Monday, December 22, 2008

Oh. Little Town of Bethlehem

O Little Town of Bethlehem cards

About the hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem, the Rev Stephen Coulter, Rector of Pimperne in Blandford Forum, Dorset said

he can no longer bring himself to sing the lyrics of the hymn as he believes they are too far removed from the reality of one of Christianity's holiest sites.
He said: 'At the service I took the opportunity to bring the congregation’s attention to what life is actually like there today. I can’t bring myself to physically sing the words, especially the opening line "how still we see thee lie".'"

He's not the only minister with a conscience, as 2 years ago, parish priest Father Paul Maddison

"A priest from the Diocese of East Anglia, England, has decided to replace a live Nativity scene for a replica of the wall encircling Bethlehem in protest of the Israeli separation barrier."

from People's Geography~Reclaiming Space

"The view of Bethlehem is now obscured by the massive Apartheid Wall which Israel has built in and around the city."

Bethlehem today is very different than the romantised Bethlehem we imagine. Below is a letter I wrote that was published in our local newspaper 3 years ago, that explains my history with the hymn,

Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem

was a song I loved singing as a girl. When December came around, my sisters and
I couldn’t wait for the Christmas carol section of the Port Arthur News Chronicle. The song we all looked for was “Oh, Little Town of Bethlehem.”

We sang it every Christmas Eve, standing in front of the TV.

The first stanza especially resonated in my young mind. The lyrics spoke of a
redeeming hope lying deep in the dark – a dark of which I in my naivete knew nothing about, yet somehow sensed was part of my future.

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.

For Grade 7 art class, dreams of ‘the little town of Bethlehem’ still echoing, I
made an indigo-blue batik of Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph traveling outside its gates, and a silver star in the night sky. Thirty-six years later, my mom still
hauls it out at Christmastime to pin up on her living room wall.

But never once, during all those years of singing Christmas carols, doing Christmas art at school, or learning about Christmas in church, newspapers, or TV did I hear about the inhabitants of Bethlehem and its surrounding region --
the Palestinians.

Many Palestinians are Christian, the original Christians, going back to Jesus
Christ and the Apostles, but the word Palestinian was not part of the Bethlehem I had been taught to envision.

The little town of Bethlehem I learned about was idyllic, a dreamy vision of hope, a sanctuary in the desert, a place where Jesus, the savior, was born. A metaphor for the redemption of humankind.

Over the years, I have come to question the ‘kind’ part of the phrase.

What would Jesus say about Apartheid?

Recently, I found out about Dheisheh, located near Bethlehem. Home to 11,000 people who live on less than half a square kilometer of land. Dheisheh, a refugee camp, is home to the residents (and descendents) of 45 villages who were expelled after the state of Israel was created in 1948.

Since 2003, Dheisheh has lost 21 residents to Israeli attacks, 5 of them
children under the age of 17. In addition to invasions by tanks, attacks by Apache helicopters, raids by Israeli soldiers, curfews, barbwire, closures of schools, 70% unemployment rate, severe shortage of water and electricity, the residents now have to deal with the 15 k long, 25’ tall Israeli-built “security” wall that encircles Bethlehem and region.

I wonder, if Mary and Joseph and the 3 wise men had to travel to Bethlehem today, would the soldiers manning the apartheid wall let them through? Would they have had the necessary travel documents from the Israeli government arranged months in advance? Or would they, like their descendants the Palestinians, have resigned themselves that it would be impossible to pass through to Bethlehem because of the Wall? That the degradation wasn’t worth it?

I wonder, what sort of batik would I have made if I had known this human unkindness?


J. said...

This is a subject close to my heart. I was always a fervent supporter of the State of Israel, being blinded by sentimentality for the small guy facing the might of his hostile Arab neighbours and feeling a deep horror for the events of the holocaust that led to the creation of the state but... since the 1980's when Israel turned from defender of the Jewish faith and freedom into a bully and a tyrannt my eyes have been opened to the injustices perpetrated in that area and I am now firmly on the side of the Palestinian people. That my country has played such a disgraceful part in the whole mess brings me sorrow and makes me ashamed to call myself British

northshorewoman said...

It is true that many of us are raised in ways that don't allow us to see beyond the norm that is made for us. My total ignorance -- I wasn't even "for" Israel as I knew next to zilch about the entire region and issues, so I could only be classified as apathetic--was only broken when I was 21. I remember the exact "issue" that caused me to think: Tal el Zaatar (Hill of Thyme). I met a man named Nabih who wore a teeshirt with the image of a child and the name Tal el Zaatar underneath, so I asked him what did that mean?

When I read the reports on the 2 British church leaders who have taken such a brave stance in public, I thought, hmmm, in Britain they've got some progressive ministers who dare to support the Palestinians! I haven't seen this in my city, nor reported in Canadian national newspapers.

Merche Pallarés said...

Dear J. and NORTHSHORE, I've read your comments and true, how the situation has changed! In the sixties when I was studying in Paris I almost went to spend the summer in a kibbutz; that's how my generation felt about Israel. We wanted to help no matter if we were Jewish or not. We admired it because, of course, we didn't realize at the time the very unfair treatment the Palestinians received. Nowadays I CAN'T stand Israel's bullying attitude towards the suffering Palestinians. The wall, for example, is an example of its cruelty. No wonder you don't read anything in the Canadian press because, basically, western media is under Zionist ownership. They keep us brainwashed.

Regarding your mother, if she's 75 then I doubt we went to school together... but the Finnish-Canadian whose name I cannot remember, sorry, I don't know if she was Catholic or not but she was at one of my schools which were Catholic. I remember her because she was the only Finnish, most of the other children were Italian and Irish. Merry Christmas once again (sorry that I didn't translate my last post. Sometimes, if the post is a bit too long I don't write it in English but from now on if I know you're reading it and MAY make a comment in English I will try to be good and translate it, OK?). Much love and hugs, M.

J. said...

I always remembered that photo of the little boy in the Warsaw ghetto standing with his arms raised as the Germans rounded up the Jews, and I felt anger....
And then, alongside that, came the image of the little Palestinian boy and his father caught up in some crossfire and cowering behind a wall and before our eyes the child was shot dead by a stray Israeli bullet, and I felt disgust...
So this is how God's Chosen People are a "Light Unto Nations"?
(Julie from lostandfoundinfrance,

northshorewoman said...

Julie, I too wonder how it is we repeat the same violence, having gone through it ourselves. I remember that photo of the Palestinian boy and his father trying to protect him; it was from Fall of 2000, I believe. So what after this boy's death and the publics' outrage, has changed for the better since then? Nothing. It is now even worse. And the world pins its hopes on Obama. I don't think he will make a difference, as he has already come out in full support of the state of Israel. Maybe he should have Norm Finkelstein, Richard Falk, and Noam Chomsky as his advisers, instead of the re-hashed Clintonites.

Merche, I remember, too, the attraction of the kibbutz even as a young teen, even though I too knew nothing about the actual history and context. From my immersion in pop culture, I just knew that many expressed the desire to go to a kibbutz in Israel. It was constructed as a "cool" counter culture thing to do. There was a belief, (false, of course) about living life outside the norm, living collectively not patriarchically. Living in a more fair way -- of course, which depended on wiping out the history of the indigenous peoples whose land the kibbuzim had appropriated!

Maria, you do not have to trouble yourself to translate just for me! Please, continue like you are doing. I will visit now and then and I am sure I will find some content that I can understand!

Happy holidays to you, too!