A History Lesson for Rick Steves

Exposing PBS's biased documentary on the Holy Land.

Recently, PBS-TV aired a “travel documentary” by travel writer Rick Steves titled “The Holy Land.” For all intents and purposes it appeared to be a political statement slanted to elicit sympathy for the Palestinians, albeit, it was presented with debased moral equivalency, leaving the narratives devoid of substantive facts.  The hour-long special, Steves explained, “weaves together both the Israeli and Palestinian narratives.  In Israel, we go from the venerable ramparts of Jerusalem to the vibrant modern skyline of Tel Aviv.  In Palestine, we harvest olives near Hebron, visit a home in Bethlehem, and pop into a university in Ramallah.  We also learn about security walls, disputed settlements, and persistent challenges facing the region.” 

While Israel is an existing state, Palestine is not. Steves reveals his sympathies by conferring the attributes of a state to Palestine. Moreover, Steves failed to provide historical background beyond shallow and superficial comments.  Had he delved into the history of the Holy Land in the last hundred years, he would have discovered that during the British Mandatory era, (1922-1948) Jews rather than Arabs were called Palestinians.

Steves visit to the home of a Palestinian-Arab family, and the leading questions he asked them, was intended to bring out to the viewers a sense of injustice done to the Palestinian-Arabs.  At one point Steves asserted that the Palestinian-Arabs were “dispossessed by Israel.” Steves ignored the fact that in 194849, more Jews were dispossessed by the Arab states and made into refugees than Palestinian-Arabs.  Moreover, while Jews were kicked out of their homes where they lived long before the onset of Islam, most of the Palestinian-Arabs left of their own volition, and were encouraged by the Arab states and Palestinian leadership. 

At one point, Steves asserted that “Arab-Israeli relations deteriorated.”  To an uninformed viewer it would appear as if everything prior to the Six-Day War of June, 1967 was peaceful. The facts are that neither the Arab world nor the Palestinian-Arabs have ever accepted the Jewish state of Israel or any non-Muslim entity in the region.  Prior to 1967, Egypt’s President Abdul Nasser funded, trained, and dispatched Palestinian-Arab Fedayeen (terrorists) to murder Israeli civilians, which led to the Sinai Campaign of 1956.  On the eve of the 1967 war, Nasser incited the Arab masses and promised to “throw the Jews into the (Mediterranean) sea.”

Steves pointed out that the population of Israel and Palestine was 12 million, half Palestinian-Arabs and half Jewish Israelis.  According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), the combined Palestinian population of the West Bank and Gaza in 2013 was 4,420,000 (2,720,000 in the West Bank and 1,700,000 in Gaza).  According to Israeli sources, the numbers provided by the PCBS are vastly inflated, and only amount to 4.8 million Palestinians living west of the Jordan River (includes Israeli Arabs, Gaza, and West Bank).  Israel’s Jewish population exceeds 6 million.  A rough calculation would show that of the total population in Israel/Palestine, approximately 55% are Jewish while 45% are Palestinian-Arab. Excluding Gaza, Jews comprise 23 of the population.

“Palestinians are chafing at the loss of their homeland,” Steves declared. But yet again he failed to present historical background.  Palestinians were granted ample opportunities to assert their self-determination.  The Peel Commission of 1936-37 would have given the Palestinian-Arabs about 75% of Mandatory Palestine.  The Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini, (Hitler’s friend and ally during WWII) and Palestinian leadership rejected the offer.  In 1947, once again statehood was offered to the Palestinians through the UN Partition Plan. The Palestinian leadership rejected this opportunity as well, and chose instead to destroy the nascent Jewish state in what became known as Israel’s War of Independence.  

The Oslo Accords of 1993 paved the way for a Palestinian state, but after a bloody spate of suicide bombing, which left over 1,000 Israeli civilians dead, President Bill Clinton summoned Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Israel Prime Minister Ehud Barak to a summit at Camp David. Barak made far reaching concessions to Arafat but when the time came for Arafat to sign an “end of conflict” agreement, (meaning no more demands by either side), Arafat balked.  He chose instead to launch the intifada.

Israel built the security Wall to stem and prevent terror attacks from Gaza and the West Bank (Judea and Samaria).  Steves nevertheless called the Wall “controversial.” The so called “Wall” has saved thousands of Israeli lives, but for Steves Palestinian friends, the security fence amounts to a “land grab.” The film totally ignored the devastating terror attacks on Israelis before the “Wall” was built.  Steves is also accommodating Palestinian commentators who claim that the Wall is a “pretense for security.” Steves then added that the “Wall keeps people apart.”  In fact, it is Palestinian terror that keeps people apart.  Prior to the wave of terror, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians worked in Israel, and thousands of Israelis shopped in Palestinian towns.

Steves could have been better informed on the arrangements at Temple Mount.  He maintained that Palestinian-Arabs are not allowed access to the Temple Mount, or to pray there.  The truth is however, that status quo on Temple mount remains intact after 48 years.  It gives Palestinian-Arab Muslims full control over the mosques on Temple Mount (haram al-Sharif) and while it allows Jews to visit, they are not allowed to pray there (despite it being the site of two Jewish Temples).

Steves quotes Israelis as saying that the “land was unused,” as an explanation as to why Israelis settlements arose.  Here, once again, Steves overlooked the history of the Jews in the land, especially in Judea and Samaria, which historically was the heartland of Jewish sovereign kingdoms.  Steves disregarded the fact that Jews were expelled from Judea and Samaria, and since the 16th century, Spanish and Portuguese Jews, driven from the Iberian Peninsula, settled in their ancestral homeland of Israel.  Although controlled by the (Muslim) Ottoman Empire, Jews chose to live in Hebron, Tiberias, Safed and Jerusalem in particular.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jews bought land in Palestine and the “disputed territories” with hard cash, legally, and not through land grabs. 

The assertion by Steves that there are “only several hundred Jews living in Hebron” is wrong.  Hebron is home to approximately 700 Jews inside the city, and an additional 6,000 Jews live in the adjacent community of Kiryat Arba.  Steves doesn’t provide an explanation as to why Bethlehem Christians are only a small fraction of the city’s population, and for the same reason the Christian population in the West Bank and Gaza amounts to only 2%, according to him.  The answer is the Muslim Palestinian majority has oppressed, and driven out the Christians.  

“Israel was born in part because of the Holocaust.” This anti-Zionist mantra that Steves employs in his narration is totally false.  Jews have sought national redemption since the First Century CE, and it was only in the 19th century that political Zionism was born with the quest of national redemption through political action. The Holocaust only proved that had the British allowed the Jewish state to form earlier, millions of European Jews would have been saved.

Finally, Steves reminds us that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.”  Is the suicide bomber who blew himself up in a crowded discothèque in Tel Aviv killing 29 teenagers, shouting Allahu Akbar, a freedom fighter?  Is killing of Jews in the name of Islam Steves understanding of being a freedom fighter?  Palestinian terror is not about seeking self-determination, it is about liquidating the Jewish state. This is where Steves’ pro-Palestinian bias is transparent.