One peculiar aspect of being a visitor in Israel (and there are many) is that you have a freedom to move around in a way that Israeli citizens really don't. Israelis, unless they are settlers, are not allowed to visit the occupied territories of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. (There is considerable debate in the Israeli press about the logic of spending huge amounts of money, manpower and resources trying to hang on to territory most of the citizenry can never enter; and plenty of Israelis are coming down against it, far more than you would guess from reading the papers in the US.) So, in our last few days as wide-eyed observers in the Holy Land, we took advantage of our foreign passports and relative mobility to cross over to the West Bank: in this case, to the formerly popular tourist destination and famed little town of song, Bethlehem.
Israel is a tremendously fractured society with deep and hostile divisions, not only between Jews and Arabs, but between religious and secular Jews, the right and the left, immigrants and non-immigrants. These enshrined social, religious and political divisions often lend Jerusalem an atmosphere of barely controlled hostility. Neighborhoods in the Holy City tend to be homogenous, self-contained enclaves of different religious and ethnic groups, and separate public transportation systems serve Arab and Jewish areas. The state-owned Egged system runs to Jewish neighborhoods, most cities in Israel, and the settlements in the territories; less plush Arab buses serve East Jerusalem and other Arab parts of the city and will take you to the main centers in the West Bank. There is almost no mixing, even when Arab and Jewish neighborhoods are right next to each other. So to go to Bethlehem, we caught a bus from East Jerusalem to the military checkpoint a short distance outside our destination.
The checkpoint is in the infamous new "security barrier" that divides Israel proper from the territories acquired in the 1967 war, a victory whose 40th anniversary this week has aroused so much discussion around the world. As American tourists, we passed right through with unopened passports; a few Palestinians (with rare permission to pass through to Jerusalem) were subjected to a high-tech fingerprinting scheme and careful inspection. On the other side, the Palestinians of Bethlehem have constructed an elaborate graffiti protest against the wall, their segregation and their loss of civil, political and human rights under the Israeli occupation. It's a sophisticated political statement, with large comic portraits of Palestinians alternating with protest slogans, mainly in English. (The title of this post is a quote from one of the less serious contributions.) It's clearly designed to be viewed by the international community that used to visit Bethlehem with some frequency; passersby and taxi drivers, obviously proud of the portraits, stopped to chat and encourage our interest.
Bethlehem itself is home to one of the oldest Christian communities in the world. It was once almost entirely Christian, but the Christian population has dwindled significantly due to major emigration since 1948, and Bethlehem now has a Muslim majority. Nevertheless, it's still an important pilgrimage site for Christians around the world, and used to be a major tourist attraction. In 2002, an Israel Defense Forces raid on the city led to a five-week standoff between the IDF and a group of Palestinians in the Church of the Nativity (below; it's one of the oldest churches in the world, built originally by Constantine's mom Helena over the supposed birthplace of Jesus). This incident, combined with increasingly draconian travel restrictions, has led to a significant dropoff in tourism, and the building of the wall has contributed further to severe economic difficulties in the city. The streets of Bethlehem were almost empty, with lots of shops offering Christian souvenirs but no tourists to buy them. One desperate store owner asked us to broadcast the news of our safe return from the West Bank to other potential visitors. If Mary and Joseph came to town today, they'd have no trouble finding a room.
This trip concentrated a lot of the impressions we've gotten in our two months here. Israel, and especially Jerusalem, is an astoundingly militarized place. For us, it's still shocking to see thousands of uniformed teenagers toting machine guns; everyone in Israel except for Arabs and ultra-orthodox Jews has to serve in the army. (Women serve for two years, and men serve for at least three and are considered reservists until they reach forty-five.) The resources devoted to the military are stupefying. So much energy, time, money and effort is focused on the military efforts and the maintenance of all sorts of social, political and economic divisions that there's little left over for the sorts of projects that make a place livable: the arts, a vibrant public sphere, universities and intellectual life, public cultural events. Instead, the worst aspects of American cultural influence are clear; strip malls, fast food and stalls selling vulgar T-shirts infest the city. The Christian sites have been largely taken away from the Christian Arab community which has run them for centuries and been turned into what one American Episcopalian priest we met called a "Holy Places Disneyland."
Many Israelis themselves see Jerusalem as an unappealing place; in a recent poll, 78% of Israelis said they would not be willing to live there, calling it impoverished, backward, intolerant and unattractively sectarian. Other cities in Israel have a very different feel - Tel Aviv has a much less militarized appearance and boasts a vibrant civic culture, and Haifa is much less segregated and is a friendly and welcoming place. But it has been depressing and discouraging to witness these levels of hostility, segregation and disregard for the rights of other in what is often called one of the most sacred cities in the world. We hope that the occasion of the 40th anniversary of the occupation will provoke international thoughtfulness about ways to change the situation.
In the meantime, we're off to Bangkok!
More pictures of our adventure in Israel (including shots of a certain pair of scantily clad bloggers floating in the Dead Sea) are available here: