My family was never wild about the idea of me touring the West Bank, which is under the Palestinian Authority. But, as luck would have it, an opportunity presented itself. I have some cousins who are in Israel for the week, and they just happened to be going to Bethlehem on Saturday, which was the only day I could spend time with them while they were here.
Their guide, Hayim (who will appear in a later post), had organized everything, even though he could not enter the West Bank because the Israeli police could arrest him upon his return from territory. Thus, we picked up a guide on our way, Dawoud, who showed us around Bethlehem. Not only was Dawoud incredibly knowledgeable, but he was also the first Coptic Christian I had ever met.
Going through the security checkpoint to enter Bethlehem was relatively easy. All I had to do was show the guard my passport, but I saw all sorts of metal detectors, turnstiles, and lookouts. Once we showed identification, we walked along a railing outside against the building, whose entire wall was covered with pro- and anti-peace graffiti. We were not allowed to photograph any part of the compound, but an image that really stuck with me was an upside-down hand that said “five fingers of the same hand” above it, and on each fingertip was drawn the symbol of each of the 5 major world religions. You could still see the Buddhist symbol as well as the Christian cross, but the Star of David and the crescent were both crossed out with black paint, with lots more graffiti directly below. I also had an up-close view of the security fence from this vantage point.
As soon as we exited the compound, we were met by a parking lot teeming with Palestinian taxis. Imagine being escorted to the barrier by Israel Defense Forces and then seconds later being in the West Bank under the Palestinian Authority! The checkpoint at Bethlehem was an experience in and of itself.
Our first stop in Bethlehem was the Church of the Nativity, which is built over the cave that Christian tradition marks as the birthplace of Jesus. It was built by the Roman Catholic Saint Helena in the 4th century, and then rebuilt by Emperor Justinian I in the 6th century after it was burned down during a revolt in 529. The church itself has 3 congregations: Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian. We entered first into the Basilica of the Nativity, which is maintained by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Mostly-decayed mosaics line the walls, and Corinthian columns form the aisles. But I don’t need to further describe this treasure because here it is:
One of the remaining parts of the original basilica built by Saint Helena is the mosaic floor:
Then we wandered into this side chapel-type thing to wait to enter the cave to see Jesus’ birthplace and the manger:
We got to go into a special entrance since there were only five of us, but it was confusing because the Palestinian policeman who sat at the top of the stairs would tell us to go down, and then the church official would tell us to go back up, and this happened about three times before we were actually able to go down into the cave. And this is where Christian tradition says Jesus was born:
All of the tourists were lined up, and everyone would get on their knees, crawl under, and kiss the floor. Here are some nuns and other church people in the manger:
From there we went to the Church of St. Catherine, the Roman Catholic part of the church. Again, really high ceilings:
So why does it look so new compared to the Greek Orthodox section? In 1884 during the late Ottoman period, there was an international agreement in 1884 that no one was allowed to build anything new inside the Church of the Nativity without the agreement of the church officials that had custody over it. In 1891, the Franciscan order tried to “maintain” the roof of the church, and so it was thrown out for not adhering to the “status quo,” or “the customs, rights and duties of the various church authorities that have custody of the Holy Places.” And thus, they built their own church. In my opinion, the Church of St. Catherine wasn’t nearly as special as the basilica.
Another flight of stairs led us down to the Grotto of St. Jerome, who wrote the Vulgate, the first translation of the Bible into Latin. Supposedly, as Hayim said that there is no direct evidence of any of this, Jesus and his family lived there after his birth. Church tradition says it was then used as a cemetery for the children killed by Herod the Great who, upon hearing that a king (Jesus) was born, decided to kill all of the children in Judea born at a certain time. St. Jerome supposedly lived in the grotto during the 3rd century:
Our last stop in the Church of the Nativity was the Crusader courtyard with the statue of St. Jerome:
Next up was Beit Sahour, a Palestinian town east of Bethlehem. Beit Sahour and Bethlehem combined are 90 percent Christian and 10 percent Muslim. What was special in Beit Sahour was Shepherd’s Field, where Christian tradition believes that Ruth, the grandmother of King David (and therefore also the ancestor of Jesus) met Boaz. I didn’t think much of it, but it’s all a part of the history and atmosphere of the area.
Then I got to experience something truly unique. I was on this West Bank adventure with a cousin who happens to be a big cheese in American health care. He had set up a meeting with a sister at the Daughters of Charity hospital in Bethlehem, which is maintained by the Order of Malta and partly run by the Daughters of Charity (fun fact for New Orleanians: Charity Hospital was run by the same Daughters of Charity in the 19th century). What my cousin wanted to see in particular was the “orphanage,” a section of the hospital that takes in newborns born out of wedlock and cares for them until they reach 6 years of age. Palestinian culture, both Christian and Muslim, shuns babies born out of wedlock, and adoption is not exactly popular there, either. The Palestinian Authority gives no support whatsoever to the hospital, there is no health care infrastructure in the territory, and there are no laws concerning children in these types of situations. My cousin’s wife held and played with some of the infants, but seeing them all lined up in their cribs and knowing that their society wanted nothing to do with them was heartbreaking. As our guide Askandar at the hospital told us, “We don’t have policies to deal with this. This is not the right thing to do for a child.”
That was the end of our Bethlehem excursion. On the drive back to the security checkpoint compound, I was able to take a few photos of the graffiti:
The process of leaving the West Bank was much more tedious than when we entered. This time, our bags had to go through a metal detector while an I.D.F. soldier spoke to us over a loudspeaker, and we had to show our passports three different times.
Overall, it was definitely the most intriguing thing I had done so far in Israel. I had obviously never been to the West Bank, nor had I visited very many sites that were holy to Christianity. I would never have gotten the chance to see Palestinian society from a health care perspective if it had not been for my relative’s status.