60 Minutes ran a segment last night on Christians in the Holy Land that examined their dwindling numbers in cities like Bethlehem and Jerusalem and how this relates to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. A report like this is bound to draw controversy and this one did not disappoint, with Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren taking lots of heat due to the disclosure during the segment that he called the president of CBS News and tried to have the story killed. Before I dive in, a disclaimer: Ambassador Oren was one of my professors at Harvard and is a friend, and I spent many fond hours chatting with him about all sorts of topics in his office at Georgetown (he arrived one year after I did) before he was appointed ambassador. Since then, I have seen or spoken with him only two or three times, and I continue to hold him in the highest regard.
Given the above facts, I am certainly not the world’s most objective commentator on Michael Oren. But I fail to see why heads are exploding over the fact that the Israeli ambassador is trying to protect his country’s image. Did he come off as tongue-tied when Bob Simon ambushed him on camera with a question that was purely about process rather than substance? Sure. Let’s remember though that THIS IS HIS JOB. He is not paid to be an objective analyst. He is not paid to project a balanced and nuanced view of events in the Middle East. He is paid to be Israel’s spokesman in the United States and to advance Israeli interests, and if he gets wind of the fact that a network is planning on airing a story that is unfairly critical of Israel (more on this below) on its flagship news magazine program, it would be diplomatic malpractice for him not to try and keep the story off the air. Does anyone reading this actually believe that diplomats from every country on the planet do not do the same thing? Is this legitimately more surprising than the stories that emerged just last week about the Pentagon and the State Department trying to suppress reports and leaked photos of American troops in Afghanistan posing for pictures with Taliban corpses? This is what governments do, folks. Michael Oren is a high ranking official of the Israeli government and his first and only priority is to protect his country and its image, and if he comes off looking poorly in the course of doing so, it’s because that comes with the territory. Please spare me the feigned outrage, particularly when Bob Simon claims that this is the first time he has encountered a reaction to a story before it has been broadcast, which was far and away the most outrageous statement of the night.
Moving to the substance of the story, the gist of the 60 Minutes report was that the Christian population in the West Bank is shrinking and that Palestinian Christians are leaving in large numbers, and that this can be blamed on Israel. It is difficult to assess the size of this reported exodus or how rapidly it is taking place since Bob Simon provided little in the way of hard numbers. The implication is that this is a direct result of the Israeli occupation, and while this may very well be true, there was nothing but purely anecdotal evidence provided to support the charge. Simon interviewed the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem who said that in 1964 there were 30,000 Christians in Jerusalem and now there are “very few” with Simon putting the number at 11,000. Damning stuff, until you find out that according to Menashe Harrel (whose numbers are widely considered authoritative) there were 25,000 Christians in Jerusalem in 1948 and only 12,646 in 1967, which leads one to conclude that the Jordanians must have been secret Israelis given the dastardly effect their control of Jerusalem had on the Christian population. With Jerusalem’s Christian population now standing at 11,000, it is impossible to claim with a straight face that Israel is responsible for a rapid mass migration by Christians elsewhere.
In addition, there is the inconvenient fact that while the Christian population is shrinking, the Muslim population is growing. Are we supposed to take away from this that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank disproportionately affects, or even purposely targets, Christians? If Israel’s actions are the direct and proximate cause of Christian flight, then it would have been helpful to see some sort of causal chain established by 60 Minutes, but instead the viewers are told that Christians residents are disappearing and that this is due to occupation of the West Bank, yet no effort is made to ascertain why Christians are leaving (aside from Ari Shavit’s observation about Christians being squeezed between political Islam and political Judaism) but Muslims are not. Christian communities are disappearing across the region, have been driven out of Iraq entirely and are coming under sectarian pressure in Egypt, yet 60 Minutes finds Zahi Khouri’s claim that he has never heard of someone leaving because of concern over Islamic fundamentalism to be a completely credible one. Bob Simon asked Shavit, “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?” yet there was no documentation at all of ways in which Christians are being specifically mistreated for being Christian, just an allegation hanging in the air as if the question itself were somehow proof.
The bottom line is that this was a sloppily reported and lazily researched segment falling far below 60 Minutes’ usual standards. Anyone who reads this blog knows that I carry no water for the Israeli occupation of the West Bank or mistreatment of Palestinians, and would be thrilled to see both of those things ended immediately. I call out what I view to be Israeli missteps and bad behavior all the time. But Michael Oren was correct to view this piece as a hatchet job that was undeserving of being aired. Yes, Israel has made life very unpleasant for plenty of Palestinians, and Christians in Bethlehem are particularly ill-served by the occupation and the separation barrier given their proximity to Israel proper and their reliance on religious tourism, but there was simply no proof presented by CBS outside of empty conjecture that Israel is deserving of more blame for this than are the Palestinian terrorists that prompted the construction of the barrier in the first place, nor was there even a scintilla of historical or regional context to place this story in perspective. Being a Christian in the West Bank cannot be easy for a variety of reasons, and I can understand why Palestinian Christians would feel uncomfortable under both Jewish and Muslim rule, particularly when they each rely on an increasingly assertive religious nationalism. It should be perfectly clear though that Israel is not targeting Christian Palestinians, that the Christian population of Jerusalem has remained steady since Israel claimed the entirety of the city in 1967, and that the Christian population of the West Bank is shrinking for a variety of reasons, some of which have to do with the occupation and some of which have nothing to do with it whatsoever. The public perception following the 60 Minutes report is that Michael Oren did not come off well, but 60 Minutes and Bob Simon did not exactly cover themselves in glory (the segment has been in the works since last year and this is the best they could come up with??) and deserve any criticism that might come their way.