There's a very warm hearted story up on the BBC website today. Tim Butcher reports on the birth of his son in Bethlehem. And I'd like to wish him and his wife Jane a very hearty mazal tov on the birth of their son Kit Patrick. I don't think there's any more joyous or wonderful event in one's life than the birth of a longed for child. May you both have as much joy and delight from him as I have always had from my daughter.
But here's a thing. The Butchers live in Jerusalem and it seems there was a political dimension to their decision about where Kit Patrick was going to be born:
Based as journalists in the disputed city of Jerusalem, the arrival of our first child posed a dilemma, as where the baby would be born had implications.
Some ex-pat friends of ours, about to have a child, chose to fly all the way home to the United States rather than risk problems downstream.
They were fearful that, without a tectonic shift in Middle East politics, their child would find travel in the Arab world problematic with a passport giving Israel as place of birth.
Tim suggests that their decision to have their baby in Bethlehem was less to do with this issue, and was about wanting somewhere which had the best facilities and which they felt happy with. And they liked the Roman Catholic Bethlehem Hospital of the Holy Family. Though the description gives us no clue as to whether its facilities were as good or better than those of the Jerusalem Hadassah Hospital, or of Shaarei Zedek, the Jerusalem Jewish religious hospital that is regularly chosen by many Muslim and Christian families in preference to Palestinian ones like the Hospital of the Holy Family.
No journalist avoids being selective in presenting a story, especially when "From Our Own Correspondent" is a programme based on giving space for individual BBC correspondents' strictly personal point of view.
But I wasn't surprised when I got an email this morning from David of Treppenwitz, who shares with Lisa of On the Face the honour of being the best blogger on life in Israel. David felt very uneasy about Tim's report, and did anyone else share his unease and why?
Sadly, despite all the warm heartedness above, I already did, and this is why.
Firstly, it was the way Tim then referred to his Israeli Jewish friends' reaction to the couple's choice of hospital:
Our Israeli - that is to say Jewish - friends thought us quite mad for opting to have the baby in Bethlehem.
One Jerusalemite I spoke to became quite indignant.
"Jewish health care is among the best in the world," she said. Why would you want to go to an Arab hospital? Do they even have the right equipment?''
Her words spoke volumes about the mistrust between the Holy Land's oldest and yet most divided peoples.
Maybe it's just me and maybe David, but I think this makes the Jewish Israelis he presents seem at best irrational and driven by mistrust and at worst racist. There is not a word about whether they might have had some knowledge about the relative safety and track record in deliveries of the two Jerusalem hospitals concerned compared with the Bethlehem one. And the way they are portrayed is in sharp contrast to the images he evokes from the Bethlehem hospital of beaming, giggling and laughing Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, midwives, gynaecologist and paramedics who appear to show no distrust at all.
Then there's the way Tim portrays what was involved in getting to the chosen hospital. We're told it involved more than the short physical distance, and why? Tim deftly invokes a heart-warming image for Christians of Bethlehem's being just "a short donkey ride from Jerusalem" but--surprise--the "realpolitik of modern Israel makes that journey a lot more awkward". He tells us
Bethlehem, home to thousands of Palestinians (both Muslim and, perhaps not surprisingly, Christian) is close enough to the city to be a suburb. But it lies on the other side of that border, a border that is now marked by the Jerusalem Wall, the concrete curtain erected by Israel, it claims, to protect against suicide bombers.
Well, it seems Tim is only prepared to allow that this is a claim of Israel that it protects against suicide bombers. And hang on. The Jerusalem Wall. Sounds just like an analogy of the Berlin Wall. The terminology usually chosen even by the BBC is the "security barrier". The web page helpfully gives a photo of the "eight metre high concrete barrier that dominates the boundary between Jerusalem and Israel".
Tim doesn't mention the history of continuous mortar, gunfire and sniper attacks by Palestinian terrorists on Jerusalem which dominated the lives of local residents-- Jewish, Christian, Muslim, before the barrier was erected. That the height of the barrier he describes was what it took to stop them. Neither does Tim mention the drop in suicide bombing attacks and other terrorist incidents in Jerusalem and other areas protected by the barrier since it was erected. Including the deliberate attempts by Palestinian terrorists to use medical consultations as a cover for getting into Israeli cities to make murderous attacks.
Though to be fair, he does mention that, despite his worries, how quickly he and his wife were helped to get through the checkpoint by an Israeli soldier.
Tim ends with a declaration of his fatherly pride. But his closing remark shows how his mind set is stuck in a Christian frame of reference which he assumes is shared by every other nationality and culture in the world. For he imagines his son saying:
No passport official in the world is going to pass up the chance to remark on my place of birth: Bethlehem."
Now, you might think I'm being overly sensitive and highly unreasonable here. But it's just that this is not the first time that a From Our Own Correspondent report by Tim Butcher has given a less than balanced view of Muslims, Christians and Jews in Israel and the Palestinian territories. And one which shows Judaism in a very negative light.
Back on May 14th, Tim had a From Our Own Correspondent report, this time on a truly horrific tribal Palestinian territories Arab village vengeance killing of an Arab regarded by them as a collaborator with Israel, and the threat facing the remaining Arabs in a refuge village set up for them in the then Gaza Jewish settlement bloc. The astonishing thing is that the horrific and sadistic practices described, which included desecrating and gouging out the eyes of the corpse of the collaborator were described by Tim as "Old Testament brutality". Not only was Palestinian Arab on Arab violence and atrocity described as an instance of the culture of the Jewish bible (which is what the "Old Testament" in fact is), but the horrendous atrocities described were in fact directly contrary to Jewish law and culture. Jewish law requires all corpses, Jewish or not, to be treated with the greatest respect and reverence. It is difficult to imagine any more horrific instance of violation of Jewish law than the atrocities described.
These were Tim's closing paragraphs:
'Old Testament-style brutality'
Earlier this year, Palestinians elsewhere in the occupied territories meted out justice to a convicted Arab collaborator.
In front of a large crowd, Muhammad Mansour was beaten, shot at close range in the side of the head and then the mother of one of the men he betrayed was then called forward to stab his lifeless corpse and pluck out his eyes.
It was a display of Old Testament-style brutality and I wondered if it might one day be applied to the villagers of Dahaniya.
Many of them, like the 17-year-old Mohammed, are the sons or grandsons of Arabs who collaborated, so perhaps they would be let off.
But does not the Old Testament say something about the sins of the father being visited on his offspring?
Apart from the egregious misrepresentation of the brutality as being derived from the Jewish bible, it concludes the final sentence appearing to suggest that the Jewish bible requires the sins of parents to be visited on their offspring through vengeance killings. This is based on an outrageous misreading of the meaning of the Torah's statement that the sins of fathers will be visited on their children. Anyone competent in Jewish law will tell you that this refers to the consequences of parents' actions affecting their children. Jewish law specifically forbids the punishment of children for the crimes of their fathers.
The key text from the Jewish bible is in fact this:
'Parents shall not be put to death for children nor shall children be put to death for parents. A person shall be put to death only for his own crime.' -- Deuteronomy 24:16.
Amongst others, I emailed the BBC to complain about this outrageous misrepresentation of Judaism. I eventually got an extraordinary reply back, from which this is the key extract, from a Mr Tarik Kafala, the editor of the BBC News website on which I had originally picked up Tim's report. Gratuitously, it referred to Melanie Phillips' coverage of the report on her web site:
'The piece to which you refer originated from the BBC radio programme “From our own Correspondent” on which correspondents are encouraged to write and broadcast in a more personal and impressionistic style than they do in news reports. This is made clear on the web page where we say/ "Personal reflections by BBC correspondents around the world"/ underneath the programme title. We do not believe there is anything in the content or tenor of the piece that is anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli.
'In our view there is little to support Melanie Phillips’ point that the report suggests that “when Arabs commit violence they become Jews”. We do not agree that “Old Testament-style brutality” is synonymous in any way with “Jewish-style brutality”. It is our understanding that the religious tradition of which the Old Testament is a pillar is common to the three main monotheistic faiths. We do not believe that the writer, Tim Butcher, intended to make the association that Melanie Phillips makes. Nor do we see how the text that we published lends itself to this interpretation.
'We understand “Old Testament-style brutality” to refer to a form of justice or retribution that is harsh and unforgiving, as in the phrase “an eye for an eye”. In this case, perhaps stretching the metaphor a little, Tim Butcher understands it also to mean a form of justice in which the aggrieved party is invited to help carry out the sentence.
Clearly, what this demonstrated is that Tim Butcher's understanding of the Jewish laws on retribution and justice is not only wrong, it is the direct opposite of the reality. And yet it emerged that he and Mr Kafala had been set to write the response to my complaint.
I now discovered that one can complain further if one is dissatisfied with grossly inadequate responses like this. The next stage was to complain to the Editorial Complaints Unit of the BBC. So I did. And this time, my complaint included reference to the BBC Charter and related legislative requirements that
that nothing is included in its programmes which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling;
- that any news given ... in its programmes is presented with due accuracy and impartiality;
- that due impartiality is preserved on the part of the person providing the service as respects matters of political or industrial controversy or relating to current public policy;
- that due responsibility is exercised with respect to the content of any of its programmes which are religious programmes, and that in particular any such programme does not involve
(i) any improper exploitation of any susceptibilities of those watching the programme, or
(ii) any abusive treatment of the religious views and beliefs of those belonging to a particular religion or religious denomination;
I don't know what you think, but Tim Butcher's report on "Old Testament brutality" was as bad an example of lack of accuracy and abusive treatment of Jewish religious beliefs as I've seen in some time. In fact, in my view, it is anti-semitic.
I was told I would get a reply within four weeks. The reply arrived six weeks later, after I had chased it up and been given a pathetic tale of the inability of this mighty and paid-for-by-our-licence-fees corporation to get its act together in time. On 9th August, my letter was from a Mr Fraser Steel, Head of the BBC Editorial Complaints Unit. In two pages of mind-bending obfuscation and condescension, Mr Steel concedes that "it was less alert than it could have been to the way in which it could be interpreted by those with a particular concern about Judiaism, and your complaint is a salutary reminder of the sensitivities in this area."
Mr Steel offered no apology, and did not address the issue of the BBC Charter and other UK legal requirements of broadcasters.
He tells me that my argument (and that of Melanie Phillips, which he again gratuitously introduces ) "rests on a more exclusive association between the term "Old Testament" and Jewish Law than is warranted, the Law as such only accounting for five books of the 39 which the Anglican and Protestant traditions regard as constituting the Old Testament. The term has much broader associations...."
So much for the sensibilities of committed Orthodox Jews. I think this speaks volumes about the world view of the BBC as well as Tim Butcher and Mr Fraser Steel. Needless to say, I shall now take my complaint on to the next level of the BBC complaints maze. I'll keep you posted. Meanwhile, who exactly is this Mr Fraser Steel, and what is the basis on which he holds forth on what the Old Testament and Jewish law are?
I'll leave you with just one last example of the brilliant non-sequiturs in his arguments:
Mr Butcher's exact words were "But does the Old Testament say something about the sins of the father being visited on his offspring?", and, in a context where "Old Testament-style brutality" had already been evoked, I think most listeners and readers would simply take them as a slightly oblique suggestion that even those inhabitants of Dahaniya who hadn't themselves come under suspicion of collaboration were at risk of violence from their Arab neighbours.
Eh? What? Can you just run that interpretation past me one more time?