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Bob Simon’s Crusade

Bob Simon’s Crusade

Lots of people are still talking, and likely will be for some time, about Sunday’s controversial “60 Minutes” report on Palestinian Christians.

There’s a dispute over how much negative feedback CBS received over the report but it’s clear that there was an organized campaign to express displeasure by Christians United for Israel which brought thousands of emails to the network’s inboxes. No doubt there were campaigns by others to send positive mail as well.

It’s also clear to many that, for a show known for in-depth reporting and investigative prowess, “60 Minutes” in this case gave remarkably short shrift to the complex issue of the Christian population in the Holy Land. Whether or not it is in decline, the basis of the segment, is itself disputable, and no evidence to the contrary is acknowledged.

Absent any statistics or sociological data in the report, other than a vague population figure of “down to less than two percent” to seriously analyze this issue – data such as where most Christians who left lived, when the supposed exodus was highest, what age groups are leaving, the birth rate and annual emigration rate – it’s hard to extrapolate a meaningful conclusion about what’s going on.

There was not even a single interview with a Palestinian Christian who left to ask why he or she left, which might have been the starting point for another journalist.

“A fair and balanced analysis would have taken into account that many factors have contributed to the declining Christian Palestinian population in the cities of Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth,” wrote Abraham Foxman in a letter to CBS News chief Jeff Fager. “These include, but are not limited to: economic and financial pressures, security issues, pressure from Islamists, and voluntary emigration to other countries.”

But if we were to concede Simon’s point that Christians are predominantly leaving because they feel trapped in a never-ending war between Jews and Muslims, the next step is the question of blame for the cycle of violence, and that’s where the conclusion was clearly locked in place before the first interview.

The idea posited by Israel’s ambassador, Michael Oren, that maybe Muslim extremism has something to do with the current climate is dismissed out of hand.

One reason that’s absurd, we learn, is because a local Coca-Cola distributor insists that of his 12,000 customers he has “never heard that’s someone is leaving because of Islamic persecution.”

Simon tries to get an Israeli to back him up too, but the best he can get from a left wing columnist is that the conflict between Jews and Arabs is tough all around. “Christians in the Holy Land suffer from Israeli policies that are a result of the overall tragic situation,” says Ari Shavit. “And this, of course, has consequences for everybody."

Despite the abundance of implication, Simon never connects the dots between Christian emigration and Israeli policies or validates the claim that Christians "aren't being treated well" other than to showcase the construction of the concrete barrier separating part of the West Bank from Israel.

Unfortunately, Oren played into Simon’s hands by trying to have the story killed, or at least getting the CBS News management to intervene. That handed Simon the ability to imply that his story was so damaging to Israel that they could not bear to see it air.

And here is where the report’s logic gets really bogged down.

“If Christians aren’t being treated well [in Israel] and America is an overwhelmingly Christian country, this could have consequences,” Simon muses, noting that Christian tourism is a multi-billion dollar industry for the Jewish state.

So: American Christians are going to find out that there are fewer Christians living in the West Bank and get so mad that they will forget that their revered holy sites are more accessible than they have been in hundreds of years and cancel their pilgrimages?

And all the more so because of his damning pseudo-exposé?

It’s self-aggrandizing for Simon to believe his report is going to influence Christian tourism, especially when he’s revealed nothing of any substance that the world didn’t already know.

The irony here is that Simon concedes in his report that the West Bank barrier he sees as a major reason Christians are leaving (without demonstrating how many have left since it was built) has been exceedingly successful, cutting down terrorist attacks inside Israel, especially Jerusalem, by 90 percent.

That means foreign tourists — as well as Christians living in Israel and the rest of the population — are safer from Palestinian bombs than they have been in years when they enjoy Israeli hotels, restaurants, public transportation and the freely accessible holy sites that few would have ventured to under Jordanian rule.

With Christians facing actual persecution in so many other parts of the world, it’s hard to comprehend why Simon and “60 Minutes” would single out the place in the Middle East where they are safest and manufacture a crisis by warning that “the prospect of holy sites like Jerusalem and Bethlehem without local Christians is looming as a real possibility.” Just as it’s hard to fathom why activist protestors from Europe and Scandinavia target Israel and yawn at Sudan, Uganda and Syria, or even Hamas in Gaza.

In this case it almost seems like a deliberate attempt to drive a wedge between American Christians and Israel, knowing that while Evangelicals are strong Christian Zionists many other movements are on the fence, so to speak, and sometimes support boycotts, divestment and sanctions. This pro-Palestinian account of the report takes note of the importance of Simon’s having demonstrated that “some Palestinians are Lutherans, Catholics and Episcopalians, establishing a link of commonality between them and Americans” because “The Israeli Likud Party wants Americans identifying only with Israelis, not with Palestinians.”

It also notes the significance of putting a face and lending a voice to Palestinian Christians, something Israel and its supporters should do as well, and in doing so present a greater diversity of opinion.

The report aired in the same week that U.S. Methodists were debating the Kairos document produced by Palestinian Christians that Israel and American Jewish groups consider an inflammatory polemic that promotes BDS.

Oren’s ire is understandable but he would have been better off riding out the report and keeping off the phone. As former minister of inter-religious affairs he should know that Christian Zionism is a large and growing phenomenon in America, and it can survive much worse than this.

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