Bethlehem’s place in history began with a journey. It was to Bethlehem that Mary and Joseph traveled, twenty centuries ago, to find a safe harbor in which to give birth to their baby son. It was to Bethlehem that the three wise men traveled, to meet and welcome to the earth the Christ child who had been born to save them.
And it was to Bethlehem that pilgrims from around the world traveled, through the centuries, to remember and honor that birth. Today, on Christmas Eve, Christians and non-Christians alike will remember and honor the town that sheltered the baby and his parents, and all those who have traveled there through the centuries, to pray and offer thanks. If they wish to travel personally to the city however, to retrace the steps of the wise men and the shepherds and Mary and Joseph, they will find their passage blocked.
For Bethlehem today is no longer a sheltering harbor for voyagers or pilgrims of shepherds of wise men of any sort; its entrance is blocked by a military crossing erected by Israeli authorities; the town is surrounded by a monstrous concrete wall that is 26 feet high; and anyone wishing to enter must pass individually through two sets of X ray machines and tense gun-wielding and frightening corridors equipped with cameras and other high-tech devices that are ostensibly there to preserve the security of the state of Israel but that are more obviously intended to intimidate, harass and deter foreigners and local Palestinians from entering Bethlehem.
The security argument breaks own on several counts: first, if it really is about security, then why does Israel check people going in to Bethlehem and not only those going out, towards Jerusalem? Second, there are several other, albeit more circuitous, ways of getting to Jerusalem from the neighboring town of Beit Sahour. These roads are rarely ever patrolled by Israeli authorities, and would presumably be the preferred route of any “terrorists” wishing to enter Israel. Why then does Israel not station soldiers along these roads? Third, the Israelis that are theoretically most at risk of terrorism in the Bethlehem area are those who live in the neighboring settlements. If Israel’s concern really is about preserving the safety of its citizens, why does it take no steps to remove from harm’s way these settlers?
Christmas has always been an occasion for joy in Palestine, where the Christ is considered, by Muslim and Christian Palestinians alike, to be one of their own. And Bethlehem, for obvious reasons, has always been the focal point for Christmas festivities in Palestine. But each successive Christmas is sadder in Bethlehem, which is a dying city that has lost, it seems forever, the tourist revenues on which it once thrived and, worse, the Christian inhabitants – some of whose families have been resident in Bethlehem for centuries – who leave by the droves for foreign shores and easier lives if they have the means to do so.
Today, as we join our voices in chorus to mark the birth of the Christ in Bethlehem, we must also raise our voices to join the chorus – sadly muted though it is – that protests the present-day tragedy that is Bethlehem. As we sing Christmas carols this evening around the world, let us keep in our thoughts and prayers the city that was once a haven for travelers and pilgrims and shepherds, and that is now a desolate ghost-town that has a big, empty, crumbling church at its center and ugly concrete walls at the periphery.
Merry Christmas to you all; remember Palestine, and the little town of Bethlehem, in your prayers.