Christians in and out of the Holy Land
Bob Simon of CBS placed the blame for Christians leaving Palestine squarely on Israel.
A church in Jerusalem Photo: Marc Israel Sellem
On Sunday evening, April 22, Bob Simon, the veteran reporter of the highly
respected and widely viewed CBS television program 60 Minutes, presented a
program entitled “Christians of the Holy Land.” It was actually about Christians
leaving Palestine, and why that is taking place. Simon’s report placed the blame
squarely on Israel.
The program was also a personal protest against the
complaint that Ambassador Michael Oren had made prior to the broadcast to
Simon’s CBS bosses. It is hard to know what irritated Simon more – Israel’s
alleged guilt or Oren’s criticism of his expected broadcast. Whether or
not Simon is justified in his irritation, it is clear that Simon’s broadcast is
faulty if not malicious.
Simon totally ignored the fact that there is
actually a growing community of Christians in the Holy Land – that is, in
Israel. There are even churches that pray in Hebrew, and sing the Psalms in the
original. They are composed, of course, of non-Arab Christians who emanate from
Africa, Eastern Europe, the Philippines, the US and elsewhere. They do not want
to pray in Greek, Russian or Arabic so have chosen the language used by most
citizens of their new country. There is now even a Hebrew version of the
Mass. A nice and surely unexpected consequence of a Jewish state.
report focused on Bethlehem that is now under Palestinian control. It said
little enough about Nazareth and the communal frictions between Christians and
Muslims there, where Jews are troubled bystanders, unsure of what to do and
probably powerless to ease tensions if they were.
That Arab Christians
are being squeezed throughout the Middle East is a fact. Probably far more so in
Iraq, Syria and Lebanon and without any relation to the “occupation.” Then, too,
there are the Copts, among the most ancient of Near Eastern communities. In all
these cases, the Jews were forced to flee some decades ago. The Arab Christian
communities of Boston’s South End and Detroit were established before Israel’s
My neighbors growing up in Boston were Gibrans, related to
Kahlil Gibran, who came to Boston well before my grandparents. The diminution of
Near Eastern Christian communities is independent of the creation of Israel or
of its policies.
The painting of Palestinian Christian Arabs only as
victims or bystanders is false. Some Arab Christians have been notoriously
anti-Zionist long before the wall: George Antonius, Constantine Zureik, George
Habash, Edward Said, Bishop Hilarion Capucci – and more. Which Church accepted
partition and did not support the 1948 war, prior to and after the establishment
of the state? Many Arab Christians tend to ally with Arab Muslims, when they
“Arabness” is imagined as a shared characteristic. Jewish
identity is not merely a religious characteristic but also a national one, hence
Jews played a far smaller or actually insignificant role in Arab nationalism. In
significant measure, Arab Christians were among the leaders of the early Arab
national movement – and have received little benefit from it.
this is a woefully incomplete and distorted report. No wonder Oren
complained. Simon’s Jewishness is irrelevant. His not-soopaque warnings
to American Christians about support for or visiting the Jewish state are
tendentious. One can hope that CBS would reflect, if only for a few
minutes, on how and why it permitted such a distortion to blemish an otherwise
exemplary record of programming.
The writer is the Stoll Family Chair of
Israel Studies Director, Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, Brandeis