One doesn’t have to be religious or Christian to appreciate the compelling and magical properties of the Nativity narrative, with all its evocative and timeless images and ideas and everything it evokes.
But anyone expecting to find any of that magic in modern day Bethlehem would be disappointed. Because, as is usually the case, reality is no match for myth or imagination.
Modern Bethlehem of course resides on the fault-line of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, its urban sprawl part of the West Bank. When most tourists or ‘pilgrims’ approach from Jerusalem, the “Little town of Bethlehem” is in fact their first taste of Occupied Palestine. Two thousand years or so after an anomalous star or star-like object – or so the story goes – rested over the town, something like 90,000 people reside in the broader Bethlehem area, with three refugee camps having come to embody the struggle of the Palestinian people that has now been going on for something like 70 years.
The continuing Israeli occupation places Bethlehem’s residents under severe economic and social pressure. The Israeli ‘Separation Wall’ runs around the northern edge of the city, over two miles inside Palestinian territory, inhibiting the movements and possibilities for Palestinian residents. It wouldn’t take much in the way of imaginative faculties to look at the plight of Palestinians today and to think of the oppression of the Jews under the Romans during events of the Gospel narrative.
History is of course replete with ironies and recurring motifs. Were it not for the Jewish revolts led by the Zealots (again, perversely analogous to today’s Hamas or PLO), the Jewish nation probably wouldn’t have been so harshly treated by the Romans in the final reckoning. The Romans tended to be more assimilaters than destroyers as a matter of policy, but it was the extreme resistance and perseverance of Jewish rebels (echoed by the Palestinian resistance movements today) over many years that finally provoked full Roman invasion.
I’ve often wondered if anyone in Israel recognises in Palestinian resistance the history of the Jewish Zealots and particularly the historic siege in Masada. This is something that has occurred to me for a long time, but it became much more lucidly clear a few years ago when I watched an old TV mini-series called Masada on DVD. My mother had in fact given it to me for Christmas because she knew I was a big fan of Peter O’Toole, and O’Toole plays the lead role of the Roman General in this series. Although in a lot of ways, this series from the early 1980s was an Israeli propaganda enterprise (the intro even has a whole sequence celebrating and lionising the Israeli army), it inadvertently makes clear how much today’s Palestinian resistance groups are almost precisely the same as the Jewish resistance groups 2,000 years ago.
The series dramatises the historic accounts of the Jewish Zealots’ last stand against Roman imperialism during the time of Vespasian, some years after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. What it shows us for the most part is Peter O’Toole (who is brilliant in this series, by the way) being utterly exasperated time and time again by the perseverance and stubbornness of the Jewish rebels who are ultimately fighting a struggle they know they can’t win. He wonders, pitying them and their fanaticism, why they won’t just accept Roman control.
But again, while the series might’ve been intended more to celebrate the tenacity of the Jewish Revolt against Rome and thus reinforce modern 20th century Jewish nationalism, it actually does the opposite and accidentally justifies Palestinian resistance and Intifadas.
And if the parallels between the modern Palestinians and the older Jewish rebels are obvious even to someone like myself who has no direct connection to the situation or location, it surely must have occurred to people in Israel – to historians, at the very least.
Whatever Bethlehem may or may not have been like two thousand years ago, today it is characterized by Israeli military checkpoints and the extraordinarily oppressive security barrier that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem, along with the shuttered homes and boarded up shops that are symbols of the stagnating economy and the illegal Israeli settlements that are still appearing around Bethlehem and being built on land that should legally belong to the Palestinians for a future state. 82% of Bethlehem apparently falls inside ‘Area C’, which is territory under direct Israeli military and administrative control.
Christian pilgrims sometimes report their surprise at the essentially Arab sense of the town, being different from the somewhat idealised image or idea of Bethlehem that has imprinted itself on people’s minds since childhood via all the enduring religious iconography. In all likelihood Gospel-era Bethlehem probably had that same flavour to it and was nothing like the picture-book fairytale image to be found on Christmas cards.
The Muslim and Christian Palestinian community has lived and worshiped alongside each other devoid of tension or enmity for centuries, with the Church of the Nativity itself hallowed and preserved for Christian use over the centuries. Tolerance and a sense of communal brotherhood has traditionally been a defining feature of Arab Bethlehem, and Bethlehem’s Christians have always reciprocated this spirit of communal occupancy of the Holy Land that has existed between ‘The People of the Book’, with the town’s Muslims often to be found praying inside the Church of the Nativity.
The ‘No taxation without representation’ campaign initiated in Beit Sahour in 1989 helped spark the Palestinian campaigns of civil disobedience that marked the early stages of the First Intifada, lasting around six years. Halfway through the Second Intifada, dozens of Palestinian fighters sought sanctuary in the Church of the Nativity itself; the Israeli siege lasted almost five weeks, with around 200 Christian monks trapped inside the church. At the conclusion, the church’s bell-ringer was killed along with nine Palestinian fighters. That the supposed birthplace of Jesus had become a violent siege location might’ve surprised some, but Bethlehem remains at the forefront of the Palestinian national movement and identity; an identity that has for the most part been just as Christian as it is Muslim, partly because the Palestinian cause has long been regarded as a secular one by those living it (as opposed to those elsewhere who try to use it in more sectarian terms).
That may change more and more as times goes on, particularly with the violent spread extreme Islamism in the Middle East and the exodus of traditional Christians from parts of the region. The longstanding harmony between Christian and Muslim communities may be something in decline, despite centuries of co-habitation. Palestine might not be exempt from the breakdown in inter-faith relations that is currently occurring in the broader Middle East. There have been reports for some time now of Christians leaving Palestinian territory in large numbers, fleeing both the Israeli occupation and the alleged rise in Islamist attitudes among more zealous Palestinians, this being partly a response to remorseless Israeli aggression and partly a result of events and influences elsewhere in the Middle East and the general spread of horrific geo-political fallout and post-9/11 extremism.
A particularly interesting Washington Post piece last Christmas reported on Vera Baboun, Bethlehem’s first female mayor, who wanted to make the city open to all again, especially to Christian pilgrims and to those Palestinians who had fled. A Christian whose late husband had spent three years in an Israeli prison during the first Intifada, Vera Baboun was calling for Bethlehem’s former community to return home, hoping to restore some of Bethlehem’s previous make-up and spirit.
It seems unlikely, however, that the town will be able to aspire to anything idyllic again for a long time. The state of Bethlehem today is but one symptom of the breakdown in inter-faith relations and social harmony that appears to have been characterising the Middle East in recent years due to various divisive and polarising factors. It’s a sad indictment of our times that, culturally and sociologically speaking, the 21st century is witnessing things going backward rather than forward.
Not that 1st century Bethlehem was likely to have been idyllic either; according to the fable, Mary and Joseph had to knock on a fair few doors before finding anywhere to settle down and even then the best they were offered was allegedly a stable – the spirit of human kindness clearly wasn’t in broad currency even for a pregnant woman, according to the gospel authors. And life under Herod on the one hand and the Romans on the other was clearly no picnic for the Jews then, just like it isn’t for the Palestinian Muslims and Christians today.
In that sense, Bethlehem today might not be too different to what it was two millennia ago.
The clear difference, however, is that any prospective ‘holy family’ trying to make that journey today wouldn’t actually *reach* Bethlehem, given the enormous apartheid wall Israel has erected (aptly satirized in the image at the top of this page, whose source I’ve sadly been unable to definitively identify, though it is commonly attributed to Banksy).
Given the truly abysmal time it has been for Christians in the Middle East in general (and for cultural harmony and co-existence), one also wonders what kind of Christmas will be had by the scores of refugees and forced emigrants from Syria and Iraq; people from literally the oldest Christian communities in the world, whose cultures and communities have been destroyed in recent years due to the rise of violent sectarianism in places where until very recently there had been stability and relative harmony.
Again, things seem to be going backward in the bleakest way. What numerous commentators last year had been calling the ‘End of Christianity’ in the Middle East may mean that the traditional observances of Christmas in those numerous old-world Christian communities may now be over, never to return. Bethlehem will surely hold on and would be the last to fade, particularly if its mayor has anything to do with it. On 5th December the star at the top of the Christmas tree in Bethlehem’s Manger Square was lit, signifying the beginning of the festive season. “We had a message to give to the world,” the Mayor, Vera Baboun, said. “When we lit the tree, we gave a message that we cannot be without hope”.
Much is being made of a recent report that the Palestinian Authority has instructed there be a “certain decrease” in public Christmas celebrations in light of the ongoing wave of violence in Israel and the West Bank. According to an article on a Palestinian website, the Ramallah municipality also announced it will not light its annual Christmas tree due to “the scenes of murder and torture committed by the occupation authorities against our children and our youth.”
This comes shortly after far-right Jewish-Israeli extremists protested a Christmas bazaar and celebration in Jerusalem. Some in Israel suggest the Palestinian Authority is simply creating a false impression of Israeli suppression of Christmas in order to garner more sympathy and that the numbers of Christians supposedly leaving Palestinian territory are a reflection of the increasing Islamisation of the Palestinian movement and not Israeli state oppression. Christians, some argue, are perfectly comfortable in Israel itself and are not fleeing. The truth might lay somewhere between the two.
Either way, it’s fascinating to note that 2,000 years after the fabled Nativity that ensured Bethlehem’s immortality, the political and social situation in this old place seems to be eerily similar in many ways to what we’re told it was back then.