This article appeared in the February 1996 Levitt Letter
By Zola Levitt
Christmas 1995 was the most historic Christmas since the original, when Jesus was born in Bethlehem. On this particular Christmas, almost the entire Christian community silently watched, or even applauded, as Bethlehem was given to the Muslims.
But in a peculiar way, it was not only the city that was given to the Muslims, but also the Savior who was born there. Yasser Arafat proclaimed Jesus to be a Palestinian in front of the whole world, and the Muslims, the media and, most shamefully, the Christian Church, scarcely objected.
The only strong objection that I spotted was by guest columnist Andrea Levin, writing in the January 13 issue of The Jerusalem Post International Edition. Ms. Levin, head of CAMERA (The Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America), specializes in watching media biases. She is very eloquent in the piece we reprint below.
Arafat and His Media Mock Jesus the Jew
By Andrea Levin
Jesus was a Palestinian! So, at any rate, did Yasser Arafat inform thousands of Christmas celebrants in Bethlehem as the Palestinian Authority took control of the town.
Yet the brazen lie did not cause an international scandal, with headlines questioning the PLO leader’s sanity. It did not prompt journalistic comment on Arafat’s chronic tendency toward fantastic invention, nor did a single commentator ask whether the word of a man prone to such bizarre statements can be trusted.
On the contrary, the appropriation of Jesus by Arafat was widely reported as if it were the most ordinary and acceptable of claims. The New York Times‘s Serge Schmemann led his December 24 story this way: “Fulfilling a pledge to be in Bethlehem by Christmas, Yasser Arafat declared today to a jubilant throng on Manger Square: ‘We pronounce this holy land, this holy city, the city of the Palestinian Jesus, a liberated city forever, forever, forever.'”
No disclaimer, wry or otherwise, noted that Jesus was a Jew born in Judea, or that he died more than 100 years before Rome imposed the name Syria-Palestina on the area after crushing a Jewish rebellion led by Bar Kochba. The name change was meant to mock the Jews’ defeat by recalling their battles with the Philistines.
All these events preceded the Arab invasion and conquest by many centuries.
The remainder of Schmemann’s story reads like a press release from the PLO public relations department. Obscuring entirely the sharp tensions between Christians and Muslims in Bethlehem, the Times reporter declares that Arafat tried to “reach out” to both Christians and Jews. Apparently, rewriting the history of Jesus — the Jew who founded Christianity — was viewed as ingratiating by Schmemann.
CNN’s Jerrold Kessel and Walter Rodgers both reported Arafat’s expropriation of Jesus with similar nonchalance. So did ABC’s Kevin Newman.
Reuters was one of the few media outlets to report that Arafat’s designs on Jesus were not happily received in the Christian community. Dominic Evans noted that in addition to Christian unease at the Muslim Palestinian political takeover of Bethlehem, “eyebrows were also raised when Arafat claimed Jesus as a Palestinian.”
Evans quotes a Catholic parish priest in Bethlehem as saying, “Jesus was not Palestinian. He is king of all the universe. He is the Prince of Peace. We may say He is from Bethlehem but is not just for one people.”
Yaroslav Trofimov in The Ottawa Citizen presented a view of events in Bethlehem that contrasted with the rosy scene proffered by Serge Schmemann and others. He writes of the overwhelming Palestinian Authority/Muslim presence, and of the wary reaction of Christian tourists.
“Somewhat taken aback by the un-Christmas-like spirit and the ever-present Kalashnikov-bearing Palestinian soldiers, the few hundred Western tourists in the city huddled together in the center of Manger Square.”
Although a number of reporters noted in passing that Christian Arabs are nervous about their dwindling population relative to the Muslims, only a couple devoted serious attention to the story.
Andrew Meisels in The Boston Herald and CNN’s Walter Rodgers provided the most straightforward descriptions of the Christian predicament. Meisels reports that no Christian was willing to be quoted, but that many expressed concerns about rising Islamic fundamentalism. He recounted threatening incidents, including the desecration of a Christian cemetery in which headstones were destroyed and bodies dug up. He described a statue of Mary taken from a nearby convent and burned. Rodgers, too, told of intimidation by the Muslim majority, and an expectation among Christians that their community would disappear within a half-dozen years.
The widespread lack of candor about the fears of Palestinians (both Christian and Muslim) at the advent of Arafat’s rule ill serves those striving to establish genuine peace. Bassam Eid, the Arab chief field investigator for B’tselem, an organization devoted to defending the rights of Palestinians, has issued reports about grave abuses against Arabs by the Palestinian Authority. For his efforts, he was arrested and held for a day by Arafat’s head of Preventive Security in Jericho, Jibril Rajoub. So dangerous were the Rajoub threats against Eid that Amnesty International issued an Urgent Action Appeal on his behalf to head off violence against him.
Regrettably for Arabs and Jews alike, the media that so assiduously publicize reports of misconduct by Israelis appear almost totally indifferent to the thuggery now rampant in areas under Arafat’s dominion. Kidnapping, extortion, torture, murder, detention without trial, and pervasive lawlessness are passed over in silence. A couple of admirably hard-hitting stories by The Washington Post correspondent Barton Gellman have been notable exceptions.
What is one to make of the indifferent journalistic response both to the potentially tragic appearance of yet another Arab police state and to Arafat’s ludicrous mangling of Jewish history and Christian theology? Repetitious as the answer may be, it seems inescapable that reporter interest in the fate of the Arabs and the actions of their leaders all but evaporates if the story cannot be linked to an anti-Israel premise. That is unfortunate for both Arabs and Jews, and for all who seek reliable news.