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(photo credit: Courtesy)
'O, little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie." This is truer today than it ever has been since this song was written many years ago. Phillip Brooks, a Christian, wrote it in 1865 while on a horse from Jerusalem to Bethlehem for a midnight service. Although a few tourists do come, especially now at this Christmas season, Bethlehem remains still, unlike years past.
It's been eight years since I last set foot in Bethlehem. As a Jewish Israeli tour guide, I am forbidden by law to endanger myself and go to this once colorful city. Gone are the days when thousands went to Bethlehem. Tourists, pilgrims from around the world, shoppers, and Israeli Arabs and Jews came. Gone are the days when you could eat the best falafel and humous in the little stone building across from Rachel's Tomb. I remember the bargains. There was the wonderful flea market in the Bethlehem shuk . We came on aliya in the '80s and with our limited budget could go to Bethlehem and buy good furniture at bargain prices - delivery was free. The rattan and the wicker outdoor furniture was good and cheap. Pillows were thrown in at bargain prices.
WE ATE in all those lovely outdoor cafÃ©s in and around Manger Square. We walked around with our tourists and enjoyed the ambiance and atmosphere.
Many times I stayed overnight with my pilgrims on Christmas Eve. A few times we were near Manger Square and I remember the sweet sounds of the choirs which came from all over the world to celebrate Christmas in the city where Jesus was born. Each sang the familiar Christmas carols in its own language. It was glorious. The Catholics came in droves from all over the country. They came for midnight Mass amid great pomp and ceremony and, as a guide, I had the privilege of seeing and participating in many of these celebrations. I often had an opportunity to talk to reporters. Some were just tourists themselves and I tried to make them Zionists. Sometimes they listened. We became friends. Those times are over.
We were so safe and sound and comfortable on those Christmas eves and days. We were surrounded by the IDF. It maintained the peace, offered security for crowds that otherwise might have gotten out of control.
I REMEMBER one morning many years ago, in the '80s, when I arose early on a Christmas morning. I looked down from my second-floor window overlooking Manger Square. What to my wondering eyes did appear? No, not Santa and his reindeer, but Israeli soldiers all over the square with big blue plastic bags. At the approach of dawn, they were leaning down and filling them with cigarette butts, candy wrappers, leftover food and all the trash the pilgrims and tourists had dropped the night before.
It brought tears to my eyes. We had control then and we did our job. Bethlehem, the city where King David was also born, was still ours.
TODAY, BETHLEHEM is a virtual ghost town at night. No one dares venture out. There is no security and no rule of law. Most of the Christians have left, and the few stores and shopkeepers who remain have a hard time making ends meet.
We don't go to Bethlehem anymore, though it is only a few kilometers away. It is so close and yet so far. It is closed to you and me, probably for many years ahead. However, we know that things change, so perhaps, as the song suggests, in those dark streets will shine an everlasting light and perhaps the hopes and fears of all these years may once again meet in the night.
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