The Pernicious Walls in Bethlehem, Palestine, and Around the World

As the countdown for the 2018 Christmas festivities begins, the tiny Palestinian village of Beit Lahem (Arabic for Bethlehem/House of Bread), is in its 51st year of a brutal occupation.

Not unlike previous occupiers, the Israelis, employing the most sophisticated surveillance technology, are ruling Palestine with the harshest, most hateful, and most egregiously atrocious laws enacted by an Israeli regime bent on legislating their detestable policies of apartheid.

And as I write, the thousands of tourists flocking to Beit Lahem fail to recognize Israel’s brutality. Blinded by religious zeal and led by Israeli tour guides and born-again Christian Zionists, modern day tourists are marshalled through Palestine and Beit Lahem in a well-orchestrated brainwashing spin overseen by the Israeli government’s ministry of tourism whose motto is: Israelis Good, Palestinians Bad Terrorists.

To enter Beit Lahem, pilgrims have to go through a monstrous wall even more grotesque than the infamous Berlin Wall. To justify the restrictions on Palestinians and Israel’s theft of Palestinian lands, tourists are told that the 26 foot-high wall and peering watch towers are there for their own security.

In Israel and Palestine the term security covers a wide range of fuzzy meanings. These include: demolishing homes, killing innocent civilians, stealing land, defacing churches and mosques, cutting down olive trees by the hundreds, preventing farmers from harvesting their crops/burning their fields, throwing smoke/stun grenades into schools, humiliating check points, preventing cancer patients from getting much-need treatment, bombing entire neighborhoods, building Jews-only highways, and starving 5.4 million Palestinians (“putting them on a diet,” as the Butcher of Lebanon, Ariel Sharon, once stated).

The Scriptures tell us that Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to participate in the first census ordered by Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus; Publius Sulpicious Quirinius, then Roman governor of Syria, executed said order.

The scripture also tells us that Joseph took Mary, his betrothed, to Beit Lahem, to participate in the census. You gotta hand it to Joseph. Here was a carpenter (no doubt much older than the young – 14/16 year-old Mary) who steadfastly and faithfully carried his very pregnant wife and trekked the 90 odd miles from Nazareth to Beit Lahem.

At a time when the harsh Hebraic castigation for out-of-wedlock pregnancies was death by stoning (the Old Testament is replete with narratives of this orgiastic barbarity for a voluminous number of man-concocted infractions), Joseph stood by his woman to the very end. And somehow as the Christmas story is told, over and over again, Joseph always appears as an extra in a drama that has mesmerized humanity for over two-thousand years.

The images of this arduous journey have been celebrated in voluminous egg tempera on wood panels, oil on canvas paintings, mosaics, and frescos in every size, style, and color. Joseph is almost always depicted as an older, bearded man leading an ass on whose blanket-covered spine sits a young maiden. Visual representations of the Nativity scene seem to always focus on Mary and the infant child (Prince of Peace). Joseph seems to appear as an afterthought tending to sheep and cows in a manger strewn with, what else, but hay.

When I was a child living in the southwest Jerusalem suburb of Upper Baqaa, Palestine, and just up the street from what was known as the Jerusalem/Bethlehem Road, I’d traverse this historic road, all the way from the train station to the then Jordanian border. For some reason I imagined this stretch of the final leg of Joseph and Mary’s trip as perhaps the most serene stretch. The distance between Jerusalem and Bethlehem is approximately 6 miles. Leaving Jerusalem from the southwest side of the city walls, the land flattens into a placid and inviting plateau and rolls ever so gently into Biet Lahem. To the east of this road lies the Shepherds’ Field where, according to tradition, the angels appeared to the shepherds.

Because of its strategic location in the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea, Palestine has always been a coveted piece of real estate.

Palestine’s topography is a mixture of lush green fertile north-to-south coastal plains, a fertile Jaleel (Arabic for Galilee) region, a north-to-south mountainous terrain to the east, and arid deserts to the south. The Jordan River forms the eastern border of Palestine and feeds into the 1,412 feet below sea level body of water better known as the Dead Sea.

Because Palestine was the last land break off of the ancient Silk Road and the point of maritime embarkation to the Mediterranean Sea basin, it has been a much hankered-over, land-grabbing salacious obsession for foreign invaders.

Throughout history the Egyptians, Israelites, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Crusaders, Ottomans, Brits, and Israelis have conquered Palestine, often leaving nothing but destruction, misery, and death in the wake of their conquests. The Crusaders were the worst of these invaders; under the orders of Pope Urban II, in the name of the Christian God, and bearing the crucifix, these barbaric Europeans slaughtered Arabs (including Christian Arabs) and Jews. Ibn al-Qalanisi, a chronicler of these times and other European chroniclers, inform us that even the beasts were not spared, that every tree within Jerusalem’s city walls was cut down, and that the blood flowed freely in the streets and alleyways of Al Quds ( Jerusalem), the Holy City of Peace, in whose environs, the Prince of Peace, by then a man in his early thirties, preached his message of love, harmony, forgiveness, tolerance, compassion, and genuine care and respect, especially for the down and out.

Which brings me to this: The little Drummer Boy has morphed into a brutal perpetual war mongering adult; Joy has been robbed from the world, especially from the weak, oppressed, and the 65+ million refugees around the world; the many faithful are flocking to the shopping centers; climate change is creeping on a midnight not so clear; there are no Wise Men in the East or, for that matter, anywhere around the world; and the Little Town of Beit Lahem, even under dire circumstances, is beckoning us, on this Silent Night, to come together as faithful citizens of this world, women and men of good will and peace on earth.

The walls, those dastardly barriers that have been built over the centuries are still an obsession. And the walls of the mind, more pernicious than mortar and steel, should come tumbling down.

Isn’t this what this season is all about?

Raouf J. Halaby is a Professor Emeritus of English and Art. He is a writer, photographer, sculptor, an avid gardener, and a peace activist.