O Little Town of Bethlehem

On the side of the road, painted onto a crumbling cement wall, were three well-known images. A star with six points, a Magen David, was rendered in sloppy black spray point next to an equals sign. On the other side of that sign were two interconnected lines, a hooked cross, ripped from peaceful sanskrit origins to become a symbol of hate. Our bus passed by too quickly for me to pull my phone out and snap a picture, but in my mind I can still see the symbols quite clearly. Star of David=Swastika. Israel=Nazi Germany.

This idea was not entirely new to me. I’ve heard people compare Israel to the Nazi regime. I’ve heard people compare Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank to South African Apartheid. But it’s one thing to hear about it and another to see such symbols splashed before my eyes. My heart tightened. My eyes froze open. We kept driving.

Soon, we passed by a huge red sign with a message rendered in three languages. I couldn’t understand all of the Hebrew, and I couldn’t even read the Arabic, so I was grateful for the English. IMG_9045.jpg

This Road leads to Area “A” under the Palestinian Authority. The Entrance for Israeli Citizens Is Forbidden, Dangerous To Your Lives And Is Against The Israeli Law.

As part of the Oslo Accords in 1995, The West Bank was divided into three official zones. In the simplest of terms, Area “A” was given directly to Palestinian control, Area “B” was designated for shared control between Israeli and Palestinian powers, and Area “C” retained Israeli control.

In 1995, I was just a kid. I knew that Israel was a country because people at my synagogue told me about it. I knew that it was a young country, which seemed strange to me because the Torah was so old and it talked about Israel all the time. I knew that there were people called Palestinians who had something to do with Israel, but I didn’t know anything about them except that sometimes they hurt Israel.


The first Palestinian I remember meeting was during my sophomore year of high school. I had just moved from Virginia to New Jersey, and my new school was much larger and much more diverse than any I had attended in Richmond. Many of my classmates were either immigrants or the children of immigrants from all over the world. Sometime during that year, there was a “UN Day,” and students were encouraged to pin a map of their home country up in one of the main hallways.

I saw a girl I didn’t know hanging up a map of what looked like Israel, only, where I expected it to say “Israel,” it said “Palestine.” I looked at it and then at her, puzzled.

“Palestine isn’t a country,” I said.

She whipped around and looked right at me. “Palestine is a country,” she said. She turned back to the map, finished pinning it up, and walked on down the hallway. I noticed the Palestinian flag emblem pinned to her backpack. I didn’t follow. I didn’t ask any questions.


The barrier wall between Area C (Rachel’s Tomb) and Area A (Bethlehem)

My first trip into the West Bank was to Susya back in September. I’ve crossed over the Green Line a few times since. Sometimes I couldn’t tell that I had crossed over anything of the sort. Sometimes the checkpoints, when our yellow-plated buses drove through them, felt like little more than toll plazas for a car with an EZPass.


Earlier this month, in the city of Bethlehem, I got into a car with white plates and green writing for the first time. This car would not be permitted through the checkpoint we had breezed through earlier in the day. The Palestinian woman who owned it wasn’t allowed to pass through checkpoints in a car at all. She drove me and another rabbinical student to her home just outside of Bethlehem, where we would stay the night. Her apartment looked out over the Shepherd’s Field where, supposedly, shepherds watched their flocks by night and the angel Gabriel from heaven came (you see what I did there?).


The Shepherd’s Field

Our Palestinian host was a Christian. In the early morning, the sounds of Eastern Orthodox priests chanting benedictions sounded from her TV. She laid out a breakfast for us of pita, hummus, a thick yogurt dip, olive oil, za’atar, jam, chopped tomatoes, and cheese. I’ve eaten the same in Jerusalem on countless mornings. It felt very normal. It felt safe.


Two embroideries by our host. The Arabic one is The Lord’s Prayer.

The night before, sitting with my fellow rabbinical student and our 60-year-old host, I had a moment of feeling unsafe. She asked us about Trump. When we told her about some of the specific groups we were concerned for back home, she made a homophobic comment. Instantly, I was reminded of how much of a bubble I exist in much of the time. My classmate and I gently but firmly spoke with her about it, sharing experiences of our dear ones and their partners as a counter to her narrative of suspicion, hoping to open her up to understanding, knowing that it would likely not be possible to fully shift her views in the course of a single conversation. I asked her questions about her experiences with people who were not heterosexual. She didn’t have many. She asked us questions. She seemed curious. Perhaps she believed what we had to say, even if she couldn’t believe it about everyone who fit a particular label. It was a start. It wasn’t enough.


“You see the wall under the road there?” our guide asked, pointing beneath what we had just learned to be a road for Israeli vehicles, mostly headed to the settlements in the hills around Bethlehem. “There’s a house there, and when they built the wall it cut through the property. The people that live there have their own gate so they can get to the Bethlehem side.”

On one side of the wall was downtown Bethlehem, the Palestinian City– Area “A”. On the other side were partially developed hills, olive trees dotting each ridge, settlements looking down from above. The trees, our guides said, had been cultivated by Palestinian farmers for generations, but Palestinians were no longer allowed to go there. Some of the trees had been chopped down. Others remained, surviving either from luck without tending or through the illegal efforts of their caretakers. img_9020

In the Palestinian village of Batir, a short drive from Bethlehem, farming is still a primary way of life. Eight families tend land with terraces that date back to Canaanite times. Generations are buried in caves.img_9023 Many young people leave Batir these days. They cannot legally build new homes without permits, which Israel will not grant. When they marry they either build illegally, risking demolition, or they move to Bethlehem. The family members who remain in Batir take turns watering their lands, each family getting one of eight days in the winter and sharing half a portion every four days in the summer, when fields are parched and water hard to come by.


On our walking tour of the village, our facilitators reminded us that we were in public space. It would be unwise to show outward expressions of Judaism. Tzitzit and Star of David necklaces were tucked, kippot hidden beneath baseball caps, Hebrew writing on T-shirts and water bottles covered. We were welcome as Jews to those who knew who we were. We were not welcome as Jews by everyone in the city and villages. I thought about my curly hair. Should I have braided it so that it wasn’t as obvious? Did I look too Jewish? Was I safe?


In a Bethlehem hotel, the curtains of our meeting room drawn so that those who wanted to wear a kippa or tzitzit could do so without concern, we listened to a panel of Palestinians discussing their lives and their takes on the conflict. One woman said that she wished an earthquake would come and destroy all of the holy sites in Israel. Then, she said, “we can rebuild together.” Then, she said, “nobody will care about Palestine anymore.”

Next to her, a man, shocking the facilitators of our visit, declared that he saw no difference between violent resistance and non-violent resistance. He spoke about the Holocaust, his conversational but far from perfect English carrying an unclear message that caused my eyes to prick with upset. What did he mean, we tried to ask. Was he really saying what it sounded like he was saying? When the panel ended, we still didn’t know.


At our final session, just before our short bus ride back to Jerusalem, we listened to the narrative of a Palestinian-American man who moved from the midwest to Ramallah in the 1990s. At first, he was treated by Israel as an American, his passport allowing him an Israeli car and free access to Jerusalem and Ben Gurion airport. When he received a Palestinian identity card, that ended. To get to Bethlehem, instead of driving straight up from Ramallah, he had to take the circuitous route in areas that, as a Palestinian, he is permitted to. Outside of Israel, he is treated as an American, with all of the privileges and limitations that come with such a status. Within Israel and the West Bank, he is not.

Towards the end of his talk, a participant asked him what he thought American Jews could do about the conflict. He looked around the room and said: “What I’m asking for from Jews in the diaspora and Jews in general is just to be Jewish. What I understand is that social justice is a core pillar of your religion. I have to question that when those credentials are checked when you arrive at Ben Gurion. All I’m asking is that you apply the same frame of social justice to what is happening here.”


A school/municipal building in a Palestinian village outside Bethlehem surrounded by settlements on all sides. The building has had a demolition order since its construction.

We got back onto the bus. We drove home, breezing through a checkpoint with our yellow plates. It was Friday afternoon, shabbat only an hour or so away. At services, I sang my heart out. I joined friends for dinner, sipping wine late into the evening. I walked home, to the apartment in Jerusalem that I was entitled to by virtue of being a student from America. I thought about my passport. I thought about my lineage and faith and their ability to get me citizenship to this country, if I want it. I thought about a life spent singing in choirs and the words of a song of this season:

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 hopes and fears of all the years are met in Bethlehem every day. They are met in Jerusalem every day. Hope and fear are in every brick of this land, on both sides of the wall. Would that fear could crumble while hope holds us up for all the years to come.



One thought on “O Little Town of Bethlehem

  1. Emily:

    I so enjoy your insightful observations and comments! These experiences will make you a better rabbi someday and a more interesting and compassionate person always. -Judy


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