Seeking the past in a land with an overwhelming present can be challenging, and ever more so in the extremely compact city of Bethlehem. Part seven of Yuval Ben-Ami’s journey.
If you want the world to hate you, turn Bethlehem into a prison. I can’t fully fathom why my government wants the world to hate it (and me), but this is exactly what it has been doing in a lengthy, gradual process that has only intensified over the past decade.
The separation barrier runs along the northern edge of the city. A monstrous concrete wall hugs the urban core like the arm of a tango dancer, embracing the hip of his partner. On other sides, a double electric fence skirts former farmhouses, separating them from their former lands. To the south, a cluster of settlements constitutes off-limits terrain for Bethlehem residents. To the east and west of the town run the carefully watched bypass roads that serve these settlements.
The besieged area is roughly the size of Brooklyn’s Flatbush neighborhood. People here joke that in Bethlehem you never have to switch out of first gear. It’s not really a joke, actually.
Oh, and this is where Jesus was born, and King David, too. The latter left no interesting monument for visitors to enjoy, while the former is celebrated by a truly fascinating church, the oldest on earth; a beautiful building that once stirred a major world war. Here pilgrims and tourists can visit the site of the manger itself, and in the cave in which St. Jerome translated the bible, and in the nave of St. Catherine, the site where the midnight mass is held each Christmas, and on and on and on.
Now count to three and say which is more interesting to you: Jesus or the occupation? You don’t have to say it out loud. Faith and political convictions are both personal, but one would assume that not everyone reading this murmured “Jesus.”
It appears that within the past 10 years Israel has actually built a monument in Bethlehem that rivals the 1,700-year-old Church of the Nativity. Not bad. Not bad.
The omnipresent present
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