In this holiday season, there are journalistic conventions one comes to expect: stories lamenting the commercialism of Christmas; stories summing up the 12 months gone by and predicting the direction of the New Year; and stories blaming Israelis for the problems afflicting the Holy Land.
Reuters, the BBC, McClatchy, ABC News — in recent days, all have run pieces in the last category. But the one that troubled me most appeared in the Wall Street Journal — my favorite national daily newspaper — on Dec. 24. It was written by Ken Woodward, a religion writer whose work I’ve long respected. But in this instance his subject was not religion but foreign affairs, and what he produced was the usual anti-Israeli dogma.
His oped was headlined: “The Plight of Bethlehem: Why Christians can’t visit the holy shrines in Jerusalem.” The first thing to note is that, according to Palestinian tourism officials, 450,000 foreigners will have visited Bethlehem by the end of this year — a 50 percent increase over the 295,000 who came last year. Every hotel room was filled. Among the tourists on Christmas Day were 7,000 Israeli Christian Arabs. Fadel Badarin, the chief of the Palestinian tourism police, declared that in 2007 “the tourism situation in Bethlehem was great.”
The low point for tourism to Bethlehem came in 2002. Then-Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat had turned down the peace offers forged by President Clinton during his last days in office. Arafat went on to launch a wave of suicide bombings against Israel, a terrorist assault known as the al-Aqsa Intifadah. At one point in that conflict, Palestinian terrorists took over the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and used the Christians inside — including nuns and priests — as human shields.
Yet Woodward argues that Israel “cannot blame the Christians’ dire circumstances” on the Intifadah because “Muslims are suffering just as much as the tiny Christian minority.” Does Woodward actually believe militant Islamists spare ordinary Muslims from suffering? Does he not know that the majority of victims of Islamist terrorism — in Algeria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey, and elsewhere — have been moderate Muslims?
Woodward also seems unaware of the extent to which Bethlehem’s Christian population has declined since 1995 — the year Arafat’s Palestinian Authority took over the West Bank and Gaza as part of the Oslo Accords. Arafat quickly fired the city’s Christian politicians and replaced them with his cronies.
Conceding that “Israel, of course, must protect its security,” Woodward nevertheless slams Israel for doing so. He singles out the security barrier separating the Christian village of Beit Jala from the Jerusalem neighbor of Gilo. Woodward fails to mention that Palestinian snipers had used locations in Beit Jala to shoot at Israeli men, women and children in Gilo. On my first trip to Israel, in 2002, I visited Gilo. The residents had indeed erected a concrete barrier to stop the bullets. On it, they had painted a mural of Beit Jala — to remind them of the neighbor it had become to dangerous to look upon.
The Israelis I met in Gilo harbored no resentment against the Christians of Beit Jala. They knew who was — and who was not — doing the shooting. They knew, too, that the militants threatened and in some cases beat those who dared object to the presence of the snipers in their streets, stores and homes.
This leads to the larger issue Woodward neglects: the role of Islamist extremism and violence in causing the exodus of Christians from Bethlehem — and from Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Sudan, and other countries of the Middle East.
Right now, it is from Gaza that Christians are fleeing fastest. Shortly after the Hamas takeover, Christian activist Rami Ayyad, 32, was murdered — shot and stabbed by militants who had demanded he convert. That sent a message. As the International Herald Tribune recently reported, Christians in Gaza this year are too frightened to display Christmas trees and “whole families” are leaving, according to Rev. Manuel Masallem, head of Gaza’s Roman Catholic Church.
About all this, Woodward has not a word to say. Nor does he seem aware that, according to the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, Israel’s Christian community has grown by 270 percent since the founding of the state in 1948.
Woodward acknowledges that he has not visited Bethlehem for 7 years. For the kind of piece he has written, however, it’s not necessary to report on the ground or even look up facts. All one has to do is go up to the attic, drag out the old allegations and plug them in. — Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.