Jennings’ Jerusalem Jihad

Say this for Peter Jennings — he’s unabashed in placing ABC at the disposal of the Arab agenda. Though the network has been embarrassed in the last year by the need for repeated on-air corrections of reckless inaccuracies about Israel, a recent program, Jerusalem Stories (December 19, 1996), is testimony that the anchorman’s animus toward Israel is undiminished.

The hour-long program offered a propagandist’s view of Jerusalem in which aggressive, exclusivist, and apparently fanatical newcomer Jews dispossess moderate and humane Arabs of their property and heritage. However crude, the segment undoubtedly persuaded many viewers that the Jews are an unreasonable lot and Arabs the victims in this dispute.

The choice of interviewees and Jennings’ manner of relating to them were central to the jaundiced message. Thus, underscoring the theme of Jewish intrusion, ABC notably presented only foreign-born Jews to embody the views of inhabitants of the ancient Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem, while viewers were repeatedly reminded of the long lineage of the Arabs. This was the case even though Jews have lived almost continuously in the city for millennia, and Jerusalem has had a Jewish majority for more than a century. Jewish Jerusalemites with long family ties to the city were rendered invisible and population figures underscoring the Jews’ historic numerical preeminence were omitted.

Who spoke for the Jews? An American rabbi "originally from Brooklyn" described waiting for the Messiah, to which Jennings said: "Do you really believe in the Messiah?" (For Father Jerome Murphy O’Connor, whose foreign origins were obvious but unmentioned, there were no theological challenges. Only respectful affirmations: "You’re right, Father," and, "This must be an astonishingly moving experience for a devout Christian.")

A European-born Jew described his feelings of solemn connection to the Jewish people and to Jewish history, explaining the archeological project he’d undertaken. Though his story is inherently touching, Jennings’ responses are perfunctory, and, in a nasty bit of editing, the ABC anchorman returns to the man’s home near the close of the program. A partygoer there, apparently an affluent American Jew, is heard declaring that Arabs ought to feel "lucky" that now, under Jewish sovereignty, they have "respectable health care" and get their "garbage cleaned up." The man’s point, that Arabs enjoy a much higher standard of living than previously thanks to the Israeli administration, is valid and important and totally ignored in the program, but Jennings has turned the moment into an ugly and false caricature of Jewish highhandedness.

Again, in contrast, Arabs are shown in such modest and friendly activities as making Easter cookies and serving coffee. They weep on camera when they recount their dread of Jewish encroachment in their neighborhoods and of neighbors allegedly being forced to leave Jerusalem. Jennings speaks somberly of "what the Muslims fear."

Jennings turns truth exactly on its head. In fact, since Israel gained full control of Jerusalem in 1967, the Arab population of the city has grown at a greater rate than the Jewish population. It is the Arabs who have historically sought to drive out the Jewish presence and the Jews who have opened the city to all religions. Indeed, for centuries the Muslim domination of the region had meant inferior status for Jews and Christians, "Dhimmi" people subject to harsh, discriminatory laws and daily humiliations.

A Christian British traveller, Mrs. A. Goodrich-Freer, wrote poignantly in 1900 of the plight of Jews in Muslim-ruled Jerusalem, observing the patience "with which Jews ignore the insults shouted after them in the streets." She commented on the injustice of Arabs’ extorting money from Jews: "Considering how much [Jews] contribute as citizens to the welfare of Jerusalem, it is sad that large sums of money should be paid for permission to pray beside the western wall of the Temple enclosure, to the villagers of Siloam for not disturbing the graves east of the village, and to the Arabs for letting alone the Jewish share of the Tomb of Rachel on the road to Bethlehem."

In 1948 when Jordan captured the Old City, the Arabs killed or expelled every Jew in eastern Jerusalem, destroyed every one of 58 synagogues in the ancient Jewish quarter, and desecrated the 2,500 year old Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives, digging a road through it and using Jewish tombstones as a pathway to an army latrine. The Arabs decreed that selling land to a Jew was a crime punishable by death. (Indeed, Palestinian Authority Minister of Justice Freih Abu Medein has now apparently reinstated the edict, having said in a December 23rd interview that Arabs selling land to Israelis are traitors and "we are planning to send them to execution.")

There is not a word of this from Jennings, though he repeatedly points out how "very modern" the Jewish Quarter is today. Why is it "modern"? Because the Arabs destroyed it in 1948 and when the Jews united the city in 1967 they had to rebuild it. That’s why it’s "modern." Again, the half-truth amounts to a lie, with images of new construction reinforcing the rhetoric of interloper Jews encroaching on the terrain of authentic, native Arabs.

Christians suffered too at the hands of the Arab regime from 1948 to 1967. Religious institutions and individuals were prohibited by law from acquiring property in the Old City, and Christian schools were required to teach the Koran. In the face of these repressive policies, the Christian population declined from 25,000 in 1948 to less than 11,000 in 1967. Only under Israeli control did the Old City’s Christian population begin to recover, reaching 14,000 as of 1991.

Jennings gets this wrong too, blaming Israel for the Christians’ decline.

The most jarring scenes in Jennings’ propaganda piece are those in which he is loudly accosted on the street by Orthodox, American Jews evidently suspicious of his intentions. Appearing to relish the exchanges, Jennings takes the part of ally, friend, and champion of the Arabs. He goads the Jews:

"You see the guy up there in the dark suit," says Jennings, "the guy in the dark suit with the blue tie on? His name is Ali Kleibo and he’s a Palestinian. He happens to be a Muslim. His grandparents came here with the Caliph-his ancestors came here with the Caliph Omar of the Byzantines [sic]. What do you think his rights are here?" (The anchorman gets his facts wrong again. The Byzantines were the Christian rulers whom the Caliph Omar overthrew.)

The agitated Jew, a nursery school teacher, finally says what Jennings wants to record. He blurts that Arabs "have no rights here anymore."

In this despicable display of manipulation, selectively emphasizing a marginal view, Jennings falsifies present and past. Censored for millions of viewers is not only the long history of Jewish persecution at the hands of the Arabs, but also Israel’s very different policies toward its former enemies. Despite the history of Muslim intolerance toward the Jews, when Israel united the city in 1967 the government mandated full religious freedom and access to holy sites for all faiths. Indeed, in a remarkable act of conciliation, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan promptly certified the continuatio
n of the status quo on the Temple Mount. That meant Muslim officials would continue to have authority over the holiest site in Judaism-which is not, in fact, the Western Wall, although the Wall is repeatedly mischaracterized as such by Jennings, who calls it "absolutely the most important place in all of Judaism." The Temple Mount itself, where the First and Second Temples once stood, is the holiest site.

Jennings is evidently ignorant of the fact that when the Muslims conquered Jerusalem they constructed their mosques atop the Mount precisely because it was Judaism’s holy site. It was Muslim practice throughout their empire to construct mosques directly over their defeated foes’ holy places. (In India bloody confrontations have resulted in recent years when Hindus tore down a mosque built over one of many demolished Hindu temples.)

But, in a policy of national forbearance, Jews have accepted that only Muslims pray on the Mount while Jews conduct their own devotions at the Western Wall. Not one word of any of this appears in the ABC documentary.

Further, there are no Arab militants, no terrorists, among Jennings’ Jerusalem Stories, even in a year of unprecedented murder of Jews in the streets of Jerusalem. Jennings’ passing reference to the terrorism that rocked the city early last spring is perhaps the real measure of his animus toward Jews. It is buried in a passage repeatedly emphasizing the inconvenience "Israeli military roadblocks" cause the Palestinians. Once again, the program is devoted to the supposedly dire threat Arabs face at the hands of the Jews-a threat manifest in the display of Israeli flags, noisy religious processions, Jews singing within earshot of Arabs, and rude comments to newsmen.

Censored out is the peril and suffering Jews face.

The same prejudice applies in Jennings’ sympathetic rendering of Arab racism. Ali Kleibo, a Muslim the anchorman interviews, laments the presence of Jews in his neighborhood. He dislikes that "it will not be the people we love…not the faces we know." In America those sentiments are called bigoted, but in Jerusalem ABC confers pity and understanding on the intolerance.

In fact, none of the quarters of the Old City are rigidly segregated. Muslims have moved heavily into the Christian Quarter and Arabs live without incident in the Jewish Quarter. Needless to say, Jews are not wringing their hands and weeping on American television at Arabs moving next door to them. If they were, Jennings would be the first to lecture them on national television.

Jerusalem Stories is an abuse of power. It is an effort to denigrate Jewish attachment to Jerusalem, to paint Jews even as unworthy of sovereignty, to caricature and demean them. It does so by distortion, innuendo, omission, and sneer; this from the supposedly responsible lead newscaster of a supposedly responsible network.

Comments are closed.