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24 December 2005

Hard to get there, but lots of people make it anyway, if it's possible. Merry Christmas!

In good times and bad,
the last stop before Bethlehem.
Photo taken by an American pilgrim.

Bethlehem is the Anglicized version of the Hebrew "Bet Lechem" or "House of Bread." Maybe in old times it was a neighborhood of bakers. It's about five miles from Jerusalem, in Israeli-occupied territory in the West Bank.

I'm a Jew, I believe in the right of Israel to be a safe nation for Jews (and for everyone else), but one of my perpetual dismays and angers at the Israeli government has been the difficulties, obstacles and, in some years, the government's complete refusal to allow visitors into Bethlehem. Naturally the Israeli government says it's not their fault, but the fault of Palestinian terrorists.

All over the world, every outrage, every insult, every sacrilege, every denial of human rights, no matter who commits it, is the fault of terrorists. (Rent and watch Terry Gilliam's "Brazil.")

About ten Christmases ago, at a relatively calm political moment, CNN broadcast a long segment from Bethlehem, and among the pilgrims in Manger Square was the American guitarist and composer Carlos Santana. He wasn't playing music. He was just there on Christmas Day like the other pilgrims and tourists to see the place where Jesus was born on Christmas Day.

I have never seen a wider smile on the face of a human being. Bethlehem, usually in the middle of ferocious violence and political tension, apparently has the magical power to infuse human beings with the sense of Peace and Hope. No matter how catastrophically the world spirals down into the Hatred Toilet, being in Bethlehem on Christmas can make human beings believe that someday even the Middle East may return to love, respect, peace and brotherhood.

I want to visit it very badly. I suppose there are other places in the region a Jew should visit first, but since I saw Santana's smile, Bethlehem has been at the top of my list. Jesus was born and died a Jew, he preached about peace/shalom/salaam, and about ethics and morals, I want to see where he was born.

And my Christmas wish is that from this moment on, whenever anyone from anywhere on Earth wants to visit Bethlehem, he or she will not have to dialogue with armed soldiers at a military barrier to get there.

Maybe a dollar road toll, or a dollar entrance ticket -- the money going to maintain the pilgrim areas of Bethlehem, the special religious sites sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims.

But no more gun barrels to get to Bethlehem. Any Israeli government which puts obstacles on the road to Bethlehem at Christmas should be immediately replaced by a better Israeli government.

* * *

The Associated Press
Saturday 24 December 2005

Christmas spirit returns
to Bethlehem for first time
since violence of 2000

by SARAH EL DEEB Associated Press Writer

BETHLEHEM, West Bank -- Holiday spirit returned to Bethlehem on Saturday for the first time in six years as hundreds of pilgrims from around the world packed the town of Jesus' birth for Christmas Eve celebrations.

More than 30,000 people were expected to flock to Bethlehem in what would be the largest turnout since fighting erupted in September 2000.

Lining the streets on a crisp, windy day, pilgrims gathered in Manger Square near the Church of the Nativity built over the grotto where tradition says Jesus was born to watch a procession of marching bands, bagpipe players and boy scout parades.

Wind blew the hats off boy scouts and police officers and knocked down metal security barriers. Yet the streets remained packed with visitors excited about spending the holiday in one of Christianity's holiest sites.

Israel's summer withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and a sharp drop in violence this year contributed to the joyful atmosphere, which buoyed the spirits of Bethlehem residents and tourists visiting the festively decorated town. Forecasts of a rare snowfall added to the sense of excitement in the air.

"It's really amazing. When you hear about all the conflict between Israel and Palestine, really I was expecting things to be a little bit rougher," said Stephen Ogden, 23, of Knoxville, Tennessee.

In the first years after fighting erupted, an Israeli army siege and high death tolls among Israelis and Palestinians put a damper on Christmas.

Crowds that numbered tens of thousands during the boom years of the mid-1990s dwindled to just a few hundred. Even the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was barred from attending the celebration, confined by Israel to his headquarters in Ramallah. Instead, a black-and-white headdress similar to the one he traditionally wore was draped across the chair he usually occupied.

Last year's Christmas celebration was merrier than those of the previous four years, buoyed by a thaw in relations after Arafat's death. But shopkeepers and hotel owners still lamented the thin crowds, empty hotel rooms and bad weather.

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, elected in January to succeed Arafat, planned to join the Bethlehem celebrations and attend Midnight Mass in a church next to the grotto. Tickets to the mass were sold out, and some tourists had a hard time finding hotel accommodations.

"It will go very well. It will be joyful and a very Merry Christmas, especially since the president will join us," said Bethlehem Mayor Victor Batarseh. "There is enough police and security. It will be very peaceful."

Edwina Webster, 53, on a two-week vacation from Hereford, England, overcame her safety concerns to spend Christmas in Bethlehem. "It's awesome here. To come here is very emotional," she said.

Walking out of the grotto under the Church of the Nativity, she was surprised by what she found.

"I expected a little corner with a little barn," she said, after exiting the stone cave. "It's not at all what I imagined," Webster said, looking around the bustling town.

Although the Palestinian Authority never gave Bethlehem the $436,000 promised for Christmas festivities, the municipality got out the lights, bells and Palestinian flags from previous years and used donations to decorate every corner of the town.

Israel eased restrictions at its main checkpoint leading into town, decorating the military structure with posters signed by the Tourism Ministry. "Peace be upon you" and "Visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem and engage for peace" the signs declared. Bethlehem lies on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem.

Yet Israel's massive West Bank barrier cast a shadow on the celebrations. The structure, which snakes along the boundary with the West Bank, has divided Bethlehem and prevented tourists from walking into town on the biblical-era road likely used by Jesus and Mary.

Shops, restaurants and businesses that once thrived remained shuttered, split off from the rest of the town by the 25-foot concrete wall, which Israel built to prevent suicide bombers from reaching its cities.

Ogden and the group of Presbyterians he traveled with made sure to visit the area of the barrier to see what they had read about in the newspapers, and were shocked by what they found.

"We were interested in seeing how the conflict is being played out in the place of Christ's birth," Ogden said. "I don't think anything can quite prepare you for something like that."

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.


Blogger Crazy Jane said...

interesting place, your blog. a pleasure to meet your exceptional self :-)

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Hey Crazy Jane, welcome to Vleeptron! Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, an excellent Winter Solstice ... all that good stuff. Meet ya in Manger Square as soon as we can get there!

Oh, I just posted some more nasty stuff about why it's gonna keep getting hard to visit Bethlehem. NGO Vleeptron's official position regarding the West Bank Barrier/Separation Wall: It sucks, it blows dead rats.

So like who are you what are you where are you how'd ya find Vleeptron?

Blogger Bob Merkin said...

Hey Crazy Jane -- you're on the Vleeptron PizzaQ Honor System, no Googling, no playing the DVD --

What are Babbette's last words in the movie "Babette's Feast"? And where was the short story first published?

And why should we all feel sorry for the actor Klaus Maria Brandauer?

These PizzaQs are open for all Vleeptroids to try to answer.


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