Smithsonian Cover Story Misinforms About the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict

Smithsonian Magazine is the official journal of the D.C.-based Smithsonian Institution, a national educational facility that includes multiple museums and research facilities. According to its online description, the magazine focuses on the topics and subject matters researched, studied and exhibited by the Smithsonian Institution in science, history, art, popular culture and innovation. 

It is therefore curious that its summer edition (July-August 2019), features a cover story by novelist and former journalist Geraldine Brooks describing her participation in an organized tour of Israel and the disputed territories – a politicized topic that seems out of line with the magazine’s self description.

Entitled “A New Way to See the Holy Land,” the article is a vehicle for the author’s moral preening about her superior understanding, empathy, even-handedness, and desire for peace, with such passages as these:

…I was a young correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, dodging stones and rubber bullets to interview boys like Tayseer as well as reservists like Oded. I empathized with the Palestinians…But I also felt the crushing anxiety of Israelis…I also grew frustrated, in the safe comfort of European and American cities, with the smug certainties of friends who could feel sympathy for only one side….I wished my acquaintances could spend even a week doing what I did, listening to stories from both sides that were often equally harrowing.

And

…Back in 1991, when I was still a foreign correspondent, I asked people across the region to play this mind game with me on the eve of the Madrid Peace Conference, the first time Israeli and Palestinian officials sat down publicly to speak about an accord. At first, everyone shrugged off my question: Peace was impossible, the hatred ran too deep. But when I prodded, they began to unspool wondrous visions of a golden age of friendship and prosperity, a convivencia for a new era…Who had a right to say peace was unthinkable?

Worse than the author’s annoyingly self righteous tone and beyond the veneer of even-handedness is an article that misinforms about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It promotes the tour organized and operated by Aziz Abu Sarah, a Palestinian activist who has built his career as lecturer and travel entrepreneur upon claims of “changing the world” with “socially responsible and culturally engaging tours.” His “dual narrative” tour of Israel and the territories, touted as a “socially conscious, award-winning approach to travel” is meant to “highlight different political and historical opinions at each site, in an immersive travel experience,” and includes an Israeli guide, in addition to Abu Sarah.

Although the article – presumably a reflection of the tour – includes some Israeli perspectives,  none  refute the misinformation or address the omissions in the narrative presented by Abu Sarah and the author.

Claims About Jerusalem

The author refers to the Western Wall as “the last remnant of the Second Temple, destroyed by the Romans in A.D. 70.” and “the most sacred space in Judaism.” She is mistaken on several counts.

The Western Wall is not a remnant of the Second Temple itself, but of the retaining wall around the entire Temple Mount complex.  Nor is the Western Wall the last remnant of the Temple complex. There are several surviving remains in addition to the western, southern, eastern and northern retaining walls. Abutting the southern wall is a broad stairway leading up to the Temple Mount’s entrance and two gates, known as the Huldah Gates through which the Temple Mount was accessed. In addition, some of the interior part of the Herodian Double Gate (which is one of the Huldah Gates) is still intact. An area called “Robinson’s Arch,” in the south-western corner of the Temple complex, also remains. Other remnants have been documented as well.

More importantly, the author errs about Judaism’s most sacred site. It is the Temple Mount itself, home of the original Temple built by Solomon, as well as the second Temple built by Herod that is the holiest site in Judaism, rather than  just the retaining wall of the complex. The two Temples were built, according to Jewish tradition, on the Even Hashtiya, the foundation stone upon which the world was created, which is considered the epicenter of Judaism. According to Jewish belief, it is where the Divine Presence rests, where the biblical Isaac was brought for sacrifice, where the Holy of Holies and the Ark of the Covenant housing the Ten Commandments once stood. 

By relegating Judaism’s holiest site to the Western Wall, the error underscores a well-documented Palestinian strategy of diminishing Jewish religious/historical connection and claims to the contested Temple Mount over which the Palestinians seek sovereignty.

The author also misinforms when she relays Abu Sarah’s grievances against Israel as an exemplar of its alleged unfair treatment of Palestinian residents of eastern Jerusalem. She writes:

After the Six-Day War in 1967, when Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza Strip, it annexed East Jerusalem and 28 surrounding Palestinian villages, home to some 70,000 Palestinians, including Aziz’s family. Those Palestinians were not granted citizenship, and though they are eligible to apply for it, the process is difficult. Even Aziz’s tenuous residency status can be revoked if the government determines he is not “centering his life” in the city. That’s a risk for someone who runs an international travel company, has lived in the United States, and works on conflict resolution around the globe… [emphasis added]

And later:

The family faced a choice between staying in the home in the West Bank and losing the right to travel freely to and from the city of their birth, or moving into a cramped apartment within the city lines. They chose the apartment, to protect their status. Today they may only visit the home in Bethany, never sleep there. [emphasis added]

Although Brooks accurately shares with readers that Israel granted permanent residency status to Jerusalem’s Arab population and gave them the option of applying for Israeli citizenship, she does not explain that most Arab residents chose not to do so because they refused to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem.  Arab residents of Jerusalem have shown more willingness to apply for citizenship only in the last decade.

Nor does she mention that while the surge in applications has created a backlog and long wait time for processing, Israel’s Population Authority introduced a plan to drastically reduce waiting time down from six years to within a year after a High Court petition early this year. 

Instead she wrongly suggests that an overnight stay outside Jerusalem would strip the Abu Sarahs (Arab residents of Jerusalem) of their permanent residency status.

Contrary to her claim, however, Israel’s 1952 Citizenship law states that residency status may be revoked after a stay of more than 7 years or after taking up citizenship elsewhere, not after a stay of one night (or for that matter, weeks, months or years). 

Without  providing the larger context, Brooks presents  partisan Palestinian allegations as  undisputed fact.  In another example, she states:

For a person like me, who excavates the past for fiction, it’s easy to get swept up by all of this [the tour of the excavations at the City of David] . But I am shaken from my daydream when we tour Silwan, the predominantly Palestinian village that sits atop the excavations. Our guide here is neither practiced nor fluent in English, just an old man in a dingy robe who fears for his neighborhood. Many of the humble dwellings here are cracking, undermined by the excavations, and others have been occupied by Jewish settlers. [emphasis added]

In fact, Israel’s Supreme Court has looked into such allegations by political opponents of the excavations and has determined that they are unfounded. Excavations are carried out by seasoned archeologists under the strictest supervision of the Antiquities Authority  and with the assistance of professional engineers, something the author does not note.

Neither does she clarify that Jews who live in Silwan do not simply seize and occupy Palestinian properties but go through legal channels, purchasing the properties they inhabit. Brooks instead relays as fact the partisan charges of those who oppose Jewish habitation in eastern Jerusalem and the archeological digs that expose earlier Jewish habitation there. (For a thorough examination of the City of David’s excavations and the allegations against them, see “The Truth About Jerusalem’s City of David – The Lies About Silwan”.)

While the author acknowledges ancient Jewish history in eastern Jerusalem, she ignores the more recent history of the area. The area was only exclusively Arab for the 19 year-period between 1948 and 1967 in which Jordan occupied eastern Jerusalem. For over three millennia, since King David established Jerusalem as the capital of his kingdom in 1004 BCE, there has been an almost continuous Jewish presence in Jerusalem, the holiest city in Judaism – and for most of that time in eastern Jerusalem. Since the mid-1800’s, Jews have constituted the largest single group of residents in the city. According to historical and cultural geographer Professor Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, “In the second half of the nineteenth century and at the end of that century, Jews comprised the majority of the population of the Old City…” Historian Martin Gilbert reported that 6,000 Jews resided in Jerusalem in 1838, compared to 5,000 Muslims and 3,000 Christians. The 1853 edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica “assessed the Jewish population of Jerusalem in 1844 at 7,120, making them the biggest single religious group in the city.” And others estimated the number of Jewish residents of Jerusalem at the time as even higher.

It was only in 1948 that Jerusalem was divided when Arab nations invaded the newly declared State of Israel, attempting to capture the entire city, both east and west. Jordanian forces seized east Jerusalem, expelled its Jewish residents, destroyed Jewish property and religious sites, and made it a Judenrein (Jew free) area, while Jews continued to live in west Jerusalem. A New York Times article published right after Jordanian forces took control of eastern Jerusalem describes how Jewish demographics were changed at that time:

Thus the Jews have been eliminated from the City of David for the first time since the sixteenth century. Except for sixty years in the sixteenth century, they are believed to have been there continuously since the return from the Babylonian captivity. New [ i.e. west] Jerusalem was largely created in the last seventy years.

An article by Professor Shaul Bartal about the Palestinian strategy of erasing Judaism’s connection to historic Jerusalem while fabricating their own history as the indigenous people there includes this about the more modern history of Jewish habitation in Silwan:

Closer to modern times, Israeli geographer Menashe Harel relates that in the mid-1850s, the villagers of Silwan were paid £100 annually by Jerusalem’s Jews in an effort to prevent the desecration of nearby graves on the Mount of Olives. This fraught relationship between the two communities took a new turn late in the century with the arrival of Yemenite Jews into the town. Inspired by a messianic desire to return to the land of their forefathers, between 1881 and 1882, a group of penniless Yemenite Jews came to Jerusalem. The long-time Jewish inhabitants of the city initially rejected their co-religionists but eventually built homes for them in the Silwan area, creating a neighborhood that became known as Kfar Hashiloah (Shiloah Village) and the “Yemenite Village.

During the pogroms of 1921 and 1929, these homes were attacked by Arab neighbors, and in 1939, at the end of the three-year Great Revolt against the British mandatory authorities, the Yemenite Jews of Silwan were evacuated, their homes soon occupied without compensation by the neighboring villagers. Thus, both the area of the City of David and the neighboring town of Silwan had no Jewish residents until 1967. 

These perspectives, context and history, however, are not shared with readers.

Claims About Bethlehem

Claims about Bethlehem are similarly deceptive. The author asserts:

…the cost to Palestinians of ongoing settlement expansion is on stark display less than ten miles north, where the town of Bethlehem is being slowly choked by military checkpoints and is unable to grow because of the looming separation barrier.

She follows this with a quote by Rev. Mitri Raheb, a Palestinian Christian pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Christmas Church in Bethlehem who is notorious for his anti-Zionist activism, asserting: 

The whole town is essentially walled in… We have no room to grow. It is destroying the character of the little town, and its economy.

According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics’ most recent (2017) census on Population, Housing and Establishments, over 21% of housing units in Bethlehem were uninhabited – hardly suggesting a choked off city that cannot expand. (See PCBS census, page 21)  Nor do the allegations explain how or why the character of the town has changed or why Bethlehem residents cannot expand in the large area to the south of Bethlehem that abuts Palestinian villages and towns.

Contrary to the article’s implication, Bethlehem is not walled in. Israel’s security barrier, constructed to prevent Palestinian suicide bombers and other terrorists from crossing into Israel, rings the northern and western sides of the city, but does not encircle the city on the east and south. Furthermore, according to B’tselem, an organization that’s not known for defending Israel, there are no checkpoints on Bethlehem’s eastern and southern side. The internal checkpoints into Palestinian areas of the West Bank, located on the western and northern side are almost always open and rarely staffed, allowing Palestinians to freely travel between Bethlehem and other areas of the West Bank. It is the checkpoints into Jerusalem and the Israeli town of Efrat that are more strictly staffed and limit entry to Palestinians with permits and residents of eastern Jerusalem. These restrictions are due entirely to Israeli defensive measures to protect its citizens from the Palestinian terrorism that has targeted civilians inside Israel.

Moreover, tourism which has always been Bethlehem’s primary industry has been booming in the past few years since the numbers of violent stabbings and car rammings perpetrated by Palestinians have decreased. In fact, this past Christmas was the busiest tourist season on record.  By contrast, tourism had plummeted in 2015 -16 at the height of the so-called Palestinian knife intifada. In other words, there is an inverse correlation between business growth and Palestinian terrorism.

But the article gives short shrift to Palestinian suicide bombing and terrorism, treating them either as a partisan accusation, in the author’s dismissive characterization of each side’s view of the other – “either all Israelis were brutalizing oppressors or all Palestinians were bloodthirsty terrorists,” or as no-longer relevant allegation from the past – “the first sections [of the security barrier] were built in 2003, at the height of the Second Intifada, when, Israel says, it was necessary to prevent suicide bombings, which have practically ceased since.”

In truth, Palestinian terrorism continues to be an ongoing threat that requires constant vigilance by Israeli security forces. According to Nadav Argaman, head of Israel’s security agency, the Shin-Bet (Israeli FBI) thwarted more than 480 attacks in 2018, arrested 219 Hamas cells, and thwarted some 590 “lone wolf” attackers, in addition to foiling cyber-attacks and efforts to spy on Israel. 

In the Bethlehem area, Israel’s Security forces uncovered an Islamic Jihad terrorist cell that operated in the area, arrested several of its leaders, thwarting its plans for large-scale attacks. It also uncovered attempts by the heads of the Hamas wing in Gaza to establish a terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank in order to carry out terrorist attacks inside the pre-1967 boundaries of Israel and  terrorist attempts to attack local and foreign diplomats in the country.

Claims About Israeli-Issued Medical Permits

As a continuation to Raheb’s false charge that Bethlehem is entirely walled in by Israel, the author informs readers that

When Raheb’s mother was hospitalized for cancer treatment in East Jerusalem, he was able to get a permit from Israel to visit her; his mother’s sisters were denied. When his father-in-law was suffering a heart attack, a border guard required him to exit the ambulance and walk through the checkpoint. He died a few days later.

The insinuation that Israel randomly prevents Palestinian patients or those accompanying them to enter Israel for medical treatment is also a popular one with which to besmirch Israel. Thus, no reason is given as to why there are restrictions at the crossings into Israel. Rather, readers are given the impression that Israeli authorities are simply trying to exert control over a subjugated Palestinian population whose lives are at risk.

Readers do not learn that Hamas is trying to build its terror infrastructure in the West Bank and continues to exploit Palestinians entering Israel for medical treatment by using them as couriers to transfer money, explosives and terrorism directives. A Hamas bomb-maker was recently arrested, using a medical permit to travel to Israel through the West Bank and Israel to set up a bomb-making facility in the West Bank. 

Perhaps the biggest omission  is that Palestinians have repeatedly rejected independent statehood because they were unwilling to accept a  neighboring Jewish state within any boundaries.  Had these underlying truths been included,  it would have provided a more balanced perspective of the conflict. Without this and other relevant context and replete with errors and the presentation of disputed anti-Israel allegations as fact, the article is just another one-sided narrative that misleads about the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.  It is particularly insidious because it does this under the guise of providing an even-handed exploration of both sides.