Every year around Christmas, journalists descend upon Bethlehem looking for a story with a seasonal flavor, usually a bitter one as far as Israel is concerned. That the same old stories are recycled more often than that Christmas or Chanukah present you just didn’t want, doesn’t seem to bother some media outlets.
Some particularly nasty pieces have come to our attention in the past few days.
The Guardian’s headline employs one of the most insidious and oft-repeated analogies at this time of year:
The Guardian’s article was also republished in Australia’s The Age and once again, the headline writer produced something almost equally distasteful:
In a similar vein, The Times‘s headline (subscription only) implies that Israel is specifically targeting the Christian residents of Bethlehem:
Interestingly, both articles quote the same Bethlehem priest, the likelihood being that this story was fed to the media in an organized fashion, perhaps by the Palestinian Authority or a non-governmental organization. The Guardian opens with:
If Joseph and Mary were making their way to Bethlehem today, the Christmas story would be a little different, says Father Ibrahim Shomali, a parish priest in the town. The couple would struggle to get into the city, let alone find a hotel room.
“If Jesus were to come this year, Bethlehem would be closed,” says the priest of Bethlehem’s Beit Jala parish. “He would either have to be born at a checkpoint or at the separation wall. Mary and Joseph would have needed Israeli permission – or to have been tourists.
At least The Times, unlike The Guardian, doesn’t run with Shomali’s disgusting politicization of the Christmas narrative. Indeed, one could equally argue that Mary and Joseph, as Jews today, would find themselves in far more dangerous territory traveling through Palestinian towns and cities.
Considering both newspapers saw fit to interview a priest from Beit Jala, it may have been pertinent to mention why the Israeli security barrier is present in that precise area. Israelis living in the Jerusalem suburb of Gilo will never forget the incessant Palestinian gunfire from Beit Jala aimed directly into their homes during the first years of the so-called Second Intifada.
Nor will Jerusalemites forget the infiltration of suicide bombers from the Bethlehem area who took advantage of the open border before the construction of the Israeli security barrier. The Times merely states: “Israeli officials say that the barrier has helped to reduce terrorist attacks. Palestinians call it a land grab.” The Guardian fails to mention Israeli security concerns at all.
As for the implication in both news articles that Israel is deliberately causing an exodus of Christians from Bethlehem, this is a gross misrepresentation of a long-term trend as the Christian community in the Palestinian areas has taken advantage of its relatively high level of education and economic well being to emigrate to the US and other Western countries. Not mentioned, of course, are the issues of living as Christians among a Muslim majority, particularly with the presence of Hamas extremists.
As the Associated Press states in its own very different story on Bethlehem at Christmas:
The number of Christians in the West Bank is on the decline. While some leave for economic reasons, many speak of persecution by the Muslim majority, but always anonymously, fearing retribution.
Christians have even lost their majority in Bethlehem, where more than two-thirds of the some 50,000 Palestinian residents are now Muslim.
This also tallies with research as far back as 2006 by Justus Reid Weiner of the JCPA.
In stark contrast to a “besieged”, “choked” or closed off city of Bethlehem described by The Guardian, The Age and The Times, the AP’s report paints a very different picture:
Israel’s Tourism Ministry said it expects 90,000 tourists to visit the holy land for the holiday. Ministry spokeswoman Lydia Weitzman said that number is the same as last year’s record-breaking tally, but was surprisingly high considering the turmoil in the Arab world and the US and European economic downturns.
As the Wall St. Journal wrote exactly two years ago:
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.
The other truth usually ignored by the Western press is that the barrier helped restore calm and security not just in Israel, but also in the West Bank including Bethlehem. The Church of the Nativity, which Palestinian gunmen stormed and defiled in 2002 to escape from Israeli security forces, is now filled again with tourists and pilgrims from around the world.
How many more years will we have to deal with the politicization and abuse of Christmas by the media? Judging by The Guardian, The Age and The Times, we’ll no doubt be back in a year’s time for more of the same.
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Image: CC BY-SA HonestReporting.com, flickr/Marissa Mullen.