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 150 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
A church in Jerusalem 150
(photo credit: 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.
Simon’s 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 establishment.
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 can.
“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.
In short, 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 University.