Taybeh’s Population Fluctuates Wildly

The population of Taybeh, the last all-Christian town in the West Bank is hard to pin down.

The town got a fair amount of attention in 2012 when 60 Minutes broadcast a segment about Christians in the Holy Land. The segment was a dishonest hatchet job produced by Harry Radliffe, fronted by reporter Bob Simon and defended by their boss, CBS Chairman (and 60 Minutes Executive Producer) Jeff Fager.

Taybeh didn’t get mentioned in the main segment that was broadcast on the air, but it was profiled in a video posted on the show’s website under the brand “60 Minutes Overtime” part of CBS’s efforts to generate advertising income from the Internet.

Being interviewed by 60 Minutes was a big deal for Dr. Maria Khoury, a resident of the town who, according to a blog entry she wrote, had been giving the show information about Christians in the West Bank before the segment aired.

On April 20, 2012, she posted an email sent by 60 Minutes producers asking for help in publicizing the show on Christians in the Holy Land in an entry at “The Sounding,” a blog for Orthodox Christians. It reads as follows:

At last, the time has come: the story about the shrinking population of the Palestinian Christians in the Holy Land will be broadcast on ’60 Minutes’ this Sunday, 22 April 2012 at 7:00 p.m. Eastern time. For those of you who do not have access to CBS News in your area, you can be certain to watch the story on our website […]. The story will be posted on Sunday evening after it airs on TV. There will also be an added feature on our online program called “60 Minutes Overtime”. You will be able to view a story on Taybeh, also on Sunday evening. Please forward this email to those you feel should be informed of this. We also wanted to thank each and every person who helped us in telling this very complicated story. Though you may not have made it into the piece, you all played a significant role in the story.” Regards, Harry A. Radliffe II; Magalie. Laguerre-Wilkinson.

In the brief video (which by the way is sponsored by Pfizer, the folks who make Viagra), Simon tells viewers that in the course of reporting on Christians in the Holy Land, he and his producer Harry Radliffe, “came across a small village in the West Bank called Taybeh, located some 22 miles northeast of Jerusalem, population around fifteen hundred.”

This population has reduced substantially from the era prior to the Six Day War, Simon indicates in a brief interview with Father Raed Sahlieh, the pastor at the Roman Catholic Church in the town:

BS: Father, You have 780 parishioners here today. Do you have any idea how many Roman Catholics there were before the Israeli occupation?
FRS: There were at least 2,000.

Then the video cuts to the previously mentioned Dr. Maria Khoury, who reports “Now we have more people living in Detroit, Michigan from Taybeh than Taybeh itself.”

What Simon’s reporting obscures is that Taybeh’s population was never very large. Take a look at the numbers provided by anti-Israel website “Palestine Remembered” and you’ll see that the population of Taybeh has historically been less than 2,000 inhabitants, raising doubts about the accuracy of Father Sahlieh’s statement that prior to the Israeli occupation his church had 2,000 parishioners. There are two other churches in the town – a Greek Orthodox and an Eastern Rite Catholic Church that had congregations of their own. The numbers don’t add up.

The upshot is that Taybeh has always been a small village and was still a small village when Bob Simon and Harry Radliffe visited it.

Here are the numbers from Palestine Remembered:

Readers should note there is some uncertainty about the numbers provided for 2007 in the graph above. Palestine Remembered’s graph appears to rely on statistics provided by the Palestinian Authority for 2007 and may be using the wrong numbers from the PA report available here. There are two towns with the name “At Tayyiba,” in the document.
One of these villages had a population of just over 1,300 in 2007, the other had more than 2,000. Palestine Remembered used the higher figure for Taybeh, but it appears that this figure should be applied to a village in the northern tip of the West Bank, not the village that Simon and Radliffe visited.

Adding to this confusion is that there are contradictory reports of the town’s population.

On Oct. 5, 2012, just a few months after Simon reported that Taybeh had population of 1,500, Al Arabiya published a story about an Oktoberfest celebration associated with a famous brewery in the town (owned by Maria Khoury’s family). The article says the town has a population of 2,000.

And in July 2010, Haaretz published a piece by Gideon Levy who reported that “[t]here are about 2,300 people left in the village, while some 12,000 former residents and their descendents now live in the U.S, Chile and Guatemala.”

And in June 2008, the Toronto Star published a story about the Khoury-owned brewery in Taybeh, which stated that the town had a population of 2,300 or so.

All this casts doubt on the narrative 60 Minutes was pushing – that the town’s population is in decline as a result of Israeli policies in the West Bank.
First off, the population was never very high. Moreover, numerous reports indicate that there were several hundred more people living in the city than 60 Minutes reported. This indicates that the city’s population may have actually increased over the past several decades.
Again, there’s some confusion here, a lot of it probably sewn by the people who actually live in the town and talk to the various reporters. It looks like the town’s population is bigger when reporters write about the brew
ery and Taybeh’s business prospects than they are when reporters write about the evils of the Israeli occupation.

This is not to say that young people haven’t been leaving the town. Arabs – Christians especially – have been leaving the area for more than a century – since the days of the Ottoman Empire. Viola Raheb, editor of Latin Americans With Palestinian Roots (Diyar Institute, 2012) reports:

Palestinian immigration to Latin and Central America is considered one of the earliest in the modern history of the Palestinian people. Already in the mid-nineteenth and early twentieth century, Palestinians started to immigrate to Latin America. The Palestinian immigration to Latin America is seen as being composed of three waves: the first under the Ottoman Empire (1860-1916), the second under the British Mandate (1918-1948). At the same time, it is important to note that during the second Intifada between the years 2000-2005 another wave of Palestinian Christian immigration to Latin America took place, though not major in its number.

And while 60 Minutes staffers and the people they speak to placed the blame for the more recent departures on Israel, or the “occupation,” it’s interesting that they’ve omitted any mention of a terrible arson attack perpetrated by a mob of people from a nearby Muslim town that took place in 2005.

Clearly it was worth a mention in a story about the departure of Christians from the town. It demonstrated that lawlessness was afoot and that people, Christians especially, weren’t safe.

Nailing down the truth about the Taybeh’s population and what is actually going on in the town is like nailing a jellyfish to a wall.

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