Spending so many years abroad I have gotten used to alternative Christmases. Spending it in Israel is particularly interesting.
Although a lot people in Israel do celebrate Christmas – mainly Arab-Christians, Russian immigrants and other overseas migrants – the majority of Israelis do not celebrate Christmas. Generally in across Israel Christmas can pass you by without a Christmas tree or a Santa Claus in sight or hearing a ‘festive’ tune over the radio.
This is to expected as 92% of the population is either Jewish (76%) or Muslim (12%). But with Bethlehem, the focal point of Christmas celebrations, just down the road it is still perplexing how little attention Christmas celebration receives, at least in the parts of Israel I find myself in.
Honestly, I’m fine missing out on Christmas every once in a while. If nothing else it makes it all the more special when I do get to celebrate it a home – seemingly every four years now á la the Summer Olympics. As with previous years we happily make do with our small plastic Christmas tree, a few presents flown in from Denmark, and online access to an endless array of Christmas songs. And as in previous years Christmas Eve is topped off by attending midnight mass at the St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church.
Initially it had been my plan to visit Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. I have been their once before in the days leading up to Christmas but never on the actual evening itself. But as Christmas Eve closed in, the temperature dropped and the heavens opened (lashing much-needed rain over the Judean Hills) I think I might have made the right choice…
Of course visiting Bethlehem, for all it’s allure, especially around Christmas retains very little of the idyllic biblical imagery we probably can all remember from our religious lessons and nativity plays. Once a small village surrounded by open pasture, modern-day Bethlehem is now a concrete city surrounded by the trappings of modern-day occupation and security paranoia: 8 meter high concrete walls, barbed wire, observation posts, automated sensing devices and military check points. Bethlehem anno 2011 feels nothing like the city of hope and peace eulogized in countless Christmas carols and hymns.
Back inside the warming confines of St.Andrew’s church the Scottish Minister tip-toed diplomatically around this contradiction. Half the congregation consisted of Jewish Israelis attending the service out of curiosity. So this was probably not the time or place to moralize one way or the other. Instead, and carefully introduced between hymns, the messages of hope and peace associated with Christmas were juxtaposed with the reality that makes Bethlehem nowadays just as well-known as a symbol of injustice and violence in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it is for its role in Christianity. He talked of the shared value of peace among people in the Holy Land, but how the definition of peace naturally varies between the powerful and the powerless. Whereas the powerful define peace by the simple absence of disquiet, the powerless define peace in realization of justice. So while the (powerful) Israelis enjoy a relative level of peace unprecedented in recent decades, the (powerless) Palestinians still live without the peace, justice and statehood they deserve.
It all adds up to a dangerous status quo that cannot and should not last… Who knows what 2012 will bring.