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Commentary

My Bethlehem Experience

Alison Weir
CounterPunch
December 12, 2005

Bethlehem Card

Last night at something called “The Bethlehem Experience,” a local church’s reenactment of Bethlehem 2000 years ago, I handed out “Bethlehem Christmas cards” designed by Quakers in Michigan. These wonderful cards have a photo of the Israeli wall imprisoning Bethlehem on one side and information on the situation in Bethlehem on the other, including the website www.openbethlehem.org . The wall photo shows a painting on the wall of a young girl holding balloons that are carrying her aloft and over the wall to freedom www.banksy.co.uk.

There were only four of us (plus one young girl), and we tried to act as respectfully and mildly as possible, endeavoring not to interfere with the event, the commemoration of a birth that holds deep meaning for us. The idea was simple: we would approach people in their cars as they joined the line inching toward the church’s drive-through experience, wish them a Merry Christmas, explain that we were not part of the official event (while commenting that it was a wonderful event), and tell them that we were there to give them some information about Bethlehem today, during which we would hand them one of our cards.

We felt this was a valuable addition to what otherwise would have been a breathtakingly hypocritical and exploitative event: a pageant in which American Christians would dress up as people in a far-off land, while ignoring the pleas of those people today for help against their oppression – oppression being funded by their costumed imitators. Having personally visited Bethlehem and having seen the wall with which Israel is imprisoning and devastating the people through the use of our tax money, we felt morally obligated to be there.

Most people took our cards with the good will with which they were being proffered and began to read them immediately. When we mentioned that we were there to tell about what was happening to people in Bethlehem today they would look surprised and ask, “What’s happening?” When two people mentioned that they had visited Bethlehem and we asked if they had seen the wall, they responded: “What wall?” It turned out that they had visited many years before and, like most Americans, had no idea that Israel was building a wall around Bethlehem.

Sadly, the church’s pastor was furious at our efforts, and sent an assistant to try to prevent us from handing out our Christmas cards. Somewhat frantic, this woman began running up to cars, telling people to ignore us, that we were “solicitors,” and compared us to the poor people of Tijuana who apparently ask to clean people’s windshields in return for small sums of money.

While most people seemed to maintain their civility, her actions caused a few people – most of whom identified themselves as members of the church – to be somewhat rude to us. Sadly, several times I would then respond in disgust – a lapse I’m unhappy about. For example, one woman said that we were being “inappropriate.” I asked her the verse in the New Testament that speaks about being “appropriate,” and told her that I thought the message brought 2,000 years ago was about helping the poor and oppressed and caring about others.

Another member of the church, the official greeter (interestingly, dressed as a Roman Centurion), periodically came over to me when I was standing alone, towering over me, and would call me extremely obscene names and make crude sexual comments. I learned later that he did this with the other woman as well. I was sorry to discover this morning that some of this was done within earshot of the young girl who had been to Bethlehem some months ago and was at this event with her father.

A couple in one car that I approached to give a card turned out to be Israeli. While the woman was wonderfully open and spoke of wanting peace, her husband shouted at her to “shut up,” said he had been in the Israeli Army, and stated that he wished he could go back and “shoot more people.”

If I had been more alert I should have suggested that he help me put on a reenactment of Bethlehem today to accompany the church’s reenactment of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.

The church is holding this event again tonight. We had originally planned to go both nights. At this point I’m undecided about whether to return, and I doubt anyone else will want to come. I still have cards left over, however, and Bethlehem is still under siege. I’ll probably go.

The Sequel:
My Bethlehem Experience, Reportback #2

I did go back last night to hand out my “Bethlehem Today Christmas cards” at a local church’s reenactment of Bethlehem 2000 years ago. (This time alone, since the others had previous commitments). Once again my experience was mixed.

The frantic woman, again dressed as a Palestinian in head scarf and robe, continued hurrying ahead to warn people of me. I don’t know what she said, but it caused a tiny fraction to drive by with their windows up, looking straight ahead and appearing uncomfortable and/or angry as I wished them a Merry Christmas. Occasionally I would add a Peace on Earth or a Good Will Toward Men. They would shake their heads.

Most people, of course, simply became curious and lowered their windows as I approached. I smiled and wished them a Merry Christmas, and they responded in kind. I would then briefly explain something like: “I’m not with this church, but I was in Bethlehem not long ago, and families there asked me to tell Americans about them, so I’m trying. Here’s a small Christmas card of Bethlehem today to go with the celebration of Bethlehem 2000 years ago.” They would thank me for the card, I would thank them, and we would both proceed on our ways, smiling.

I tried to stay away from the Roman Centurion as much as possible, not wishing to replicate my previous experience with him. He did come up to me, however, informing me that the church had called the police to have me arrested and had been told that they could arrest me if I blocked traffic, etc. He seemed extremely eager to have me taken away in handcuffs, but since nothing I was doing was even remotely illegal his dream remained unrealized.

The previous evening someone had taken a bag full of booklets I had brought along in case anyone was interested in learning more about Israel Palestine. They were quite heavy and the plastic bag had begun cutting into my arm, so I had finally placed them on the ground; they weren’t the kind of thing you would normally worry about getting stolen.

But they were. At the end of the evening I had told Woman Who Warns that someone had stolen my property and asked for it back. It was probably about $30 to $40 worth of material. She said that taking a bag on the sidewalk was not stealing. This was interesting. I then went up to their plastic bag full of cassette tapes for the Experience and reached for it. She grabbed it out of my hands. Another woman, this one also dressed as a Palestinian, said: “That’s stealing!” I told her I agreed, and commented that I would probably report the theft of my property to the police. Of course, if I had done this, very little would have happened. The report, however, would have appeared in the police log, which local newspapers often publish.

Happily, last night Woman Who Warns told me she had, miraculously, “found” the bag! She returned it to me.

A little later a man dressed as a shepherd came up to me as I handed out my Bethlehem cards a block away from the church and said angrily, “You’re not invited to the party!” I was startled, but then appreciative. He had nicely crystallized the nature of the event. I wonder who else wouldn’t have been invited. I can’t imagine John the Baptist receiving an invitation, or Peter, or – probably least of all – the one whose birth this “shepherd” was partying around.

On the other hand, most people were friendly and their children sweet. Several people asked with concern about what was going on in Bethlehem today. One woman, having been warned of me, rolled down her window and even before I’d had a chance to greet her, thanked me for being there. Another woman asked for an extra card. A man asked me for a stack. He attended another church nearby, he said, and wanted to take them back to the congregation. He said that they already had things from Jerusalem, and would be pleased to pass these out.

It was a good evening.

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Bethlehem Cards

Videos & Multimedia

Amnesty International Video:
Dina Goor, Yesh Din

3/20/2004 demonstration in Karbatha, Palestine – activists shot

Watch International Court of Justice’s Hearings on Barrier

UK Guardian Interactive Graphic on Wall

View footage from 2/6/2004 demonstration at Georgetown University, USA

View footage from 12/26/2003 demonstration in Mas’ha, West Bank—Israeli activist, Gil Ne’amati, is shot

View footage from 11/9/2003 demonstration in Ramallah, West Bank

View footage from 11/9/2003 demonstration in Zbuba, West Bank

MORE footage from 11/9/2003 demonstration in Zbuba, West Bank

News Without Borders 8/24/2003 Presentation on Israel’s Wall

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Additional Resources

Booklet – The Wall Must Fall

Documentary – The Israeli Wall in Palestinian Lands

Poster

International Court of Justice Ruling

Electronic Intifada on the Wall

Palestine Monitor on the Wall

Organizations

Stop the Wall

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