In 2019, Israel had a record number of visitors – 4.5 million – mostly Christian pilgrims.
These pilgrims were fulfilling their lifelong dream of walking in the footsteps of Jesus. They all visited Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus, one of the seats of Christianity.
To visit and pray in Bethlehem especially during the Christmas season is likened to Muslims going to Mecca during Ramadan, and for us Jews, to touch and pray at the Western Wall during Rosh Hashanah.
For us licensed tour guides, 2019 was a banner year. There are approximately 3,500 licensed tour guides here in Israel; of course now, since we have not worked in the past 22 months, many have changed direction and profession and will no longer be with us when tourism returns. This is very sad and as of this writing, there doesn’t seem to be a clear-cut solution in sight. Tourism remains at a standstill.
Where are the Christians now? They are elsewhere, not allowed to enter. They are waiting, and many will again miss Christmas in the Holy Land. I miss them.
I reminisce and remember life in Bethlehem before the 1993 Oslo Accords, before the final signing of the accords also called “The Declaration of Principles.” PLO leader Yasser Arafat demanded “Bethlehem first,” and he got it – Bethlehem became Area A, fully administered by the Palestinian Authority, with Israelis forbidden to enter.
Of course, this whole process was not without criticism. The repeated public posturing on all sides has discredited the process and put the possibility of achieving peace into question. Now, 28 years later, there is still no peace, though relative calm reigns and as the old Christmas carol says, “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee light.”
Before Oslo many hundreds of Christian choirs from all over the world would come and sing in Manger Square on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. I spent many a December 24 eve with my groups there; the choirs would sing in their native tongues but the songs and tunes were so familiar. The groups joined in and it was quite wonderful.
I remember one particular Christmas Eve that coincided with Hanukkah, the 25th of Kislev. I was standing behind many people, on the edge of the square, and I looked over when I saw a light. It was the Hanukkah candles being lit by IDF soldiers. I joined in and sang “Maoz Tzur” with them. There will never again be Hanukkah lights in Bethlehem.
One Christmas morning I awoke early, just after dawn and looked out of the window overlooking Manger Square. These same Israeli soldiers were carrying large plastic trash bags, picking up all the trash that had been discarded the previous night. They were cleaning this holy site for the Christian pilgrims and it was quite a sight. Only in Israel.
There are today a few Christmas venues in Jerusalem and Nazareth and, of course, services for the local Christian community in Bethlehem – but it is not the same. The thousands of Christian pilgrims bring the spirit of Christmas with them, their enthusiasm, their worship and prayers and just their joy of being in the Holy Land – is gone for now.
I miss the Christians, and I miss Christmas.
The writer is an unemployed licensed Israeli tour guide of 27 years. Contact her: [email protected]