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March 21, 2014 9:17 am

Stop Lying About Israel and Bethlehem

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avatar by Dexter Van Zile


Last week, approximately 600 Christians descended on Bethlehem to attend the 2014 Christ at the Checkpoint Conference organized by Bethlehem Bible College. The organizers and presenters of this conference say that they want to promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians, but they just cannot stop themselves from engaging in an ugly propaganda war against the Jewish state.

In other words, they cannot refrain from lying about Israel, repeatedly and shamelessly.

Three times during the conference, attendees were told that Israel has constructed a security barrier that completely surrounds the city of Bethlehem. Two people called it a wall and a third described it as a wall and fences.

No matter how they describe it, the security barrier, which was constructed to stop terrorists from crossing from the West Bank into Israel, does not surround the city. Even the map of the West Bank provided in the program for Christ at the Checkpoint shows this. The eastern and southern sections of the city are not confined by a wall.

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Nevertheless, on the first night of the conference, Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun said the city is “surrounded with a wall.” I was in the audience when she said this and there were Palestinian Christians sitting next to me who didn’t bat an eye after hearing this lie.

This was not an honest mistake. Baboun is the mayor of the city, for heaven’s sake. We all know politicians lie, but this is a bit much.

Mayor, will you please stop lying?

Then, in a short film shown to the audience on the first full day of the conference, March 11, Qustandi Shomali, a professor at Bethlehem University, said “Bethlehem is surrounded by a wall and the Bethlehem population cannot reach very easily other areas in the West Bank.”

Again, I was in the audience when this film was shown and no one in the audience voiced a word of objection. Not one word. And again, this was not an honest mistake, for Shomali lives in nearby Beit Sahour. He knows that Bethlehem is not surrounded by a wall.

Professor, will you please stop lying?

And then on Friday, March 14, the last day of the conference, Sami Awad, executive director of Holy Land Trust, a Palestinian non-profit, appeared in a short film in which he claimed that “Today, Bethlehem is a city that is completely surrounded by walls and fences. The wall completely engulfs the city.”

I was not in the room when the film was shown, but it is on Youtube, right here. It goes without saying, (but has to be said), this was not an honest mistake. Holy Land Trust is headquartered in Bethlehem. Awad works in the city. He knows the route of the barrier.

Sami, will you please stop lying?

Probably not. This is not the first time Awad has uttered this falsehood. He said it to an audience of Christians in Galveston, Texas, in 2009. He was called out on it in a piece published on CAMERA’s website in 2012. And yet he said it again two years later. Did he expect not to get caught?

The upshot is this: Three different people offered the same lie to an audience comprised mostly of Evangelical Protestants from the United States and Europe. They told people that the city in which they were currently staying was surrounded by a security barrier, when in fact it isn’t.

This lie has been repeated so many times it is astounding.

Sami Awad’s father, Bishara, offered repeated this lie in a fundraising video produced in 2007 or 2008.

It was repeated by 60 Minutes reporter Bob Simon in a notoriously dishonest segment that aired in 2012. The show hasn’t corrected.

It was repeated by Simon’s boss, CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager at a talk he gave at St. Mark’s Church in New Canaan, Connecticut, one year later. Fager said he would “look into” the issue, but like I said, the show hasn’t corrected.

This lie was offered by former Lutheran Bishop Margaret Payne on a radio show in 2009. She refused to retract.

And in 2013, after the lie was debunked numerous times, Gary Burge offered his own version of this lie in the “new and revised” edition of his error-laden book, Whose Land? Whose Promise?

This lie, as easily exposed as it is, is unbelievably resilient. It has been repeatedly debunked. And yet people keep repeating it or refuse to retract it even after they’ve been given overwhelming evidence that what they’ve said is not true.

And people have seen others called out on the lie, and yet they repeat it themselves.

Why? Why not invoke Qalqilya – a place in the West Bank where numerous suicide attacks were launched from? For people indifferent to Qalqilya’s history as a source of terror attacks during the Second Intifada (like many of the folks at Christ at the Checkpoint), images of this city would be very compelling. Why lie about Bethlehem?

Simple. The lie that the Israelis have built a wall that completely surrounds Bethlehem confirms people’s theological understanding of Jew as enemies of God and of humanity itself. People want proof for this belief and this lie gives it to them, the facts be damned.

Bethlehem, you see, is the city of Jesus’ birth. And in the Christian world view, when Israel strangles the city of Bethlehem with a wall, it is akin to constricting God Himself.

This was the message offered by Bob Simon in the 60 Minutes segment that aired in 2012. Simon said “The wall completely surrounds Bethlehem, turning the little town where Christ was born into what its residents call an open air prison.”

It’s no mistake that speakers at the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference kept reminding attendees that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, just a few minutes from the hotel where the confab was being held.

And it’s no mistake that other speakers kept telling the Christians in the audience that Israel had built a wall around this city.

It’s a simple lie, but not an innocuous one. It’s part of a hateful message. When coupled with scripture and theology, this lie offers a very evil message about the Jewish people and their homeland. People who repeat this lie, as so many people have, are not merely purveyors of misinformation.

They are broadcasters of hate.

They should be ashamed of themselves.

Dexter Van Zile (@dextervanzile) is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (@cameraorg). He attended the Christ at the Checkpoint Conference that took place in Bethlehem on March 10-14, 2014.

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