If you have a miniature manger in your home today, or if you've heard a piece of music in the mall with "Bethlehem" in it, I -- as a Palestinian Christian in whose life Bethlehem has played a big role -- have a favor to ask you: Please go to your computer and do a search using these words: "Bethlehem Christmas wall." Check out some of the articles and the images. If your curiosity is piqued, go a bit further and check out the images for "al Masara village," or "al Walaja village," two tiny villages near Bethlehem. I think this is an important exercise for anyone who has formed a mental image of the Little Town of Bethlehem during this holiday season.
Today, Bethlehem and the surrounding areas still have some of the holiest churches of Christianity, and they still vibrate with the prayers and celebrations of Palestinian Christians. But the Palestinians of Bethlehem, Christians and Muslims alike, are a people besieged. For Bethlehem today is surrounded by a host of physical barriers, including several miles of a concrete wall that is over 20 feet high, built by the Israeli occupation authorities.
This wall -- deemed illegal by the International Court of Justice in 2004 -- separates the Palestinians of the Bethlehem area from huge swaths of their land. Much of that land has been taken from them to build Jewish-only settlements that are also illegal under international law. These Jewish settlements surround the Palestinian communities of the Bethlehem area, hemming them into a limited geographic area, like a tiny Bantustan, isolating them from occupied East Jerusalem, the economic, cultural, and spiritual heart of Palestinian life. Just this week, the Israeli government announced that it had approved plans for new construction in the nascent settlement of Givat Hamatos, which lies between East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, a move swiftly condemned by European diplomats as a "game changer" that could end the possibility of creating a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
I was born and raised in East Jerusalem. For many years before I emigrated to the U.S., I accompanied my father, a devout Christian, on his annual walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. Back in the late 1930s, he made a vow to make the five-mile journey by foot every New Year's Eve. If I were to do the same thing today, I would be confronted by a wall that's higher than, and as ugly as, the Berlin Wall, just a few minutes after departing. For the people of Bethlehem, the wall is far worse, because few of them are allowed beyond it to visit their holy sites in occupied East Jerusalem.
The images that you'll see from my suggested web search are the reality of Bethlehem today. In your search, you might also see images of Palestinians involved in a non-violent struggle against the demeaning and pauperizing conditions of Israel's 45-year-old military occupation and colonization of their land. The leaders of the non-violent Palestinian resistance against the wall in the villages of Masara and Walaja will often mention Gandhi and Martin Luther King in their discourse. These two leaders practiced very confrontational resistance, not the passive resistance that is associated with Jesus. But Gandhi and MLK never preached hatred against their oppressors, and today, the people of Bethlehem, Masara and Walaja welcome Israeli Jews who stand shoulder to shoulder with them in opposing the injustices of the occupation.
The reality of Bethlehem today has a great deal more to do with the message of the man that Christians refer to as the "Prince of Peace" than the Disney-like images of Bethlehem we see in our shopping malls. Jesus actually lived under an oppressive Roman occupation of his country. He identified the most with the poor and oppressed, and he preached equality between Jews -- his own people, Samaritans and Gentiles. During this Christmas season, spare a thought and a prayer for Palestinians, including Palestinian Christians, who continue to struggle against injustice and oppression in the name of freedom, equality, and peace.