Welcome to Palestine
Welcome to Bethlehem
By Diane Voit
I contacted a high school friend in December, 2014, seeking her advice for a book that I could recommend to my First Tuesday Book Club. She suggested Bethlehem Besieged by Mitri Raheb, as the one she was using with a study group, and addedthe offer to join her in going to the Holy Land in April to meet the author! Since I had recently retired, I convinced my husband that it would be doable, and we signed up by the end of the week to go to Palestine! We were going to be able to stay at the Christmas Lutheran Church Guest House in Bethlehem for a week!
I read two of Rev. Raheb’s books (pictured above) before we flew out of Chicago on April 23, but I was not prepared for my reaction to the wall that I would see upon entering the Little Town of Bethlehem. Since 2002, a Berlin-like, prison-like wall has been built around Bethlehem. Security checkpoints with armed guards screen those who want to enter or leave. Other tourists have referred to these as being like a “toll booth.” This was no toll booth! The first Welcome sign that I saw is pictured above, with the dove added as part of the street art.
On Day 2 of our visit, we went to Aida Refugee Camp, and from an overlook there, I was appalled to see how the “security” wall was built to keep the Palestinian refugees away from the trees that had been a source of their livelihood. Many murals have been painted to tell the heart-wrenching stories of the Israeli occupation; and, communicated messages: “The wall must fall.” and “Right of Return 4 all generations.” Many keys symbolize UN Resolution #194’s claim to return to the land they were forced to leave as Palestinian homes were demolished by Israel since 1967.
Indeed, I got to meet the author as we worshiped at Rev. Raheb’s church on Sunday morning. The church had been built in 1854 by German missionaries, and the stained glass windows quoted Bible verses in German. The pictured image of Mary and Joseph being exiled to Egypt is especially meaningful to the members of this congregation since 2/3 of them are refugees themselves.
The Cave Art and Crafts Gift Shop was part of the Christmas Lutheran Compound where we stayed. We visited and sat in the family’s upper room of a real cave and discovered that the lower area of the same cave is where the animals would have stayed. The manger was a smoothed stone area used for feeding the cattle. It gave me a very different image of the stone manger in Bethlehem where the baby Jesus would have slept!
At the Cave gift shop, I was drawn to the hand-made stained glass ornaments with a very special story: “These art pieces are made out of glass, fragments of broken bottles thrown away or glass destroyed during the Israeli invasion of Bethlehem. Human hands pick the glass from among the rubble, and then assemble them together. (Work is done by some of the poorest of the poor in the Bethlehem region at the art workshops.) These art pieces tell all about ‘the hopes and fears of all the years’ that the people have in Bethlehem today. The broken glass pieces are a sign of the brokenness of our world. . .” Their hope is that their angels and different art pieces (shown above) will be messengers of justice, peace, and dignity. I was so moved by the simple beauty of these items, I bought dozens of these as gifts for family and friends, and to bring back to Waukesha to share with the customers of Plowshare Fair Trade Marketplace.