|Palestinian protesters featured in the 2010 movie Little Town of Bethlehem dress up as Santa Claus to portray the Israelis who arrest them as the Grinch Who Stole Christmas. Mart Green, an heir to the Hobby Lobby fortune produced the film, which was directed by Jim Hanon. (All photos screenshots from film.)|
One movie, With God on Our Side, was produced by Porter Speakman, Jr., an American filmmaker from Colorado. Speakman’s movie was a highly propagandistic treatment of the Arab-Israeli conflict that highlighted Palestinian suffering. It also featured testimony from Stephen Sizer and Gary Burge, two scholars who have used anti-Judaic polemics to portray the modern state of Israel as unworthy of Christian support. The Christian charity World Vision promoted the movie when it first came out, but eventually admitted that the film “should have done a better job in presenting the Israeli perspective.”
Speakman, who has dialed back his involvement in the anti-Israel movement in the years since his movie’s release, never revealed who paid for the costs of making the film, which was shown on college campuses throughout North America and Europe.
Another movie that contributed substantially to a notable up-tick in anti-Zionist activism on the part of college-age Evangelical Protestants in the United States was Little Town of Bethlehem.
This film, which was launched in September 2010, was shown at more than 360 venues including college campuses, local libraries, community centers, churches and film festivals throughout the United States, Europe and Israel.
During its run it received three awards. In February, 2011 it received the Reel Rose Award for Best Documentary Film at the John Paul II International Film Festival held in Florida. Later that year, it received the “Chris Statuette” from the Columbus International Film and Video Festival and the Best Oklahoma Film Award from the Dead Center Film Festival.
It also received praise from Christianity Today, the flagship publication for Evangelical Protestants in the U.S. In November, 2010, editor David Neff praised the film, writing, “If you’re looking for a primer on the tensions between the state of Israel and the refugee families it displaced, Little Town of Bethlehem (EthnoGraphic Media) won’t do the job. But if you want to glimpse the conflict’s human face and the way it affects both those who live under occupation and the soldiers who serve as its enforcers, by all means, watch this movie.”
Neff also endorsed the movie’s “production values and artistic sensibilities” which make “a painful story a pleasure to watch.”
The film was directed by former advertising executive Jim Hanon working under the auspices of Ethnographic Media, or “EGM Films,” a film company founded by Mart Green, an heir to the Hobby Lobby fortune created by his father David Green.
David Green was recently listed at one of the countries wealthiest supporters of Israel in an article recently published by Breaking Israel News. David Green was included on this list because of his support of “Covenant Journeys” which brings Evangelical Christians to Israel so that they can “become goodwill ambassadors for Israel and the Jewish people.”
Mart Green is not only an heir to the Hobby Lobby, but is a successful businessman in his own right. At the age of 19 he founded Mardel, a chain of Christian bookstores that caters to Evangelical Protestants in the U.S. With his wealth, Mart Green has become an important benefactor for Evangelical colleges in the U.S.
Since 2008, Mart Green has donated $250 million to the financially troubled Oral Roberts University, preventing its closure. In return for his donations, Green became chairman of the board of the school and appointed Billy Wilson as the school’s president.
Wilson spoke at the 2014 Christ at the Checkpoint Conference in Bethlehem. The Christ at the Checkpoint Conference is organized by Bethlehem Bible College, which has become an outpost of anti-Israel propagandizing in the West Bank. While Wilson’s presentation was not anti-Israel in content, his presence at the event helped increase the conference’s profile amongst Evangelical Protestants in the U.S.
Mart’s brother Steven is also a well-known philanthropist in the Christian community, serving as founder and chairman of the board of the Washington, D.C.-based Museum of the Bible slated to open in 2017.
Mart Green is also a major (if not primary) supporter of the Empowered 21 Movement, an organization that seeks to promote Christianity to non-believers throughout the World. One concern raised about Empowered 21 is the manner in which it has called for unity with the Palestinian Christian community. At first glance, this is a reasonable request, but upon further reflection is a legitimate cause for concern given the tendency of Palestinian Christians to aggressively propagandize against Israel. “Empowered 21’s unqualified expectation that attendees at the Global Congress stand in unity with those who proliferate [anti-Zionist] material that perpetuates the demonization of Jews and the State of Israel is both alarming and destructive,” writes CAMERA analyst Tricia Miller, Ph.D.
The Greens are heroes to many Christians in the United States because of Hobby Lobby’s successful legal fight against provisions against the Affordable Care that required business to pay for birth control medicines that abort fetuses.
Given his influence in the Evangelical
World, Mart Green’s decision to bankroll Little Town of Bethlehem was particularly disconcerting and remains so several years later. Green’s choice of Hanon as the director of the film is problematic given his apparent fascination with Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, man who once expressed a desire to kill all the Jews in the world – once they gathered in Israel.
“Just on a personal level, I found [Nasrallah] remarkable,” he told journalist James Fletcher, (who, despite repeated attempts, has been unable to get an interview with Mart Green and ask him about the film).
Hanon interviewed Nasrallah prior to making the film, but did not include testimony from the Nasrallah’s interview. He did however, use “insight” gleaned from Nasrallah in making the video, Hanon said.
It shows. The movie is filled with misstatements of fact, omissions and propagandistic tropes that demonize Israel and whitewash Arab and Muslim hostility toward the Jewish people and their homeland. Perhaps owing to his roots as a advertising executive, director Jim Hanon created a visually compelling, but historically unreliable movie.
The movie purports to tell the story of three peace activists: Palestinian Christian Sami Awad, Israeli Jew Yonatan Shapira and Palestinian Muslim Ahmad Al Azzeh. The three activists tell the stories of their families as they were impacted by the Arab-Israeli conflict. To casual observers, it might appear that by offering these three different narratives Hanon is giving viewers a balanced and comprehensive view of the conflict. As journalist Jim Fletcher reports, this simply isn’t so and that “the entire film is heavily slanted to portray Israel as an expansionist bully.”
During his opening monologue in which he describes his family history, Awad speaks of about the death of his grandfather during Israel’s War for Independence in 1948. As Sami tells the story in the movie, his family lived in an area between East and West Jerusalem where the fiercest fighting and shelling took place. In an effort to protect his family, Awad said, his grandfather (Elias), decided to raise a white flag. “But in his attempt to protect the family, he was shot and killed by a sniper bullet.”
Awad continues: “After that, Jewish forces came and kicked my father’s family out and my grandmother was left with … seven grandchildren.”
Elias, Alex writes, “decided to step outside the shelter to see if it was safe and if the war was over.” He then reports that Elias was shot by an unknown gunman because “he had forgotten to put on his Red Cross armband which identified him as a hospital worker and a non-combatant.”
These are two different stories. One story claims Elias was killed while checking if the fighting had ended. Sami’s story indicates that he was killed while the fighting was going on. And Sami says Elias was killed while trying to display a white flag, while his uncle says he was shot because he forgot to wear a Red Cross armband. Which is it?
Some readers might ask, “What difference does it make?” While both stories are sad, Sami’s version has much more propaganda value than the one told by his uncle because it presents his grandfather as risking his life for the welfare of his family. Did Sami alter the story for dramatic effect for the benefit of the movie?
If he did, it wouldn’t be the first time. In 2009, he told a group of Christians at a gathering in Texas that the shot that killed his grandfather came from the Israeli side of the fighting, leading listeners to conclude that it was a Jew who killed Elias.
But the family, it turns out, has no definitive proof of who killed Elias, as revealed in this previous CAMERA article about the events of 1948.
It’s not the only questionable story Sami Awad has told to Western audiences. In 2014, he appeared in a video shown at Christ at the Checkpoint in which he falsely reported that Bethlehem is completely surrounded by the security barrier. Just days earlier he had acknowledged in person to this writer that this wasn’t true – that the city was not surrounded by the security barrier. When pressed, Sami suggested that Palestinians do not adhere to Western rules of facticity when engaging in discourse. “We tell legends, we tell myths,” he said.
Any researcher or reporter who uses Awad as a source has an obligation to determine the truthfulness of what he says, but clearly, this is not Jim Hanon’s forte. He can make a visually compelling video, but cannot protect his viewers from being exposed to myths and legends in the guise of documentary.
No Racism, No Discrimination
This becomes further evident when Ahmad Al Azzeh, the Palestinian Muslim, offered his introduction to the camera. He says that his grandparents were farmers who lived in Palestine and that his mother was born in a village called Beit Jibrin (a town known for the sale of embroidery work and fabric). He continues: “They used to perceive Jewish (sic) just as neighbors and friends. There weren’t any kind of racism or discrimination.”
Azzeh’s report that there was never any kind of racism or discrimination directed at Jews in Palestine prior to the 1948 War is simply false. There were some local officials and elites in Palestinian society who were willing to live in relative peace with Jews in Palestine even if they opposed the creation of a Jewish state. But Haj Amin Al Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who controlled the Arab Higher Committee, threatened or killed these moderates (who were always few in number) outright in the late 1930s.
Contrary to what Al Azzeh tells the camera, racism and hostility toward Jews was a big factor in Palestinian society. It manifested itself a number of times in Palestinian Arab acts of violence, most especially during the 1929 and 1936 riots.
Sometimes Palestinian Arabs protected their Jewish neighbors during these riots, but not always. Writing in 1961, Howard Morley Sachar recounted the murder of Rabbi Meier Castel, the chairman of the Sephardic community in Hebron. On page 22 of his book, Aliyah: The Peoples of Israel, Sachar writes that Castel was “a famous orator in Arabic” and was an “honored guest at Arab banquets and ceremonial affairs. And yet his rapport was not quite enough to save his life” during the 1929 riots:
As the howling band descended upon the venerable rabbi’s home, one of his oldest friends, a Moslem who had been raised in the same courtyard with him, persuaded Meier Castel to give him his key.“I will guard your home for you,” he promised.Whereupon the Arab unlocked the Castel home to the invaders, and the rabbi was promptly disemboweled.
Clearly, Al Azzeh is an unreliable narrator when it comes to speaking about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and Arab-Jewish relations.
Rabin Assassination and Netanyahu’s Election
Neverthless, Hanon goes to him for testimony about how the Palestinian people responded to the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin who was killed in November, 1995:
When Rabin was assassinated, a lot of Palestinian people was sad, sad, very sad. He did call he could when he started to think about peace and they killed them. Read the election. When people elected the most fanatical group to be leaders that means the majority of the population do not want peace. [As Al Azzeh utters this previous sentence, the film shows footage of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who won the 1996 election in Israel.]
Some Palestinians were sad at Rabin’s assassination. But enough of them cheered his death that Yassir Arafat put out a ban on reporting about Palestinians rejoicing in Gaza at Rabin’s death, just the same way he instructed reporters to not report about Palestinians rejoicing at the attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001. The day after Rabin was killed the New York Times reported:
In Lebanon today, a Muslim militant rally in Beirut to mourn the death of a Palestinian guerilla leader turned into a celebration of Mr. Rabin’s slaying. Thousands of Lebanese and Palestinian militants chanted, “Death to Israel.”…Palestinian guerillas and refugees opposed to the P.L.O. took to the streets of the Ain Hilwe camp in southern Lebanon minutes after hearing news of Mr. Rabin’s death, chanting, Rabin is gone! Rabin is gone!” and dancing into this morning. The guerillas fired machine guns and anti-tank rockets skyward.Palestinian and Muslim Lebanese guerrillas also fired into the night sky in celebration in the Beirut suburbs and other Party of God [Hezbollah] strongholds in Eastern Lebanon.
And two days after Rabin’s assassination, Alan Makovsky reported the following about the response to the murder at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy:
If the official Arab reaction contained some positive elements, some disappointing ones, and some predictably negative ones, there were several unofficial statements and images that reminded Israelis of just how deeply popular hatred runs in some quarters. Terrorist groups were happy, of course, although Ahmad Jibril [the leader for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine] lamented (perhaps not sarcastically) that Rabin was killed by a Jew, not a Palestinian. Hamas said it “congratulates” Palestinians for “the death of one of their worst enemies, a criminal.” Perhaps the most ghoulish image was the photograph of Amman-based Hamas spokesman Ibrahim Ghosheh displaying a copy of The Jordan Times headlined “Rabin Assassinated” while grinning broadly.
Again, Al Azzeh’s testimony leaves something to be desired. To make matters worse, Al Azzeh’s characterization of Benjamin Netanyahu’s 1996 electoral victory omits crucial information. He stated that Netanyahu’s victory meant “the majority of the population do not want peace.” Actually, it’s not that they didn’t want peace, it’s just that they wanted security. On the eve of the election CNN reported the following:
As Israeli voters cast their ballots for prime minister Wednesday, the fear of more terrorist attacks may strongly influence their choice.In February and March, militant Islamic suicide bombers killed 59 people in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The carnage not only shocked the nation, but it inflicted a severe blow to the re-election hopes of Prime Minister Shimon Peres.Early in the year, Peres enjoyed a 20 percent lead in opinion polls. On the eve of the election, he holds only a 3 percent lead over Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu.
This is a crucial, and damning, omission. Al Azzeh portrays Israelis as monsters for electing Benjamin Netanyahu as their Prime Minister in the 1996 election, but makes no mention of the deaths of dozens of people at the hands of Palestinian suicide bombers in the months prior to the election. It was these deaths that helped Netanyahu win the election. Did Hanon know about this? If he didn’t, what business does he have making a movie about the Arab-Israeli conflict? And if he did know about these deaths and their impact on the election, then how could he omit them in good conscience? Whether Hanon intended to or not, he allowed Al Azzeh to defame the Israeli electorate.
This is not the only crucial omission that Hanon commits in his film.
For example, Sami Awad reports that support for Hamas (a terrorist organization that seeks Israel’s destruction) “was at its lowest” when the peace process began. He then asserts that Hamas gained support as a result of a rise of unemployment that took place as the peace process progressed.
Awad states “We became more unemployed during the years of the peace process than at anytime prior to that.” He continued, “when unemployment grows, the economic situation becomes more difficult, groups like Hamas are able to fill this gap. They come in with their social programs, their healthcare, their education. They are now providing for the community and that creates popularity.”
In sum, the story that Awad tells is that the peace process, which began in 1993, contributed to unemployment in Palestinian society, which in turn gave Hamas an opening and fueled the Second Intifada. Like a lot of what comes out of Awad’s mouth, it is a story with little basis in fact.
Here’s what really happened: Palestinian violence that led to increased unemployment in the West Bank, not the other way around. Statistics compiled by the World Bank reveal that unemployment declined in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip after the beginning of the peace process and shot up again with the beginning of the Second Intifada.
These numbers reveal that from 1993 until 1996, unemployment in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip declined. It shot up again in 1996 and then started to decline again until the onset of the Second Intifada at the end of 2000.
Unemployment increased in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1996 as a result of Israeli security measures that prevented Palestinian workers from entering into Israel. The measures were imposed after a series of Hamas-perpetrated suicide attacks (mentioned above) that resulted in the deaths of scores of Israeli civilians. Once the attacks decreased, these measures were eased allowing for an improvement in economic conditions.
This is the story told by Saleh Al Kafri, a researcher from the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, in this undated paper. He reports that after the signing of Oslo I in 1993 “the Palestinian economy became better off” and started to recover from the economic crisis that resulted from the First Intifada. Then, during the 1996 closures, Palestinians were unable to get to work in Israel, but fortunately, this “did not last long, and the political situation became calm and settled which led to the improvement in the economic situations in 1997 up to 2000.”
Looking at the numbers and the chronology, offered by an official from the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics no less, the reality becomes impossible to deny. Palestinian unemployment increased after periods of Palestinian violence, not the other way around.
Sami Awad told the story exactly backwards in a movie that was shown to thousands of people.
And Mart Green footed the bill.
More Material Omissions
During his testimony, Yonatan Shapira the Israeli Jew who condemns Israel in the movie, told a story of being a young idealistic supporter of the Jewish state and proud of his service as a helicopter pilot in Israel’s military. Everything was fine until he experienced a crisis of conscience in 2002 after the death of Asalzh Shehadah at the hands of the Israeli Air Force.
It was after they dropped this one-ton bomb on the house of Aseleh Shehada, killed 15 innocents including nine children and left me with the feeling that I am one of the kids that were killed there, because this naïve Yonatan that really identified with his country, he was killed in a way.
The death of 15 civilians, nine of them children, as the result of an Israeli airstrike is a tragedy, but it is important to know who Aseleh Shehada was. He was a high-ranking Hamas member who founded the Al Qassam Brigades in the 1980s. By virtue of his position, Shehada was responsible for planning many of the suicide bomb attacks that killed dozens of Israelis in the decade prior to his death. He also advocated the instruction of children in terror attacks. All this gives badly needed context to the attack on Shehadah’s home. The man was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis and was a legitimate military target. In light of the circumstances, it seems reasonable, if not necessary, to ask, was Shehadeh using his family as human shields to deter Israeli strikes against him? He had to have known he was a sought-after target.
Civil Rights Redux?
Hanon also makes good use of the sound track to help convince his viewers that that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is really nothing more than a repeat of the fight between oppressed African Americans (the Palestinians) and white racists (the Israelis). By using bluesy harmonica and guitar solos to evoke images of the American South, Hanon is pulling out all the stops to promote a false equivalence between nonviolent proponents of racial justice in the 1960s and 70s in the United States and the Palestinian cause, whose elites have promoted hate and hostility for Jews and Israel and lauded acts of violence on a regular basis for the past several decades.
There is no comparison between the Palestinian cause and the fight for freedom endured by African Americans in the United States. The fight for civil rights was not associated with overt calls for genocide or the destruction of the American republic, but was marked Martin Luther King’s call for blacks to be accorded the rights they were entitled to under the U.S. Constitution. By way of comparison, prominent Palestinian leaders regularly call for Israel’s destruction and promote vicious Jew-hatred that Martin Luther King himself would condemn. And while the African American community was denied the ability to participate meaningfully in the political process in the United States, Arabs in Israel have elected members to the Knesset who advocate for the destruction of the Jewish state. Palestinians living under the Palestinian Authority have also voted in elections to choose their leaders.
Moreover, African Americans have never encouraged their sons or daughters to engage in suicide attacks as Palestinian leaders have done. As Dumisani Washington, an activist working with Christians United for Israel has written, “you can be certain that blowing up our sons and daughters would not have been a strategic option.”
Contrived Propaganda, Not Peacemaking
If Awad, Azzeh and their practitioners of nonviolence in the West Bank were truly the force for peace in Palestinian society they proclaim themselves to be, Hanon should have been able to provide visual evidence of their efforts to confront Palestinian hostility toward Jews and Israel, but he did not.
Awad says the goal of nonviolent activism is to provide a mirror to the oppressor, so that they can see what they are actually doing and repent. But the confrontations between the Palestinian Santa Clauses and the Israeli soldiers are not about providing a mirror to the oppressor, but about creating propagandistic imagery that serves to portray the IDF as the collective Grinch who stole Christmas. It’s a contrived staged event that makes the Israelis look like monsters to audiences in the West.
All of this raises an important question for peace activists: When will Awad and other so-called peacemakers work to provide mirrors to the Palestinian leaders and confront them with what they have done to the Israelis and their own people?
These are pretty obvious questions that Mart Green’s movie did not ask.
Awad Confronts (and Deploys) Holocaust
While the movie fails to address the issue of Muslim and Arab hostility toward Jews and Israel, it does acknowledge the Holocaust and its impact on the Jewish people. But even as it does this, it deploys the tragedy as a manner that portrays Israelis as being unfit for a sovereign state and unable to make peace with the Palestinians because of the trauma the have endured. On this score, the movie banks on its viewers not knowing anything about the Clinton Parameters where the Israelis accepted a plan put forth by former President Clinton Bill Clinton in 2000 and the Palestinians said no.
This section starts out well enough, with Awad stating that he went to Auschwitz and Birkenau, two death camps in Poland, to witness to “really witness what happened in the Holocaust.” Judging from his testimony, it had a real impact on Awad. “To be in such a place where so many people were killed, seeing the wall of death where thousands of people were shot, the ovens where people were burned. Seeing the ponds where their remains were thrown in. It was shocking.”
During Awad’s visit to the death camps, he saw busloads of Israeli children with Israeli guides who also toured the scene and sang the Israeli national anthem.
The shocking part was to see the language this guide was using. Not to explain this as a violent act as an act that happened against the Jewish community in particular but humanity in general and should not happen again to anybody in the world, but presenting this act as what the Arabs and the Palestinians want to do to us now…These children are experiencing one of the most traumatic episodes of their life. Many of them probably had their grandparents or great uncles or aunts killed in these places.How fear is now planted in their hearts. Fear the Arabs. Fear the Pale
stinians. Do not trust them. Do not make peace with them.
In his testimony, Awad attempts to acknowledge the Holocaust’s impact on the Jewish people while trying to universalize or de-Judaize the horror. When he says that the Holocaust didn’t just happen against the Jewish community in particular, but to “humanity in general” he downplays or elides one of the primary causes of World War II and the Holocaust that accompanied it – Nazi Jew-hatred. Hitler’s overriding goal was to destroy the Jewish people, whom he regarded as an obstacle and threat to the survival of the German race. Yes, Awad is right, a lot of other people were killed during the Holocaust, but the Jews remained the primary target of the Nazis.
If Awad were serious about earning the trust of the Israelis in light of their fears and the ferocious history they have endured, he would tell his patron and protector, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to stop praising Haj Amin Al Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem who collaborated with the Nazis during the Holocaust and spread vicious antisemitism into the Middle East through radio broadcasts during World War II.
But he hasn’t, at least not publicly.
If Jim Hanon were serious about making a documentary that came anywhere close to telling the truth, he would inform his viewers about the Grand Mufti.
But he didn’t.
And if Mart Green were serious about providing his fellow Christians with an accurate portrayal of the conflict, he would never have released this film.
But he did.
No anti-israel movie filmed in Bethlehem would be complete if it didn’t somehow use the nativity story to cast Israel as an obstacle to God’s purposes in the Holy Land, and this video is no exception. In Little Town of Bethlehem, director Jim Hanon uses the story of the birth of Sami Awad’s first child in 2002 during a battle in Bethlehem during which Palestinian gunmen took refugee in the Church of the Nativity, where Christians throughout the world memorialize Jesus’ birth.
Like Mary and Joseph who finally found shelter in a manger, Awad and his wife had a tough time finding a decent place for her to give birth. Israeli security measures in response to Palestinian violence almost prevented the couple from getting into an Israeli hospital. The way Hanon frames the story, the fear and uncertainty surrounding the couple’s thankfully successful effort to get into Israel was blamed on Israel and not Palestinian terrorists.
Isn’t the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians tragic enough without invoking the Nativity story to blacken Israel’s reputation?
What Will Green Do?
While CAMERA has been told by a number of sources that Mart Green no longer supports the message offered by Little Town of Bethlehem and understands the movie has some serious problems, he has yet to publicly disavow himself from the video, which can still be purchased on Amazon and which is still being promoted on Facebook.
World Vision distanced itself from Porter Speakman’s “With God on Our Side.”
Will Mart Green do the right thing and distance himself from a movie that misinformed thousands of Christians in both the United States and Europe?
Or will he continue to remain silent and give people the impression that he thinks the movie offered an accurate and fair depiction of the Arab-Israeli conflict to his fellow Evangelical Christians?