National Geographic Distorts Situation in Bethlehem

It’s that time of year again, Christmastime, when Bethlehem, the scene of Jesus’ birth is invoked by Israel’s critics — not as a Christian symbol of peace, renewal and God’s presence in the world — but as a lens and a filter to portray the modern state of Israel as an oppressor nation that deprives the city’s inhabitants of their human rights and hope for a future.

Every year, the formula is the same: Palestinians are the innocent, powerless and faithful Holy Family looking for a place to rest and the Israelis are the Roman soldiers intent on oppressing them and stealing their land. The news articles and commentaries usually start to appear the last half of November and last through the holiday season.

In its December issue this year, National Geographic magazine included an article titled “Bethlehem 2007 A.D“. The article, written by self-admitted fabricator Michael Finkel and illustrated with photos by Christopher Anderson, offers several misstatements of fact regarding Har Homa, a neighborhood of Jerusalem (which Finkel describes as part of Bethlehem), land ownership and the Geneva Conventions. Contrary to the formula, Finkel did a passable job of acknowledging the suffering of Christians at the hands of the Muslim majority in the West Bank. Nevertheless, some important details about this issue were omitted from the article.

Finkel’s Checkered Pass

Michael Finkel is a freelance writer who stopped receiving assignments from New York Times Magazine in 2002 after it was discovered he invented details for a story he wrote about a young boy on an Ivory Coast cocoa plantation. In a July 27, 2007 article in, Jack Shafer wrote that Finkel “filed his lies in a fact-checked magazine that is read by knowing eyes around the world, the equivalent of robbing a camera-filled bank while wearing no mask. … He violated the extreme bond of trust that readers and editors must invest in foreign correspondents. Distance, language, and culture make double-checking the truthfulness of stories reported from overseas difficult.”

After National Geographic published an article by Finkel about malaria, even making it the July 2007 cover story, despite Finkel’s 2002 fabrication-scandal, Shafer raised the issue with Chris Johns, National Geographic’s editor-in-chief. In response, Johns told Shafer that he believes in “forgiveness, especially when a person admits a mistake, asks for forgiveness and works to right a wrong.”

Unfortunately, Shafer also reports “Comments Finkel has made to the press since the incident also indicate something less than complete remorse.” For example, Finkel told New York Magazine, “I hope readers know that this was an attempt to reach higher, to make something beautiful frankly.” Shafer’s response is blunt and correct: “But you can’t ‘reach higher’ by labeling fiction as fact.”

Christian Suffering

Finkel’s discussion of the severe decline of the Christian population of Bethlehem offers several explanations: the conflict in general, difficult security measures by the Israelis, and persecution by Muslims.While Finkel emphasizes the conflict and the security barrier, he does include the following account of one Christian family’s feelings about the pressure they feel to leave due to intimidation by Muslims:

The real power in Bethlehem is controlled by extended families and the most powerful clans are Muslim. Some in Bethlehem say privately they wish the Israelis would simply take over the city.

“Christians are afraid that if we speak frankly and Muslim families hear, we’ll be persecuted,” says the patriarch. “We’ll be forced to pay a lot of money. And physical things, of course, are possible. Arson. Anything you can think of.”  His family lives in a hosh, a traditional group of houses built around a courtyard..

Now he’s thinking of leaving. He has a sister in California and four brothers in Honduras. “Our family,” he says, “will be entirely gone from the Holy Land for the first time since Christ. And I’ll sell my hosh to Muslims. They’ll consider it a victory-another one off the Christians! How can the Christian world accept this?”

Fifty years ago, there were just a handful of mosques in the Bethlehem district. Now there are close to a hundred.

The above information is vital, but only hints at the depth and breadth of the persecution of Christians by their Muslim neighbors. For more details, see the report: “Human Rights of Christians in Palestinian Society,” by Justus Weiner.

While Christians, like Jews, have long been a beleaguered minority in the Middle East, Christian life became much more precarious in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979 — which fomented Muslim extremism throughout the region — particularly in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

The precariousness of Christian life increased in Bethlehem with the takeover by the Palestinian Authority in the mid-1990s. Christians have been leaving the city of Jesus’ birth not just because of its “contentious” atmosphere, but because of mistreatmentat the hands of aMuslim majority that targets Christians for abuse for a mixture of religious and economic reasons.

As Finkel’s reporting indicated, Christians are vulnerable to innumerable forms of harassment, intimidation and violence, such as rape, land theft, and “protection” shakedowns, and the Palestinian Authority has done little to stop it, and in fact has often participated in it.

National Geographic‘s use of Finkel — given his history — to address the issue of the mistreatment of Christians in the West Bank is unfortunate, because it is a subject that requires the use of anonymous sources. With Finkel’s use of anonymous sources, readers must take two leaps of faith, as opposed to just one leap with reporters whose reputations are intact. First, reader must trust Finkel, a reporter who has abused the trust of his readers and his editors in the past, and then they must trust the anonymous source.

Progressive Christians — the people who would be expected to address the issue of religious intolerance in the Middle East — have been quick to dismiss the problem of Christian suffering at the hands of a Muslim majority in the West Bank for one simple reason: It calls into question their unreflective support for Palestinian nationalism by demonstrating the failure of the Palestinian Authority to protect minority rights. To make matters worse, Palestinian Christian leaders often deny there is a problem with the Muslim majority, and blame Israel for their suffering. Reporters and researchers with impeccable credentials — such as Khaled Abu Tomeh and Justus Reid Weiner — have a tough enough time piercing this denial. Does National Geographic think Finkel will have an easier time piercing this wall of denial?

Land and Law Distortions/Errors

On page 67, Finkel offers several distortions thatportray Israel in a negative light. He reports that settlements in the West Bank are:

[A] violation of the Geneva Convention that prohibits occupying powers from allowing its citizens to populate the territory it occupies. The Israeli government, though, provides easy loans to those seeking houses in West Bank Settlements.

In fact, the Fourth Geneva Convention (enacted in response to Nazi ethnic cleansing policies, in which they forcibly moved people they had conquered from one country into concentration camps in another country)  prohibits the”forcible” transfer of populations into occupied territory, not voluntary movement into the territory in question.The”easy loans to those seeking houses in West Bank Settlements” clearly indicate that Israelis are moving into the West Bank voluntarily, under their own volition, and are not victims of an ethnic cleansing. Finkel also fails to acknowledge that Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan, which did not have legal claim to the territory, making it “disputed” and not “occupied” territory.

Regarding Har Homa, an Israeli community on the southern edge of Jerusalem, just north of Bethlehem, Finkel writes:

Palestinians still refer to Har Homa by its original name, Jabal Abu Ghuneim – in Arabic, ‘mountain of the shepherd.’ It used to be one of the last open spaces in Bethlehem, a pine-shaded hillside where shepherds tended their flocks, and had done so since biblical times. Construction began in 1997; the land was shaved flat and stacked with apartment towers. Not one Palestinian who owned acreage was compensated. Its new name means ‘walled mountain’ in Hebrew.

First of all, contrary to Finkel’s implication, there were no Arabs in the region in biblical times. Any shepherds at Har Homa in the era of the Bible were Jewish ones.

Even in modern times. most of the land was Jewish-owned. As a CAMERA Backgrounder on Har Homa reports, the Israeli government acquired an area of 1850 dunams (about 460 acres) by eminent domain for the Har Homa project. Of this, 1400 dunams came from Jewish owners and 450 dunams from Arab owners. The land was uninhabited; no homeowners were displaced by the project.

Full compensation was offered to the land owners — both Jewish and Arab — who contested the eminent domain order in court, butlost.

Nor, contrary to Finkel’s absurd statement,was the land “shaved flat” when apartments were built, as anyone can see looking at the dwellings built up and down the hilly terrain.

Finkel offers another distortion about land issues when he describes Palestiniansgoing through checkpoints to work on Israeli construction projects “often in settlements.” Finkel writes “They wait in line for hours to build houses for their enemies on land that used to belong to them.”

“Land that used to belong to them”? Under the Ottoman Empire, the British Mandate and now under Israeli rule, the vast majority of land in Israel and the territories was government-owned land, not private land. And the settlements were largely built on vacant, government-owned land. For example, of the land that comprises the settlement of Ma’ale Adumim, less than 1%  was privately owned by Arabs. For more detail about the status of land in the West Bank, click here.

No Mention of Incitement

Finkel does describe in painful detail several Palestinian terror attacks that maimed and/or murdered Israeli children and the effect it had on their friends and families. He includes quotations from several Palestinians who support terrorism against Jews and who exhibit hostility and hatred. Nevertheless, Finkel fails to describe how this hate is deliberately fostered and how it pervades Palestinian society. Instead, the article implies that the hatred is solely due to Israel’s allegedly oppressive actions.

As videos at the Middle East Media Research Institute and Palestinian Media Watch  make clear, anti-Semitism is a staple in Palestinian textbooks, newspapers and television shows. Jews are portrayed as animals and Israel is portrayed as a cancerous blot on the Middle East that must be wiped out.

Finkel repeatedly mentions the security fence, usually calling it a wall, and the difficulties it causes for the Palestinians. National Geographic‘s readers need information about the ubiquitous Palestinian government-sponosred incitement, and how it fuels terrorism, to understand fully why the security barrier continues to be necessary. While the article and a graphic on page 71 do mention that terror attacks have declined since the security barrier has been built, there is no mention of the many terror attacks that continue to be thwarted due to the aid of the security barrier and checkpoints.

History Distorted by Omissions; Arab Aggression Whitewashed

When it comes to describing the 1948 War, Finkel omits key details. He reports that fighting “began” and “ensued.” While he does mention that the Arabs rejected the UN Partition Plan, he neglects to inform National Geographic readers that it was the Arabs who initiated the violence by attacking Israel.

He notes that the war resulted in about 750,000 Palestinian refugees, but makes no mention of the approximately 800,000 to 1 million Jewish refugees forced out of Arab countries and territory in the aftermath of the same war.

Finkel’s description of the Six Day War is also misleading because it makes no mention whatsoever of the Arab calls for Israel’s destruction in the months before the war began, or the casus belli (Egypt’sblockade of the Straits of Tiran) but merely reports that Israel defeated the armies of five countries.

Lack of Context

Finkel also presents an unbalanced view of the political role of religious claims to the West Bank asserted by some settlers by failing to provide any information about Israel’s willingness to exchange land for peace. Finkel reports that settlers believe “the Jews’ deed to Judea and Samaria is spelled out in the Old Testament. They are the landlords.”

While many Israelis do believe they have a legitimate claim to the land, Ehud Olmert explained Israel’s willingness to exchange land — even Judea and Samaria — for peace in a January 2006 speech.

We firmly stand by the historic right of the people of Israel to the entire Land of Israel. Every hill in Samaria and every valley in Judea is part of our historic homeland. We do not forget this, not even for one moment. However, the choice between the desire to allow every Jew to live anywhere in the Land of Israel to the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish country — obligates relinquishing parts of the Land of Israel. This is not a relinquishing of the Zionist idea, rather the essential realization of the Zionist goal — ensuring the existence of a Jewish and democratic state in the Land of Israel.

What Finkel fails to report is that Israel’s “biblical” and legal claims to the land take a back seat to security and demographics in the minds of Israeli leaders and most of its citizens. Israel may call the West Bank “Judea and Samaria,” but Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak was willing to give most of the territory to the Palestinian Authority during the Camp David/Taba negotiations in 2000 and 2001. Finkel makes no mention whatsoever of these negotiations.

No Mention of Batarseh’s Terror Connections

Finkel allowed Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh to testify about the inconvenience caused by Israel’s security barrier, but provided no information about his connections to groups that have perpetrated attacks against Israeli civilians. According to a May 20, 2005 report by Agence France Presse, Batarseh, an American citizen, is a member of the Palestinian Front for the Liberation of Palestine. This group is responsible for the assassination of Israeli Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi in October 2001, a December 2003 suicide attack that killed three Israelis, and the murders of several Americans including wheel-chair bound Leon Klinghoffer, who was pushed off the Achille Lauro cruise ship in the Mediterranean in 1985.

Batarseh was elected to the Bethlehem city council in May 2005 while running on Hamas’ slate of candidates. After his election as councilor, he was elected Mayor with the support of three other councilors from the PFLP and five from Hamas. A Dec. 29, 2005 report by Chiesa, a Catholic journal, stated that Batarseh was also supported by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another group that has perpetrated suicide attacks against Israeli civilians.

Finkel does not mention either Hamas or Palestinian Islamic Jihad — two groups dedicated to Israel’s destruction — by name anywhere in the piece.

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