My Bethlehem Experience
Last night at something called “The Bethlehem Experience,” a local church’s reenactment of Bethlehem 2000 years ago, I handed out “Bethlehem Christmas cards” designed by Quakers in Michigan. These wonderful cards have a photo of the Israeli wall imprisoning Bethlehem on one side and information on the situation in Bethlehem on the other, including the website www.openbethlehem.org . The wall photo shows a painting on the wall of a young girl holding balloons that are carrying her aloft and over the wall to freedom www.banksy.co.uk.
There were only four of us (plus one young girl), and we tried to act as respectfully and mildly as possible, endeavoring not to interfere with the event, the commemoration of a birth that holds deep meaning for us. The idea was simple: we would approach people in their cars as they joined the line inching toward the church’s drive-through experience, wish them a Merry Christmas, explain that we were not part of the official event (while commenting that it was a wonderful event), and tell them that we were there to give them some information about Bethlehem today, during which we would hand them one of our cards.
We felt this was a valuable addition to what otherwise would have been a breathtakingly hypocritical and exploitative event: a pageant in which American Christians would dress up as people in a far-off land, while ignoring the pleas of those people today for help against their oppression – oppression being funded by their costumed imitators. Having personally visited Bethlehem and having seen the wall with which Israel is imprisoning and devastating the people through the use of our tax money, we felt morally obligated to be there.
Most people took our cards with the good will with which they were being proffered and began to read them immediately. When we mentioned that we were there to tell about what was happening to people in Bethlehem today they would look surprised and ask, “What’s happening?” When two people mentioned that they had visited Bethlehem and we asked if they had seen the wall, they responded: “What wall?” It turned out that they had visited many years before and, like most Americans, had no idea that Israel was building a wall around Bethlehem.
Sadly, the church’s pastor was furious at our efforts, and sent an assistant to try to prevent us from handing out our Christmas cards. Somewhat frantic, this woman began running up to cars, telling people to ignore us, that we were “solicitors,” and compared us to the poor people of Tijuana who apparently ask to clean people’s windshields in return for small sums of money.
While most people seemed to maintain their civility, her actions caused a few people – most of whom identified themselves as members of the church – to be somewhat rude to us. Sadly, several times I would then respond in disgust – a lapse I’m unhappy about. For example, one woman said that we were being “inappropriate.” I asked her the verse in the New Testament that speaks about being “appropriate,” and told her that I thought the message brought 2,000 years ago was about helping the poor and oppressed and caring about others.
Another member of the church, the official greeter (interestingly, dressed as a Roman Centurion), periodically came over to me when I was standing alone, towering over me, and would call me extremely obscene names and make crude sexual comments. I learned later that he did this with the other woman as well. I was sorry to discover this morning that some of this was done within earshot of the young girl who had been to Bethlehem some months ago and was at this event with her father.
A couple in one car that I approached to give a card turned out to be Israeli. While the woman was wonderfully open and spoke of wanting peace, her husband shouted at her to “shut up,” said he had been in the Israeli Army, and stated that he wished he could go back and “shoot more people.”
If I had been more alert I should have suggested that he help me put on a reenactment of Bethlehem today to accompany the church’s reenactment of Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.
The church is holding this event again tonight. We had originally planned to go both nights. At this point I’m undecided about whether to return, and I doubt anyone else will want to come. I still have cards left over, however, and Bethlehem is still under siege. I’ll probably go.
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