July 3rd, 2020

Reality Check

Contestant says a Bethlehem church was in 'Palestine'. But 'Jeopardy!' accepts Israel as the right answer --- before retreating

Teo Armus

By Teo Armus The Washington Post

Published Jan. 14, 2020

The "Jeopardy!" category was "Where's that Church?"

The clue, for $200, was about an ancient basilica, "built in the 300s A.D.," in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.

And the answer? That might depend on who you ask. But the one deemed correct on Friday's episode has plunged the TV game show straight into criticism - and deep into the heart of debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Just after host Alex Trebek read the prompt about the Church of the Nativity, contestant Katie Needle was first to buzz. Responding in the show's standard question-as-answer format, she said, "What is Palestine?"

But Trebek told Needle, a retail supervisor from Brooklyn, that she was wrong.

Then contestant Jack McGuire buzzed in, saying, "What is Israel?"

"That's it," Trebek said, awarding $200 to the tourism consultant from San Antonio, Texas.

While that total made little difference - Needle, who was already in the lead, ended up winning the episode anyway - the answer behind it sparked a firestorm of controversy over the weekend, as prominent commentators and pro-Palestinian activists demanded an apology from "Jeopardy!" for misstating the location of the historic church.

"The Church of the Nativity is in Bethlehem, which is Palestine, NOT Israel," said Scott Roth, the publisher of the progressive Jewish website Mondoweiss. "The woman answered Palestine and you ruled her wrong."

"Unacceptable!!" Omar Baddar, deputy director of the Arab American Institute, wrote on Twitter. "Katie Needle got the correct answer & was robbed . . . @Jeopardy owes an apology for endorsing Israel's universally-condemned illegal takeover of Palestinian lands."

Representatives for Sony Pictures Television, which produces "Jeopardy!", did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel took control of the West Bank and allowed Jewish settlers to move in. But Palestinians and much of the international community consider the area, including Bethlehem, to be illegally occupied Palestinian land.

The Church of the Nativity, considered by many to be the birthplace of Jesus, sits by a white-stoned square in the heart of Bethlehem near the controversial concrete barrier that encircles the West Bank. UNESCO, which considers the church to be a World Heritage Site, lists it as one of three such locations in Palestine.

So for many of those who slammed "Jeopardy!" over the weekend, the trivia answer was more than, well, trivial. It was a commentary, implicit or not, on a hotly contested and deeply emotional question in Middle East geopolitics.

As a 19-second clip of the video was viewed more than 1.3 million times over the weekend, some eagle-eyed viewers on Twitter and Reddit started to get suspicious.

Following Needle's wrong answer, they noted, the show went to commercials with her score listed as $4,600, but returned from the break showing it as $4,800 - with seemingly no explanation for the increase. The score for McGuire, who won the clue with "Israel," remained unchanged.

Normally, if a right answer is later deemed to be incorrect, Trebek addresses the issue on-air.

What happened? One audience member at the taping of Friday's episode seems to have an answer: The Church of the Nativity question was never supposed to air at all.

When the episode went to break inside the studio, the show's producers began huddling offstage, an audience member told The Washington Post. Most breaks during that day's taping had been only about eight minutes, and this one had reached twice that length.

"It was obvious that something was wrong," said the audience member, who requested to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation.

Once the show started filming again, she recounted, it was as if Trebek and the producers had turned back the clock: Scores for Needle and McGuire had both gone back to what they had been immediately before the host read out the Church of the Nativity clue. Then, Trebek and the three contestants taped an entirely new question, with an entirely different $200 clue.

Mysteriously, it seems as though that question never made it to air.

Needle, who has won a two-day total of $53,602 and will continue competing in Monday's episode, used the controversy as a chance to express her own views on the conflict. Last year, she visited a Palestinian refugee camp in Bethlehem, and later shared a petition in support of Palestinian children detained by Israeli authorities.

On Friday, she wrote on Twitter, "Palestine should be free."

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