In the West Bank, Israel’s security barrier has started to resemble the western side of the Berlin Wall in its heyday. The Israeli side is bleak and clean, but on the Palestinian side graffiti flourishes. A few years ago the British graffiti artist Banksy stencilled a number of his famous cartoons on the wall and they have subsequently become one of Bethlehem’s tourist attractions. They even help bring a little money into Bethlehem’s tourist economy, which was crushed when Israel built the security wall in 2002. Israel argues that the wall has stopped suicide bombings – before the security barrier was constructed over 800 Israeli civilians were murdered by Palestinian terrorists – but ordinary Palestinians claim their livelihood has been squeezed as a result of the wall.
I have been thinking about this as I continue to sort through the hundreds of photographs we took during our recent sabbatical in Israel-Palestine. I am reflecting on our own visit to Bethlehem, firstly, because it is almost Christmas, and secondly, because the Iona Community recently made use of another Banksy cartoon – depicting Joseph, with the heavily pregnant Mary seated on a donkey, unable to get into Bethlehem because of the wall – on its Facebook page. Their use of this particular cartoon roused up quite a reaction with some people finding it aptly poignant and others politically offensive?! Personally, I thought the cartoon very clever. It makes you think! I recall reading of an incident a few years ago when a BBC correspondent rode a donkey across the Holy Land, following the route taken by Mary and Joseph according to the Gospel of Luke, only to be refused entry into Bethlehem by Israeli soldiers at a Check Point because the ‘donkey did not have the correct paperwork’?!
I also vividly remember our experiences of crossing from Israel into the West Bank on various occasions – including being stopped and searched – and the oppressive nature of the wall itself. I understand the reasons why the Israeli Government erected the wall – militant Islam is the greatest threat to world peace that exists today and civilians being deliberately targeted whilst travelling in buses or sitting in restaurants by Muslim extremists had to be stopped – but it is only a minority of Palestinians who are extremists. The building of the wall may have prevented extremist attacks but it has also had a disastrous effect on the ordinary people of Bethlehem. Present-day Bethlehem is completely surrounded by a wall of separation. Palestinians have to go through a checkpoint and show documentation to go in or out for work, medical care, to visit relatives in other towns, etc. The tourist trade, on which the livelihood of many of the inhabitants of Bethlehem is dependent, has been badly hit, and unemployment is very high. Walking through Bethlehem on the way to Manger Square you cannot help but become aware of the poverty and the pain being experienced by so many ordinary people. Entering the Church of the Nativity we were immediately besieged by ‘tourist guides’ anxious to secure our business and earn a little more to help keep their families afloat.
For me, there is a huge difference between God’s Old Testament People and the modern secular Jewish State – a fact clearly recognised by the majority of religious Jews (if not by many fundamentalist Christians) who are very critical of the secular Israeli government. But if any appeal is to be made to the Bible, then it needs to be recognised that in the Old Testament, God’s promised protection for Israel was predicated on their obedience to his Law, and that included kindness to the ‘aliens’ or foreigners within their lands. Taking their farms, bulldozing their orchards, and cutting them off from their families is hardly kindness. God calls on his people to ‘Do justice and love mercy’ (Micah 6:8). I wish we could see a bit more of that in the world!
I recall the Bible story that tells us that Joseph and Mary ‘went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David’ (Luke 2:4) and wonder if they would not only have difficulty finding accommodation for Mary to have the baby, but actually find it difficult to even get into Bethlehem at all today? Perhaps the Banksy cartoon has a point? I recall a story Dina Donohue tells of Wallace Purling, a rather big, clumsy nine year old who wanted to be a shepherd in the school nativity play but was given the role of the innkeeper instead. Although Wallace was ‘slow in movement and mind’ he was ‘a helpful boy, willing and smiling, and the natural protector of the underdog’. In hindsight, it was probably a mistake to give Wallace the role of the innkeeper, but it is on such ‘mistakes’ that things change, sometimes for the better. Wallace Purling had been chosen to play the innkeeper because, being rather big, his teacher thought him to be exactly right to play the part of someone who could throw his weight around and refuse even a heavily pregnant woman a room! But when Wallace’s big moment came, and faced with the key decision in a story that had become much more than just a ‘nativity play’ for Wallace, he just couldn’t turn Mary and Joseph away. Meant to look stern and mercilessly and turn the holy couple away, Wallace suddenly broke into a bright smile as a great idea crossed his mind – ‘You can have my room!’ he said! A few people thought the nativity play had been ruined but most considered it the best play they had ever seen!
On our way back out of Bethlehem we once again passed the towering security wall. On the Israeli side, the only bit of colour to relieve the unrelenting concrete at the crossing was a monumental banner rich with unintended irony, since no one in the West Bank sees the security barrier as anything but a prison wall. ‘Peace Be With You!’ it said in three languages, and in smaller print: ‘Israel Ministry of Tourism’.