Bob Simon of CBS TV’s 60 Minutes recently did a report on the fate of Christians in the Holy Land.
It’s not the first time the topic has been addressed by the media. And like all the others, it was packed with controversy.
Although Simon pointed out that Christians were facing serious challenges in several Muslim countries, he also pointed out that they were fleeing their ancestral homes in Bethlehem, Jerusalem and the entire area of Palestine and in Israel.
Michael Oren, Israel’s former director of inter-religious affairs and now the Israeli ambassador to the United States, argued Christians were the victims of discrimination and threats from Muslims, but Arab spokesmen claimed they are the victims of Israeli discrimination too, both in Israel and in the Occupied West Bank.
“Christian communities are living under duress... I believe the major duress is coming from [Islamic extremism],” Oren said.
The CBS report scored some propaganda points for Israel. Simon noted terrorism had subsided by 90 percent since the construction of the concrete wall that Israel insists is a fence. That was a clear defense of the Wall, which Arabs denounce.
Oren punched hard at the Palestinians Christians, describing as “anti-Semitic” a report by the 13 leading Christian denominations entitled “Kairos Palestine” that complains Israel is discriminating not only against Arab Muslims but against Arab Christians, too.
Palestinian Christian activist Mitiri Raheb defended the report, explaining, “This document doesn’t ask for violence, doesn’t ask for revenge. The most powerful thing in this document is asking for hope and love and faith.”
The story about Christians being persecuted by Israel is contentious.
There are truths and half-truths on both sides. Israelis do discriminate against Christian Palestinians, but not because they are Christian, rather because they are not Jewish and they are Arab.
Of course, Muslims discriminate against non-Muslims too, not because they are Jewish or Christian but because they are not Muslim.
Oren called criticism of Israel’s record toward Christians “anti- Semitic,” the powerful word that has over the years become a political tool rather than a phrase to describe Jew-hatred. There is no similar word for Arab-hating, though both clearly exist.
So fearful is Israel of the issue of how Christians are treated inside Israel and in the West Bank that Oren admitted he called Jeff Fager, the chairman of CBS News and the executive producer of 60 Minutes, to complain Simon was doing a “hatchet job” on Israel.
How could CBS focus on the suffering of Christians in Israel when the oppression in the Islamic world was so much greater, Oren asked? Simon, who is Jewish, was outraged by the claim.
I understand Oren’s concern. The story quickly moved from discrimination to the impact it might have on how Christians in America view Israel. Simon noted Israel relies heavily on tourism and the majority of tourists are Christian.
Simon put the question to an Israeli journalist: “Should Israelis be concerned about that? Do you think the Israeli government ever thinks of the fact that if Christians are not being treated well here, and America is overwhelmingly Christian country, that this could have consequences?” The columnist responded, very diplomatically, that Christian Palestinians are caught in a battle between “political Judaism and political Islam,” in essence arguing that the issue isn’t Israeli persecution.
But Simon, who has asked tough questions of Israeli and Arab policy in the past, should have put that question to Oren.
Ironically, it is one of the reasons why I have been ostracized by Palestinian activists and especially by Islamic extremists. I’ve argued for many years that the battle for Palestinian independence won’t be won in the West Bank, but rather in the court of American public opinion.
Palestinians need to put their Christian leaders at the forefront of the political battle for the hearts and minds of Americans. Instead, many Muslim Palestinians have pushed the issue down, arguing we should never distinguish between Christians and Muslims in the battle between Israel and Palestine.
In truth, that is exactly what Palestinians need to do if they hope to win the PR battle and undermine Israel’s near total domination of America’s foreign policy, which is solidly backed by American public opinion.
If you can’t change American public opinion, you will never change American foreign policy. And until America steps aside from protecting Israel from criticism, as Simon’s CBS report actually accomplishes in a very subtle way, then the conflict will never end. There will never be peace in Israel. And Palestine will never exist as a state.
In the end, and from watching the report several times, it sure looked to me like CBS pulled its punches to soften the criticism and leave the question of the fate of Christians up in the air.
All because of Oren’s complaint.
After all, who wants to be accused by Israel of being anti-Semitic? The writer is an award winning Palestinian American Christian columnist and radio talk show host.