Themage*: 60 Minutes, Media Matters, and media narrative-building on Christians and Israel
posted at 1:52 pm on April 25, 2012 by J.E. Dyer
Do you think it’s a Christian posture to condemn Israel for the security wall erected to keep terrorists from the West Bank out? Do you think evangelical Christians are suddenly rethinking their support for Israel because they’ve finally gone on guided tours provided by Palestinian Arabs rather than Israelis? Do you think American evangelicals are, in general, turning away from the political right and toward the left, as regards Israel and other issues?
The left-wing media want you to – and it appears some of the reporters and opinion-writers for the mainstream media do too. An example that seems to have crossed a new line was Sunday’s edition of 60 Minutes, in which veteran reporter Bob Simon framed the plight of Arab Christians in the West Bank as a problem caused by Israel. The laughably one-sided report shoehorned a number of freighted implications into its 14-odd impressionistic minutes, including this bumper-sticker point made by one of the interview subjects:
Mitri Raheb: Christianity started here. The only thing that Palestine was able to export so successfully was Christianity… Christianity has actually on the back a stamp saying, “Made in Palestine.”
The correct bumper-sticker – if we’re using Greco-Romanized names (like “Palestine”) – would read “Made in Judea” (Latin: Iudaea), which is what the Roman rulers called the region during the first century of Christianity’s spread. A series of lengthy points could be made on this head, but the bottom line is that no entity called “Palestine” existed at the time of Christ. There is no basis for crediting such a non-existent entity with the spread of Christianity.
I doubt many would begrudge Palestinian Christians their natural pride in being native to the Holy Land. Today’s Palestinian Arabs are descended mostly from peoples who were not indigenous to the Holy Land at the time of Christ or the early spread of Christianity. But the Palestinian Arabs of today are nevertheless thoroughly Levantine in culture and heritage, and can rightly point to the importance of the Middle East in the early spread of Christianity, and the fact that the faith went East and South as well as North and West.
That said, however, there is no entitlement from sympathy or sentiment to rewrite history. In the mishmash of implications from the Simon piece, meanwhile, another is the “false equivalence” idea that Jews and Muslims, between them, are imperiling Christians. Simon interviews an Israeli journalist who offers this perspective:
Ari Shavit, one of Israel’s most respected columnists, believes Christians have become collateral damage.
Ari Shavit: I think this is a land that has seen in the last century a terrible struggle between political Judaism and political Islam in different variations.
Bob Simon: And the Christians are being squeezed in the middle between the Jews and the Muslims?
Ari Shavit: Absolutely.
Unfortunately, this narrow, simplistic formulation comes off as a cynical attempt to pander to a sort of superficial Christian sympathy. We are not invited to examine either proposition – “political Judaism” or “political Islam” – and in fact, in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian Arab dynamic, both characterizations fall apart on examination. It takes little reflection, in any case, to recognize that there is no settled definition to which these expressions apply. They are nothing more than vaguely parallel-sounding proto-ideas, packaged to imply a joint, morally equivalent menace to Christians.
As to whether there is actually such a parallel, the Simon piece tells us nothing. It leaves out entirely such elements as numbers, demographic facts, and policy information. It makes no reference to the fact that in the entire Middle East, there is a single nation whose population of Christians has been increasing, rather than dwindling, and that is Israel. Indeed, Israel’s Christian population grew faster between 1995 and 2008 than the Jewish population, and is up more than 300% from its level in 1948.
Simon also left out the fact that by far the biggest exodus of Christians from Jerusalem and the West Bank occurred during the Jordanian occupation period from 1948 to 1967. In the West Bank, the Christian population declined from 59,160 in 1945 to 42,494 in 1967. In Jerusalem only, the Christian population was nearly 13,000 in 1910. By 1946 it had increased to over 31,000, but by 1967 it was down to under 13,000 again (largely due to Jordanian restrictions on Christian daily life).
Since 1967, the total Christian population in the West Bank as a whole – Judea and Samaria – has increased again to over 51,000 in 2007. (In Gaza the number is between 2,000 and 3,000, and was never high.) This does not mean that Christians haven’t left the Palestinian territories in recent years; some have – mainly in the educated middle class – and Christians undoubtedly endure unequal treatment under the Palestinian Authority, and are sometimes subjected to violent attacks. But the overall trend is upward from the nadir of 1967. As the JCPA study indicates, the drop in the percentage of the Palestinian population represented by Christians is due to the increase in the much larger Muslim population, which has more than doubled from about 1.15 million in 1967 to 3.77 million in 2007.
Are Christians emigrating from the West Bank because of the security wall built by Israel to stop terrorists, and the checkpoints administered for the same reason? The Simon piece doesn’t make that explicit claim – very possibly (given his specious exchange with Israeli ambassador Michael Oren) so that Simon could then say that he never made such a claim. But the parade of images on the topic of Christians in the Holy Land is heavy on checkpoints and the security wall. Clearly, the synoptic video scan of the wall from every window of a Bethlehem apartment is not a rhetorically meaningless artistic choice. The 60 Minutes segment wants us to see the wall and the checkpoints as “the problem” for Palestinian Christians. We are led to draw the seemingly obvious conclusion.
Fact-deficient segments from 60 Minutes are hardly a novelty, but to my eyes, the Bob Simon piece hits an unusual level of tendentious impressionism. One thing Simon did make sure to do, however, was include a reference in his segment to the Kairos** Palestine “Moment of Truth” Document, a manifesto issued in 2009 by Palestinian Christian activists (and signed by supporters from various nations) on their situation in the Palestinian territories.
This choice, in light of the rich and varied history of Christians in the Middle East over the last two millennia, and Simon’s thin and perfunctory depiction of them, is informative. The Kairos document is somewhat Christian in tone, emphasizing forgiveness and restoration, but it contains some problematic passages. The first two (there are a number of them) occur in the letter introducing the manifesto, which is signed by supporters from various nations. In the second paragraph of the letter we find this declaration (emphasis added):
In this historic document, we Palestinian Christians declare that the military occupation of our land is a sin against God and humanity, and that any theology that legitimizes the occupation is far from Christian teachings because true Christian theology is a theology of love and solidarity with the oppressed, a call to justice and equality among peoples.
The third paragraph contains a sentence that can only be off-putting to most American Christians (again, emphasis added):
[The document] seeks to be prophetic in addressing things as they are without equivocation and with boldness, in addition it puts forward ending the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land and all forms of discrimination as the solution that will lead to a just and lasting peace with the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with Al-Quds as its capital.
Appealing to American Christians on this basis is a losing proposition. Regardless of how they feel about the current political situation, most American Christians recognize Jerusalem as the capital of ancient Israel, a Jewish city that was the seat of King David and the site of the First and Second Temples. Jerusalem is the subject of a number of Old Testament prophecies, some of which have yet to be fulfilled, and is therefore an enduring link between the Hebrew people and God.
Whether one agrees with it or not, this belief is a widespread reality. For millions of American Christians, it is anti-Biblical revisionism to give Jerusalem a different name (Jerusalem means “foundation of peace”; “Al-Quds” means “the holy”) and propose to separate it from Israel. But it is also anti-historical revisionism to pretend that Israel and the Jews did not have their signature – transformative – relationship with the city. All generations for the last 3,000 years have known the city as Jerusalem, and considered it important and unique, because of the ancient Hebrews who made their capital there. The Roman emperor Hadrian’s attempt to rename the city “Aelia Capitolina,” following the Bar-Kokhba revolt in the AD 130s, didn’t take – few today are even aware that he made it.
Bob Simon makes no effort to investigate these matters, and certainly makes no explicit case either way. He merely presents individual Palestinian Christians who speak as if the Israelis are interlopers, and whose sentiments, if one digs down, are different from those of American Christians. His segment suggests, without explicitly saying, that a religiously justified animosity toward Israel is to be regarded a “Christian” point of view.
A method used increasingly to foster the impression that support for Israel is without a Christian foundation is to slip into the discussion the idea that Jesus was something other than a Jew. Some Christians are at the forefront of this effort. One of the closest associates of the Kairos Palestine group is Sabeel, a Jerusalem-based Christian foundation promoting the Palestinian Arab cause as defined by the political left. Sabeel and its leaders get a lot of left-wing media coverage in the United States (e.g., here, here, and here). Sabeel describes itself as an “ecumenical liberation theology center,” and offers a frequent forum for theologians to make points like “Jesus was a Palestinian” and a “Jesus was community organizer.” This gambit is given a pass by Sabeel’s Christians supporters in America.
Since it is integral to Christian doctrine that Jesus was a Jew – a descendent of David, subject to the Law of Moses, and heir to the Old Testament’s prophetic promises to the Jews – and that he is, in fact, the Messiah promised to all mankind through the Jews, there is really no room for the alternative notion of Jesus as something else. If Jesus wasn’t a Jew, then he cannot be the Messiah or the foundation stone of the Church, the Body of Christ. Christian belief cannot accommodate this revision and continue in force.
But for many American Christians, “liberation theology” itself sets off alarm bells and points automatically to radical left-wing politics. Most evangelical Christians (as well as conservative Catholics and denominational Protestants) view claims like Sabeel’s not as a form of new and possibly interesting “information,” but as anti-Biblical – and anti-historical – revisionism. There is no doubt that some Christians embrace liberation theology and radical left-wing political ideas, but there is also little support for the idea that this wing of American Christianity is supplanting more traditional evangelicals, or is becoming more influential with Christians as a whole.
This wing is presented by the media, however – in approving tones — as an important social force and voice for Christianity. The New York Times, for example, published an editorial in November 2011 entitled “The New Evangelicals,” which argued that a “sizable portion of evangelicals” had left the political right and embraced a “new kind of Christian social conscience,” identified as the political themes of the left. (See here, here, here, here, and here as well. This Columbia Journalism Review post from 2007, on the other hand, shows some interesting critical research and journalistic self-awareness.)
The NYT editorial relied on soundbites from the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good, along with a rather kindergartenish subtraction exercise, using percentages put together by a Pew Forum study. Regarding the latter, the editorial does a little bait-and-switch, concluding that 24% of the US population – in other words, a set that includes all Christians, such as mainline Protestants and left-wing Catholics, but also includes Jews, Muslims, other beliefs, and atheists – “don’t think of themselves as part of the religious right.”
That could well be an accurate assessment, if a derivative and unproven one, but it’s not information about evangelicals per se. Nor does it strike me as anything new. Mainline Protestants and leftist Catholics – particularly their ecclesiastical leadership; not as much their congregations – have been on the left side of many social and international issues for decades.
The New Evangelical Partnership, meanwhile – whose leader, Richard Cizik, is a fellow of George Soros’ Open Society Institute – has taken the name “evangelical” from the multiple, differing traditions of Christian evangelicalism (useful discussion here), and is not representative of the evangelical congregations and social ideas most Americans associate with the term. Ministries like those of John Hagee, Pat Robertson, Focus on the Family, the Trinity Broadcast Network, and hundreds of non-denominational evangelical churches across America, are what we think of when we imagine evangelical Christians.
That definition does not encompass the evangelical traditions in some of the formal denominations, such as Lutheran, Methodist, Anglican, and Catholic – and the important thing to take away is the real, if inconvenient fact that not all who describe themselves as “evangelical” are representative of each other. The Evangelical Lutheran denomination, for example, is a formal church of longstanding and differs in a number of ways – both doctrinal and explicitly political – from the mass of self-confessed born-again American evangelicals.
Such is the case with the New Evangelical Partnership, which is Protestant and embraces some of the traditions of evangelicalism, but by no means those of the majority of American evangelicals, who tend (see the Pew study above) to be Baptist, members of small, non-Mainline denominations, or simply non-denominational. For simplicity, I will call this latter group “traditionalist evangelicals,” using the term essentially as defined in another 2005 Pew study cited below.
The New Evangelical Partnership (NEP) is a sympathetic group for the MSM, however – along with groups like Evangelicals for Social Action – precisely because of its political views. The NEP made waves in September 2011 with an “Open Letter to America’s Christian Zionists,” in which it took traditionalist evangelicals to task for their support of Israel (emphasis added):
Not to put too fine a point on it, we wish to claim here that the prevailing version of American Christian Zionism—that is, your belief system—underwrites theft of Palestinian land and oppression of Palestinian people, helps create the conditions for an explosion of violence, and pushes US policy in a destructive direction that violates our nation’s commitment to universal human rights. In all of these, American Christian Zionism as it currently stands is sinful and produces sin.
As numerous Jewish and non-religious sites pointed out, the “open letter” appears also to suggest that Israel, along with American Christian Zionists, is calling down God’s wrath on her head, perhaps in the form of a nuclear attack by Iran. It is worth presenting the entire passage to convey the flavor of this warning, with its evocation of old, hackneyed themes in the West about the Jewish people uniquely bringing destruction on themselves (emphasis added; some spelling corrected):
We are not Old Testament prophets, nor do we pretend to see the future. But we have seen enough to claim that the occupation practices of the modern state of Israel are a direct violation of the most basic biblical moral principles. It is immoral to steal anything, including people’s land, homes, and vineyards. It is immoral to dehumanize people, as occurs daily at Israeli checkpoints. It is immoral to choke people’s freedom and deprive them of their dignity. And it is foolish, a violation of every lesson of history, to think that through sheer intimidation and superior military power a people can be subjugated indefinitely without rising up in resistance or attracting more powerful allies who will do so on their behalf. God gave humanity a recognition of justice and a nearly endless capacity to resist injustice. It is wired into our nature, and the Palestinian people and the neighboring countries have it just like everyone else does.
We genuinely fear that someday someone or some nation inflamed with resentment at the seemingly eternal Israeli subjugation of the Palestinian people will “make your land desolate so no one can live in it” (Jeremiah 6:8). That sounds like a nuclear bomb. Have you heard of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? While in the Middle East we heard from Palestinian leaders a current commitment to pursue their cause nonviolently. We applaud that commitment. We see it as an extraordinary one under the circumstances. We fear that it cannot last forever, for no people will allow itself to be ground into the dust indefinitely. What are you doing to end their suffering and bring justice to them?
We will leave it to God to sort out with the Jewish people of the modern state of Israel the very complex terms of his covenant with them. But we cannot remain silent about the vast array of American Christians who support the most repressive and unjust Israeli policies in the name of Holy Land and a Holy God. We charge that you bear grave responsibility for aiding and abetting obvious sin, and if Israel once again sees war, we suggest that you will bear part of the responsibility. Christians are called to be peacemakers (Matthew 5:9), but by offering uncritical support of current Israeli policies you are actively inflaming the Middle East toward war—in the name of God. This is appalling; it is intolerable; it must stop!
As Elder of Ziyon notes, the letter goes to great lengths to dilute the connection of the Jewish people with Israel, and undermine the idea of Israel as an inheritance from God, while leaving out a great deal of relevant material from the Old Testament. This is a valuable investigation, since we are talking here about Christian exhortation.
The promises associated with Israel are integral to the Christian understanding of God, and if they are dismissed or rejected, there can be no remaining, distinctively Christian message. If one does not believe that God made specific, accountable promises to the Jews – including promises about Israel and Jerusalem – and does not believe that Jesus, in his death and resurrection, was the fulfillment of the greatest of those immutable promises, then the original and age-old meaning of “Christianity” evaporates. There is no particular point in Jesus in that case; he is just another famous religious leader, better known and more widely followed than most.
This is definitely a different view of Christianity from that held by a majority of American Christians, and different as well from the doctrinal statements of all the world’s major denominations. Rasmussen does an annual poll at Easter in which it asks respondents to state things like whether they believe Jesus is the son of God and whether they believe he rose from the dead, and in the last three years, 77-78% of Americans polled believed these things (see here, here, and here). This could not be the case without the context of the Old Testament account of God’s dealings with, and prophetic legacy to, the Jews, which prophesied and foreshadowed the supernatural characteristics of the Messiah’s existence and purpose.
That traditionalist evangelicals are, in general, unpersuaded by NEP’s and other similar views – as indeed are many in other Christian groupings – is evident in the trends of polling and study data. In December 2011, blogger Rachel Alexander did a useful comparison of the beliefs registered by evangelical leaders and those of America’s general evangelical Christian population, and came up with a series of disparities. Leaders tended to evince a greater percentage of revisionist or left-wing views, while their congregations differed significantly, embracing those views to a dramatically lower extent. (Note: the percentage of respondents holding left-wing views was higher among the leaders, but as Alexander’s links show, there was still a healthy percentage of leaders with the views more traditionally associated with American evangelicals.)
The MSM likes to present the views of left-leaning leaders as a growing trend, and to quote such leaders suggesting that the ideas they prefer are the “real” Christianity. But ultimately, this hoped-for shift is not one the MSM has the power to broker or bridge.
The depth and breadth of Christian support for Israel in America
If traditionalist evangelicals went by common media themes, they might think their numbers were being outstripped in the rate of growth by left-wing evangelicals. But as regards support for Israel, as well as conservative views on social issues (and general affinity with the right), the evidence of this is more overhyped than real. In terms of general political affinities, for example, exit polling during the 2010 election showed 77% of white evangelical poll respondents voting Republican – an overwhelming majority, and one that had risen since 2004.
Regarding Israel, traditionalist evangelicals remain the Christian group most overwhelmingly supportive of the existence and security of the Jewish state. In this, they are more like their fellow Americans in general than like members of the evangelical (or general Christian) left. In 2005, a Pew study found that 52% of all evangelicals supported Israel when asked to contrast their support for Israel versus the Palestinians, and of that number, 64% of “traditionalist evangelicals” – the largest evangelical subgroup – supported Israel.
A poll taken in late 2011 showed general US population support for Israel to be where it has been in for decades, in the 60-percent range. Looking back at the 2005 Pew study, meanwhile, 63% of white evangelicals (and 51% of black evangelicals) believe the modern state of Israel is a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. The study also indicated that 55% of white evangelicals considered their views on the Middle East influenced by religious beliefs.
A 2008 poll found that 82% of all American Christians – both Protestant and Catholic – believe they have a moral obligation to support the Jews and Israel. In a survey of Americans done in early 2011, Wenzel Strategies found that 80% of born-again Christians disagree that Israel is an “aggressor nation”; 71% believe the US should be “very concerned” about Israel’s national security; and 66% say the US will be judged by God according to how we treat Israel.
The news remains good for Israel supporters when the growing evangelical-Latino demographic is considered. A Pew study in 2007 found that 62% of Latino evangelicals in the US support Israel, a percentage almost identical to that of traditionalist evangelicals overall. Younger Christians in general are also pro-Israel. In March, Forbes contributor Stephen Richter pointed out that among all young (under-35) Americans, the majority support for Israel is driven by the overwhelming support of younger Christians.
These sentiments are not a record of the past but the beliefs of today among traditionalist evangelicals, as well as among many American Christians of other denominations. John Hagee’s organization Christians United for Israel (CUFI), founded in 2006 with less than 10,000 members, now reports having 950,000, of whom the majority are evangelical Christians. (Jennifer Rubin reported yesterday that in the first 24 hours after the 60 Minutes segment aired, CUFI members sent more than 29,000 complaining emails to CBS.) But CUFI is merely the largest of dozens of American Christian organizations dedicated to supporting and engaging with Israel, from the evangelical Friends of Israel and Christian Friends of Israel USA to Catholics for Israel, Anglican Friends of Israel, Methodist Friends of Israel, and tattooed Texas Pentecostal bikers roaring up to the Western Wall on their Harleys to show their solidarity with the Jews.
The MSM and left-wing media sites may seek to magnify the importance of the evangelical left and its sentiments about Israel, but for most American Christians, the posture of the evangelical left is not a representative reality. Recent studies confirm that the traditional commitment of American evangelicals to Israel is thriving, and that in most denominations there is a robust element not only supporting Israel, but rejecting the anti-Israel policies pursued by some of the church leadership (e.g., in the Methodist and Presbyterian churches).
Media Matters: Born to oppose “Christian bias” in the media
There is another dimension where the media intersect with Christians and Israel, and although I don’t assess that it has direct relevance to the Bob Simon segment, it is clearly a related phenomenon, and one requiring examination in the overall context.
Earlier this month, author M.J. Rosenberg, a fellow at the leftist watchdog organization Media Matters, was forced to resign his position after – among other things – repeatedly accusing American Jews who support Israel of being “Israel-firsters,” a dual-loyalties allegation popular with the Nazi leadership of Hitler’s Germany.
Rosenberg isn’t the only Media Matters fellow with an anti-Semitism problem. Eric Boehlert is another. Media Matters and the Center for American Progress (CAP) came in last year for criticism from the Simon Wiesenthal Center for their bloggers’ often vitriolic lapses into the language of anti-Semitism. (As RedState and American Thinker, respectively, note, Media Matters and CAP share fund-raising operations and receive funding from George Soros.) Around the same time, former AIPAC spokesman and Clinton-administration official – not a conservative Republican – Josh Block took Media Matters and CAP to task for their bloggers’ anti-Semitic expressions, and was promptly “expelled” from the Truman National Security Project for trying to suppress “open debate” through intimidation and “character attacks.”
As Michelle Malkin highlighted in February, meanwhile, Media Matters and CAP have for some time had a standing weekly appointment in the White House. (Michelle’s centerpiece is the original Daily Caller article on the topic, but her additional links are worth reviewing as well.)
This context of rabid anti-Semitism and regular White House access sets the stage for a revelation from CBN reporter Erick Stakelbeck this past weekend that Media Matters’ charter document indicates an anti-Christian bias. In its Form 1023 application for non-profit status, Media Matters made this statement in the section on organizational description (the passage is edited by CBN):
Media Matters for America (MMA) believes that news reporting and analysis by the American Media…has become biased. … It is common for news and commentary by the press to present viewpoints that tend to overly promote…a conservative, Christian-influenced ideology.
Notably, Daily Caller reporter Vince Coglianese tells Stakelbeck that the public mission statement at the Media Matters website omits this motivational reference – perhaps for fear of alienating a notoriously Christian public, much of which would consider the charge that the American media have a Christian bias to be the most ridiculous thing they have ever heard.
Traditionalist evangelicals will not be surprised that an organization dedicated to opposing “Christian bias” in the media has also been called out repeatedly for anti-Semitism. That there is a unified “theory of themage” working itself out through at least some left-leaning media organizations is increasingly evident.
It is important not to tar all left-wing media with the same brush; some do a commendable job of seeking balance, fairness, and decorum in their coverage of Christians, Jews, and Israel. Honest disagreement, expressed vigorously and explicitly, is clearly legitimate.
But the emerging pattern of media outlets in the US simply repeating ideas formed from revisionist “liberation theology” and revisionist “history” is a dangerous one. The rote repetition of Palestinian activists’ themes is a case in point. Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor (quoted at the Jennifer Rubin link) characterized the Bob Simon piece in just such terms:
The 60 Minutes segment uncritically adopted the standard Palestinian narrative of suffering and victimhood promoted by church-based NGOs that work closely with the Palestinian political leadership. … Bob Simon’s segment simply repeated … immoral positions without any independent analysis.
The American public is already wary and suspicious of the MSM, and that includes many Christians and supporters of Israel. With the Bob Simon segment on Sunday, 60 Minutes has placed itself in the category of media outlets retailing impressionistic themage that misrepresents both Christianity and Israel. The Simon piece, justly called by critics a “hatchet job” on Israel, could have been put together by Sabeel itself, and might as well have been.
This is perilous territory for CBS. If the network cannot distinguish its themes from those of Palestinian activists, its distinction from a fringe “attack” organization like Media Matters – and from other avowedly partisan media outlets – will grow fatally fuzzy. The evidence of a particular kind of unified themage – one that misrepresents Christianity and seeks to undermine Israel – is out there, hovering over the infosphere. The ones who need to check six are the mainstream media.
* Yes, a neologism I created for this piece.
** In Christian theology, the Greek term “kairos” refers to a time of crisis or precipitation: “the appointed time in the purpose of God” when something of eschatological significance happens, requiring a response from man (such as the birth of Jesus Christ). Christian groups from all backgrounds and creeds invoke the concept of kairos and use it in their organization names.