the things they do? Why do they govern Gaza? I wanted to know, I wanted to learn. I think a lot of people want to learn, not so that they can excuse their actions, but just so they can understand and have some context. The evil things that they have done do not preclude them from serious study and reporting.

At the beginning of that episode, you talk about being on a train reading Baconi’s book and being nervous about people seeing you. That felt very representative of how we feel about information about Hamas. Obviously journalism plays a part in that…   

This is something Tareq said: what it does is it makes it easier for everybody to accept actions that the Israeli government does that are not morally acceptable. I was surprised to learn, as people are continually surprised to learn, about the tacit agreements between Netanyahu and Hamas over the years. [Analysts and journalists alike have long discussed ways in which the relationship between the administration of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas has, at times, been symbiotic; in 2019, Netanyahu reportedly said that “anyone who wants to thwart the establishment of a Palestinian state has to support bolstering Hamas and transferring money to Hamas.”] My dad was like, Really? It’s very hard for people to incorporate into their understanding of reality. But it’s true and it’s documented. It’s not a conspiracy theory.

How do you think journalists could improve their coverage of Hamas and of Israel and Palestine?

I would say the same thing that I would say about the way journalists engage with the police. Journalists should not just repeat military talking points the same way they shouldn’t just repeat police talking points; the military, just like the police, has incentive to lie. The same goes for Hamas: you shouldn’t repeat Hamas talking points; if you do, say that these are Hamas talking points. I think in general that, because Israel is a state and the Israeli military is a military, their talking points are treated as more official than Hamas talking points, because Gaza is not a state and the militant wing of the movement is not a state military. But this is tricky territory. By virtue of Israel being a state and Palestine not, the Israeli military has a monopoly on state power and the narratives that state power is allowed to perpetuate.

The most obvious thing I can say is that things didn’t start on October 7. People have been calling it an unprovoked attack, which on some level it was; I was surprised as much as anybody about what happened. But to say it was not provoked in an immediate sense does not mean that it doesn’t have context. Of course it has context.

Can you say more about the gaps that you see in media coverage, that you’ve tried to fill? 

There’s a great two-part episode that we did with Asaf [Calderon] and his parents, who are old-school Israeli leftists. He’s just talking to his parents, but it’s about a divide between different generations of people on the Israeli left and how they understand the issues differently, how they move apart in certain ways, what’s happened to the left of his parents’ generation. That’s a nuance about internal Israeli life that you don’t [see] much in the mainstream media. We [also] did an episode about the immense influence of Christian Zionist organizations on what happens in Israel and Palestine today. We’re doing a follow-up about that issue next week. That’s incredibly important, and it gets very little attention. There are so many more Christian Zionists than Jewish Zionists in the world, and they are very organized and very influential. 

I don’t think it’s very well understood that so many people who live in Gaza actually consider themselves refugees from what’s now Israel. An episode that has not gotten as much attention as the Hamas episode is the episode right before that in the [Gaza] series, called “Refugees.” It’s an interview with Isam Hammad [an organizer of the 2018 Great March of Return, a series of demonstrations by Palestinians in Gaza demanding that Israel’s blockade of the area be lifted and that Palestinian refugees have the right to return to their homes in what is now Israel] and his father, Hilmi. Hilmi talks about the village in which he lived in what is now Israel, and being expelled from that village in 1948, and how he’s lived in Gaza ever since. 

The first episode in the [Gaza] series was about the Great March of Return. Isam was one of the organizers; we interviewed him and another guy named Ahmed Alnaouq. Ahmed Alnaouq’s entire family has been killed in this [current conflict]—some twenty members of his family. We followed up with Isam. He’s still in Gaza with his elderly father. They have been told to evacuate, and they can’t go anywhere. These are the people in Gaza right now. They have deep roots, not just to Gaza but to Israel. The Hamas stuff is important. But I want people to listen to those stories.

Other notable stories:

  • The Washington Post’s Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey examined how the influential Spanish-language network Univision has shifted in its approach to Donald Trump, culminating in a prime-time interview last week that was notable for “its gracious tone” and for Trump hosting a trio of network executives during filming, in addition to Univision journalists. During the 2020 presidential race, Trump’s campaign dismissed Univision as a “mouthpiece” for liberals—but the network has since changed owners following a 2021 merger with a Mexican TV company, and Democrats and some Univision staffers fear that its new bosses are cozying up to Trump. One network source countered that Univision is merely trying to reflect Latino viewers’ diverse perspectives.
  • In media-jobs news, Henry Blodget, the cofounder of Business Insider, is stepping down as its CEO; Barbara Peng will succeed Blodget, who will remain on the publication’s board. (The publication also confirmed that Business Insider is its name—aborting an effort to rebrand as Insider.) Elsewhere, the Knight Foundation, a significant philanthropic donor to journalistic causes, tapped Maribel Perez Wadsworth, a longtime former executive at Gannett, as its new president and CEO, succeeding Alberto Ibargüen, who is retiring. And the supermodel and entrepreneur Karlie Kloss acquired i-D Magazine, a culture publication, from Vice Media, and will serve as its CEO.
  • The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and Paper Trail Media are out with “Cyprus Confidential,” an investigation—based on a trove of leaked data and conducted in collaboration with dozens of newsrooms worldwide—showing how financial firms in Cyprus have helped Russian oligarchs to shelter their wealth. One of the stories in the project details how Hubert Seipel, a German journalist who has written extensively on Russia and Vladimir Putin, received significant sums in “sponsorship” from a shell company linked to one sanctioned Russian oligarch. (Seipel denies any impropriety.)
  • And a Russian detective who was convicted of the murder of Anna Politkovskaya—an investigative journalist for the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, who was shot in her apartment building in 2006—has been pardoned by Putin after fighting as a soldier in the war in Ukraine, where he remains on duty. Politkovskaya’s family—who have criticized Russian officials for failing to prosecute the mastermind of her killing—called the pardon a “monstrous fact of injustice” and a “desecration” of her memory.

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Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.