Those who listened to part one of John Laurenson’s ‘Heart and Soul’ programme titled ‘Christians in the Holy Land’ on the BBC World Service probably did not have very high expectations regarding the accuracy and impartiality of its second and final part - titled “Newcomers” – which was initially broadcast on May 24th.
Even the synopsis on the programme’s webpage manages to inaccurately rename the Tel Aviv neighbourhood Neve Sha’anan.
“The suburb of Neve Shanon is tucked away in the Israeli capital Tel Aviv, out of sight of the large houses where most of the residents work as domestic staff. The people are a multicultural mix of Africans, south-east Asians and South Americans – and represent the new wave of Christians that have made their home in the heart of the Jewish state.
To mark Pope Francis’s visit to the Holy Land, John Laurenson travelled to the Israeli capital to find out more about these migrants. These newcomers are living in Neve Shanon and are worshipping in the improvised churches of this dilapidated area.” [emphasis added]
Laurenson begins his programme with a group of Indian Catholics on the Mount of Olives and his first identified interviewee is an Indian priest.
“I am Father Turji Jos [phonetic] from India. We have around six thousand Indian Catholics who are working as caregivers. The working conditions are hard and difficult. The caregivers – they are elderly people they have to look after and some of them are very sick, mentally not sound, very hefty people like 130 kgs and all people like that. They can’t be able to lift…”
TJ: “So such cases it is difficult. So some of the employers are very rude and they don’t even give food for these employees and…”
JL: “Don’t give them food?”
TJ: “Food to eat. Sometimes very….”
JL: “But they pay them?”
TJ: “They pay just the minimum what is required by the government. Then sometimes they don’t…very minimum they give for eating.”
No concrete evidence is provided to back up the priest’s allegation that an unspecified number of “very rude” Israeli employers do not provide sufficient food for an unspecified number of employees – and yet the BBC saw fit to broadcast that smear. Laurenson makes no attempt to check whether employers are in fact actually required to feed employees or to inform listeners that legal migrant workers are protected under Israeli law, that the terms of their working conditions are clearly specified and that any complaints about their working conditions can and should be referred to the relevant authorities.
Laurenson goes on:
“Does it help, their religion, do you think? I mean Jesus was a carer.”
TJ: “Yeah, I think the spiritual services, attending the spiritual activities enable them to [unintelligible] all sort of things and hardships and also like they are doing it as a mission or ministry; caring for the abandoned nobody [unintelligible] look after.”
JL: “No family.”
TJ: “No families, yes.”
Of course beyond the motivations the priest suggests exists a major factor of which neither he nor Laurenson apparently sees the need to inform listeners. Unskilled migrant workers from SE Asia are paid at considerably higher rates in Israel than they would be in their home countries and that is a major motivation for their choosing to work there.
Without clarifying who “they” are, Laurenson then asks:
“Do you think that you have your place here in a country they often call the Jewish state?”
TJ: “We believe that we have a place because place of Jesus and also for us is giving a testimony. The Indian Catholics’ activities are more prominent than the local Catholics here. We gather in large numbers and really make an impressive presence in this Holy Land.”
JL: “You’ve got a big smile when you say this. You think this is a good thing to do then? You think that you should show yourselves, yes?”
TJ: “Yes, yes. Ahm..yes because many people in the world think there are no more Christians in the Holy Land and we have come from another to land and making our presence here in the Holy Land – a Christian presence – is something wonderful, I believe.”
JL: “Do you ever experience any sort of rejection or hostility or suspicion?”
TJ: “This hostility from the ultra-Orthodox groups when we go on the streets with our religious garments. They spit on the road and they shout at us.”
JL: “This doesn’t happen every time says Father Turji, but it happens.”
Laurenson’s next named interviewee is then introduced.
“David Neuhaus – an Israeli Jew who converted to Christianity – is the Catholic Patriarchal vicar responsible for these new Catholic communities in Israel. He says the arrival of Christians like these women has led to a doubling of Israel’s Christian population over the last 15 to 20 years.”
DN: “In the Holy Land we have 160,000 Christian citizens of Israel. 160,000. 75% of them are Palestinian Arabs, OK? The other quarter of Christians are coming from the countries of Eastern Europe, particularly the ex-Soviet Union. And then we have this huge population – we’re not sure how many – but probably up to 150,000 migrants. And again, these migrants are coming from Asia and Africa and opening up new paths of dialogue with the Jewish people because Jews identify Christians in this kind of collective Jewish memory as European white people. And so when they enter into contact with black, brown and yellow people who are Christians, that also helps to change the idea of what Christianity is. And by the way these African and Asian Christians often have very little perception of the dynamic of Jewish-Christian relations over the centuries and the trauma that has been involved for Jews, so that they too, they come in – and this is very important to underline – particularly the Asian Christians – come in as loving hands. Because they come in as care-givers. Our rich people don’t take care of their old people any more. Nor of their sick people, nor of their handicapped and the Asians are bringing in to do particularly that work and very often do it with an incredible dedication.”
Neuhaus’ simplistic, over-generalised and distinctly uncharitable portrayal of Israeli society conceals from listeners the fact that not all families who find themselves obliged to take on the services of care-givers are “rich” by any stretch of the imagination and that the permit to employ a foreign care-giver is granted according to professional assessment of the patient’s needs – not the family’s bank account. Notably, Laurenson made no effort to bring the voices of families who employ such care-givers to BBC audiences.
Laurenson then visits a church in Neve Sha’anan in Tel Aviv and listeners hear his interviewee Lourdes Evangelista.
“…so I find employer. She is a Alzheimer woman. She’s very good woman. […] and in my room I have an altar. I put the picture of Jesus Christ and she see that I am reading the Bible and praying. She’s not asking me what are you doing. But the problem – they have a grandchildren is a religious, so when I’m coming in my – in the flat – they see my room. They asking me what is this, like that, I said this is Jesus Christ because I’m a Christian. No, no, no; I don’t like that. No choice. So I hide the picture and the cross but I’m still continuing to read the Bible and I say Lord I’m sorry but you know what doing and you know what is in my heart.”
Apparently it is difficult for both Laurenson and his interviewee to conceive that the placing of Christian ornaments and symbols in their family home might be offensive to some non-Christians. Laurenson then goes out of his way to find interviewees from a section of Israeli society representing no more than 10% of the whole who will confirm his touted theme of Israeli hostility towards Christians.
JL: “So I’ve come along to Shabbat Square which is one of the more Orthodox parts of Jerusalem and we’ve found ourselves right in the middle of a demonstration against the extension of the draft to Orthodox Jews. […] We’re thinking that if there is a part of the Israeli population that is concerned about the quite rapid rise of the Christian population of this country, it’ll be in this more religious element of Israeli society.”
Laurenson seems surprised to find that some people are not keen to talk to him and equally amazed that other Israelis speak Hebrew. But eventually, of course, he finds what he was looking for in order to ‘prove’ his point.
JL: “But what I met with was an extraordinary amount of this…”
Man: “To be honest with you I don’t talk to…”
JL: “And a lot of this…”
Man 2: “I’d rather not tell you with a microphone.”
JL: “Though usually the refusals to speak were in Hebrew. As for the few who didn’t mind talking to us…”
Man 3: “It’s all in the Shem’s hands; in God’s hands. This is the home of the Jewish people so, it’ll always be our home and it doesn’t mean that other people can’t live here and there certainly are a lot of people that live here but this is the Jewish homeland.”
Displaying incredible ignorance regarding the diverse religious and ethnic make-up of Israel’s population since the first day of its founding, Laurenson asks:
JL: “You’d be fine with Israel being a sort of multi-religious country really – which is what it is becoming?”
Man 3: “Yeah, I mean why not? I mean it’s…people are welcome to live here and I don’t see a problem with that at all.”
JL: “And a couple said this…”
Man 4: “It’s an awful thing the rise in the number of Christians here because it will cause assimilation. If Jews marry Christians they risk disappearing. And this doesn’t apply only to Israel – to everywhere in the world as Jews are a minority.”
Sharp-eared Hebrew speakers may be able to hear snippets of the man’s actual words which might cause them to question the accuracy of the translated voice-over.
Man 5: “It’s very sad. It’s worse than Islam. Their people might be blowing themselves up but this is a quiet war that’s taking place. Legal measures should be used to stop things going too far because this is a threat to the Jewish identity of the State of Israel.”
Laurenson then moves onto another named interviewee – Hana Bendcowsky.
HB: “I think since Israel was established as a shelter for Jewish people the fear and the worry that the demographics would be different than they are now or they used to be – that the Jews would become a minority here – that’s a fear that the authorities have, that many of the people have.”
JL: “At her office in Jerusalem I meet Hana Bendcowsky – programme director of the Centre for Jewish-Christian relations – who tells me about many Israelis’ perceptions of Christians that started out negative and are getting more so.”
HB: “These are the memories of the past that accompany every Israeli Jew although many of us are third and fourth generation in Israel. The fear of Christians, the persecution of the Jews is being taught in school. It’s even being used – or I would say abused – in politics. When the Jews were kicked out of England in 1291 or when they were expelled from Spain in 1492, or they were persecuted in different places and the hatred and the antisemitism and – the final stage – the Holocaust, which is also seen as part of the Jewish-Christian tension.”
JL: “That’s a big leap, obviously. I mean talking about the Holocaust as a Christian phenomenon (laughs).”
HB: “Obviously, obviously, but that’s how Jews see that. They see it as another step; Crusaders, persecution, expulsion and then the Holocaust. For Israelis and for Jews today it’s part of the same story. Now, for the first generation who came to Israel who had very strong relations with Christians or people who lived among Christians, for them Christian is a person. For the young generation in Israel who grew up here, who learned in history classes only about persecution, expulsion and of course the Holocaust, why would he have a positive opinion about Christianity? How could he develop a positive opinion about Christianity? Even the fact that we actually live in a Western culture and we consume Western culture – Western television, art – which is all Christian – we kind of forget that and keep focusing on the negative parts of the history.”
JL: “You think Christians here really should be more sensitive towards..yeah…Jewish sensitivities regarding Christian symbols?”
HB: “I don’t expect the minorities to make such an effort for the majority. I think first of all it’s our responsibility as Jews, as the majority here to educate ourself and to help the minorities to understand us. So I expect us to help them to understand the background that we come from and I think I also try to educate myself and I want to educate others, not to forget or to forgive if you don’t want to, but to put the history behind and to move forward. If the cross was a symbol of conflict, of persecution, now we’re in a different situation. We are having our own state. We’re the majority here. We have army, we have security forces, we are secure here. So it’s about time to relate to the cross as a symbol of two billion people in the world; a symbol of their faith – not a symbol of our persecution because it’s not relevant.”
Judging from the amount of programme time Laurenson devotes to airing Bendcowsky’s ‘progressive’ opinions, it appears that he too leans towards the opinion that Jews are far too stuck in the past. Notably, he makes no effort at this point or throughout his entire report to introduce his listeners to topics such as contemporary Christian proselytism in Israel or the part played by various churches and church-related bodies – including some of those which partner and donate to Ms Bendcowsky’s organization, such as Trocaire – in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement which aims to delegitimize the one Jewish state into extinction.
Echoing Bendcowsky’s “not relevant” diagnosis, Laurenson continues:
“What is, on the other hand, pressingly relevant is the suffering of people that have come to Israel’s door. We’re going to meet the asylum seekers.”
Returning to Neve Sha’anan, Laurenson interviews a man he dubs Sumari Abraham [phonetic] – an illegal migrant from Eritrea. He tells audiences of Sumari’s prowess as a runner and then facilitates the telling of a very dubious story.
JL: “When I met him he was about to attend a Passover dinner organized by some Israeli friends, but he was no more able to follow his dream [to become a runner] here than he was at home. To do that, he says, he would have had to convert.”
SA: “There is one law here in Israel. If you are not a Jew you cannot participate in outside races like Olympics and also World Championships like that. Very hard for me. I had a team here in Israel also. I made medical check; everything was right. They told me you have to sign for the Rav [Rabbi]. Rav means like a priest of the Jews. I don’t have a Rav. I am Christian so my boss he told me, my coach, if you are not a Jew you don’t have any chance to competing in competitions; things like World Championship.”
JL: “But the problem is more, isn’t it, that you don’t have Israeli nationality? You can’t be in the Israeli team if you’re not Israeli?”
SA: “Yeah, I think this and I am not a Jew also. They say it’s the Jew state and a Jew country. If you are not a Jew here you are nothing.”
Laurenson clearly understands the real reason that his interviewee cannot compete as a member of a team representing Israel and, had he done the research, he would also know that Israelis of all colours, creeds and ethnicities represent their country at sporting and other international events. Nevertheless, he elected to include and amplify these inaccurate and deliberately misleading claims in this programme.
DN: “Since 2007 until now we have had two Eritreans recognized as refugees. The parallel in Europe is around 70% of the Eritreans who are coming into Europe are recognized as refugees, of course with differences from country to country.”
JL: “Why is the percentage so low here?”
Promoting once again the theme of “rich” Israelis, Neuhaus is permitted by Laurenson to erase from listener consciousness the fact that Israel is a country which took in around a million refugees from post-war Europe, around three-quarters of a million refugees from Arab and Muslim countries, about million refugees from the former USSR and non-Jewish refugees from Vietnam, the former Yugoslavia and Lebanon to name but some.
DN: “Because in Israel there is a policy not to take on refugees. Israel was created as a Jewish state and any Jew can come – refugee or not – but there is little awareness that we are also a rich society and therefore have responsibilities – ethical responsibilities – towards a world population and particularly those that have found their way here. And I want to add what we are facing now with opposition for laws that are termed infiltration laws where a whole population is being criminalised for seeking refuge in Israel. They are being called infiltrators. The infiltrators in the 1960s were those that came in to commit acts of sabotage – Palestinians – so calling them infiltrators raises the anxiety level. Instead of looking at these people and deciding some of them are bona fide refugees and we need to take on that responsibility, not only because we signed on to international conventions but also because of the history of the Jewish people in this country . And what is now the added unfairness is that those that have been here the longest time – in particular single men who have somehow found their feet here, have found jobs as difficult as that is and have somehow integrated into the environment, are now being rounded up and sent to a camp in the Negev desert where they can be held for a long period of time, where there is nothing to do and again it seems that the authorities have made a decision they want this population out of here and they’re making life really unbearable.”
Laurenson’s programme is twenty-six and a half minutes long. Less than one minute of that time is afforded to the Israeli view of the points and claims raised in the rest of the programme and even that is paraphrased by Laurenson himself.
JL: “I got on the phone to the Foreign Ministry about Father David’s claims and this is what spokesman Paul Hirschson had to say. It’s true that few illegal migrants obtain refugee status but few actually apply, he told me, perhaps because they know that – unlike many countries – Israel applies a policy of no forced repatriation to Eritrea, Sudan or Somalia. As part of its new infiltrators law, a physical barrier has been built along much of the border with Egypt that has radically reduced illegal immigration and Israel is building detention centres similar to those operated in the Netherlands and Britain, he says. Illegal migrants may be held in these facilities for up to a year. The idea is to prevent them working and therefore lower the incentive for coming here. If we didn’t have those restrictions, the spokesman said, illegal immigrants wouldn’t come to Israel in their thousands, but in their millions. At some point Israel would collapse under the weight of numbers.”
Laurenson continues by briefly acknowledging one important point:
“The doubling of Israel’s Christian population – while across the Middle East their numbers have fallen dramatically – is proof that in Israel there is a degree of freedom of religion that’s become rare in the region.”
He goes on to make an assertion which ignores the all-important fact that, unlike Christianity, Judaism is not a proselytising religion.
“But the future of the Holy Land’s new Christians is fragile, in part because the assimilation some Jews fear cuts both ways. How many young Indians and young Filipinos will choose to jettison the religion of their parents along with their language?”
Laurenson closes by leaving audiences with the take-away message of Israel as a discriminatory society.
JL: “And for the asylum seekers the past is bleak, the present is bleak, the future is bleak. A walk across a desert that now has this camp whose name is Holot. Sumari Abraham again.”
SA: “They don’t want me because I am a Christian. They think if I stay here for a long time, they fear about their identity. If they are proud about their identity, why they are afraid of me? If they strong in their religion, if they strong in their faith, why they are afraid of others? They are blaming Christian [unintelligible] of nothing.”
JL: “Israel is the homeland of my God, says Sumari. It’s the homeland of my soul, but of my flesh – no.”
Like the first part of John Laurenson’s programme, this one too is replete with inaccuracies and omissions which severely compromise its impartiality. The end result in both programmes is the presentation of a one-sided view of Israel which includes nothing fresh, new or innovative.
In part one of the programme the real reasons for the plight of Palestinian Christians were concealed in favour of the promotion of politically motivated propaganda. In part two, Laurenson completely ignored Israeli Christian citizens; not least those who do not fit into the BBC’s pre-existing narrative. Laurenson’s one-dimensional picture of “Christians in the Holy Land” failed to go anywhere near the topics of the Palestinian politicization of Christianity and the heavy involvement of various Christian streams in the delegitimisation of Israel.
The result is just another jaded chapter in the BBC’s repeated attempts to persuade audiences that Israel is a society riddled with discrimination and racism.