Bethlehem


John 3:20 – For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.

The little city where the Bible tells us that Jesus was born is surrounded by a 400-mile-long system of 26-foot-tall concrete walls.  There are watch posts every 200 meters or layers of razor wire with electric fencing, sensors and cameras.  When you see it, you feel as if you’re at the base of a dam. Young Israeli soldiers in their late teens and early 20s, armed with assault rifles, examine your papers and search your vehicle before allowing you to pass through.  No Israeli civilian, by military order, is allowed in. And very few Bethlehem residents, by military order, are permitted out.  Our guide was not permitted to pass through the gate with us.  We had a Palestinian guide waiting for us on the other side of the wall.

I don’t believe that any of us were prepared for Bethlehem.  Every evening of our trip we would meet for a devotional and debriefing of the day.  We would also go over the details of the following day.  The night before we headed for Bethlehem, we did just that – nevertheless, I don’t believe that any of us were prepared for Bethlehem.  I heard the words; I comprehended the words, and I thought I understood what they meant; but when I laid eyes on that wall for the first time, my heart froze.  Nothing I have ever experienced had prepared me for the reality of that wall.

Bethlehem, the cradle of Christianity, is a big, crowded prison.  As we drove deeper into Bethlehem, we found ourselves in a society that was trying to survive in a city that is sealed off from the rest of the world. The wall limits its people’s movement, its economic trade and its connection with the outside world.

Israel began building the barrier in 2002, after a spate of suicide bombings, originating in the West Bank, claimed dozens of lives in Israeli cities.  Israel continued building the barrier in defiance of a ruling by the International Court of Justice that was issued on July 9, 2004.  Who pays for this wall?  You guessed it, we do.  From 2009 to 2018, the United States is scheduled to give Israel–the largest recipient of U.S. assistance–$30 billion in military aid.

I don’t believe that there is any justification for the suicide bombings that started this whole business.  But the retaliation is excessive, inhumane and targets the innocent far more than it does the guilty.  The wall was skillfully planned to absorb even more Palestinian territory, thereby pushing people out of their homes and off of their land.

After having visited the Yad Vashem the previous day, I was struck by the fact that the Israeli people, a people subjected to appalling persecution by the Nazi regime, should know exactly the pain and suffering that is inflicted upon people from years and years of mental and physical oppression.  Yet here they have established a prison or ghetto that denies people access to the rest of the world and imposes rigid restrictions on their right to existence.  The daily life of the Palestinian is a reflection in the mirror of the persecution imposed upon the Jews in Nazi Germany.

I don’t pretend to understand all the nuances of this conflict.  I have two very thick books that attempt to outline the history leading up to where things are today, and I get a headache when I try to read them.  What I do understand from my reading is that there are a multitude of chains of events that all lead to the center of it.  It is a complex and daunting history about people who have wandered for centuries, reviled and despised, seeking a place that they could call home.  It is also the history of people, with a strong sense of honor and shame, being forced from their homes.  From my lofty perch I think to myself that of all persons in the world, one would expect the Israeli people to understand the type of injustice that they are enforcing on the Palestinians.  Yet, who am I to have any expectations of a situation that I cannot even begin to understand?  What do I know of persecution and injustice?  White, middle class Americans think we understand injustice, and maybe we can recognize it, but only from a clinical standpoint.  It is very easy to have expectations when you are not personally involved.  It is easy to predict what I would do given the same circumstances, when I know that I will never experience those circumstances.

Not surprisingly, the African Americans in our group were far more able to identify with the situation.  But as one member asked, how could they concern themselves with this situation when they had congregations at home who were faced with the injustices imposed upon them right here in this country?  Yad Vashem brought out a lot of emotions for these members of our group and it reflected heavily in our devotionals.  It brought into sharper focus for them their own pain of loss in not knowing their roots and their ancestry.  Yad Vashem gives the Israelis a connection to their roots and their history – many African Americans will never have that.

On Saturday, U.K’s Independent newspaper reported that Congress had blocked nearly $200m in aid to the Palestinians over their bid for recognition at the United Nations.  America is a critical stakeholder in the situation and has been for many years.  Yet most Americans are only marginally aware of our involvement.  The implications of what is taking place in Israel are massive and will affect the entire world.  Many of our fundamentalist politicians favor “Armageddon” because they believe that it is predicted in the bible, that it will occur any time now, and that they will be part of the “elite”.  I believe that we have a choice.  We can either work toward a peaceful resolution that ensures the safety and well-being of everyone involved, or we can continue on our course of self-destruction because that is where we are headed.

To see photos of Bethlehem, click on the album cover:

Bethlehem
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