As millions of Christians around the world sing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” this Advent and Christmas. If you visit Bethlehem today, you would see that it is indeed still, but not in that Christmas-y way. The hopes and fears of all the years are real and have been made worse by a years of conflict and a massive concrete wall.
Four years ago this week, I journeyed with a group of fellow American Baptists and a group from the Church of the Brethren on a goodwill-peace and perspectives trip to Israel and Palestine, which was organized by The Telos Group. It was a trip that went beyond visiting holy sites but sought to understand the conflict in Israel firsthand. If you enter into Bethlehem from Jerusalem, you are greeted by a Cold War like military wall complete with lookout towers, rusted fortifications, armed soldiers, and checkpoints. The Berlin Wall was about 12 feet high, but the wall that separates Bethlehem is 25 feet high. To the Israeli government, it’s not a wall, but a barrier to protect against suicide bombers and attacks. Unfortunately, in the minds of many, the terrorist organizations that operate in the West Bank are equal to the average Palestinian. However, not all Palestinians are Muslim. They are Christian as well – and of other faiths.
If you travel along the wall in Bethlehem you’ll read stories and see art work of how the wall has impacted people in Bethlehem…
The stories are stories of death, oppression, injustice, rape, injury, and violence, that accompanies the wall, checkpoints, and military security. There are messages of hope as well.
At one of these checkpoints, our small bus was boarded by four Israel Defense Force soldiers. We were asked by soldiers the nature of our visit from the West Bank into Jerusalem. They asked for our passports. Our bus driver and guides explained that we were Americans on a Christian pilgrimage and visit. As the soldiers pointed their loaded M-16s in our faces, one announced that all the men would have to come with them to be questioned. Our guides were stunned. In all their years of traveling with American groups, such a thing never happened. As the bus driver and soldiers discussed our entry, we sat waiting to hear what was going to happen next. It was extremely tense situation. Thankfully, the lead soldier discovered that our driver had family in the soldier’s hometown and the two continued to talk. This enabled the out-ranking soldier to release us on our way. As we talked to Israelis, Palestinians, and other non-nations on our trip, we found that this checkpoint interaction is common.
The Israeli government is understandably concerned with security. Between rocket attacks, shootings, bus bombings, and other mass casualty attacks, the country has a duty to protect. Certainly, there are enough instances of Palestinian aggression and violence. The unfortunate reality is that some Israeli protection policies fall within a gray area. Due to the vast restrictions on Palestinians, even those Christians from Bethlehem, it has led to border crossings that have included shootings and “harsh conditions of overcrowding, long lines, and cases of humiliation during inspection.” Due to years of persecution, most Christians have left Palestinian towns like Bethlehem for better economic opportunities and basic freedoms.
For some, to object to the treatment of displaced peoples in Bethlehem is to object to Israel. To question any policy of the Israeli government can be seen as anti-Israel or even anti-Christian. We know that Americans question American government policies everyday, but that does not make someone automatically anti-American. It is easy to treat this Middle East challenge as a binary issue, but it is not. For the Israeli-Palestinian conflict there can be a third way. There can be pro-Israeli, pro-Palestinian, and pro-peace solutions. However, it is hard work to find a third way. It is easier to draw lines and pick between two options. The more we draw lines the more we separate ourselves from our neighbor. At the basic human level, all three major world religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, all have some form of teaching or instruction for respect and love for neighbor. This must be considered as a way forward.
For people living in Bethlehem this will be another Christmas that sees continued divide among neighbors. If you sing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem… How still we see thee lie…” remember that modern-day Bethlehem is far from peaceful or still from the imaginary Hallmark Christmas card version. The Bethlehem you do not know and the complex conflict around it requires our prayers, attention, action, and support.