If you haven't seen it, yesterday's installment of CBS's long-running news program "60 Minutes" included a very important segment where journalist Bob Simon investigates what is behind the dwindling presence of Palestine's Christian population. The segment was powerful and overall very positive. Here is what Bob Simon got right and what he got wrong:
What he got right: The question of the status of the Palestinian Christian population in Palestine is not a new one. In fact, the broader question of 'Christian Flight' has long been around, particularly in western discourse. Often, however, investigations into this question in the past have looked superficially at population numbers and come to conclusions without any rigorous inquiry.
What Bob Simon got so right was his approach to the story. To find out what was bothering Palestinian Christians, Bob Simon thought it might be a good idea to talk to them, their representatives and the leaders of their institutions. This shouldn't be revolutionary, but when it comes to the question of Christians in Palestine in the mainstream US media, allowing Palestinian Christians to actually speak for themselves is sadly novel.
Perhaps this is why the segment managed to draw ire from the Michael Oren, the Ambassador of Israel, even before he saw it. Bob Simon asked Oren how he could draw conclusions about a report he has yet to see. Oren stumbled to respond to a rather straightforward question, first half-saying he assumed it would be bad for Israel then saying he had 'information'.
Unless Oren and the state of Israel has a network of spies at CBS the only information he must have had is who Bob Simon spoke to: Palestinian Christians. I'm sure Oren was also able to figure out no official representatives of the State of Israel were interviewed either. So, what set off alarm for Oren was that Palestinian Christians where actually going to have an opportunity to narrate their own story to a national American audience.
That is all Oren the 'information' needed to freak out and Bob Simon, recognizing how ridiculous this was, gave Oren the opportunity to expose himself to an national American audience. Bob Simon did not intend his piece to be a comment on the way Israel attempts to control the discourse on Palestine and Palestinian Christians, but Michael Oren made that especially news worthy.
The Anastas house, (pictured left) which is surrounded by Israel's apartheid wall on three sides and was featured in the CBS segment, is very much symbolic of the larger issue Oren helped Simon expose. Michael Oren and others want to wall-off the discourse so only one angle, one direction, one perspective- the official Israeli perspective- is visible. Bob Simon's segment busted through some of these walls by simply going to the source of the subject matter; Palestinian Christians.
Simon's segment made clear that Israel isn't targeting Palestinian Christians as Christians, rather they are targeted by Israeli policies because they are Palestinians. Israel is an Equal Opportunity Occupier and its walls, checkpoints and restrictions do not discriminate between Christians and Muslims. There is no doubt, however, that Palestinian populations in cities like Bethlehem and Jerusalem, which have historically been home to a significant number of Christians, face some of the most severe effects of Israeli policies.
By giving voice to Palestinian Christians and by showing how this community in Palestine was particularly vulnerable to Israeli occupation, Simon struck a devastating blow at a pillar of Israeli propaganda which became most prominent after 9/11; that Israel is at the front lines in a common Judeo-Christian battle against Islamism.
The Israel Lobby's alliance with American Christians, particularly evangelicals, is a integral part of its successful efforts to influence American policy makers. How Israeli policies effect Palestinian Christians might change this and there were stirrings of concern in the Jewish community about a change in this relationship prior to Simon's 60 Minutes segment. Thus, the preemptive strike against CBS was entirely predictable.
Oren seemed to be at a loss for words at some points and when Simon, a veteran journalist, told him he had never in his years of reporting received complaints on a story before it aired Oren replied "Well, there is a first time for everything, Bob."
Oren's right, there is a first time for everything. This is the first time that an Israeli Ambassador's intimidation tactics were so bravely turned against him by a journalist who just wasn't going to take it any more. Hopefully it is a harbinger of things to come.
The Israeli Ambassador is right to complain of a 'hatchet job' but he was the one who brought the hatchet then proceeded to turn it on himself. Simon just kept the cameras rolling.
What he got wrong: Bob Simon made one glaring factual error which was disappointing. Almost in passing, as he narrates over imagery of Israel's wall in the West Bank, Simon says that: "Israel built the wall over the last 10 years, which completely separates Israel from the occupied West Bank." But, of course, this is far from true. In fact, the wall cuts deeply into the West Bank and is not built on the green line, the West Bank's perimeter. What makes this error more disappointing is that in an 60 Minutes segment that Mr. Simon did in 2009 (also very much worth watching) he described the wall's path far more accurately:
"Israel is building what it calls a security wall between the West Bank and Israel to stop suicide bombers. The Palestinians are furious because it appropriates eight percent of the West Bank. Not only that. It weaves its way through Palestinian farms, separating farmers from their land. They have to wait at gates for soldiers to let them in."
Overall, this story was a very important expose of Israel's treatment of Palestinians and also how Israel attempts to regulate mainstream American discourse on the issue. For this, we have to thank Bob Simon and the folks at 60 Minutes, and of course, Ambassador Michael Oren.
For how much longer will Israel's oppression of the native Palestinians last? For how much longer will the US mainstream media hesitate to tackle this issue and give voice to Palestinians?
The clock is ticking and thanks to this 60 Minutes segment last night it is ticking a little faster this morning.
This post first appeared on the Palestine Center blog Permission to Narrate.