Violent images from ‘Little Town of Bethlehem’

A leading evangelical businessman has financed a controversial Middle East documentary that has been called “unfair and dishonest” by supporters of Israel.

“Little Town of Bethlehem” purports to present the Palestinian perspective for American audiences.

Mart Green, founder and CEO of Mardel Christian and Educational Supply and an heir to the Hobby Lobby retail empire, is the financial backing behind the Bethlehem film. It’s directed by Jim Hanon of EthnoGraphic Media Films, which is also financed by Green and headquartered at the huge Hobby Lobby complex in Oklahoma City.

JoAnn Magnuson, curator of the Jewish-Christian Library & Learning Center in Minneapolis and a veteran of 35 years of study and service in the field of interfaith relations, said the film is “very well-made” but doesn’t present the conflict accurately.

“It avoids the heavy-handed approach of films like ‘With God on Our Side,’ which focuses on the more extreme aspects of the Christian Zionist community,” she said. “The linkage between the U.S. civil rights movement and 1987 Palestinian ‘Intifada’ is certain to gain the attention of all of us who stood up against segregation and racism in the U.S.

“However,” she said, “linking these movements without making it clear that Israeli control over Bethlehem and the ‘disputed territories’ is not about racial differences but involves an existential threat to the existence of the state of Israel is unfair and dishonest.”

Green, who was raised Pentecostal, a network of churches traditionally supportive of Israel, also is chairman of the board of trustees at Oral Roberts University. In 2007, the Green family pledged $70 million to ORU, which was drowning in debt amid allegations of financial impropriety during the tenure of former President Richard Roberts. Green presented the board with a check for $8 million in November 2007, and the balance was given later.


EGM films located at Hobby Lobby headquarters

Green’s involvement with the “Little Town of Bethlehem” project is a bold move, given that much of Israel’s support from America comes from Christians in the heartland. He recently told WND how he came to be concerned for Palestinian Christians.

“I was raised in a Pentecostal home and drawn first to the ‘toughest issues’ of the day,” he said. “With EGM, we had done a film on HIV/AIDS, we have done some research on human trafficking. A couple of years ago I felt that the Middle East was one of those tough issues. I was talking to a friend and he told me that I should meet Carl Medearis. Carl had lived in Lebanon for years, and so I went to Lebanon to meet with Carl. It seemed that many of the conversations ended up being about the Israeli-Palestinian issue. So I told Carl, let’s go to Jerusalem and Bethlehem and see if we can find someone living out their faith.”

The EGM Films website explains the film thusly: “Come face to face with the courageous struggle for a nonviolent solution to the crisis that has torn Palestinians and Israelis apart.”

The trailer:

“Little Town of Bethlehem” presents the personal experiences of three men: Palestinian evangelical Sami Awad of the non-profit advocacy group Holy Land Trust; Ahmad Al’Azzeh, a Muslim; and Israel Defense Forces pacifist dissident Yonatan Shapira. The three ostensibly provide the filmmakers with a Christian, Muslim and Jewish perspective, but some viewers are troubled that all three support the so-called Palestinian narrative: Israel is a brutal occupier.

Magnuson notes that the three decry the security fence that Israel erected a few years ago: “The concrete wall around Bethlehem is an ugly eyesore. But no more pizza parlors, coffee shops or buses have been blown up in Jerusalem since the wall went up.”

Magnuson, who has extensive contacts in the Middle East, including Jews and Palestinians, also presents a different perspective when discussing the overall intent of the film.

“Christians who support Israel need to hear the story of the Awad family and their efforts at non-violent resistance,” he said. “However Yonaton Shapiro does not represent the views of any significant segment of the Israeli population, who also desperately want peace but realize without a strong military Israel would cease to exist and its replacement would not include the Awads.”


Director Jim Hanon

Dexter van Zile, Christian media analyst for CAMERA, also watched the film and noted the imbalance.

“The movie uses the teachings of Martin Luther King and Ghandi to assess or judge Israeli actions, but does not use these teachings to cast a light of judgment on the actions of groups like Hamas or Hezbollah,” he said. “The movie uses testimony from an Israeli refuser, but does not include direct testimony from reformed Palestinian terrorists.”

Van Zile also commented on the powerful imagery used in “Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“One disturbing aspect of the film is the manner in which it uses computer generated graphics to inject the nativity story into the Arab-Israeli conflict,” he said. “The images of the Holy Family are placed onto concrete sections of the security barrier in a manner that casts Israel in the role of the Roman occupiers at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. The conflict is bad enough without having to cast it as a cosmological affront to Christian sensibilities.”

Green, however, has received the support of prominent evangelical voices. Lynne Hybels, wife of Willow Creek Pastor Bill Hybels, is a vocal supporter, blogging about Israel “and seizures and house demolitions, settlement expansion, Israeli-only roads networking through Palestinian land, and hundreds of military checkpoints on Palestinian roads.”

Lynne Hybels wrote in September that when “Little Town of Bethlehem” was released in 2010, she and her husband screened it in their home: “It was a simple, but powerful event that helped galvanize an active group of Christians committed to the ongoing work of nonviolence.”

Hanon, who was raised Catholic but now attends Craig Groeschel’s LifeChurch.tv, emphasizes a “non-violence” model and is pleased with his involvement with the film.

Hanon explained that the team first went to Jordan and then Beirut to get perspectives on the Arab-Israeli conflict. He interviewed Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, third general secretary of the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah. Saudi businessman Sameer Credie facilitated the meeting, but Hanon chose not to include that footage in “Little Town of Bethlehem.”

“We ended up not using the interview for a few different reasons, but we used insight it gave us, access to information that we found helpful and credible,” he said.

Asked why he didn’t include the footage of Nasrallah, Hanon said: “Then you start to step into a territory where you have to put in a clip of the opposing point of view, ‘Here’s where he’s coming from,’ and you can’t really give time to him and not give time to someone who refutes it.

“Just on a personal level, I found [Nasrallah] remarkable.”

Hezbollah is on the U.S. Department of State’s list of international terrorist groups:

Activities: Known or suspected to have been involved in numerous anti-US terrorist attacks, including the suicide truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy and U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983 and the U.S. Embassy annex in Beirut in September 1984. Elements of the group were responsible for the kidnapping and detention of U.S. and other Western hostages in Lebanon. The group also attacked the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1992.

To date, “Little Town of Bethlehem” has been screened for almost 400 colleges, universities and other organizations.

Note: Read our discussion guidelines before commenting.