The NY Times Shrinks the Apartheid Barrier

What is this wall where Pope Francis is praying in the iconic image of his visit to the Holy Land? The New York Times has an answer for you: It is “a contentious concrete barrier separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem.” Just one issue in a quarrel between neighbors, in other words.

The Times comes up with this description in a caption for its front-page print edition photo of the pope, an image seen around the world and impossible for the paper to ignore. Since there is no way to avoid dealing with it, the Times chooses another tactic: It shrinks the notorious barrier down to something trifling.

In the accompanying article, “Pope, In Mideast, Invites Leaders To Meet on Peace,” the same description of a barrier between two cities is repeated high in the story. Readers have to work halfway through the text before they learn that the wall “snakes along and through the West Bank.”

But even this expanded version is an understatement. When completed, the wall is expected to extend for some 700 kilometers (about 435 miles), twice the length of the Green Line, which is the boundary between the West Bank and Israel. It accomplishes this feat by turning and twisting well inside the border, eating up many miles of Palestinian territory.

A security fence would lie on the frontier between two entities, but that is not the case here. Eighty-five percent of the barrier is on Palestinian land, a fact that clearly shows it is not built to keep trouble out, as Israel maintains, but as a way to confiscate more land and water.

The Times would rather not go into these facts. Thus it passes quickly over the wall and the significance of the pope’s prayer there, and the article fails to mention the inconvenient truth that the International Court of Justice found the barrier to be illegal in a 2004 advisory opinion and that Israel has ignored this finding.

Likewise, the Times article says that Pope Francis prayed near a site where someone had spray painted, “Pope, we need some 1 to speak for justice.” There were other graffiti inches from where the pontiff rested his head. One of them said, “Bethlehem look (sic) like Warsaw Ghetto,” but it seems the Times would rather avoid this statement, which underscores the anguish of life behind barriers, checkpoints and sniper towers.

The wall where the pope prayed is the same barrier that appears in the Oscar nominated film, Five Broken Cameras. That film documents weekly nonviolent protests by the residents of Bil’in, a farming village, which has lost hundreds of acres of agricultural land to the wall.

There in Bil’in and throughout the West Bank countryside, the barrier takes the form of an electronic fence flanked by pathways, barbed wire and trenches. It averages 60 meters in width. On the Israeli-controlled side lies some of the most fertile land in Palestine and most of the illegal Israeli colonies.

Within Bethlehem, Jerusalem and other cities, this barrier is a concrete monstrosity rising six to eight meters high. But wherever it appears, in cities and rural areas, it cuts off neighbor from neighbor, patients from hospitals, students and teachers from schools and relatives from other family members.

The Israeli human rights group B’Tselem has declared that Israeli officials “almost entirely disregarded the [barrier’s] severe infringement of Palestinian human rights” in building the structure. The route, B’Tselem says, is “completely unrelated to the security of Israeli citizens,” and “a major aim in planning the route was de facto annexation of part of the West Bank.”

B’Tselem has it right, and any casual visitor can see the truth of their claims. The wall is an abomination and a potent symbol of repression. It has scarred the landscape and caused untold misery to Palestinians. No wonder the Times prefers to shrink it down to a trivial fence, to dismiss it as “contentious” and avoid the hard reality of Israel’s shame.

Barbara Erickson

Hate Crimes in Israel? It’s Not Just the Crazies

Some extremists out there may make things tough during the pope’s visit to the Holy Land this weekend, The New York Times tells us, but Israel is getting those folks out of the way. No problem. That should take care of that “recent spate of hate crimes” against Christians in East Jerusalem.

This is what readers will take away from a front-page story about the pope’s itinerary and reactions to his visit. The article gives no hint that the problem is more severe than that and more entrenched. While Jodi Rudoren and Isabel Kershner acknowledge some “protests by religious Jews” and “right-wing Jewish activists,” they say nothing about Israel’s institutionalized discrimination against Christians (and other non-Jews).

Only weeks ago, Israeli police blocked thousands of worshippers from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter, drawing outrage from the UN peace talk envoy Robert Serry. Last week the police asked a Jerusalem church to remove a poster welcoming the pope. And agencies, including the U.S. State Department, have documented Israeli government discrimination against Christian clergy and worshippers.

The Times may ignore these facts, but Israeli media have highlighted the issue. There is 972 Magazine, which this spring ran a photo spread of Israeli police at work, harassing and obstructing Christians as they tried to worship at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter weekend.

The photos show Orthodox nuns trapped behind a barrier, police shoving worshippers who have managed to get inside the church, officers blocking the entrance to the church and other police allowing a Jewish man to pass through their cordon as Christians are made to wait.

A U.S. State Department report of 2011 also notes that Christian religious workers are “unable to secure residency or work permits,” that Arab Christian clergy, including bishops, are not allowed to visit congregations in Gaza, and that the Separation Wall has prevented Christians in Jerusalem and Bethlehem from visiting holy sites.

Although Kershner and Rudoren mention a “recent spate” of hate crimes, these attacks are not a new phenomenon brought on by the pope’s planned visit.  Since 2010, more than 30 Palestinian religious buildings (churches, monasteries and mosques) have been vandalized with threatening racist graffiti or damaged in arson attacks.

Over the past year, there have been 14 reported attacks against Catholic Church property, and in October Israel demolished church-owned property in East Jerusalem displacing 14 residents without warning.

All this is significant context for the visit of Pope Francis, but it is missing from the Times, along with data about the Christian presence in the Holy Land. That population, once making up some 20 percent of the Palestinian residents, is now down to 2 percent. Many Christians are leaving, and they are abandoning their homeland because of Israeli policies: the wall strangling Bethlehem, the confiscation of land, the crushing economic effect of the occupation and the open hostility of police and settlers.

The pope’s visit provides an opportunity to inform readers, but so far the Times has avoided the hard facts of Israel’s harsh treatment of Christians and other non-Jews. It is not enough to shake a finger at extremists and fanatics; good journalism requires a look at official, state-sponsored discrimination.

Barbara Erickson