Review of Rick Steves’ “The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today”

Popular television travel guide Rick Steves set out to “share the narratives from Israel and from Palestine in a balanced way.” His one-hour special, The Holy Land: Israelis and Palestinians Today, provides a congenial format for both sides to present their own narratives. But his method contains an integral flaw. In his zeal to be impartial and promote his hopeful message, Steves relinquishes his responsibility to hold each side accountable to the facts. The result is a mismatch, where a reasonably historical account of Israel’s founding is paired with a Palestinian account that presents myths as historical fact and conceals the religious component of the conflict.
Captivated by the Palestinian narrative that depicts the Jews as alien colonizers confiscating Palestinian land, Steves portrays Israelis in a clichéd fashion, lacking humanity and warmth, while scenes with Palestinians are more intimate and endearing. From his account one would never know that it is Israeli society that is more tolerant and open to different political views, faiths and lifestyles than Palestinian society.

Steves does not hesitate to describe Israeli settlements in the West Bank as “controversial,” yet he apparently finds nothing controversial about current Palestinian activities and policies like the frequent commemorations of perpetrators of mass murder against Jews.

Visiting Hebron, Steves condemns what he alleges is the frequent practice of Jews tossing garbage onto Palestinian street merchants below. But not a word is said about Palestinians stoning Jews as they visit the grave sites of their departed relatives on the Mount of Olives.

Reflecting his enchantment with the Palestinians, at crucial points in the segment Steves fails to challenge misinformation fed to him by his interlocutors. For example, a Palestinian spokesman tells Steves, “We just want to show the world that we are a people who want peace,” which passes without exploration of the fact that Palestinian leaders walked away from offers for peace in 2000 and 2007 that would have given them nearly the entire West Bank and a share of Jerusalem. Steves steers clear of any discussion of Palestinians unwillingness to reconcile themselves to the permanence of the Jewish state. In 2010, Fatah, the political party that governs the West Bank through the Palestinian Authority, reaffirmed its commitment to armed struggle and refusal to accept the Jewish state.

Evidence of unresolved animosity toward Israel and Jews surround Steves in his excursion into the West Bank, yet he fails to recognize it. On two separate occasions, the camera pans over a group of posters prominently overlooking city squares in West Bank cities showing Palestinian “resistance” fighters. Viewing posters in Ramallah, Steves contends they “celebrate their commitment to Palestinian independence.” In reality, such posters routinely idolize notorious terrorists, including suicide bombers and laud them as models for the young to emulate.

The culture of venerating terrorists is so embedded within Palestinian society that, in recent years, Palestinian officials have taken to naming city squares, schools, athletic teams, and even girl-scout troops after perpetrators of terrorist attacks with the highest body counts, publicly celebrating their carnage. In 2010, one of these ceremonies came to light when it coincided with a scheduled visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden. A ceremony to name a city square in Ramallah after Dalal Mugrabi, a female terrorist who participated in the 1978 Coastal Road massacre of 38 Israeli civilians, many of them children, had to be postponed. During that same season, Palestinian television aired programs iconizing Mugrabi as the ideal Palestinian woman. This central element of Palestinian society is completely absent from Steves’ film.

Ironically, the only terrorist act specifically mentioned in Steves’ segment was the lone act of mass killing by an Israeli in the past 50 years; that of Baruch Goldstein in Hebron, which was immediately and overwhelmingly condemned by Israelis.

It is a shame that Steves falters in his handling of the Palestinians, because the segment is relatively balanced in its discussion of Israel. The first half of the segment covering his travel through Israel is a significant improvement over Steves’ earlier foray into the topic, a two-hour lecture put up on YouTube during November 2013. Steves took to heart criticism of his earlier taped lecture and made a sincere effort to fairly present Israel’s founding and its contemporary concerns. Although he gets some facts wrong, for example, describing the 1948 war as a “civil war” and omitting the attack and invasion by surrounding Arab states, he uses relatively measured words to describe the events of 1947-1948. 
Steves makes a number of factual errors, for example describing most Israelis as “non-observant,” when in fact, the largest portion are “traditional.” At the other extreme, the film too often pans to ultra-orthodox Jews, as if to emphasize the alienness of Israelis to most viewers and reflecting Steves’ stereotyped view of Israelis. In reality the ultra-orthodox make up a small portion of the population. Palestinians, by contrast, are shown in mostly western styles of garb and habit. Despite this camera-work, though, the attitudes expressed in the segment reflect mainstream Israeli positions.

The segment founders, however, when it transitions to what Steves repeatedly refers to as “Palestine.” Steves does not hesitate to make a political statement advocating the United Nations General Assembly vote in 2012 that recognized Palestine as a state, even though the resolution carries no legal weight and no such state came into being because of it. The vote he endorses was the product of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to bypass negotiations with Israel because he was unwilling to consider recognition of the Jewish state’s legitimacy.

Throughout his excursion into “Palestine,” Steves fails to scrutinize the Palestinian account for factual or historical accuracy. His claim that Palestinian Christians were the first followers of Christ is anti-historical; the term Palestine was not yet in popular useage during the time of Christ — the land was called Judea — and its inhabitants, including those who followed Christ, were mainly Jews.

In one lengthy scene, he features a Palestinian olive tree farmer. The message here is that the Palestinians are the keepers of the land. The reality of an Israeli policy that has immeasurably improved the land by planting forests and, crucially, finding innovative techniques to find and utilize scarce water resources is perhaps not as romantic. It was not that many years ago that Israel had to deal with Palestinian arsonists recklessly setting forest fires as an act of defiance against Israeli efforts to revive the land.

Steves also avoids discussion of the religious and ideological dimensions of Palestinian antipathy for the Jewish state. Were he to expose these elements, it would cast doubt on his contention that a solution is within grasp if only Israelis and Palestinians would break down the barriers that isolate them from each other and get to know each other. Steves is so committed to the belief that both sides need to “leave their past behind” and “make concessions,” that he will not acknowledge the insidious role of unrelenting hateful exhortations against Jews that saturate Palestinian discourse.

Steves could not have missed the dissonance with his message in the rambling answer he received from three cheerful female Palestinian students from Bir Zeit University after he offered them the idea that “violence is not the answer.” The young ladies would not affirm Steves’ statement, resorting instead to slogans about the importance of sticking together. That awkward moment is about as close as Steves comes to disclosing to his viewers the enduring commitment to violence among many Palestinians, who await an opportune moment of Israeli weakness.

Steves’ documentary suggests that he has at least partly backed off from his unabashed adoption of the narrative that sees Israel as the oppressor and the Palestinians as hapless victims bearing no responsibility for their predicament. In April 2012 in the Huffington Post, Steves lavished praise on a deceitful piece of propaganda called “Peace, Propaganda, and the Promised Land.” He claimed the film had revealed that “coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian problem is brilliantly controlled and shaped” by pro-Israel elements in the media and asserted that “the question of whether Israel is conducting a brutal military occupation or a reasonable defense against terrorism gets no real airtime.”

His claims were nonsense then and now. Anyone following the news networks or mainstream media knows that Israeli actions are scrutinized, criticized and condemned by the media, human rights groups and the Palestinian-obsessed United Nations to a degree that no other nation experiences. Steves still has a long way to go to unravel the myths, distortions and falsifications he has fallen for. His handling of Israel’s founding shows he is capable of a course correction. One can only hope he will seek the facts on “Palestine” dispassionately and have the integrity to disclose what he learns.

The following examples provide examples of the negative and positive elements in the segment.

Listed first are falsehoods or distortions followed by comments offering the correct information:

Factual Errors and Distortions

Example 1: “Many assume that the Palestinian or Arab Christians were converted in modern times, but in fact their Christian roots go all the way back to the time of Christ.”

Comment: This historical falsehood has been advanced by the Palestinians to compete with the Jewish historical connection to the land. During the time of Christ, there were few Arabs in what was then known as Judea (and later renamed Palestine). The first followers of Christ were mainly Jews attracted to his message. Arabs arrived in large numbers six centuries after Christ lived. Historical research (Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial, among others) has shown that many of those who today identify as Palestinians descend from relatively recent migrations from surrounding territories.

Example 2: “Most of these [Israeli Jews] are secular Jews – non practicing…”

Comment: Steves is mistaken in his characterization of secular Jews and the degree of religious observance of Israeli Jews. By far, the largest portion of Israelis define themselves as traditional Jews. This means they observe the main elements of Judaism, but are not as rigid in their observance as the Orthodox. To be a secular Jew is not synonymous with non-practicing. It indicates an orientation that places less emphasis on religious observance and more emphasis on secular society.

Example 3: “Christians, who are mostly Arab make up a small and shrinking minority [in Israel].”

Comment: This is false. The Christian population of Israel has grown every year since 1948. Today, it is larger than it has been since Israel was founded. In contrast, the Christian population of the West Bank and Gaza declined precipitously during Jordanian occupation and remains small.

Example 4: “Control of the land is the crux of the problem between Palestinians and Israelis.”

Comment: This statement demonstrates the extent to which Steves still remains captive to the Palestinian narrative. Palestinian Arab rejection of Israel has always had a religious component. For example, the Hamas Charter establishes that once a land falls under the control of Islam, it becomes an Islamic Trust and can never legitimately revert back to non-Islamic rule.

Notably, in 1929, the leading Arab figure in opposing the Jewish presence in Palestine, Haj Amin al Husseini, was a religious leader. He roused Arab mobs to commit acts of violence against Jews by claiming that the Jews intended to take possession of Muslim holy sites on the Temple mount in Jerusalem. To this day, the Palestinian Authority pointedly refuses to accept the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish state anywhere in the land.

Example 5: Steves retains from his earlier lecture the popular Palestinian map showing the chronological usurpation of Arab land by Israel since 1948 using a green color pattern to indicate Arab Palestine.

Comment: The map reinforces a mythology of a pre-Israel Palestine that never existed. Most of the land indicated as Palestine was never possessed by Palestinian Arabs, either privately or as a public trust. Most of this territory was classified as state-owned land by the Ottoman Empire.

Example 6: In reference to terraces built for growing 2000 year-old olive trees, a Palestinian farmer claims “My ancestors came here and carved the terraces into the mountains.”

Comment: As indicated in Example 1, 2000 years ago there were few if any Arabs in the land. The West Bank was then the heart of the Jewish kingdom of Judea. Whoever it was who carved these 2000 year old terraces were unlikely to have been Arabs.

Example 7: Twice in the segment, the camera pans past posters in city squares in West Bank cities. In both cases, Steves refers to the people on the posters in terms of “their commitment to Palestinian independence.”

Comment: In reality, many of the figures shown on posters are notorious terrorists and suicide bombers, described as martyrs. The culture of venerating terrorists is so embedded within Palestinian society, that in recent years, Palestinian officials have taken to naming city squares, schools, athletic teams, even girl-scout troops, after perpetrators of terrorist attacks with the highest body counts, publicly celebrating their carnage. This central element of Palestinian society is completely absent in Steves’ film.

Example 8: While touring Ramallah
‘s environs, Steves states, “I can imagine Abraham, Jesus or Mohammed each traversing this same valley.”

Comment: Again, Steves is deceived by a false historical narrative. There is no evidence, nor likelihood, that Mohammed entered Israel-Palestine-Judea in his lifetime.
Example 9: Steves mistakenly describes the Western Wall as Judaism’s holy site, balancing it with the Muslim holy sites on the Temple Mount.
Comment: In fact it is the Temple Mount that is Judaism’s holiest site. Israel, in the interest of maintaining peace, has allowed the Muslims to oversee the Temple Mount and has restricted Jewish religious activity there.

Example 10: Steves seems genuinely touched by the keys that are claimed to be from the homes Arab families abandoned in 1948.

Comment: This is an old game to pull on the heartstrings of empathetic westerners and Steves fell for it. One can find such keys for sale in the Arab markets in Jerusalem.

Examples of important information included by Steves

Example 1: Steves correctly establishes that Islam arrived in the 7th century CE. Jewish people have a history that goes back 4000 years.

Example 2: In 1947… Jews returned to their ancient homeland …. and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced.

Steves does not resort to the oft-repeated canard that the Palestinians ( they were then known simply as Arabs, not Palestinians) were driven out by Israel. They fled for a variety or reasons, including the urging of their leadership to return after a successful conclustion of the war, out of fear rumors started by their own leadership and as a result of pressure by Jewish troops.

Steves does not mention the equal or larger number of Jews driven from Arab lands.

Example 3: Steves establishes that the UN partition plan was rejected by the Arabs and that the so-called pre-1967 borders were only “temporary” borders.

Example 4: In his recounting of the second intifada, Steves establishes that Israel acting in “response” to suicide bombings “asserted itself more aggressively” by building a “fence or wall”… “in the name of security against terrorism.”

Example 5: Discusses the importance of the Temple Mount to Jews.

Example 6: Establishes that the Jewish Quarter of the “Old City” of Jerusalem was destroyed during the 1948 war and “during the ensuing period under Jordanian occupation.”

Example 7: Establishes that the West Bank is the biblical Judea and Samaria. Steves should have gone further and stated that it was generally called by these names until Jordan seized control of it by force in 1948.

Example 8: Confirms that the “Wall” or security fence has been successful in limiting terrorism.

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