Christian leaders, Middle East experts, and observers on Capitol Hill are crying foul on a CBS News report that they say erroneously blamed Israel for the persecution and migration of Palestinian Christians.
The report by "60 Minutes" contributor Bob Simon blamed Israeli security policies for the outflow of Christian Palestinians from historically Christian areas such as Nazareth and Bethlehem.
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In interviews with Palestinian Christian leaders and others, Simon concluded that Israel, through its settlements and security measures, is squeezing Middle Eastern Christians into obscurity.
The segment’s profound inaccuracies were startling, Christian leaders and other experts argued. Simon’s report, they say, whitewashed the extremist rhetoric of its various subjects and intentionally failed to tell the real story behind the West Bank’s Christian exodus—and the continuing growth in Israel’s Christian population.
"I find it incomprehensible for CBS to focus on one Christian population that is not actually shrinking and blame its troubles on the steps Israel is taking to protect itself from these same Islamic terrorists" who target Arab Christians, said David Brog, executive director of Christians United for Israel, one of the nation’s largest pro-Israel groups.
"They leave out the fact that the only Christian community that is thriving is the one in Israel," said Brog, explaining that Christian minorities across the Middle East routinely face slaughter at the hands of Islamic extremists.
The CBS report purports to reveal that Israeli policies are asphyxiating Christian minorities throughout the West Bank. Statistics, however, reveal that Muslim populations in Greater Israel have increased over the years, leading experts to determine that most Christian persecution is being carried out by Islamic hardliners, not Israel.
"CBS is falling for the same tricks that a lot of tourists to the region fall for," said Brog, whose supporters fired off more than 19,000 emails of protest to CBS executives Monday. "I’d expect more from a veteran CBS reporter than a first time tourist. It is irresponsible and misleading; it’s journalistic malpractice."
Experts on the region noted that Palestinian Christians live in fear of their Muslim neighbors, who routinely intimidate them and sometimes carry out violent attacks. For this reason, it is incredibly dangerous to criticize the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, which control the areas they live in.
"As a persecuted minority, if [Christians] shift the blame to Israel, they take the heat off of themselves," said Jordanna McMillan, director of outreach for the International Israel Allies Caucus Foundation, a group that unites pro-Israel advocates across the religious spectrum. "‘60 Minutes’ doesn’t understand the intricacies of the issue."
William Daroff, the Jewish Federations of North America’s D.C. point man, said that the news program displayed "a shocking lack of journalistic balance."
Reporter Simon, Daroff said, "did not note that Christian Arabs who speak up against their Muslim oppressors risk having their throats cut."
Others noted that tensions between Arab Christians and Muslims existed long before the modern state of Israel.
"Christians and Muslims do not now get along well in the Palestinian territories and they did not ever," said Lee Smith, a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who frequently writes about these issues. "If that was really the case, then we would find it difficult explain the fact of a Muslim majority in the Middle East, and in particular in the birthplace of Jesus. Christians are a minority because the conflict between Christians and Muslims has lasted for more than a thousand years, and the Christians did not win it."
Christians living in the Palestinian territories routinely criticize Israel as a way to gain acceptance from their Muslim neighbors—a fact that makes the "60 Minutes" report all the more misleading, said Smith.
"Basically, ‘60 Minutes,’ the producers, and journalists regard the Middle East the way Palestinian Christians do—it's safe to criticize Israel and the Jews because what are the Israelis going to do about it? Sic Ambassador Michael Oren on you? You won't wind up with [the Council on American-Islamic Relations] trying to take you to court or some Sunni fanatic chasing you with a saw. It's a free shot, why not take it?" Smith said.
The CBS report also relied on documents and interviews with sources that are highly biased, though it did not report this context.
Rev. Mitri Raheb, for instance, was quoted at length in the report and was portrayed as a tireless advocate of Arab Christian minorities. His years of anti-Israel activism and support for the Jewish state’s most vicious critics were not mentioned.
Raheb has been labeled as anti-Semitic by Israeli embassy officials for his work to delegitimize Israel and promote boycotts of the country’s products.
CBS also mischaracterized a polemical Palestinian Christian document, labeling it a harmless call to resistance. The document in question, "Kairos," decries the Israeli "military occupation of our land [as] a sin against God and humanity," and accuses Israel being an "apartheid" state.
"The piece failed to present any contrary views to Palestinian pastor Mitri Raheb, who denies the document is anti-Semitic, saying it ‘doesn’t ask for violence’ or ‘revenge,’ only hope, love, and faith," B’nai B’rith International President Allan Jacobs said in a statement. "But ‘Kairos’ demonizes Israel alone, calling the presence of Israeli Jews in disputed territories a ‘sin against God’ and denying the very legitimacy of the Jewish state."
"Perhaps most disturbing," added the group’s Executive Vice President Daniel Mariaschin, "the ‘60 Minutes’ report failed to point out that Israel is the only pluralistic democracy in the region, where Christians are able to live free from persecution and have grown in actual numbers, unlike so many other places in the Middle East."
The report employs questionable statistics in its examination of Palestinian Christian demographics and fails to mention the 2002 seizure of the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem by Palestinian radicals.
"This isn’t news, it’s political indoctrination," said Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser on Iran and Iraq who studies religious rhetoric in the Middle East. "One of the questions ‘60 Minutes’ didn’t ask is why the flight of Arab Christians occurred after Israel transferred the areas back to the Palestinian Authority."
CBS, Rubin said, "needs to say from where they got these statistics" that indicate a gross shift in demographics due to Israeli policies. Official Palestinian demographic breakdowns have been shown to be historically inaccurate. Israeli government population reviews show that Israel's Arab population has steadily increased over the decades.
Observers on Capitol Hill said that CBS could have trouble attracting pro-Israel members of Congress to its interview chairs.
"If ‘60 Minutes’ continues to peddle this biased bullshit, it will not only be not welcome in Jewish households, but on Capitol Hill also," said one Hill aide.
JFNA’s Daroff said that the biased report speaks to a larger media bias against Israel.
"There is a pronounced bias in the mainstream media against Israel," Daroff said. "We see it in the pages of the newspapers, we see it on T.V., and we see it in books. Unfortunately, it has become more and more acceptable within elite journalism circles, and this CBS ‘report’ is one of the more egregious examples."