The Bethlehem Formula — Using the Christmas Story to Defame Israel

1/3/07 Update: The original version of this article misattributed statements to Mary Ann Weston’s piece that should have been attributed to James Zogby’s piece. CAMERA regrets the error. The corrected version follows.

For Christians, the town of Bethlehem is the scene of their Savior’s birth, but for Israel’s critics, it has become the centerpiece of a dishonest and distorted narrative about the Arab-Israeli conflict that portrays Israel as an oppressor nation not unlike the Roman Empire that ruled over ancient Israel.  The Bethlehem Formula, which is typically reworked every December, is straightforward: Israel’s critics describe the impact of Israeli security measures (such as the security barrier) on the city’s current residents without describing why these measures are in place. Conditions in the city are then compared with the dire straits of the Holy Family at the time of Jesus’s birth.

The overall effect of the Bethlehem Formula is to portray Israel as an oppressor nation – akin to the Roman Empire – that offends Christian sensibilities by mercilessly recreating the conditions that made life difficult for the Holy Family. Just as Israel’s critics have used the story of Jesus’s betrayal and crucifixion to portray Israel as a Christ-killing nation, the Christmas story is used to portray Israel as a uniquely oppressive nation. In these instances, the Christian liturgical calendar is used not to promote peace and understanding, but to generate contempt toward Israel.

For the Bethlehem Formula to work on a rhetorical level, certain issues must be downplayed or ignored altogether. These issues include the campaign of violence that prompted the construction of the security barrier, the number of suicide attacks emanating from Bethlehem, and the intimidation of Christians in Palestinian society at the hands of the Muslim majority. Silence about these issues raises questions about whether or not violence against Israelis is as offensive to Christian sensibilities as Israeli efforts to prevent this violence.

Below are a few examples of how the Bethlehem Formula was applied during the 2006 Christmas Season.

What would happen if the Virgin Mary Came to Bethlehem today?
The Independent, Dec. 23, 2006 – Johann Hari

One egregious use of the Christmas story to denigrate Israel appeared under the byline of Johann Hari in the Independent on Dec. 23. This article, which uses a narrative of Jewish villainy and Palestinian innocence as an fund-raising appeal for public health facilities in the West Bank, starts with a naked attempt to portray the Palestinians on the West Bank as the modern-day equivalent of the Holy Family.

In two days, a third of humanity will gather to celebrate the birth pains of a Palestinian refugee in Bethlehem – but two millenia later, another mother in another glorified stable in this rubble strewn, locked down town is trying not to howl. Fadia Jemal is a gap-tooted 27-year-old with a weary, watery smile. “What would happen if the Virgin Mary came to Bethlehem today? She would endure what I have endured.”

By starting off with a historical anachronism – the reference to the Holy Family as Palestinian refugees, despite the fact they were Jews and that the region was not called “Palestine” until the second century of the Common Era, Hari demonstrates a willingness to distort the facts of history in the service of a political agenda, which he does – by inflating the number of infants that have died at Israeli checkpoints.

Hari writes that the “United nations confirms that a total of 36 babies have died because their mothers were detained at Israeli checkpoints” since 2002. In fact, the UN reports that 19 babies have died at checkpoints since 2002. The figure of 36 deaths refers to infant deaths from as far back as 2000. (Aug. 31, 2005 –– High Commissioner for Human Rights).

The remainder of Hari’s fundraising appeal for Merlin – a charity supported by the Independent’s Christmas appeal is based on a trope often used by Palestinian propagandists to portray Israel as an oppressor state – images of pregnant women stopped at Israeli checkpoints. Previous CAMERA analysis on this issue is available here.

Is Bethlehem Dying?
Council for the National Interest Foundation, Dec. 24, 2006

The Council for the National Interest used the Bethlehem Formula in a full-page advertisement in the New York Times on Sunday, Dec. 24, 2006. The advertisement depicts the three Magi riding atop camels blocked from arriving into Bethlehem by a concrete barrier. In the foreground a little bird tells the wise men, “It’s gonna be a little harder this time around.”

The text of the advertisement quotes Bethlehem’s mayor Victor Batarseh, who states “Our town risks becoming a town of tension and suffering instead of a symbol of peace.” The ad fails to report, however, that Victor Batarseh was elected mayor of Bethlehem with the support of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, two organizations that deny Israel’s right to exist and which have perpetrated numerous attacks against Israeli civilians. In short, CNI is putting forth Batarseh, whose political allies include Hamas, a group that targets Israeli civilians for murder, as a trusted source of information about the impact of Israel’s security barrier on Bethlehem residents in the name of “peace.”

CNI’s advertisement also quotes Lutheran Pastor Mitri Raheb of Bethlehem who has little if any influence over Palestinian society, but is regularly brought before Protestant churches in the U.S. to condemn Israeli security measures, without explaining why those measures are in place. For example, Raheb has complained about Israeli checkpoints slowing the passage of ambulances in the West Bank, but fails to acknowledge that ambulances have been used to transport weapons, bombs and terrorists intent on attacking Israeli civilians.

“O Little ghetto of Bethlehem”
Chicago Tribune – Dec. 24, 2006

Mary Ann Weston, associate professor emerita at Northwestern Univeristy’s Medill School of Journalism uses the Christmas story as a prop for her anti-Israel narrative as well. A piece titled “O Little ghetto of Bethlehem,” which appeared on Dec. 24, 2006, begins with a passage of the Gospel of Luke which describes the precarious plight of the Holy Family during the birth of baby Jesus. Weston then asks “If Mary and Joseph traveled to B ethlehem today, would they get in? Would they make to the manger, or would the holy child (sic) be delivered at an Israeli checkpoint?”

Weston then offers a predictable description of the security barrier near Bethlehem and its impact on the city’s residents. She offers only a minimal description as to why the barrier was constructed: “The government says it is being built to increase Israeli security and stop suicide bombings.”

Weston fails to offer any detail about the suicide attacks that emanated from the West Bank (where Bethlehem is located) during the Second Intifada, nor does she offer any acknowledgment that the security barrier has contributed to a reduction of suicide attacks emanating from the West Bank. Ramadan Shalah, leader of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, said on Nov. 11, 2006 what Weston could not admit – the barrier works. “For example,” Shalah said, “there is the separation fence, which is an obstacle to the resistance, and if it were not there the situation would be entirely different.”

Weston also fails to acknowledge that the Palestinians were offered a state during the Camp David/Taba negotiations of 2000/2001 in a deal that included all of Gaza and most of the West Bank and additional territory from within Israel’s pre-1967 borders to compensate for land in the West Bank Israel could not give up.

She also fails to acknowledge that the Israelis are facing some harsh conditions of their own including ongoing rocket from the Gaza Strip and terror attacks that have killed more than 1,100 Israeli citizens since Sept. 2000 – after Yasir Arafat walked out of the Camp David negotiations.

Is Christianity dying in the birthplace of Jesus?
Houston Chronicle, Dec. 25, 2006

This article, written by Gregory Katz, details the departure of Christians from Bethlehem and other towns in the West Bank.

Laudably, it does offer information that helps readers understand the ultimate cause of suffering in Bethlehem — Palestinian violence and enmity toward Israel. “The ruinous collapse of the local economy began six years ago with the start of a violent Palestinian uprising, or intifada, against Israel. That confrontation, in which Palestinian militants detonated dozens of suicide bombs inside Israel, provoked Israel to build the hated security wall.”

Later, Katz offers a hint of the anti-Israel hostility that pervades Bethlehem. “The displays inside the Bethlehem Peace Center on Manger Square in the town center celebrate brotherly relations between the faiths, with inspiring words from religious leaders, but the outside walls are plastered with posters honoring youthful Palestinian suicide bombers. The dead young men are hailed as martyrs for killing Israelis.”

The article’s reliance on Rev. Naim Ateek distorts the narrative, however. For example, Katz quotes Rev. Ateek asserting that Christians and Muslims in Israel face discrimination who give “Jews favored treatment when it comes to schools, jobs and services.” What Ateek fails to report is that Arab Israelis, Rev. Ateek included, enjoy rights not available in Muslim and Arab-majority countries throughout the Middle East. These rights include the right to vote, and to protest, and in Ateek’s instance deny the legitimacy of the very state that grants him these rights. Rev. Ateek refused to affirm Israel’s right to exist and has said it should not be allowed to maintain itself as Jewish state. Likewise, Arab Israelis applauded as Hezbollah rockets landed in Israel last summer, without punishment. What Rev. Ateek fails to acknowledge however, is that Jewish groups like B’Tselem and Rabbis for Human Rights lobby for the rights of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and for the rights of Arab-Israelis, but Arab governments deny Jews the right to even inhabit Arab lands.

Katz continues to quote Ateek who says that Christians in the West Bank and Gaza will likely face discrimination under a Palestinian state ruled by Hamas and then blames this problem on Israel. “But Israel doesn’t have a constitution, and the Palestinians don’t have a constitution. We don’t know which way this will go. Hamas has shown a lot of tolerance, but because of their founding principles, ultimately there will be discrimination.”

Rev. Ateek’s prophecy of future discrimination against Christians distracts from the current reality. Christians are routinely harassed and intimidated by their Muslim neighbors in the West Bank and Gaza. Rev. Ateek’s suggestion that Israel’s lack of a written constitution equates into a lack of human rights flies in the face of several facts. Israel’s Supreme Court routinely rules in favor of Arab-Israelis complaining about discrimination. Israeli Arabs are allowed to serve in the Knesset – even representatives of political parties that deny Israel’s right to exist. Rev. Ateek’s refusal to acknowledge these facts is the hallmark of his witness to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Oh! Little Town of Bethlehem…Where Art Thou?

James Zogby, Dec. 22, 2006

On Dec. 22, 2006 pollster James Zogby, founder and president of the Arab American Institute authored a piece which laments the America’s alleged failure to acknowledge the suffering of the current inhabitants of Bethlehem. He writes “This time of year, hundreds of millions of Christians in the West turn their attention to Bethlehem. But what they think about is not the living, breathing and suffering Palestinian city that is real, but a Bethlehem that exists in their imagination.”

Zogby then states that Americans do not understand the suffering and hardships endured by Bethlehem’s current residents under four decades of occupation by the Israelis and do not even know about the security barrier. Zogby does not acknowledge however, that Israel came into possession of the West Bank as a result of a defensive war in 1967, tried to negotiate a land-for-peace settlement at the end ot the Six Day War but was rebuffed and that Israel made substantial investments into the West Banks educational and public infrastructure in the years since the war — investments which have been degraded by ongoing violence. Nor does Zoby acknowledge that the barrier was constructed only after a series of suicide attacks during the Second Intifada.

Zogby concludes his piece with a call for readers to think about the “real Bethlehem and the real people of Bethlehem, Christians (living there since the time of Jesus) and Muslims, the lives they live and what might be done to improve their lot.”

If we do, we might be able to join the heavenly hosts whom we are told greeted the birth of Jesus singing “peace on earth, goodwill to men,” and help bring some of each to the land of Palestine.

Tellingly, there is no call in the article to think about the plight of Jews or any thought of extending the benefits of peace to Israel.

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