Bob Simon, veteran reporter for the prestigious CBS news program “Sixty Minutes,” is upset with us. Apparently, our ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, called Simon’s producer to complain about his unaired show on Christian Palestinians, calling it “outrageous [and] completely incomprehensible” especially “when Christians all over the Middle East’s Muslim world were being oppressed and massacred.”
It wasn’t the criticism, but the timing, Simon insisted. “I’ve never gotten a reaction before about a story that hasn’t been broadcast yet.”
“There’s a first time for everything, Bob,” Oren answered.
Now that the segment has been broadcast, let me offer Oren my congratulations: he was dead on. The piece would have done credit to the Minister of Palestinian Propaganda.
To be fair, fairer than Simon at least, he does acknowledge right at the beginning of his program that “one place where Christians are not suffering from violence is the Holy Land.” Nevertheless, Simon goes on to say, they are leaving in droves because of the Israeli occupation, painting the alarming specter of Christian holy places in Jerusalem and Bethlehem “without local Christians.”
While one might argue, quite wrongly by the way, that Simon is weighting responsibility for this issue equally between Muslim extremists and the Israeli “occupation,” even that would be incorrect.
As I recollect vividly, back in 2001-2, during the height of the Intifada, I was receiving alarming e-mail messages several times a day from Christian organizations decrying the rape and kidnapping of local Christian girls by Palestinians as a means of converting them; the cynical use of Christian homes in Bethlehem by Tanzim sharpshooters targeting Jewish apartment buildings in Gilo in order to draw Israeli fire towards Christian communities; and the desecration of Christian shrines and churches by Palestinian gunmen, culminating in the repulsive siege of the Church of the Nativity, arguably the holiest shrine in Christendom, which was trashed by Arafat’s gunmen who held dozens of priests and unarmed Palestinians hostage until the Israeli army freed them.
Oddly, none of this found its way into the “Sixty Minutes” segment, which was at pains to point out that “Bethlehem is on the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The Christian section of Jerusalem is also under Israeli control.” The numbers in Bethlehem are “bleak,” Simon tells us.
Even that is deceptive.
Uri Dan wrote in the Jerusalem Post on Janusry 11, 2002: “Altogether from 1994, when Arafat took power, ten thousand Christians emigrated from Gaza, Judea and Samaria.” Once a Christian stronghold, by 2002 Muslims outnumbered Christians in Bethlehem four to one.
Nevertheless, the mass exodus theory and the fear mongering statements about the survival of Christian culture in the Holy Land is not borne out by statistics. Back in 2001, Dan reported that the Arab Christian population was 61,000, about 2 percent of the entire Arab population. According to 2009 statistics of the CIA world population handbook, Christians numbered 196,000, or 2.8 percent of the Arab population. Moreover, as Ambassador Oren pointed out, the exodus of Christians is from the PA controlled West Bank. Arabs in the Israeli town of Nazareth, for example, are thriving.
Still, Oren freely admitted Christian communities are living under duress.
But that was not enough for Simon. He has to point the finger of blame; otherwise, what’s the point of his pointless rehashing of this non-story? Quote Simon: “And this duress is coming from Muslims, not from the Israeli occupation?” Yes, Oren confirms.
In case viewers might find Oren’s contention convincing, Simon makes sure to nudge them in the “right” direction: Mitri Rahed says: “Great selling point. Easy to sell to the American public.”
Giving a little more credit to the American public, I’m sure they prefer Oren’s goods to Simon’s shoddy alternative. After all, when was the last time a Christian church was desecrated by Israelis? The last time Jews raped Christian girls to convert them to Judaism? The last time the Israeli authorities shook down a Christian businessman?
As for Christians in East Jerusalem, I do not deny they are in a difficult position, but the causes seem far different to me than Simon presents them. In a recent article about an Arab from East Jerusalem who was among those to be honored for distinguished service in the IDF, it was pointed out that he lived in fear of his Muslim neighbors finding out, forced to hide his uniform and pretend he was away at school.
One of the most offensive segments is the heart-tugger interview with Christie Anastas, a Christian Arab in Bethlehem. Informing viewers that Israel’s security wall (might I point out, since Simon does not, that the security wall was put up by Israel after Israelis were forced to stop painting doves and bury hundreds of dead in suicide bombings and other terror attacks) has turned Bethlehem into an “open air prison,” Simon then heavy-handedly tries to force Anastas to give the “right” answers.
Simon: “How do you live with this?”
But she fails to take her cue: “It’s not easy but you get used to it, because you have to,” she says.
Too bad Simon didn’t ask any Israelis what they were forced to get used to for security reasons. I’m sure Ms. Anastas doesn’t have her pocketbook checked every time she goes into a store, or have to look around her for bombs when she gets on a bus …
And it’s so hard to leave Bethlehem to enter Jerusalem, Simon says, bringing up the old bromide of the terrible waiting at checkpoints, as if there never was an intifada or suicide bombers or snipers shooting at the roads from Jerusalem to Gush Eztyion, threatening residents’ lives. As if my windshield hadn’t been smashed by a rock while passing through Bethlehem on the way home to Jerusalem from a wedding in Efrat.
Just listen to yourself, Mr. Simon! If you want to be critical, at least come up with something original. The Palestinian propagandists and terror supporters have beaten that horse to death. Worse than being false, it’s downright boring.
But no. Simon remains boring until the end. He brings up the statement by virulently anti-Jewish and anti-Israel Christians in 2009 in Kairos calling the Israeli occupation “a sin.” It was a statement endorsed by 13 Christian denominations, including all those who called for divestment from Israel, and many of whom embrace replacement theology, which says that Christians are actually now the chosen of God, and unbaptized Jews have lost that role.
Michael Oren points this out to Simon, suggesting that these groups have “gone beyond legitimate criticism …”
“What does that mean…?” Simon blusters, apparently flabbergasted at this perfectly reasonable statement. So Oren has to spell it out for him: “accusing us of crimes historically associated with anti-Semitism.”
With a few more predictable interviews, including journalist Avi Shavit, brought in to no doubt counter the mostly if not entirely anti-Israel stance he has taken, Simon gets to his big finale, asking Shavit: “Do you think the Israeli government ever thinks of the fact that if Christians aren’t being treated well here, and America is an overwhelmingly Christian country, that this could have consequences?”
Why does that sound like wishful thinking, Bob?
But again, Shavit disappoints him, saying clearly: “Israel is not persecuting Christians as Christians. The Christians in the Holy Land suffer from Israeli policies that are a result of the overall tragic situation… this has consequences for everyone.”
But Bob isn’t convinced. He warns that angry Christians who are a major source of tourism could stop coming to Israel, conjecturing that this must be the reason that Ambassador Oren phoned Jeff Fager, head of CBS News and executive producer of “Sixty Minutes,” telling Jeff that Simon’s story was a “hatchet job.”
Or perhaps the reason could be… that it is. And one with a tired, rusty hatchet at that, held by a tired, rusty journalist who might consider the time has come to put it down until he delves into his real motivation for doing such PA propaganda piece.
In the manner of Mr. Simon, let me make a wild allegation based on nothing but conjecture as to the answer to that question. Years ago, I filmed a “Sixty Minutes” segment with Mr. Simon that was never aired. It concerned a haredi woman who was the basis for my play, Women’s Minyan. At that time, I believe he told me that he lives in Israel year round. Could that, if I’ve got it right, perhaps explain a bend-over-backwards attempt to show the Palestinian point of view, lest he be accused, God forbid, of liking Israel too much?
Not to worry, Mr. Simon, with this segment you have certainly put to rest any such shameful allegation.
This article was published in the Jerusalem Post on May 4, 2012.