Waking up in Bethlehem the day before Christmas Eve. I don’t think I’ve been in a sadder place.
It’s Palestinian territory, landlocked in the West Bank, surrounded by walls designed by Israelis to keep terror and violence where they belong, which, they are determined, will not be in Israel.
The day before, we arrived shortly before Friday prayers were finished at the local mosques. We had switched guides from Amir to his friend Elias, a Palestinian Christian, because Amir is not allowed by the Israeli government to go into what they call Zone A. Zone A is Palestinian territory, so deep into the West Bank that the army cannot guarantee his safety. So we met at a roundabout just at the border in Zone B and were handed off like passengers on a strange underground railway.
The zones are based on what was meant to be an interim agreement pieced together in 1995 under Bill Clinton’s administration. Talks on a final settlement were planned to begin “as soon as possible” but not later than May of 1996 .
Under the temporary plan Palestinians would have control of Zone A, and some rights in Zone B while Zone B, and C would remain under Israeli control. The Zone A regions are unconnected, isolated Palestinian islands that would eventually be linked by Palestinian authority over Zones B and C. The expectation was that with a final peace agreement, approximately 90% of the West Bank would be transferred to a new Palestinian state.
That final agreement never came and the people living in the region are trapped in a system few of them want and none can escape. The isolated islands of Palestinians remain isolated and because their anger and frustration has boiled over and resulted in violence that their leaders cannot control, the borders are now walls that are monitored by the Israeli army and travel between zones, if permitted, means crossing army checkpoints. At each checkpoint a Palestinian is seen by the nervous young army soldier guarding it as a potential suicide bomber, each soldier seen by the Palestinians as an affront to their humanity. It’s an untenable situation that they struggle to maintain.
Friday evenings when prayers are finished and sermons have angered the congregants on the current indignity or injustice is when protests are most likely to happen. In Bethlehem they happen by the Israeli guard station on the local portion of the dividing wall. Elias points out that the protesters are after a reaction from the army and attention from reporters. The rest of Bethlehem will be safe because there is no one there to call attention to the protesters’ cause. If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, it makes no noise.
The wall follows a path that looks like a crazily gerrymandered congressional district in the US., following loosely the map that Clinton drew up. In Bethlehem the wall comes right into the city, leaving one large house with a wall-view on three sides. On this mid-city wall the Palestinians have created a living museum of stories of how they have been treated by the Israelis and the United States, two entities that are more or less synonymous to them, especially after Trump has announced that the US recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel — a move the UN countries condemned by a large margin, despite Trump threats of consequences if they rebuked him.
Of course, western Jerusalem is for all intents and purposes the Israeli capital since the Knesset (the parliament) is there as is the prime minister’s residence. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem (something Trump did not mention.) But the final status of Jerusalem has been understood by previous presidents to be something the two states will negotiate. Trump’s announcement seems to preempt that decision and is the cause of the anger that fuels this Friday’s protests.
Elias offers to give us a closer glimpse of the protests. We have already seen preparations. Journalists in flak jackets waiting the end of prayers, army personnel on alert at the portion of the wall where the hostilities will occur.
The only real danger is breathing whiffs of tear gas carried by an errant wind, but our friends opt out of that unappealing tourist experience and we stay safely away.
I can see the plumes of smoke in the distance though. Black smoke when the protesters burn rubber tires.
White smoke when the army responds with tear gas.
It seems oddly routine. Residents know what will happen when and plan their errands around the wind, leaning out of car windows to ask each other where the tear gas is likely to be bad, or warning of fumes ahead. We make more than one detour.
We go a safe portion of the wall (no guards there to taunt) — the one that has been transformed into a piece of street art. It’s moving and terrifying and occasionally funny (a sign dubs it “Wall Street) and there are caricatures and jokes that I don’t always get, including two enormous deeply cartoonish images of Trump.
Reading the stories on the wall brings tears to my eyes. I’ve just spent a week in Israel and I understand the Israeli point of view on the existential need for a Jewish state (“if we don’t have one, we are dead”) but this is the hard consequence of maintaining that state. An entire people barricaded inside walls that keep them isolated from the world.
Elias tells us, “Walls don’t create peace. They are a way to control people, create fear, make them go to their worst leaders. A wall says stay away, behind this there is a monster.”
We go through a museum in a hotel called “The Walled Off Hotel” (that odd streak of humor again.).
The museum is tiny, crammed into a minute space, but packs an outsize punch. Lots of horror, black humor, and pain.
A short clip of a film called Five Broken Cameras tells a gripping first person narrative about a man with a video camera trying to document what happens to his village and his friends when they resist. Through his eyes they are genuinely kind people objecting to their experience of being denied basic human dignity and respect by the Israeli army. They are tear-gassed, shot, jailed. It’s hard not to share his vision. I bought the CD of the full 90 minute documentary that was nominated for an Academy Award.
I leave the museum ahead of the others. Shaky from lack of food and reeling from the graphic images I am haunted by a sense of deja vu. I finally, ironically, identify it. I felt just like this leaving the Anne Frank museum in Amsterdam.
I need to eat something or I will pass out and we have a truly delicious lunch just a few yards away from the museum in the hotel lobby. I have a mocktail whose name I forget (“General Somebody”), made of lemonade, lemon, and sumac. It was fantastic. I’ve never considered sumac as an ingredient in a drink, but I am all in. Salads, hummus, peanuts, bread. We are physically restored, if emotionally still shaken.
Lunch is a punctuation mark, separating our role as witnesses to an occupation the Palestinians view as a travesty of justice and our role as tourists in a place that Christian pilgrims consider sacred.
Ironically, again, the crowds that usually immobilize traffic at this time of year and that congest the churches are largely missing, frightened away by the violence TV reporters record, by fear of reaction to Trump’s announcement. The protesters are making a serious dent in the incomes of people largely dependent on tourism and clearing our path to the sacred spots.
First we stop for kanefeh, at a place Elias, who is struggling with his weight, says is the best. Nobody but me wants any but he orders two pieces, “his treat.” I eat one, he eats the other. It was wonderful. We are both struggling with our weight.
Then on to the Church of the Nativity. Half orthodox, half Catholic, with the holiest places underground in caves. The churches had stunning nooks and crannies.
The Bible provides pretty specific guidance about where Mary and Joseph ended up the night Jesus was born. On a trek to be counted in the census, they stopped to stay with one of Joseph’s relatives. There wasn’t room upstairs where the family lived so the guests were housed downstairs with the animals.
It is no longer rustic. The spot where Mary gave birth is in a small enclosure in the cave, marked with a gold star on the floor, as if the baby Jesus was a theatrical celebrity being recognized on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Elaborate lights hang over the star. People crawl in to kiss the star, dodging the lights, while their friends take photos of them. Then they switch. It takes a while for even our short queue to get to it.
The manger too, is a disconnect. A stone enclosure that holds hay for the animals, part of it has been taken to another church and part is behind a beautiful, glittering golden grate. A painting of Mary, Joseph and a swaddled Jesus is behind the grate if you can see it.
There is a gilt altar where the three wisemen offered up their gifts.
The words of a million Christmas carols have painted this spot as the beautiful, cozy, human beginning of a man who would walk the earth teaching and demonstrating humility, mercy, and love. Little towns, singing angels, sighing donkeys, shining stars — all seem to have little to do this larded up testimony to humankind’s ability to acquire riches and use them to glorify themselves.
I am probably not in the frame of mind to be social, but we leave the church and head to the family home where we are having dinner and spending the night. It’s an apartment building owned by the family, a grandmother in one unit, aunts and uncles in others.
Our hosts are warm and welcoming, lovely people. A husband who is an administrator in a local hospital, his kindergarten teacher wife. They have four gorgeous children aged 27 to the late teens, all with huge dark eyes, strong, dramatic features, luxuriant brown hair.
The older, handsome son keeps largely to himself but the three lovely daughters spend time with us, chatting in near perfect English. The oldest got a masters degree in public policy and political action in France and is delaying her Ph.D. because she wanted to come home. The youngest is still in school.
The beautiful middle daughter almost died of complications from an undiagnosed case of myasthenia gravis last year. The local doctors could not figure out what was wrong and even as she was near death they could not get a permit to take her to Jerusalem, 30 minutes away. Finally they were advised to stop asking permission and just go. They packed her and her mom into a taxi with yellow plates (allowing the driver to enter Israel) and prayed that she would get through the checkpoint. The soldier didn’t even stop them, something her father, who wasn’t with them, considers a true miracle. “A miracle!” he repeats. He believes it.
When they got her to emergency care she was diagnosed right away and admitted to the ICU. A two week stay in an Israeli hospital, where her father’s Palestinian insurance didn’t apply, cost them $30,000 they didn’t have. The dad managed to get his employer to guarantee the debt and now he pays it back, tying up his future. A request for a referral that would defray the cost is rejected by the local government. Someone tells them they can’t help him because he is Christian, and his church should help. The church has no help to offer.
He feels squeezed, by the Israelis on one side, and his fellow Palestinians who are Muslims on the other. The opportunities for his kids are limited, he can’t protect them when they are ill, and his family has owned a house across from the Church of the Nativity for 400 years and he doesn’t want to move away. He doesn’t think he should have to.
Instead he spends his time on the internet and finds reasons to support his conviction that America’s elite conspire with his own political leaders and Israel’s for their personal enrichment, at the expense of his. He believes that American politicians were behind the 9/11 attacks and shows us internet ”proof.” When we disagree he humors us as if we are the ones proposing an insane conspiracy theory.
He was glad when Trump was elected even though he knows he is crazy. He thinks maybe he will make something happen and at this point he would welcome any change at all. It is better than his life as it is.
We hear this story over dinner, a typical Palestinian family meal. Rice, chicken, roasted vegetables, which would normally be combined and cooked as a single dish but the mom had a “sixth sense” that one of us would be a vegetarian and they say she is never wrong. She wasn’t.
We also have an eggplant spread, a variation on one we have had with many meals. Salad with tomatoes and cucumbers, olives they have cured themselves and pickled cauliflower.
For dessert there are sweet oranges and tangerines.
It’s clear that we are sleeping in a room belonging to one or more of the girls. A school schedule is on a post-it stuck to the desk. In English it lists dates for exams and quizzes. The shelves are filled with books in five languages. The mattresses are firm and covered in warm fleecy sheets.
At breakfast, mom and dad are already off to work. The oldest daughter (the only one there) presides over a table of bread, hard boiled eggs, labne, hummus, olive oil, za’atar and apricot jam. I love apricot jam. Spread on pita with tart labne it is a variation on one of my favorite breakfasts.
Our hostess is a stunning young woman. Brainy as can be, poised, confident, with a look in her eyes way too old for her 26 years. Fluent in at least three languages. In the States she could write her ticket, do anything she wanted. Even in Israel she would have open horizons. Instead she’s given up work on her Ph.D. (“Just for now,” she says. “Maybe when I am thirty…”). She is working for a local NGO and applying for her guiding license. She does not say so but I am guessing by the timing of her decision that she came home to help support the family when her younger sister got sick.
She talks with us a long while, friendly and funny in a guarded way, as if she is used to sectioning off a piece of herself. Her face goes blank only when she discusses her interactions with Israeli soldiers stationed at the check points.
They strip her of her humanity, treating her as the threat that she might just possibly be instead of the beautiful person we are having breakfast with. I’ve talked with enough Israelis to know that the danger they face is real and they dare not ignore it, but the collateral damage is in her face. Her eyes go dead, reflecting fathoms of anger at being seen as less than a human being. She tells us of a time when she is traveling with people who can move freely and they are all waved through the checkpoint, but when it’s her turn the soldier barks at her “Where are you from?” Something snaps. “Where are you from?” she responds. She knows it was foolish. If she looked half as cold and angry in that moment as she does telling us about it, I am surprised he didn’t shoot her.
Breakfast over, we piled in the car, saw the Shepherds’ Fields (where they watched their flocks by night), went to watch Elias’s adorable daughter (dressed as a tiny elf) sing at the kindergarten pageant at the American School and were handed off to Amir at the roundabout.
Writing this has been hard. It’s Christmas Eve now. Sunset, with a crescent moon.
Darkness has just fallen and the stars will soon be out, like they were on a clear night some 2000 plus years ago.
An Indiana friend just texted me from Florida that he is at the hospital alone with his gravely ill mom a long way from home, and my eyes tear and my heart aches. Not for his mom, bless her, she’s old and probably ready whenever it’s time.
It’s just that being human is sometimes so damn painful and difficult and yet so damn beautiful and glorious and we are only sometimes up to the task of living it with grace and wisdom.
Guess that’s why we are always on the look-out for saviors.
Merry Christmas, everyone.