Sixty years ago this week an Anglo-America group on a visit to the Holy Land decided to invite two Palestinian Christian children to participate in a narration/radio-recording of the Biblical account of Christ’s birth. To add local color (in the form of authentic live native props), the guidelines specified that the children had to be Jerusalemite Palestinian Christians. While the faces of the three-member committee appear as opaquely blurred portraits, to two eleven year old Palestinian children living in Israeli-occupied West Jerusalem the events that occurred on the morning of December 23, 1956 (60 years to the day) are as vivid today as they were sixty years ago.
And I can’t remember whether these Ajaneb (foreigners) were tourists, American/British missionaries, or members of a fact-finding ligation to the Holy Land.
In search of indigenous, native-born Palestinian Christian children to participate in a one hour radio program to be recorded and beamed on the BBC and The Voice of America on Christmas Day 1956, someone suggested that the Halaby twins fit the bill.
And thus it was that my Twin brother and I were recruited to read from the Gospel of Mathew (Mathew 1:18-25) and the Gospel of Luke (Luke 2:1-20) – two differing accounts of Jesus’ birth. These texts are the only New Testament accounts that narrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. Succinct and journalistic in style, the Mathew account, compacted into 8 verses, highlights Joseph’s dilemma at finding out that his betrothed was pregnant; the angel’s assurance of Devine design; and the nomenclature (Emmanuel/God with us) by which this immaculately conceived child would heretofore be recognized. Drawn out into a verbal canvas 20 verses long, Luke’s account includes the census ordered by Cesar Augustus in his Pax Romana Empire; Joseph and Mary’s jaunt from Nazareth to Beit Lahem, the small village from which Joseph’s Jewish ancestors came; the manger scene; angels; and shepherds. There is no doubt in my mind that Luke’s panoramic account inspired tens of thousands of musical compositions, paintings, mosaics, frescos, and carvings that were created (and continue to be created) in every medium, genre, and style.
While the vilification (by the media, politicians, and xenophobes) of Near Easterners clad in traditional attire (full length robes and kaffiehs), is a twelve month routine and epithets are brazenly expressed by preachers, politicians, and deplorables on both sides of the aisle (rag heads, towel heads, pajama mamas, camel jockeys, goat chasers, desert rats/monkeys, cockroaches, sand fleas, sand niggers), I find it ironic that for three weeks in December church and school-sponsored programs stage Christmas pageants and musicals in which an assortment of Near Eastern garb becomes a most fashionable and respected haute couture. An assortment of old sheets, towels, and garishly disposed colorful linens and cloth scraps are retrieved from garage closets and/or salvaged from Goodwill bins to fashion some of the most bizarre and comically humorous costumes.
And many are the parents who boastfully post photos of their children as angels, shepherds, wise men, Joseph, and the plum character, that of Mary, holding a made-in China baby doll in her arms. Three weeks ago a tiny rural Arkansas community Missionary Baptist church staged a live three-day “A Night in Bethlehem” affair, including a teaser that “Refreshments will be served.” According to Brother Hollis McDermott, pastor of said church, “We have a city that we built to try to duplicate Bethlehem. … Animals and booths will be on site and the participants will dress like the people in the days of Jesus. [And the public was assured that] “There is no charge to [them].” Further, added Brother McDermott: “We have a manger scene. When people come through, we give them money they used back then, shekels, that they can use at the booths.”
Woah! Didn’t Jesus drive the money changers out of the temple?
And I have no doubt that similar church and communal reenactments of the nativity narrative, with all the pageantry that imaginations can conjure, are staged from coast to coast.
Under Jordanian control, in 1956 (and for centuries), Beit Lahem was a thriving Palestinian town, and people were able to move freely from the field where, according to tradition, the angels appeared to the shepherds. The Christmas parade in which Christian and Muslim Palestinian children participated was a joyous event, and the services at the Church of the Holy Nativity, officiated by Palestinian Patriarchs and Archimandrites, affirmed the hopes and dreams of a post WWII world; then there was much joy, hope, and anticipation that perchance the U.N. and the U.S. would undo the 1948 calamity that befell Palestinians as a result of the dastardly Holocaust and the heavy price of dispossession for which the other victims, the Palestinians, paid dearly to help expiate the guilt of a Europe and America whose moral abdication at Hitler’s Dantesque hell is an egregious blight, an unforgivable Cain’s mark of shame.
And just a short trip up the road from Beit Lahem, a worshipper or tourist was able to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulture, the Mount of Olives, the Garden Tomb, the Garden of Gethsemane, Golgotha, the Via de la Rosa, The Al-Aksa mosque and, for the more daring, a trip to Jericho and the Jordan River where, if one so desired, one could be baptized in the cold and pristine waters that nourished the Jordan Valley for centuries.
While the majority of Americans perceive Beit Lahem, Jerusalem, and Palestine as a 2000 year-old frozen, faded slide during a picturesquely quaint, archaic, and made-for-Hollywood set/epoch, today’s Jerusalem and Beit Lahem are, as they were in Roman times, under one of the most brutal occupations on the face of this earth.
During Rome’s occupation of Palestine the Romans were considered as privileged Cives Romani – citizens with full Roman rights, including full legal protection and property rights. A better description would be a first class citizenship. On the other hand, the Jewish, Palestinian and Judean citizens were at an inferior third class citizen level. A similar social stratification exists in today’s Israel, the occupied Gaza and West Bank. At the top of the pyramid are European Jews (Ashkenazi), followed by Oriental Jews (Sephardic), succeeded by Ethiopian Jews and others. The Palestinians are way down the pyramid, ranked as 6th or 7th class citizenship.
Palestinian worshippers have to apply, weeks in advance, for permits to attend services at the holy Bethlehem and Jerusalem (Christian/Muslim) holy sites. An application is never guaranteed, and dejection, like a mortal wound, is very painful. And, if permission is granted, having to go through check points designed by a vindictive occupying force is one of the most humiliating experiences. The metal guard rails and fences are no different from the German concentration camps’ fences and holding pens. Worshippers are questioned, demeaned, strip searched, yelled at by 18 year old border machine-gun toting guards/police whose hatred and demeanor is no different from the German guards who taunted their Jewish victims. Old men and women are humiliated and a plethora of curses are showered like toxic rain drops.
And just as the Romans brutalized the natives of 1st century Palestine, today’s occupiers are destroying Palestinian homes on a daily basis. I’d venture to say that Roman occupation was infinitely more benign than the Israeli occupation.
Fearing that the Christ-child was a threat to his authority, Herod ordered the massacre of all new-born males in Bethlehem, a theme that has been depicted in some of the most powerful Renaissance and Baroque paintings under the title The Massacre of the Innocents. In like manner, under Netanyahu’s xenophobic tyranny, and on a weekly basis, Palestinian children are either killed, maimed, or brutalized by zealot soldiers and Settlers bent on ethnically cleansing what’s left of Palestine.
For the readers who doubt the aforementioned, a quick You Tube search provides a plethora of videos on how Israelis use Palestinian children as human shields, how Palestinian children are tortured, arrested, detained, interrogated, and threatened. Two videos are perhaps the best examples of this vicious abuse of children. The first depicts an Israeli border guard bragging about the pleasure he derives from harassing young Palestinian school children, and the other depicts three Israeli soldiers stealing a child’s bike and throwing it in a thicket. Add insult to injury, the child and his siblings/friends (barely 6 & 7 years of age) are mercilessly taunted by the thuggish bullies.
Oh, Dear God, please forgive them (and their Arab counterparts), for they know exactly what they are doing! Over 450 Palestinian children are held in Israeli prisons, a revolving door process whose sole intention is to humiliate and break the spirits of the most innocent in Palestinian society.
While for the Romans Egypt was the granary on which they depended to feed the antsy masses of Rome lest they rise up and torch Rome, Palestine was the final destination of the Silk road caravans from whence spices, silk, gold, and precious gems made their way to help maintain Rome’s opulent and extravagantly hedonistic lifestyle. Chi, Ching, Pax Romana. Pax Denarius.
And for the U.S., Egypt and Israel are garrisons and forward outposts to plunder the mineral resources of the region — with subserviently complicit thuggish regional sheiks and brutal tyrants who are no different from Herod and his ilk. Chi Ching! Chi Ching, Pax Americana!! Pax the Shekel/dollar.
Surrounded by 25 foot walls on three sides and massive guard towers with the best electronic surveillance equipment (more like cyclopean intrusively peering eyes) in the world, today’s Beit Lahem is indeed a Little Town constricted to a meager 6 square miles due to Israel’s banditry of Palestinian lands – compliments of U.S. tax dollars.
And yes, how still we see thee lie, O Beit Lahem, for in thy dark streets no light shineth because the hopes and fears of all 49 years ofoccupation are [not] met in thee tonight. Today we see Beit Lahem as a ghetto in which the hopes and dreams [of 49 year] have beenshattered.
As the world celebrates a Silent night, and a holy night I want to wish all Counterpunch readers across the globe A Merry Christmas / And aHappy New Year. And my earnest prayer, on this 2016 august Holy Night, is a special prayer for all the children of the world who shiver in the cold, especially the refugees, the hungry, the abused, the maimed, and the dispossessed. May you Sleep in heavenly peace. And may All ye faithful make this a joyful and triumphant season so that people of good will and all faiths sing in unison O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehemto help alleviate the woes of sin and strife/The world hath suffered [for so] long in all the Beit Lahem’s of our world.
Little did my twin brother, Ramzy, and I imagine that four years after leaving the recording room at Jerusalem’s St. Louis’ Monastery of Notre Dame in the Musrara district of Jerusalem we would find refuge in America to enjoy the freedoms and dignity we were denied under Israeli occupation.
Until the chains of a brutal occupation of Palestine are unshackled, my joy has been, and will continue to be, dampened by the plight of my people, the noble people of Palestine.