Between the Lines: Bethlehem blues in black and white

Properly apportioning blame for the increasing Christian exodus is a perennial seasonal challenge.

church of nativity 224.8 (photo credit: AP)
church of nativity 224.8
(photo credit: AP)
It's Christmas time, and along with Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and chestnuts roasting on an open fire, it brings with it another mainstay of the holiday season - the obligatory news articles and broadcast reports in the international media about the hardships of Bethlehem's Christian population. I'm not downplaying those difficulties; my familiarity with Bethlehem extends to having done military service in the heart of the city back in my army reserve days, in contrast to more pleasant times spent there as a civilian during the pre-second intifada period. But the question of properly apportioning blame for those trying circumstances, and the increasing Christian exodus from the city they have caused; of placing the situation in the necessary broader context needed to get a fuller and more genuine picture - and even of getting some basic facts straight - seems a perennial seasonal challenge for many of my fellow journalists. Some of the coverage correctly noted that this was the most upbeat Christmas in Bethlehem in years, especially with all the hotels filled. Many others simply fell back on the familiar Israel-as-Grinch clichés. I was particularly surprised to see one this week on the normally very pro-Israel editorial page of The Wall Street Journal, in an opinion piece titled "The Plight of Bethlehem" by Newsweek contributing editor Kenneth L. Woodward. As usual, almost all of the troubles of Bethlehem's Christians are blamed on "Israel's security wall, its restrictive exit permit system, roadblocks and military checkpoints." Except for one brief line - "Israel, of course, must protect its security" - there is no mention of how these measures, especially the barrier, have saved hundreds of lives in the last few years, reducing terror attacks against Jerusalemites emanating from the Bethlehem area by 100 percent. There is also not one word about how rising Islamic fundamentalism in Bethlehem has impacted the city's Christian population and been a major factor in their flight - or the fact that this mirrors a pattern all over the region, and thus cannot solely be blamed on Israeli measures. But Woodward does, of course, mention that "from the Church of the Nativity, Christians can also look out on Har Homa, a verdant Jewish settlement on a hillside that was formerly Christian." Never mind that Har Homa, although standing over the Green Line, was actually built on land 75% of which was owned by Jews, and that they and the remaining Palestinian owners were offered due compensation for any property taken under eminent domain, a practice not unknown in other nations. What literally had me laughing out loud, though, was Woodward's description of Har Homa as "a verdant Jewish settlement." Whether it is a settlement or a Jerusalem neighborhood is open to debate, but that Har Homa's stone-and-concrete vista is the farthest thing possible from "verdant" (green with vegetation) is not. Woodward ends by concluding: "Israel cannot afford to lose the Palestinian Christians: They have long represented a moderating force. In this crisis they deserve the support of all Americans, and not just Christians. And not just at Christmas." If the former was truly the case, then Israel's best course of action would probably have to be reoccupying all of the West Bank and Gaza, rather than letting the Muslim Palestinian majority establish an independent state in which Islam will be the official religion, and Christians will fare no better than they have elsewhere in the region. Alas, as much as I genuinely feel for Bethlehem's Christians, I've no desire to once again resume my patrols in Manger Square, and neither does a majority of my fellow Israelis. I do agree that Americans should support the cause of Christians in the Middle East - though I would add not just in Bethlehem. They might want to take an especially good look at Iraq, where an estimated one-third of a Christian population that numbered some 750,000 in the 1990s, has now reportedly fled for greener - or should I say, more verdant - pastures. BEFORE WE take leave of Bethlehem, one more Christmas piece deserves special mention, because it raises larger journalistic issues. This is a personal essay in last week's Time magazine by the veteran Palestinian staffer of its Jerusalem bureau, Bethlehem resident Jamil Hamad. Titled "Bethlehem: Postcard," it harkens back to a period when, according to the Muslim Hamad, "'Christian' and 'Muslim' were labels we kept in our pockets. It didn't matter what religion you belonged to." Things have changed, though. The Christians are leaving, and "the simple explanation is that Bethlehem's Christians are caught between the rise of Islamic extremism and the rigors of Israeli occupation." Naturally, the rest of Hamad's piece only addresses the latter issue, especially the construction of the security barrier. He writes: "At least the Israeli security wall is attracting a new kind of tourist, the graffiti guerrilla. The phantom British artist Banksy recently led a posse of foreign artists to the wall. He spray-painted a picture of a peace dove in a flak jacket that was captured in a sniper's crosshairs. And on the side of a house, he drew a little girl in a pink dress frisking an Israeli soldier. Sometimes the graffiti lifts my spirits. Other times, when I'm angry after being delayed at the checkpoint, I think that art alone can't bring down that wall around my Bethlehem." I guess not, especially since a Banksy mural depicting an Israeli soldier frisking a donkey so offended some of Hamad's neighbors - "We're humans, not donkeys. This is insulting," one told Reuters - they painted it over last week. "But what makes me laugh, with some bitterness, I admit," Hamad continues, "is the sign the Israeli military put over the checkpoint at the entrance to Bethlehem. It reads: Peace be with you." It should be noted that this is actually the second personal essay Hamad has written for Time this year describing his experiences on passing through the Bethlehem checkpoint. His first one, published in March and titled "No Room for Civility at the Checkpoint," began this way: "Every day at the Israeli checkpoint going from my home in Bethlehem to visit Time's Jerusalem bureau, I see a sign that makes me laugh. Written in English, Hebrew, and Arabic, it says: 'Peace Be With You.'" Oh well, I'm sure I've also repeated myself plenty over the years. More to the point is what having two such pieces in just one year by a staff member says about Time magazine. When I was growing up in America all those many moons ago, the fabled weekly was practically a must-read in every well-informed household. Part of the reason was that it seemed to offer an objective, heaven's-eye overview of local and global news events, relatively free of partisan prejudice. Whether this really ever was the case is highly questionable. But at least the magazine strived to give the appearance of impartiality, which was part of its appeal. Certainly, to have a staff reporter write such a personal, impartial piece on the story he is covering, twice in one year, was something that would have been unthinkable. This seems to be part of an overall trend at Time, whose circulation has been shrinking in recent years, to move from straight reporting into more of an opinion essay format, such as one sees with more frankly partisan publications as The New Republic, The Nation and especially The Economist. At least, though, those magazines put opinion leaders right at the front of the magazine, being more upfront about their editorial viewpoint than Time so far has been willing to admit about theirs. While I do sympathize with Hamad's predicament, perhaps I'd feel more comfortable about his pieces if Time would also ask its Israeli staffers to write about what is was like to live in Jerusalem back before there was a security barrier between it and neighboring Palestinian areas - days when bus bombings and shooting attacks were almost a daily occurrence, and at least one terrorist from a village in the Bethlehem area blew himself up right in front of my daughter's school about half-an-hour before we arrived there. But as the kids nowadays say: "I don't think so!" At least, not this holiday season.