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, another contestant, Jack McGuire, buzzed in. “What is Israel?” he asked.
“That’s it,” Trebek said, awarding $200 to the San Antonio tourism consultant as Needle stared at him with a look of confusion.
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 during 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,” tweeted 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."
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, which many believe is 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 has selected the church as 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, well, more than trivial. It was a commentary, implicit or not, on a hotly contested and deeply emotional question in Middle East geopolitics.
The Oslo accords of 1995 give the Palestinian Authority control over Bethlehem and the West Bank, though that is complicated by Israeli settlements and military checkpoints. Under a historic “Status Quo” agreement, the church and other holy sites near it area must be jointly shared and protected by various Christian denominations.
James Zogby, a Democratic pollster and co-founder of the Arab American Institute, slammed the “Jeopardy!” episode as “an insult to history, reality, [and] the thousands of oppressed Palestinians of Bethlehem.”
“This is outrageous,” Zogby, a former DNC executive committee member, wrote on Twitter. “If ‘Israel’ had been the answer, it would have been bad enough. But the fact that she gave ‘Palestine’ as the thought answer and was told it was wrong makes this an outrage.”
Code Pink, the liberal antiwar group, even created an online petition, demanding that “Jeopardy!” “immediately apologize for the politically dangerous inaccuracy that took place on [the] show.”
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.
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 around each other 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 asked 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 reverted 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 $200 question on the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
Mysteriously, it seems as though that prompt never made it to air.
In a statement on Monday evening, Sony Pictures Television, which produces “Jeopardy!,” apologized for the mix-up and clarified that an uncorrected version of the game was broadcast due to a “human error in post-production.”
Indeed, while filming the Church of the Nativity question, “we became aware that the clue was flawed as written and that determining an acceptable response would be problematic,” the company said. “In accordance with our rules and in the interest of fairness, we voided the clue and threw it out.”
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.