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April 05, 2016

Lapido Media Updates Article After CAMERA Challenge, Questions Remain

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In late October 2015, Lapido Media published an article about a master’s degree program in peace studies at Bethlehem Bible College that had some problems that were addressed in an article written by CAMERA researcher Dexter Van Zile and published at the Times of Israel blog. In particular, the article accused Israel of “shunning” the peace studies program offered by the school, which has a long history of agitating against Israel.

One bit of evidence that the article offered to prove that Israel had “shunned” the program was that a foreign student who went by the pseudonym “William” had not been given a visa to study at the school by the Israeli government, which controls entry and exit into the West Bank, where the school is located.

A close examination of the article, however, revealed that the student had not applied for a student visa. The article was, simply put, a hit job. Just in case there is any doubt, take a look at the URL (universal resource locator, or web address) for the article, which was likely based on the first title of the text as it was loaded into the site administrator for Lapido Media. It reads "israel-blindsides-first-peace-studies-programme-arab".

"Blindsides"? Really? What exactly did Israel do to "blindside" the peace studies program? The article states that Israel did not return a phone call and did not issue a visa that was not even applied for. How is that "blindsiding" the program? If anyone did any blindsiding, it was Lapido Media, its correspondent Jayson Kasper and his pseudonymous source, "William."

Nevertheless, in response to a second challenge (described below) Lapido Media laudably changed the headline and published a note at the bottom of the article. A screenshot of the new headline can be seen at the top of this entry and the note to the article can be seen here:

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It is gratifying to see that Lapido Media has changed the headline. There is no real evidence that Israel has “shunned” the program. If Israel has done anything, it has largely ignored the peace studies program, which has gotten off to a shaky or "tentative" start as Lapido Media reports in the headline. (The program has yet to be accredited, for example.)

It is also good to see that Lapido Media is open to doing further coverage of the story, but there are a number of questions that need to be addressed.

The note at the bottom of the article states that changes to the article were made in response “to a complaint that we misrepresented the availability of student visas by the Israeli authority.” The problem is not that the article may have misrepresented the availability of student visas, but that students from overseas are able to attend classes in the West Bank without student visas. That’s what “William” has been able to do for at least two semesters.

To dig deeper, more background is necessary.

Lapido Media changed the headline and added the note after Snapshots published a blog entry detailing information that “William,” a prominent peace activist in the West Bank and student at Bethlehem Bible College, provided to Van Zile at the recent Christ at the Checkpoint conference in early March.

As reported in the previous blog post on Snapshots, “William” stated that he had been given a work visa by the Palestinian Authority and that the paper work had been sent to Israeli authorities (who have final say) for approval.

When asked if he thought the Israelis would approve the visa, “William” stated that it was likely that they would because they do not want to make the Palestinian Authority unhappy. This clearly undercuts the “Israel is the villain” message of the original Lapido Media article. It also contradicts Lapido Media’s updated version of the article, which states he is applying for a “student visa.” As stated previously, he has already applied for a work visa, which according to his testimony, is likely to be approved by the Israelis.

The upshot is that one way or another, “William” has been able to attend classes at Bethlehem Bible College just as foreign students have been able to attend classes at Bethlehem University for quite some time, despite reports from former Bethlehem Mayor Vera Baboun to the contrary.

In working on the entry regarding Very Baboun’s testimony about this issue, Snapshots spoke with officials at Bethlehem University and learned that sometimes students attend classes at this school with a three-month tourist visa — like the one “William” uses to attend classes at Bethlehem Bible College.

This imposes some difficulty on students who attend Bethlehem University, but allowances are made so that they can complete their coursework with the school, Snapshots has learned.

Bethlehem University’s website indicates, however, that some students are able to attend classes at the school for the full length of their coursework, suggesting that they are given a visa for longer than three months.

If this is the case, it raises the question as to why this cannot happen for “William” at Bethlehem Bible College.

A couple of explanations present themselves.

First, the peace studies program where “William” is attending classes is not yet accredited by any certifying body. That’s what Bethlehem Bible College says on its website.

Student visas, when they are given, are usually restricted to students who are attending accredited programs. That’s what the website for Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs indicates.

In light of this, it seems pretty unreasonable to expect Israel to give “William” a student visa because the program he is attending is not yet accredited.

Second, as stated in the Times of Israel article, Bethlehem Bible College has engaged in a significant amount of anti-Israel agitation over the years, which may make Israeli officials reluctant to allow overseas students to attend the school.

“William’s” so-called “peace” activism, which is really anti-Israel agitation, and which has been publicized in other venues (which use his real name), is a case in point. People who are responsible for the safety and security of Israeli civilians might look askance at letting an outside agitator from overseas access to the West Bank.

The area, is after all, controlled by the Palestinian Authority, an entity that has lauded Palestinian young people who have murdered people — including a pregnant woman and mother — on a regular basis over the past few months. Now if William were to agitate against Palestinian hostility and incitement, an admittedly risky thing to do in the West Bank, he might be able to call himself a “peace” activist. However, the vast majority of his activism is dedicated to highlighting Israeli misdeeds.

To be sure, when it comes to anti-Zionist activism, Bethlehem University is not completely innocent. At one point in Bethlehem University’s history, Hamas-supported candidates were elected to the school’s student council. Apparently Hamas supporters have not been elected to the student council for sometime, which is a good thing. (It’s kind of a scandal to have supporters of an organization whose leaders have called for the imposition of a poll tax on Christians to have positions of authority at a Catholic university. It just doesn’t seem right.)

And while there were some violent confrontations between students and IDF soldiers in years past at Bethlehem University, the school does not engage in the same level of anti-Zionist agitation that Bethlehem Bible College has done in recent years. This might help explain why foreign students have an easier time attending classes at Bethlehem University than they do Bethlehem Bible College.

In any event, attending either one of these schools on a three-month visa is doable, despite the difficulties, a fact that is attested to on “William’s” Instagram feed.

Sometime in December, “William” posted a picture of the tourist visa given to him upon his most recent entry into Israel — an entry that allowed him to continue his studies at Bethlehem Bible College. In the caption to the photo, he reports he was let into Israel without being questioned by passport control at Ben Gurion Airport.

This raises another question. In the first article published by Lapido Media in late October, reporter Jayson Kasper says that “William” was using a pseudonym and shielding his identity online because he was afraid of being deported.

Just how serious was “William” about shielding his identity online if a few weeks later he posted a picture of his tourist visa — which includes his name and passport number — on Instagram?

Was “William” really operating incognito, or was this bit about shielding his identity to avoid deportation included in the Lapido Media story just to gin up some drama to make Israel look like the oppressor?

In any event, it is good to see Lapido Media is open to doing follow up on this story because there are still some more questions that need to be answered. One question Lapido Media should ask is this: Are the so-called “peace” activists who travel to the Holy Land really promoting peace or are they making things worse?

Another question is whether how journalists should cover these so-called peace activists. Should what they say be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as other actors in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, or not?

Posted by dvz at April 5, 2016 04:26 PM

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