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, or the cave in which St. Jerome translated the bible, or 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 over 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
Milan Kundera’s novel, Life is Elsewhere, tells the life story of a young Czech poet named Jaromil. At one point toward the end of the book, the author halts the narrative, sensing a need to explain a matter of structure. “The first part of this novel encompasses fifteen years of Jaromil’s life,” he explains, “but the fifth part, which is longer, covers barely a year. In this book, therefore, time flows in a tempo opposite the tempo of real life, it slows down.”
Kundera excuses this: “The reason for this is that we are looking at Jaromil from an observatory I have erected at the point of his death. For us his childhood is in the distances, where months merge into years; he has come with his mama from these misty distances right up to the observatory, where everything is visible as the foreground of an old painting, in which the eye can distinguish every leaf on a tree and every leaf’s delicate tracing of vains.” (translated by Aaron Asher)
Most visitors arriving to the Holy Land seek history – that which is far, and history is most often what they get. In truth, there isn’t any real competition between the Wall and the church. Everyone who comes to Bethlehem sees the church, whether they stop by the wall to admire its ugliness or the beauty of the art adorning it, or just zoom through the checkpoint, led by a priest. Then again, no one today can visit the birthplace of Jesus without baring witness to the occupation, whether they approach it via the overwhelming Checkpoint 300, or through the back, using the striking infrastructure of the “Tunnel Road” reserved for Israeli settlers.
The past may be the reason for the journey, but the present is omnipresent, and is as clear as the foreground of an old painting. The past, meanwhile, will forever remain in the misty distances, small like a far-off figure beheld from an observatory. The star marking the place of Jesus’ birth has the diameter of a human arm. The Wall at Checkpoint 300 is 27 feet tall.
I am sure that many pilgrims, having invested a fair portion of their life savings in what simply must result in a spiritual experience, find ways to put the present behind them. When traveling to Bethlehem on another expedition, the one recorded here on +972 as “The Round Trip,” I visited Rachel’s Tomb, a once quaint location, where Jews wept over the memory of the beloved matriarch, and which since 2003 has turned into a literal bunker surrounded by the Wall on three sides.
When I asked worshippers at the tomb how they reconcile the idea of the site with its reality, they shrugged and praised the security at the site. They didn’t seem at all bothered by the austere appearance of Rachel’s Tomb, by how different it was from its depiction in a mural adjacent to the bunker: a small domed structure, shaded by olive trees.
Then again, many pilgrims and other tourists must be baffled. Traveling this country is becoming more and more intellectually and morally challenging. If the van driver who picks you up at the airport decides to short-cut the way to Jerusalem through notorious Route 443, you will see barbed wire, concrete and checkpoints within 20 minutes of starting your visit to the country. Otherwise, give it a day or two.
Calling Mr. Tur Tur
Can the past be magnified in order to simplify things for tourists? Can the present be shrunk? Doubtless, the Israeli Tourism Ministry is putting a bit of thought into that. German fantasy author Michael Ende, born the exact same year as Kundera (in this post, chronologies count) once dreamed up a magical chap named Mr. Tur Tur. Tur Tur appears larger the further he is, and smaller the as he approaches; he eventually finds a job as a lighthouse. It would have greatly benefited Israel for the Wall to be Tur Tur-like, for it to shrink into invisibility as the tour bus arrives in Bethlehem.
No such luck. It’s definitely there, and for the visiting local such as myself, it even extends into town. Bethlehem is of course historical, but being Israeli I see all of it in the context of the occupation, including the church itself, which was the site of a horrific 2002 standoff between the IDF and Palestinian militants. As a Jewish Israeli citizen, I am banned by Israeli law from entering Bethlehem, and so every step I take here is charged with very real adrenaline.
I walk into the church and hark, holy and full of mysterious light though it is, I am still in the Occupied Territories. Today the interior is also entirely laden with steel scaffolds that further push away the past, and in fact make the place seem rather futuristic.
A man approaches me. Through plain clothed, I can somehow tell that he is a policeman. Here comes trouble. Should they catch me in Area A, Palestinian police are obliged to hand me over to the Israeli authorities, who will give me trouble. “Where are you from?” the man asks in Hebrew. I pretend not to understand. He repeats the question.
“Chicago,” I mumble.
“No, where are you from?” he asks again, disbelieving.
I give in. “Tel Aviv.”
“But where in Tel Aviv?”
Where in Tel Aviv? What’s it to him? I name a street and realize that far from wishing to arrest me, he is hoping to reminisce. In the days before the Wall, this gentleman used to work in Tel Aviv. In security. He is longing for the city on the coast, now unattainable. He is seeking the past. He knows my street. He knows the entire city, very well. He tells me that should I have any problem in Bethlehem, I should contact him.
Bethlehem is dependent on tourism. It suffers enormously from its blockade, which for one, prevents tourists from choosing to stay in the town and shop in it. The city lost a great portion of its population during the Second Intifada. Affluent Christian families left, taking much of the city’s economic stability with them. The settlements are always an issue and the limited sense of space is almost unimaginable for those who do not live here.
With this being the state of things, what can one do but dream of a past, the recent past, the past experienced personally? It appears in the mind’s eye almost as detailed as the present, and is rich with promise. The distant past may hide right beneath the church’s floor tiles, but it was just as horrible as now. The gospels tell that the Holy Family was escaping Herod’s wrath as soon as the baby was born. Bethlehem was under occupation then as it is now. This town has an overbearing present and a fabled ancient past. In between are times that strongly haunt its natives, times that appear a tad more normal: the humble local notion of the good ol’ days.