'60 Minutes,' Bob Simon, and Bethlehem Christians

'60 Minutes,' Bob Simon, and Bethlehem Christians


On Sunday night, the CBS News program “60 Minutes” aired a segment called Christians of the Holy Land

Veteran CBS News correspondent Bob Simon reported the story.

His story addressed the alarming exodus of Christians from Bethlehem, the birthplace of Christianity. After receiving several emails telling me about the story, I watched it online.

After watching it, I thought it would be informative to include some of what the radio announcer Paul Harvey used to say was “the rest of the story.”

In large part Simon blames the Christian exodus on Israel’s “occupation” and the condition of Palestinian Arabs living behind the security wall Israel constructed to combat Islamic terrorism.

For example, here’s the transcript from Simon’s story where he reports on the wall and interviews the Anastas’s, a Christian family who live next to the wall.

“At the same time, the wall completely surrounds Bethlehem, turning the "little town" where Christ was born into what its residents call "an open air prison."

Bob Simon: Do you remember the day they put up the wall?

Christie Anastas: Yeah. Actually, it was in 2003 and I was about 14 years old. I went to school one day and came back and found the wall surrounding the house.

Christie Anastas lives with her mother Claire, her father, brother and sister, in this house which is surrounded on three sides by the wall.

Bob Simon: How do you live with this?

Christie Anastas: Well, it's not easy, actually, but you get used to it. Because you have to.

The Anastas family lives on the third floor. This is the view from the kitchen, from the master bedroom and bathroom. The children's room has a good view of this Israeli guard tower.

The family runs a souvenir shop on the ground floor, sells Christian artifacts on what used to be the busiest commercial street in town. Now, it's a dead end.

Bob Simon: Members of your family have already left?

Claire Anastas: Yes.

Bob Simon: And they have asked you to leave too?

Claire Anastas: Yes.

Bob Simon: What do you say to them?

Claire Anastas: I tell them, we have to stay. We need to stay and struggle and fight. This is our cross.”

Visually, it’s a powerful and personal segment. Who wouldn’t be moved by the plight of this family? Their home surrounded on three sides by the wall, their family business devastated and their once busy thoroughfare now a dead end.

But there’s another side of the story behind the wall that Simon only seems to pay lip service. Here’s his explanation:

“Israel built the wall over the last 10 years, which completely separates Israel from the occupied West Bank. The wall was built to stop Palestinian terrorists from getting into Israel. And it's worked. Terrorism has gone down 90 percent.”

Yet this side of the story deserves more than two sentences. It’s a side not just tragically inconvenient. It’s gruesome.

This side can be told by another wall, a small wall, only about five to six feet tall. It’s just a couple of blocks away from the famous King David Hotel, the German Colony and across the street from Jerusalem’s Liberty Bell Park. A stone marker sits on this wall with the names of eight people inscribed on it. If you didn’t know it was there, you might walk right by it.

The marker commemorates a bus bombing at 8:30 AM Sunday morning February 22, 2004. I lived nearby and heard a loud noise that morning. But since it was an extremely windy day, I thought something like a water heater on a nearby roof had blown over. But in just a few minutes, I got a call that indeed one more bus bombing had taken place.

Veteran South African journalist Stan Goodenough arrived on the scene just moments after the bombing. Here’s his description:

"… For a while I alone, was the only non-official person able to take in the detail of it all. … the yawning rear doorway revealed more orange, yellow and red flesh, lumps of bodies in the aisle between the seats. Near the front door, a portable pink cassette player lay on its side.  Forensic personnel in white coveralls, dark red cloth booties covering their shoes and pink-stained disposable gloves shielding their hands, picked their way through the mix of metal and human debris … I watched now as police passed objects through the back window of the bus. A shredded army shirt - it's frightening how a bomb blast can rip off people's clothes – some bullets, books, bags and at least five children's backpacks, pink and blue and red. As one officer gingerly (tenderly?) searched through the school bags, I wondered about the mothers and fathers who had packed their kids' lunches just a little while before, and who must have been frantically trying to get news of their loved little ones after hearing that horrible sound."

Eight people died on Bus 14A that morning. The explosion also wounded more than 60; eleven were students on their way to school. Two of those students died; eighteen year olds, Lior Azulai and Benaya Zuckerman. Zukerman’s principal called him, “…a special kind of boy, beloved, talented, and full of charm.”  A friend called him, “… a great jokester, with a warm smile, and would do anything for you.” He had two brothers and two sisters. Azulai’s principal described him as “…an amazing boy … He was on the soccer team and was exceptionally well liked. He was one of the most outstanding kids in the class."

When the bomb went off, a visiting U.S. Congressional delegation was meeting just one block up the street in the Inbal Hotel. The delegation was allowed beyond the police line to see the devastation Goodenough described. When Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., saw the carnage, he told the Jerusalem Post, ‘if any other country in the world faced the onslaught of Palestinian suicide bombings that have rocked Israel over the last three years, "they would be carpet bombing the Palestinian territories ... if this was America that was attacked, we would be using B-52 bombers."

But Israel didn’t carpet bomb, they built a wall.

The Fatah Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades claimed responsibility for the bombing. Muhammad Za’ul from Bethlehem was the suicide bomber. Police concluded he got on the bus in the nearby neighborhood of Talpiot and waited “in order for the bus to fill with passengers, so as to increase the number of casualties.”

The next month on March 12, 2004, another suicide bomber from Bethlehem, Andaliv (Takataka) Suleiman blew herself up at the entrance of Jerusalem's open air Mahane Yehuda market. She killed four Israeli civilians, two foreign workers from China and injured more than 60.

To understand the context of those years, Israel was in a war. Bethlehem and surrounding villages were breeding grounds for suicide bombers. Israeli parents were afraid to send their children to school and wondered like the parents of Lior or Benaya if they’d even come home alive. Many didn’t. Because of the number of terror attacks, Jaffa Street in downtown Jerusalem was called “the most dangerous street in the world.”

That’s why Bethlehem has a wall around it and why it’s hard for people living in Bethlehem to drive the five miles to Jerusalem. It’s an awful situation but the policy – however onerous – wasn't done in a vacuum. It was done to safeguard men and women and children from suicide bombers and belts laced with nails, bolts and ball bearings.

It’s why Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren told Simon, “We regret any inconvenience caused by the security precautions. But it's their inconvenience, it's our survival … We have to protect our country. But sometimes you have to do what you have to do in order to survive.”

Simon’s report also addressed – and minimized - the influence of Islamic extremism.  Here’s how he treated the issue:

“For Palestinian Christians, the survival of their culture is in danger. In towns like Bethlehem, which used to be distinctively Christian, Muslims now are a clear and growing majority. The veil is replacing the cross. But inside Israel, in Christian towns like Nazareth, Arabs are Israeli citizens and, according to Ambassador Oren, they're thriving. The reason Christians are leaving the West Bank, he says, is Islamic extremism.

Michael Oren: I think that the major problem in the West Bank as in elsewhere in the Middle East is that the Christian communities are living under duress.

Bob Simon: And this duress is coming from Muslims, not from the Israel occupation?

Ambassador Michael Oren: I believe that the major duress is coming from that.

[Zahi Khouri: Great selling point. Easy to sell to the American public.]

Zahi Khouri is a Palestinian businessman. He owns the West Bank Coca-Cola franchise.

Zahi Khouri: I'll tell you I don't know of anybody and I probably have 12,000 customers here. I've never heard that someone is leaving because of Islamic persecution.”

Simon’s report seems to base its conclusion that no one is “leaving because of Islamic persecution” on the opinion of one Arabic businessman. Too bad, he didn’t research a little further because many other reports, articles and studies for years paint an entirely different story.

Take this December 24, 1995 first hand report by Andre Aciman in The New York Times

Magazine called “Manger Square; in the Muslim City of Bethlehem.” Aciman’s story takes the temperature of the city on the eve of the handover by Israel to Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.  Even then Christians were leaving in droves not because of Israel but because of the Muslim takeover.  Many flocked to Israel.

Here are excerpts from Aciman’s report:

“This is the first time in 28 years that Bethlehem will celebrate Christmas without an Israeli presence … "maybe they'll have big celebrations," says Itzhak, a Jerusalem cabby whom I summon by cellular phone.  I ask whether he really believes this. Itzhak snickers. "The Christians are leaving," he says.  The implication is clear: they're afraid of the Muslims. Everyone knows but no one says it: they are the Jews of Bethlehem …

… A small cafe on Manger Square, located under a large pine, is called the Christmas Tree; it gives off a smell of skewered-meat sandwiches, of falafel and coffee. It is well situated and the owner, a Christian, has obviously done well.  But he paid a price for refusing to close his business during a general strike. Islamic fundamentalists burned his car and bombed his home …

(Aicman interviewed Bethlehem’s mayor Elias Freij)>

I inquire about the Christians. I try to avoid direct questions, but I ask Freij about the Christians' future prospects in a Muslim world. Are there any similarities between the endangered Copt minority in Egypt and Bethlehem's Christians? "None whatsoever," he replies. He insists that the Christian community is thriving and faces no threats. "Still, many Christians are leaving," he adds upon reflection, confirming my cabdriver's observation.

I know the story well. Christians are nervous. Whether or not Freij decides to run, it is quite possible a Muslim will become the next Mayor. This does not worry the Christians as much as the fact that Hamas and Islamic fundamentalist elements will inevitably make life difficult for them as a minority. Bethlehem University, which is partly supported by the Vatican, has been asked to build a place for prayer to accommodate Muslim students. Koranic words have been scribbled on church walls. A few years ago, a graffito in Beit Zahur, nearby, proclaimed, "First the Saturday people, then the Sunday people." To illustrate the extent of Christian fears, a conservative Israeli essayist told me that since the announcement of the redeployment of Israeli soldiers from Palestinian territories, more than 10,000 Palestinians, many of them Christian, have applied for Israeli citizenship.

The writing on the wall is clear. There are Christian mothers who breathe easily once their children are safely abroad.”

Why would Christians in 1995 see “the writing on the wall?”

One of the answers was Yasser Arafat.

After Simon’s story aired, I called human rights attorney Justus Reid Weiner. Weiner has studied the human rights situation in Bethlehem for 16 years. He’s written a number of scholarly articles, testified at the U.S. State Department, before House and Senate Committees and interviewed dozens of people living in Bethlehem. Many of those he interviewed refused to go public. They’re too afraid.

Here’s a quote from Weiner about what happened after Yasser Arafat did to Bethlehem demographics.

“After the PA gained control of Bethlehem, it redistricted the municipal boundaries of the city. Arafat also defied tradition by appointing a Muslim governor of the city. The Bethlehem City Council, which by Palestinian law must have a Christian majority, has been taken over by Muslims. Eight of the fifteen seats on the Council are still reserved for Christians, but Hamas controls the City Council with some Christian allies. Arafat crowned his efforts when he converted the Greek Orthodox monastery next to the Church of Nativity into his official Bethlehem residence.”

Weiner goes on:

"The problems for Christians in Bethlehem are typical throughout the Middle East. As in Palestinian society, Christian Arabs have no voice and no protection. It is no wonder they have been leaving. Because of emigration – some of it dating back two or three generations – seventy percent of Christian Arabs who originally resided in the West Bank and Gaza now live abroad. Tens of thousands live in Sydney, Berlin, Santiago, Detroit, and Toronto. The emigration of Christian Arabs has multiplied over the last decade, with no end in sight."

Weiner concludes:

"The human rights crimes against the Christian Arabs in the disputed territories are committed by Muslims. Yet many Palestinian Christian leaders accuse Israel of these crimes rather than the actual perpetrators. These patriarchs and archbishops of Christian Arab denominations obfuscate the truth and put their own people in danger. This is often for personal benefit or due to intimidation. This motif has been adopted by a variety of Christian leaders in the Western world. Others who are aware of the human rights crimes choose to remain silent about them."

For years, I’ve heard anecdotes that Bethlehem was a far different place before Israel gave it back to the Palestinian Authority; before Yasser Arafat got a hold of it and before the influence of Hamas grew. Then Israelis went to Bethlehem and Arabs freely came into Jerusalem.  There was no wall. Business was good. In fact, Weiner told me many Palestinian Arabs who lived in Bethlehem before and after Arafat insisted their lives were better before the PA took over. Ironically, they were mad at Israel for opening the door to Arafat's dictatorship through the Oslo Accords. By the way, you may not know it but Israelis are forbidden to go into Bethlehem. It’s because too many were killed during the Second Intifada that began in September of 2000.

Daniel Schwammenthal, the editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal in Europe wrote about Christians in Bethlehem in his December 2009 op-ed “The Forgotten Palestinian Refugees: Even in Bethlehem, Palestinian Christians are suffering under Muslim Intolerance.”

His report confirmed Weiner’s findings.

“Meet Mr. Ibrahim (a pseudonym to protect him from reprisals), a 23-year old Palestinian refugee living in the West Bank. Unlike those descendants of refugees born in United Nations camps, Mr. Ibrahim fled his birthplace just two years ago. And he wasn't running away from Israelis, but from his Palestinian brethren in Gaza.

Mr. Ibrahim's crime in that Hamas-ruled territory was to be a Christian, a transgression he compounded in the Islamists' eyes by writing love poems. "Muslims tied to Hamas tried to take me twice," says Mr. Ibrahim, and he didn't want to find out what they'd do to him if they ever kidnapped him. He hasn't seen his family since Christmas 2007 and is afraid even to talk to them on the phone.”

On the rare occasion that Western media cover the plight of Christians in the Palestinian territories, it is often to denounce Israel and its security barrier. Yet until Palestinian terrorist groups turned Bethlehem into a safe haven for suicide bombers, Bethlehemites were free to enter Israel, just as many Israelis routinely visited Bethlehem.

But even here in Jesus' birthplace, which is under the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Christians live on a knife's edge.”

In addition to "Mr. Ibrahim," Muslims who convert to Christianity in areas controlled by the PA or Hamas may be the most endangered of all.

In its 2010 report on Religious Freedom the U.S. State Department concluded: “The PA did not take sufficient action during the reporting period to investigate and bring to justice persons who harassed, intimidated, and perpetrated attacks against some Christian residents of Bethlehem and Ramallah.”

And years after Muhammad Za’ul blew himself up on Bus 14A, the PA is still extolling the virtue of terrorists to Palestinian children. 

Here’s what the Palestinian Media Watch (PMW), a group monitoring the office media of the Palestinian Authority reported:

“A summer camp in Bethlehem is the latest institution in the Palestinian Authority to be named after the leader of the worst terror attack in Israel's history.  According to the official PA daily newspaper, the new camp is named after Dalal Mughrabi, who led a 1978 bus hijacking in which 37 civilians, 12 of them children, were killed. The newspaper reports that the camp "aims at training young leaders" in the Bethlehem area …”

The PMW also reported … “Palestinian hostility is not limited to Jews … the authority “makes a presentation as if they’re defending Christians, which they’re not. Hamas openly has called for the killing of Christians . . . There was a video that ran on Hamas official television last year which said, ‘Allah, fight the Jews and their allies and kill them. Fight the Christians and their allies and kill them. Fight them until the last one, don’t leave even one.’ Essentially, this is a call for genocide of all Jews and Christians on official Hamas television.”

It concludes:

“As far as the seemingly more moderate, U.S.-favored Palestinian Authority of the West Bank, “When Israel ruled Bethlehem [in the West Bank], from 1967 through 1994-1995, the Christian population was 60-70 percent of the population of Bethlehem. When the area was transferred to the Palestinian Authority . . . [the Christian] population has dropped from 60 percent to less than 10 percent. So here you have a very holy Christian city — one of the holiest Christian cities in the world — and yet Christians have been forced out by the Palestinian Authority’s way of governing there.”

Near the end of Simon’s report he confronts Israeli Ambassador Oren for trying to stop the airing of the report by calling the chairman of CBS News.

Simon first prefaced the give and take with Oren with a warning that the plight of Christians in Bethlehem could be a disaster for Israel.

For Israel, there could be serious economic consequences. According to Israeli government figures, tourism is a multi billion dollar business there. Most tourists are Christian. Many of them are American. That's one reason why Israelis are very sensitive about their image in the United States. And that could be why Ambassador Oren phoned Jeff Fager, the head of CBS News and executive producer of 60 Minutes, while we were still reporting the story, long before tonight's broadcast. He said he had information our story was quote: "a hatchet job."

Michael Oren: It seemed to me outrageous. Completely incomprehensible that at a time when these communities, Christian communities throughout the Middle East are being oppressed and massacred, when churches are being burnt, when one of the great stories in history is unfolding? I think it's-- I think it's-- I think you got me a little bit mystified.

Bob Simon: And it was a reason to call the president of-- chairman of CBS News?

Michael Oren: Bob, I'm the ambassador of the State of Israel. I do that very, very infrequently as ambassador. It's just-- that's an extraordinary move for me to complain about something. When I heard that you were going to do a story about Christians in the Holy Land and my assum-- and-- and had, I believe, information about the nature of it, and it's been confirmed by this interview today.

Bob Simon: Nothing's been confirmed by the interview, Mr. Ambassador, because you don't know what's going to be put on air.

Michael Oren: Okay. I don't. True.

Bob Simon: 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.

Michael Oren: Well, there's a first time for everything, Bob.

So who’s the villain of this story? Was it Arafat who gerrymandered Bethlehem to change a 2,000-year-old demographic Christian majority? Was it Muhammad Zu’al who rode Bus 14A from Bethlehem to Jerusalem on his deadly suicide mission? Or was it Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren who had the temerity as Israel’s ambassador to try and influence a story he heard was a “hatchet job.”

No one disagrees that Bethlehem is a hard place for Christians. But to put the onus exclusively on Israel ignores the 500 pound gorilla in the room – radical Islam – and is a gross mischaracterization of an admittedly awful situation. If Simon dug a little deeper, he might have found that out.

I’ve watched 60 Minutes most of my life. In many of their stories, there’s often a villain. The villain gets painted into a rhetorical corner; he’s caught red-handed, defamed or embarrassed. He’s the person you love to root against and the audience is grateful for the crusading reporter who “gets them in the end.”

In Simon’s report, Ambassador Oren became that person. Too bad Simon left out folks like Arafat, Muhammad Zu'al, Hamas or the PA. Ambassador Oren would have come out a lot better if “60 Minutes” viewers had been told “the rest of the story.”

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