Jeopardy Was Wrong on Bethlehem. So Are Many Of Its Critics.

As is often the case with mundane news about Israel, pundits and journalists are buzzing with excitement after Jeopardy mishandled a question related to Holy Land geography.

The game-show exchange that led to some enraged Twitter comments and, in turn, widespread news coverage — including by CNN, NBC, the Washington Post, Guardian, Independent, Hollywood Reporter, and Al Jazeera — looked something like this:

A contestant chose the last remaining prompt on the board: “Where’s that Church,” for $200.  

Jeopardy host Alex Trebek read the prompt (to which contestants must provide the question being answered): “Built in the 300s AD, the Church of the Nativity.”

A contestant buzzed in: “What is Palestine?”

“No,” replied the host.

Another contestant took a shot: “What is Israel?”

The answer was accepted. $200 for Jack.  

And cue the online outrage.

Trebek was, in fact, mistaken in the second part of the exchange. The Church of the Nativity is in Bethlehem, an ancient city that at the time of the church’s construction was ruled by Rome but that today sits in a Palestinian Authority-administered portion of the West Bank. Neither Israel nor the rest of the international community views Bethlehem as sovereign Israeli territory.

But the Jeopardy host’s rejection of the first answer was correct. Bethlehem is not in “Palestine,” because there is no country called Palestine.

In contemporary usage, the word “Palestine” refers to a Palestinian Arab state. It’s a state that some Palestinian leaders say should exist in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and that more extreme Palestinian leaders say should include all of sovereign Israel. But the Palestinian leadership has said “no” to past initiatives and recent peace plans — whether by the United Nations, United States, or Israel — that were meant to create such a state alongside the Jewish state of Israel.

The nomenclature can be confusing, in part due to the evolving sense over time of what “Palestine” means. In the ancient past, Palestine was the name imposed by Rome, in reaction to Jewish revolts against Roman rule, to describe what had been known by locals as Judaea. During and after Roman rule, then, Palestine was a province of the various empires that came and went in the Middle East.

After World War I, when British administrators replaced the Ottoman Turkish rulers, and the international community promised a Jewish national home “in Palestine,” the territory encompassed modern-day Israel, Jordan, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. At the time, unlike today, “Palestinians” described Jews and Arabs alike.

But just as “Palestinian” has since then evolved to refer only to the Arab population of the area, the term “Palestine” has come to describe the Arab Palestinian state that many demand.

Meanwhile, many Jews today refer to the historical “Land of Israel,” to describe the Jewish ancestral home, which includes both the modern state of Israel and the West Bank, including Bethlehem.

Perhaps because the confusion over how these terms are used, the contestant that placed the Church of the Nativity in Palestine was, after a commercial break, given back the $200 she had been penalized for her answer. But that wasn’t enough for many online pundits, including some activists and organizations that don’t think Israel should exist, who took to the internet to attack Jeopardy.

The fringe group Code Pink, for example, drafted a form-letter for people to sign that cast Palestine as a state, and even falsely claimed that “the US State Department list[s] the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem as being located in Palestine.” (The State Department does not recognize a state of Palestine.)

Pollster James Zogby, who was Jesse Jackson’s campaign manager in 1984, the year the presidential candidate slurred Jews as “Hymies” living in “Hymie-town” (New York City), said Jeopardy’s behavior is an “outrage and an insult to history, reality, the thousands of oppressed Palestinians of Bethlehem.”

And Al Jazeera described (and fueled) outrage about Jeopardy because, as the subhead of their article put it, “Contestant on popular US quiz show was told she was wrong for identifying Jesus’s birthplace as Palestine.” (Jesus was born in Judaea.)