Last Sunday, CBS’s 60 Minutes broadcast “Christians of the Holy Land,” by Bob Simon, largely blaming Israel for an exodus of Christians from the Holy Land. The showing coincides with a growing international campaign to portray Israel as anti-Christian, showcasing Palestinian Christians as evidence.
“Palestinian Christians, once a powerful minority, are becoming the invisible people, squeezed between a growing Muslim majority and burgeoning Israeli settlements,” the segment opened. “Israel has occupied the West Bank for 45 years.”
But the harsher indictment came from a Palestinian Lutheran pastor and critic of Israel. “If you see what's happening in the West Bank, you will find that the West Bank is becoming more and more like a piece of Swiss cheese where Israel gets the cheese that is the land, the water resources, the archaeological sites,” complained Mitri Raheb. “And the Palestinians are pushed in the holes behind the walls.”
Christians comprise between 1 and 2 percent of Palestinians. But because American Christians, especially evangelicals, are among Israel’s most strategically important friends, undermining Christian sympathy for Israel has become a major theme for anti-Israel activism.
60 Minutes largely cast Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Oren, as the villain, and Christians Palestinians as the victims. Oren disputed that Israel persecutes Christians and wondered why there is not more focus on harsh anti-Christian persecution elsewhere in the Middle East. Most grieving to Simon, Oren complained to CBS before the segment’s broadcast, which Simon huffed was unprecedented.
The Israeli security barrier is frequently cited as a form of persecution against Palestinian Christians. Claiming the wall now “completely” surrounds Bethlehem, which is an exaggeration, 60 Minutes noted: “For Palestinian Christians, the survival of their culture is in danger.” Simon reported: “In towns like Bethlehem, which used to be distinctively Christian, Muslims now are a clear and growing majority.” Oren countered that what for Palestinians is an “inconvenience” is for Israel a matter of “survival.” He also emphasized that Christianity is “thriving” inside Israel, in contrast with the rest of the region. And he faulted “Islamic extremism” for Christian difficulties on the West Bank.
60 Minutes was mostly uninterested in examining Islamic extremism, while faulting Israel for a Palestinian Christian exodus whose outcome is that: “The veil is replacing the cross.” Simon hailed a 2009 manifesto from Palestinian Christians called “Kairos Palestine,” which he described as “criticizing Islamic extremism and advocating non-violent resistance to the Israeli occupation which they called a sin against God.”
In fact, “Kairos” never specifically mentions Islamic extremism. Instead, it condemns “anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.” And it carefully warns: “Trying to make the state a religious state, Jewish or Islamic, suffocates the state, confines it within narrow limits, and transforms it into a state that practices discrimination and exclusion, preferring one citizen over another.” Defenders of Israel note that Kairos vaguely defines the “occupation” as perhaps not just the West Bank but all of Israel. And it seems to point at a single-state solution, in which Palestinians would become a demographic majority. Unacknowledged by 60 Minutes, Palestinian Christians, as a tiny minority among Muslims, including Hamas, don't have the luxury of criticizing political Islam. Nor can they publicly take any position that isn't anti-Israel.
Pastor Raheb, who helped write Kairos, told 60 Minutes: “They are fearful of this document because they are afraid this might influence the Christian world.” No doubt. Israeli ambassador Oren understandably anticipated the 60 Minutes segment would be hostile, and he preempted it with a Wall Street Journal op-ed describing radical Islam as a persecutor of Christians. “Christian communities throughout the Middle East are being oppressed and massacred,” he told 60 Minutes, saying he was “mystified” by the inattention. But Bob Simon focused on Oren’s preemptive complaints about a “hatchet job” to CBS. “I've never gotten a reaction before from a story that hasn't been broadcast yet,” Simon complained. “Well, there's a first time for everything, Bob,” Oren countered.
60 Minutes cited Christian tourism in Israel as the source of Israel’s concern about Christian attitudes. But more important is Christian influence, especially evangelical, in sustaining pro-Israel U.S. policies. International anti-Israel groups are specifically wooing and challenging typically pro-Israel U.S. Christians, especially evangelicals, often citing “Kairos Palestine” as evidence of Palestinian Christian suffering and attitudes.
In March, U.S. activists working with Palestinian Christians organized “Christ at the Checkpoint” in Bethlehem, which featured prominent U.S. evangelicals such as evangelist Tony Campolo, Ron Sider of Evangelicals for Social Action, “urban monastic” Shane Claiborne, and Florida mega church pastor Joel Hunter, who is a spiritual counselor to President Obama. Hundreds of U.S. evangelicals attended. Two recent U.S. films have targeted U.S. evangelicals and their Israel stance. One was called “With God on Our Side,” which portrayed mindless Christian Zionism as the source behind Palestinian travails. The other, called “Little Town of Bethlehem,” and funded by an evangelical philanthropist, more subtly portrayed Palestinian peace activists, supported by an Israeli military conscientious objector, as key to ending the Israeli occupation. A recent “Q” gathering of about 700 mostly young evangelicals in Washington, D.C. featured a winsome Palestinian Christian make his case, with little counterpoint.
The April 22 60 Minutes story preceded the 12 million member global United Methodist Church’s April 24 – May 4 governing quadrennial General Conference in Tampa, where divesting from firms that ostensibly “profit” from Israel’s occupation in the West Bank is being debated. Four years ago, United Methodists rejected anti-Israel divestment. But this time, dozens of divestment activists are lobbying on site. They cite “Kairos Palestine,” and are grateful to 60 Minutes. In June, the general assembly of the 2 million member Presbyterian Church (USA), meeting in Pittsburgh, will again debate anti-Israel divestment, having adopted then rescinded it several years ago.
U.S. Jewish groups are understandably concerned about U.S. denominations potentially inflating the sails of the mostly moribund divestment movement. Probably the Methodists and Presbyterians will again say no. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, herself decidedly on the left, has recently specifically rejected divestment. But 60 Minutes, whether intentionally or not, has become the best ally for turning U.S. Christian opinion against Israel.
Mark Tooley is president of the Institute on Religion & Democracy.