A Trip to Bethlehem

While in Israel recently I had the opportunity to spend a day in Bethlehem.  I’ve been there several times before, always to see the Church of the Nativity and to shop in a favorite place for souvenirs.  But this was a new opportunity to spend the day with some new folks and to learn about everyday life there.

Bethlehem is part of the West Bank and is therefore under Palestinian rule even though it’s just a few miles south of Jerusalem.  To go there means going through a checkpoint between the Israeli and Palestinian guards.  On this particular day, our driver was a Palestinian Christian who lived in Jerusalem, which allowed him to have the necessary credentials for access without the usual waiting and red tape.

We had two appointments on this day.  Our first was to meet with Pastor Jack of the Bethlehem Bible College.  The BBC was founded in the late 1970’s as a Christian college providing education to the Bethlehem community which is overwhelmingly Muslim.  When we first arrived we were invited to attend their chapel service.  A Palestinian woman, modernly dressed, was on stage teaching passionately from the bible in the Arabic language.  Through our interpreter, we listened as she used Old Testament examples to point to Jesus Christ and the changes He wants to make in our lives.  When she finished we listened as 50+ young college students sang a worship song in Arabic.  While we couldn’t understand the words, the devotion was evident.

After chapel we had the opportunity to meet Pastor Jack.  He gave us a tour of their campus and greeted students along the way.  While it is certainly small by American standards, he pointed out the dorms, classrooms, and gave us an up close look at their media center where they are producing programs for the community on both secular and religious topics.  We were able to spend time with him in his office and later over lunch to discuss the work they are doing there.

What I haven’t mentioned so far is that Pastor Jack is a Palestinian Christian.  He was kind and gentle, incredibly welcoming to us and took time to not only explain but to listen to our views and experiences as well.  The woman preaching in chapel earlier that day was his wife.  Together with others on staff, they are reaching other Palestinians in Bethlehem, regardless of their faith, to create relationships that will lead to peace.  Maybe peace on a world-wide or nation-wide scale is a big goal; but if they can begin to live in peace with the people in their city and in their neighborhoods, if they can help to meet the needs of those around them out of love, then perhaps peace in a divided land is reachable.

Our second appointment on that day was with another gentleman named Marwan.  Marwan is a Palestinian Muslim who was volunteered by a mutual friend to take us into one of the Palestinian refugee camps in Bethlehem.  I didn’t even know there were refugee camps in Bethlehem, but there are three.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I’m just beginning to realize some significant details in the Israel/Palestine conflict.  While I have for years heard about how Israel became a nation in 1948 when the British Mandate allowed them to return to the land, there is one fact that I had missed.  When the Israel people moved into the land, there were folks already living there.  Before 1948, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived in the land beside one another.   In 1948, Arabs were told to move out so that Jewish folks could move in.  And they moved right into the homes previously occupied by the Arabs.  This was supposed to be for a short period of time – weeks – but continues still today.

Marwan did a great job of showing us around and explaining the current and historical situation as he sees it.  (I say that because there are so many sides to this story.)  He became quite passionate when he walked us through the “neighborhood” and reviewed for us the way the people are made to live and the losses they have suffered – property, dignity and the loss of life in the ongoing military conflicts.  As he talked, we watched children playing in the streets, traffic bringing people to their daily activities, school girls coming home in their school uniforms.  The housing is a mix of do-it-yourself styles that you would expect where there are no building codes and people are left to create what they need to survive.  Much of the walls are covered in “graffiti” type paintings depicting their history and social struggles.  The longer Marwan talked, the more passionate he became, and I must admit the less comfortable I felt.

As we returned from the refugee camp, Marwan began to speak of a group of American and British Christians that have begun to come to Bethlehem during the olive harvest to help the local people.  These folks come with no other motive than to help with the harvest and to establish relationships with the Palestinian people.  I was amazed to see the change in Marwan when he spoke of them.  He called them angels.  His voice softened and he smiled as he talked about what an honor it was to have these people in his presence and how he invited them to his home.  The same man who so passionately ranted in the streets of the refugee camp about violence and fighting and who was at fault, now smiled and spoke with genuine love for those who had come to help him.  How incredible to see the change in his demeanor when he was approached with love and respect.

I must confess that my mind and heart were changed on this day.  Over the years I have developed a mental image of what all Palestinians/Arabs look like.  It wasn’t pleasant and it was scary.  The combination of reading Genesis 16 – that Ishmael would be a wild donkey of a man, that he and his descendants would always be fighting with everyone – and watching the evening news have created a picture in my mind of a people I should fear and distrust.  And while that may be true of some, it certainly wasn’t what I experienced that day.

I understand God’s promise of the land and I certainly want the Jews to have what God promised.  But is it fair for others who were living there to be arbitrarily thrown out of their homes?   Surely when a government comes in and tells one family to leave a home so another can move in the same home, there will be resentment between the two.  When the resentment isn’t just two families, but two neighborhoods, then two people groups, the feelings begin to be stereotyped.  Resentment turns into violence, which is then answered by reciprocal violence.

My best understanding is that God gave Israel a land.  He promised it to Abraham back in Genesis.  And He said the land would be theirs forever.  Forever means forever.  But, can no one else live in the land with the Jewish people?   After all, God’s purpose for choosing them wasn’t just so they could be land owners.  He chose them to bring people to him.  To share their faith in God.   God who forgives us when we repent and trust Him.  How can they bring the world to God if they are isolated in a land?   I know the situation is much more complex than I’ve described.   I just peeled back one layer of an onion to discover there are hundreds more layers.   But within each of these layers of issues are people.  People who mostly just want to have a job and a place to live, a place to raise their children so that they can have a better life.   I don’t understand all the politics.  And I don’t think our media, no matter which channel you watch, is doing us any favors in understanding the situation.  Politically, I don’t think I want to be pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.   I just want to be pro-people.

7 thoughts on “A Trip to Bethlehem”

  1. Awesome perspective. I’m a little curious though. Are the Jews of today more aware of (may not be using the right words there) Jesus’ teachings in the New Testament? Or are they predominantly driven by Old Testament laws? This could explain some of the conflict right?

    1. Hi Rose, are you asking if the Jews in Israel are driven by Old Testament laws like: “Love your neighbour like yourself, I am the Lord” Leviticus 19:18, or” And when he cries out to me, I will hear him, for I am merciful.” – says the Lord Exodus 22:27.
      I think Rose that the Jews in Israel are simply driven by self defence. Unfotunately our neighbours were in the habit of shooting rockets at us from Bethlehem or coming into our cities as suicide bombers in our buses and our restaurants. Thank God the wall stopped that so everyone can visit Israel and Bethlehem.
      I wish you a very happy and peaceful Easter

  2. Thanks for sharing, Ginger. I believe through your experience and narrative, many who thought they understood the conflict, will have to rethink their conclusion. (I loved the pictures you shared along your journey!).

  3. Ginger, I am sure Marwan’s predicament is a difficult one. Notice he neglected to tell you which government told his family to leave their home in 1948, because it was the Arab leadres that encouraged their own people to leave their homes for a short time so they can make it easier for their army to “throw the Jews to the sea” and then when they return they can have their own homes and the Jewish people’s homes. Aren’t you glad it did not work this way? and what’s more, the whole world sends money for the people in the refugee camps. Unfortunately the money is pocketed by their leaders and they never see any of it.
    I don’t think Marwan would dare tell you that.
    Nevertheless these people need our help and our compassion. We are not sure how we can help them without the cooperation of their leadership. Israel tried on many occasions to build good neighbourhoods for them and set up places of work, but we were not allowed to do so. These people are held hostage by thier own leaders so they can use it against Israel.
    Wishing you a very good Easter
    Love you

    1. Thank you Gilla. I’m learning that this is a very complex and multi-faceted situation. I always love spending time in Israel and time with you. Hope you had a wonderful Passover.

    2. Villa- Here is something that your government won’t tell you.
      On April 9, 1948 Jewish terrorists of the Irgun went into the village of Deir Yassin and slaughtered some 100 men, women and children. News of the massacre was broadcast by the Jews who were planning to take over the land for themselves and to get rid of as many Arabs as they could. Fearing that what happened to the people of Deir Yassin could happen to them, thousands of Arab Palestinians, including the family of my Jerusalem born friend, fled into their exile in Jordan. Israeli law prohibited them from ever returning to their homeland. My friend who now lives in America, can trace her family in the Holy Land by name back to the mid 1500s. They were among the founders of Ramallah. While I, because I am a Jew, can “return” to a place where to my knowledge not one of my biological family has ever set foot except as a tourist, she and all the other Palestinians whose roots are in the land are barred by Israeli law from returning. This is a travesty of justice.
      Furthermore, while it is true that many Palestinians , especially the women, children and the elderly, fled as people always flee in a conflict to save their lives, tens of thousands of Palestinians were ethnically cleansed by the Jewish forces of the Haganah and the Palmach who committed several massacres as they drove the people out. One of the members of the Palmach was my American born relative by marriage. On a visit to America in 1952 he told the family the role he had played in what he called the “cleansing” of the Arab villages in the north of Israel. He said that they had gone under cover of night into each village and at gunpoint forced every man, woman and child, including the elderly and infirm, to walk barefooted in the night to their exile in Lebanon. They were barefoot because they were not even given time to put on their shoes or to take any of their belongings with them. Anyone trying to come back was called an “infiltrator” and was shot on sight. I didn’t ask if he killed anyone. Like the “good Germans” of only a few years earlier, I just didn’t want to know.
      The villages were among the 500 villages destroyed by Israel after 1948. The land of one of the villages was taken by the kibbutz where my relative lived until his death. The first roads on that kibbutz were made from the broken stones of the Arab homes.
      When I first heard my relative’s story, I believed it to be an isolated incident. But I was wrong. It happened all over Israel. It is way past time for Israel’s and their supporters to acknowledge that Israel was built on ethnic cleansing because had all the Arabs of Palestine been able to remain in their homes and on their lands, there could not have been a Jewish majority state.

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