The anti-Israel media crusade hit high gear this week as the CBS News program 60 Minutes aired a piece declaring that Christians are leaving the West Bank, and that somehow it’s all Israel's fault. (Watch the video. Read the transcript.)
As someone who’s spent years monitoring the media, this segment was, unfortunately, typical of what I’d come to expect from 60 Minutes – a report filled with distortion of facts, selective omission, and lack of context.
Yet what really struck me is the personal vendetta that reporter Bob Simon appears to have against Israel.
When Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, got a tip that 60 Minutes was planning a distorted report, he phoned the head of CBS News to complain about what was shaping up to be "a hatchet job."
When Simon found out about this, he called in Oren for an interview. Then, with a contorted expression and a voice dripping with disdain, Simon publicly scolded Ambassador Oren:
60 Minutes: Mr. Ambassador, I've been doing this a long time. And I've received lots of reactions from just about everyone I've done stories about. But I've never gotten a reaction before from a story that hasn't been broadcast yet.
Oren was stuck in a hard place. He surely wanted to take off the gloves and duke it out with Simon. But as a diplomat, he had to offer this mild, diplomatic response:
Ambassador: Well, there's a first time for everything, Bob.
This got me thinking. Imagine how this interview would have played out, in a perfect world where the truth can be freely spoken. What if we replay the tape for my “imagined” version of this conversation, were Ambassador Oren able to say what he really wanted.
60 Minutes: Mr. Ambassador… I've never gotten a reaction before from a story that hasn't been broadcast yet.
Ambassador: Well in this case, Bob, it was totally justified. The record shows you to be a virulent critic of the State of Israel. Recall your 60 Minutes report from January 2009 – “Time Running Out for a Two-State Solution?” – in which you invoked the worst demonizing terms, suggesting that Israel practices “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid.”
60 Minutes: Surely you can’t make a judgment based on a single example.
Ambassador: Actually, Bob, it’s a pattern. Remember your December 2003 piece for 60 Minutes – “The Fence” – where you falsely charged that the West Bank security barrier appropriates “large chunks of Palestinian land.” We all know that the real figure is about 8%. And who can forget you gloating over the incident with 12-year-old Muhammad al-Dura, calling it “one of the most disastrous setbacks Israel has suffered in decades” (“The Crossroad,” 60 Minutes, November 12, 2000).
60 Minutes: Let me guess – now you’re going to extrapolate my reporting to discredit all of 60 Minutes?
Ambassador: I will let the record speak for itself. Just over a year ago Leslie Stahl’s 60 Minutes piece on the City of David described Israel's legitimate search for archeological artifacts as "controversial," and termed teaching Jews about their historical roots in Jerusalem as "indoctrination."
And this pattern goes all the way back to the early days of 60 Minutes when Mike Wallace visited Syria. He reported that “life for Syria’s Jews is better than it was in years past,” and that assertions of mistreatment are mere “Zionist propaganda.” (“Israel’s Toughest Enemy,” February 1975). Shortly thereafter, nearly every Syrian Jew fled the country in fear. A decade later, Wallace repeated his disinformation in reporting that Soviet Jews “live more or less satisfying lives.” More than a million Soviet Jews disagreed and emigrated the first chance they had.
So yes, Bob, based on all the available information, I have good reason to believe that your upcoming segment will be "a hatchet job."
Note that Simon’s actual conversation with Ambassador Oren did not deal with the accuracy of these indictments, but rather focused exclusively on Simon's personal insult upon learning of the complaint. This was a lame attempt to throw up a smokescreen, to divert attention from the real issue – Simon’s biased reporting.
Just the Facts
Let’s continue our make-believe conversation, imagining that Bob Simon sincerely does explore the topic of Christians in the West Bank.
60 Minutes: Ambassador, surely you do not deny that the Christian population in the West Bank is weakening.
Ambassador: You’re right about that, Bob. But let’s examine who is to blame for this.
60 Minutes: Fair enough. Let’s start by looking at how Christians are treated in the State of Israel. What can you tell us about that?
Ambassador: Statistics show that the Christian population in Israel was 34,000 in 1949, 73,000 in 1972, and 153,000 in 2008. Israel is the only country in the Middle East where the Christian population has increased since 1948 – having risen by more than 400 percent, and continuing to rise every year. Christians today are prominent in all aspects of Israeli life – serving in the Knesset, the Supreme Court, and in a variety of business and cultural roles.
The 60 Minutes report, however, made not a single mention of the growing Christian population in Israel.
Our imaginary conversation continues.
60 Minutes: To be fair we would have to compare how Christians are treated in a region governed solely by Muslims. The rest of the Middle East should provide a good benchmark.
Ambassador: Outside of Israel, the Middle East is characterized by widespread “de-Christianization.” In recent years hundreds of thousands of Christians have fled Iraq, with 70 churches burned and nearly a thousand Christians killed in Baghdad alone. In Egypt, 200,000 Coptic Christians fled their homes last year after beatings and massacres by Muslim extremist mobs. Turkey, regarded as a moderate Islamic state, has seen its Christian population decline 100-fold in the last century. In Saudi Arabia, the practice of Christianity is plain illegal, and the highest Muslim authority in Saudi Arabia recently called for the demolition of all churches in the Middle East.
60 Minutes: Perhaps other Arab countries do not tell us specifically how Christians are treated by Palestinian Muslims. Let’s look at an area administered totally by Palestinians – the Gaza Strip, from which Israel withdrew in 2005.
Ambassador: For starters, in 2007, the manager of Gaza’s only Christian bookstore was kidnapped and murdered – shot in the head and stabbed multiple times. Palestinian gunmen also blew up the YMCA library in the Gaza Strip; two guards were kidnapped, the offices were looted and all 8,000 books were destroyed.
It comes as no surprise that following the Hamas takeover in 2006, the Christian population of Gaza fell by 64 percent – from 5,000 to less than 1,800 in 2010. When four masked gunmen tried to abduct a church employee in Gaza, a local Christian leader lamented how the incident is “aimed at sending a message to all the Christians here that we must leave. Radical Islamic groups are waging a campaign to get rid of us and no one seems to care.”
At this point, things don’t look so good for Bob Simon. Here’s what I imagine happens next:
60 Minutes: Enough of this beating around the bush, Ambassador. Let’s just go straight to the West Bank. Is it not true that Bethlehem, “the little town where Christ was born,” is "an open air prison”? Is it not true that “Christians now make up only 18 percent of what was for centuries an overwhelmingly Christian town”? (Editor’s note: the words in quotes were said by Simon in the actual 60 Minutes report.)
Ambassador: In Bethlehem, the Christian population began to drastically decline in 1995, the same year the Palestinian Authority assumed administrative control. The PA unilaterally annexed an additional 30,000 Muslims to Bethlehem and then redistricted the municipal boundaries – ensuring a Muslim majority in any future elections. In order to further freeze Christians out of the Palestinian political process, a 2007 Palestinian summit was intentionally held in Mecca, a city where Christians (and all non-Muslims, for that matter) are barred by law from entering.
Under Palestinian control, the de-Christianization of Bethlehem has been ruthless. A Greek Orthodox monastery next to the Church of the Nativity was confiscated and converted into the PA president’s official residence. Bethlehem Christians were forced to shut down businesses after failing to pay “protection money” to local Muslims. This campaign took another nasty turn in 2006 when Bethlehem City Council member Hassan El-Masalmeh publicly advocated a discriminatory “dhimmi tax” on non-Muslim residents. Not surprisingly, Christians in Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala are fleeing in large numbers; after once comprising 60-70 percent of the city’s population, they have now dwindled to 15 percent.
And let us not forget how, in 2002, a group of 128 armed Palestinians invaded Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity – holding 40 Christian clergy hostage, stealing gold objects from the monks and urinating on the church floor. Within a few years, the Palestinian takeover of the church had been all but erased from history; your 60 Minutes segment, Bob, makes zero mention of that appalling episode.
60 Minutes: I am planning to post an online-only segment of 60 Minutes focusing on Taybeh, the West Bank city known to be predominantly Christian.
Ambassador: Then surely you know about the horrific events that took place in Taybeh in 2005, when hundreds of Muslims screaming Allahu Akbar carried out a pogrom against Christians – setting dozens of homes and businesses on fire, looting valuables, and destroying Christian icons. And you surely know that in 2009, Muslims attacked two Christian cemeteries in a West Bank village near Ramallah, desecrating 70 graves and decapitating a statue of the Virgin Mary.
60 Minutes: Okay, okay, enough already! But don’t expect me to mention any of that in my on-air report. (He didn’t.)
Simon’s idea of "balanced reporting" was to interview six Palestinians and – aside from Oren – only one Israeli, a correspondent for the left-leaning Haaretz. Nor was any voice allotted to the tens of millions of pro-Zionist Christians in America and around the world. All six Palestinians were critical of Israel; that’s probably because Christian Arabs who speak up against their Muslim oppressors fear they'll wind up on an Internet video, wearing a hood and surrounded by chainsaw-wielding jihadists.
Indeed, with skillful editing and a hand-picked cadre of anti-Israel activists, 60 Minutes managed to contradict every Israeli claim. When Michael Oren asserted the simple fact that Palestinian Muslims place “major duress” on Palestinian Christians, 60 Minutes cut to an interview with Zahi Khouri, a Palestinian businessman who owns the West Bank Coca-Cola franchise. “I've never heard that someone is leaving because of Islamic persecution,” Khouri managed to say with a straight face – and Bob Simon let it stand unchallenged.
Driving the Wedge
All this leaves us with the question of: Why? Even if Simon harbors some personal disdain for Israel, what would motivate 60 Minutes to present Israel’s relationship with Palestinian Christians in such a negative light?
There is only one explanation: 60 Minutes is out to damage Israel’s image in the Christian community.
Evangelical Christians take seriously the biblical promise that Israel belongs to the Jews as an everlasting possession.
In the face of anti-Israel attacks – whether in the form of U.N. censure or media condemnations – one of the strongest bastions of support is America’s evangelical community. These Christians take seriously the biblical promise that the Holy Land belongs to the Jews as an everlasting possession. And when Israel is under siege, they promote pro-Israel political views and donate untold millions of dollars toward pro-Israel causes– acting in accord with Isaiah’s prophetic imperative: "For Zion's sake I will not keep silent; for Jerusalem's sake I will not remain quiet" (Isaiah 62:1).
So for those seeking to weaken support for Israel, a primary tactic is to drive a wedge between the Jewish state and the pro-Israel Christian community.
Bob Simon actually says as much. In speaking with Oren, Simon declared: “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?”
Watching 60 Minutes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Israel is the Mideast’s worst offender. It’s all part of the media’s efforts to drive a wedge between Israel and the Christian community, further demonizing Israel and eroding its support in the West.
The end of this story? 60 Minutes was flooded with complaints – from both private individuals and organization such as ADL. When the pro-Israel group Christians United for Israel (CUFI) notified its membership about the 60 Minutes piece, a CBS spokesman told the Washington Post that the complaints “number a few hundred.” Internet logs, however, show that in one 24-hour period, CUFI members actually sent 29,602 email complaints.
In its efforts to demonize Israel, CBS has crossed another line. No longer is this merely an issue of selective omission and lack of context. Now it is an outright denial of the facts.
This is an outrage, a violation of the core trust between 60 Minutes and its 13 million viewers.
But there is something you can do. Contact 60 Minutes executives, expressing your disappointment at this gross violation of media objectivity. And as always, please keep your comments respectful.
Jeffrey Fager, Chairman of CBS News, Executive Producer of "60 Minutes"
This article is based on themes explored in David & Goliath: The Explosive Inside Story of Media Bias in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. With comprehensive research including 2,000 footnotes, David & Goliath is a gripping first-person narrative that goes behind the scenes to reveal the roots of media bias against Israel.