Most Christmas seasons we sing the carols from memory and enjoy the simple tunes which make them so easy to sing along without paying a lot of attention to the words. One favorite is “O Little town of Bethlehem”:
O little town of Bethlehem
How still we see thee lie
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by
Yet in thy dark streets shineth
The everlasting Light
The hopes and fears of all the years
Are met in thee tonight
The song almost puts one to sleep, it evokes those warm fuzzies of tranquility and peace – but while it speaks about the town of Bethlehem of old, the current reality is anything but peaceful and hopeful.
The new context just like 2000 years ago is occupation. Bethlehem, being so close to Jerusalem, has often felt the burden of occupying troops whose abuse of the locals was only to be expected. Yet this small town had a very special place in the heart and memory of Christians and Muslims as it was revered as the traditional birth place of Jesus, called the Christ or Messiah.
Today the occupiers are not the Romans but Jewish settlers who have come from around the world to re-occupy what for centuries was known as Palestine. Many of these Jewish settlers were survivors of the Holocaust or second and third generation children of survivors. They came with the pain of centuries of pogroms, isolation and persecution which ultimately was the expression of the deep rooted antisemitism that characterized Western Christianity. (Read James Carroll’s book “The Sword of Constantine”).
We might think that those who survived the brutality of the worst expression of this antisemitism, the Holocaust (Shoah), who proclaimed “Never Again” would be the vanguard in the world struggling against any form of oppression of any people – against prejudice and those institutional forms that lead to ethnic cleansing and genocide. While many Jewish people in what is today defined as Israel decry the policies of the government and the state of Israel in its treatment of the Palestinian people – what is happening is precisely a repetition of the same brutality. It is as if the spirit of Hitler and Himmler has become incarnated in the body and soul of Israel, so that the former victims are now the oppressors. Without a doubt what is happening since the “Nakbah”, the catastrophe that has afflicted the Palestinian region and people since 1948, has become a form of gradual ethnic cleansing and genocide.
The little town of Bethlehem, only 9 kms south of Jerusalem, is an example of what is happening to the Palestinian people – Christian and Muslim – throughout the “occupied” territories. Hundreds of Palestinian villages have already disappeared since 1948 and professional Israeli archeologists are tasked with “erasing” the memory of Palestinian history – bulldozing and destroying archeological evidence of hundreds of years of Palestinian presence. The historic and biblical town of Emmaus (also known as Amwas), (Luke 24:13-34) where in a post-resurrection narrative Jesus meets disciples walking away from Jerusalem, no longer exists. It was razed along with two other villages by the Israeli military as collective punishment for Palestinian resistence. The area is now known as “Canada National Park” as it was planted with Canadian pine trees funded by Canadian Jewish groups through Canadian tax credits.
The UNRWA identifies almost 60 Palestinian refugee camps, including Gaza, in different countries with millions of Palestinian refugees. Palestinian refugees are defined by the UNRWA as “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine between June 1946 and May 1948, who lost both their homes and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war”. Every day more refugees are added to the list as their homes are occupied by settlers or destroyed by Israeli troops for the expansion of Jewish settlements.
One town that was theoretically under Palestinian control was Bethlehem – a town of Muslim and Christian Palestinians and obviously the site of some of the major shrines and churches of Christianity – such as the Church of the Nativity. It is also the site of the revered tomb of Rachel, one of the wives of Jacob. This revered site for Jews, Muslims and Christians has roots going back more than 3000 years – and now lies inside the town of Bethlehem.
Not far from this Holy site, is the home of a Christian Palestinian family, whose roots go back centuries. The Anastas family supported themselves with a gift shop that catered to pilgrims and tourists who came to Bethlehem. The family also welcomes visitors who wish to stay overnight in their Bed and Breakfast accommodation. This has become very difficult for the Anastas family since the construction of the “separation wall”, also called the Apartheid wall, which curiously has cut off the Anastas home from its neighbors and surrounds the house completely on more than three sides. With only a narrow passageway leading to the house, with a military security tower looming over the house and and with military guards who intimidate residents and visitors with their laser trained weapons, the Anastas gift shop has suffered a major job in customers.
The “little town of Bethlehem” is now surrounded by 22 Jewish settlements which expand to form a strangulation ring around the town. The separation wall condemned by the International Court of Justice in 2004 continues to be expanded and today threatens the community near the monastery and convent of Cremisan – another 58 families cut off from their agricultural land and source of livelihood.
The purpose of the settlements and the serpentine separation wall is to deprive Palestinians of the ability to continue living in the area – a form of slow gradual ethnic cleansing. Of course, the separation of agricultural lands in an area so close to Jerusalem also makes it easier to establish new “settlements” – ethnically cleansed Jewish suburbs that continue to put the squeeze on non-Jewish residents.
With an official unemployment rate of 18 %, Palestinian youth realize that there is not a future for them in Bethlehem. In 2008 Christians in Bethlehem constituted 28 % of the population but by 2012 that has dropped to only 9 %. The Palestinian President, at the end of 2012 said “For the first time in 2,000 years of Christianity in our homeland, the Holy Cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem have been completely separated by Israeli settlements, racist walls and checkpoints.” While tourists can freely travel from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, Palestinians from Bethlehem are no longer permitted this short journey.
At the invitation of friends in church groups Claire Anastas and her son traveled to Canada and the U.S. but because they are Palestinian they are not permitted to leave from the Ben Gurion airport in Jerusalem, a short distance from their home. They were required to travel to Amman, Jordan with extra costs and the added difficulties of travel and securing further documentation and visas. Palestinians, Christian and Muslim, living in the occupied territories or other part of Israel are citizens without fundamental rights – they are denied the ability to travel freely in their own territories, they are blocked access to medical care and even the ability to receive health care insurance. People facing severe medical emergencies have died at Israeli military checkpoints – while callous military officials deliberately aggravate the situation. Racism is one of the factors in Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians – and a comparison to Alabama in the 1950’s would not be an exaggeration. Palestinians are killed by settler mobs, and hundreds of Palestinian children have been arrested and jailed for months.
In Nanaimo, Claire was invited to speak to the congregation at St. Andrew’s United Church whose minister is the Rev. Bert Ramsey. This community is very progressive and socially minded, and was the official sponsor along with the Nanaimo Refugee Support Group of one Palestinian family who came from a refugee camp in Syria. A second family is still in the midst of preparation to come to Canada but has been delayed by bureaucratic red tape and the crisis in Syria. Claire brought with her photos of Bethlehem which could be displayed in a powerpoint presentation to illustrate her account of the reality in Bethlehem.
A second opportunity was provided at the Bethlehem Retreat Centre in Nanaimo. Run by the Benedictine Sisters, this centre is progressive and ecumenical.The community at the Nanaimo “Bethlehem” were excited about this visit with Claire and her son coming from the original Bethlehem during the Christmas season. An opportunity to speak to the community was followed by a Eucharist celebration presided by Bishop Remi De Roo. The meeting room was packed with friends and associates of the Centre eager to hear Claire speak about her experiences under occupation and what is really the siege of Bethlehem.
The Anastas family ran a successful souvenir shop catering to pilgrims and tourists to Bethlehem. Johnny Anastas is an mechanic and had his shop in the same building as the gift store. Then in 2002 the Israeli government began to install the separation wall the blocked the traditional highway route to Jerusalem and separated Bethlehem residents from any open areas and agricultural lands.
Johnny and Claire Anastas live in Bethlehem with their four children. Their home has become like a prison – like a ghetto of one house in a larger ghetto which is old Bethlehem. Claire has said that at times their home feels like a “tomb”. Their home has been surrounded by the “separation wall” – designed to separate Palestinians from one another, from their traditional agricultural lands, and from access to other towns of the West Bank which are under illegal Israeli occupation. The wall is 9 meters high and includes a military watch tower where Israeli military peer directly into the bathroom and the bedrooms of the Anastas home. Often the military display their weapons with laser guided lights. To the horror of Johnny and Claire they have seen the red dots of the laser beams trained on their children, continual efforts to intimidate and frighten.
The Israeli military sometimes comes to the house at night and begins to bang on the door. Claire rushes to open it to prevent the military from detonating bombs to blow the door open, often with a risk of what she will find when the doors open. Soldiers armed with high powered weapons will search the home while others keep their guns pointed at the heads of all the children. The home has been hid by bullets, particularly during the second intifada, so the children have had to sleep on the floor to avoid being hid by stray bullets.
At one point the electricity was cut for four months, and the family has been forced to remain indoors unable to go out to buy food. One evening Claire had been outside of Bethlehem and the military arbitrarily closed the only gate to enter the town. She explained that her children were at home but she was not allowed to go to her own home. She found shelter with a neighbor. When Johnny suffered a severe cut when working on a car, and when the children needed medical care, the family was denied permission to travel to a medical centre.
The whole family has been traumatized by this constant barrage of threats and insults – and at times the children have demonstrated severe symptoms of the stress that they live with. The stress has been manifested in physical problems exhibited by all the children. In a different part of the house a brother and his family also live, so in all there are 9 children and an elderly grandmother along with the two couples.
Constantly the Anastas family must keep in mind that Palestinian children have been kidnapped, beaten and imprisoned for months. It is easier to break the parents by threatening the children. Claire has said that at times her home feels like a tomb, but they have no where else to go. The policy of Israel moves towards the total “Judaization” of the West Bank which necessarily requires the removal of all now Jewish persons. Any where else in the world this would be condemned as ethnic cleansing and genocide, for if the military don’t do the killings, it is settler mobs who attack Palestinians simply because they are Palestinians.
Life has totally changed for the Anastas family, and similarly for all Palestinians of Bethlehem – Christian and Muslim – since 2000. Before the wall and the restrictions placed on all Palestinians, there was the freedom to travel to Jerusalem, to the Dead Sea not that far away, and to other villages to visit parks or relatives. Now there are road blocks, checkpoints and endless scrutiny of official documents that determine which roads Palestinians can even walk along. Some workers who have permits to work in Jerusalem need to line up at the checkpoints at midnight so that they can get through the security checks before 7 am to be able to get to work on time. The military realize that this way they are able to secure compliance from these workers who desperately need the employment.
The American network CBS produced a documentary titled “Christians of the Holy Land” narrated by Bob Simons. This documentary included an interview with Claire and has provided her with a higher profile that might give some protection. This documentary can be viewed at “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ury-qf6lbU8
The Anastas family is looking for ways to survive and resist. What the Israeli government wants is for all Palestinians to simply uproot and join their nation in exile in one of the many refugee camps for Palestinians. Because tourists and pilgrims are frightened off by the military presence near the Anastas home, Johnny and Claire are looking for other ways to expand their business through the internet. As well they are offering Bed and Breakfast accommodations for visitors – a rare opportunity to stay so close to some of the most ancient sites in the Holy Land. Their website is http://www.anastas-bethlehem.com
Church groups or individuals planning to visit the Holy Land can choose to avoid the official tours which tend to “cleanse” the message – taking visitors into Bethlehem to show them the major sites without allowing them to see the reality of the Palestinian people.By choosing to travel independently, it is more possible to be introduced to the complex and nasty reality of living under the occupation. By staying with Palestinian families your travel dollars goes to help them and does not go to Israeli tourist agencies.
To learn more about Palestine and the situation under Israeli occupation you can go to You Tube to view a number of short videos:
CBS 60 Minutes Exposing Israeli Apartheid -part 1
CBS 60 Minutes Exposing Israeli Apartheid -part 2
Israel-Palestine: A Land in Fragments
Holy Land: On the other Side of the Wall – Trailer
Israel and Palestine, an animated introduction