While the usual hand wringing from Diaspora Jews over how to deal with Christmas reaches us by Internet, Israelis don't generally pay the Christian holyday too much attention.
Nevertheless, there are certain signs here that the season of joy is upon us. Colored lights adorn the main streets in the southern part of the city and on the main road into Bethlehem. No Christmas symbols on the lights, but they do go up the week before the holiday, and come down after the Orthodox Christmas in January.
The Jewish National Fund and the Jerusalem Municipality offer free Christmas trees to anyone who can get to City Hall to pick one up, and the Ministry of Tourism sponsors a well-attended holiday reception for Christian religious leaders.
This year, the Arthur Toscanini Foundation in cooperation with a host of Italian regional councils, brought the full Arturo Toscanini Philharmonic Orchestra and the Slovak Philharmonic Choir to Israel for two concerts of Beethoven's glorious Symphony No. 9 in D. Under the banner 'From Bethlehem and Jerusalem, Concert for Life and Peace,' conductor Lorin Maazel led the musicians in performances in both cities.
I didn't see a review of the Bethlehem concert, but the Jerusalem SRO audience gave the musicians a rousing 7 minute standing ovation after the magnificent and rousing finale.
Tickets were free and "offered to the citizens of Jerusalem as a sign of friendship and solidarity by the Italian municipalities, provinces and regions."
During the inevitable speeches offered in Italian and Hebrew before the performance, several orchestra members could be seen staring down at the audience. It was almost as if they didn't quite know what to expect Israelis to look like, given how we're portrayed in the European media. Perhaps they were contrasting us with the Arab audience the night before in Bethlehem.
At a news conference held at Israel's Foreign Ministry two days before Christmas, Israeli authorities announced that as a gesture of goodwill, and due to "the change in atmosphere," armed Palestinian police would be allowed to control Bethlehem between December 24-January 19 (the end of the Orthodox Christmas season and a Moslem festival) and there would be a general relaxation of movement across the checkpoint dividing Jerusalem from Bethlehem. Christian Israelis would have free access in and out of Bethlehem in their own vehicles, and more than 4,000 Christian residents of Bethlehem have been given permits to visit family in Israel during the holiday season.
But for this Israeli, Bethlehem on Christmas Eve was a strange and disturbing place. It's been four years since my last visit into the town to cover the visit of the Pope in 2000. Then, the 10 minute ride from Jerusalem to Bethlehem led to a town bustling with expectation and optimism. Fresh plaques announcing donations from the governments of Japan, Italy and Norway adorned renovated buildings in the old city. Tourist buses filled the parking lots and the new luxury Paradise Hotel was ready for business.
Today, the atmosphere is sullen and jarring. The checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem has been spruced up, and Israeli soldiers are doing their best to be polite and welcoming.
Just below the sign telling drivers to stop for a document check, Israel's Ministry of Tourism has put up banners reading: "Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year."
Driving up in my car with Israeli plates, a quick check of my press credentials are all that's needed to get waved through. Parked on the side of the road is my usual mode of transportation to the only place in Bethlehem I visit regularly. Oblivious to the Christmas eve traffic, the driver of the bulletproof Egged 163 bus is waiting for passengers to Rachel's Tomb.
At the news conference in Jerusalem, I asked the Israeli army spokesman whether the easing of restrictions for Christian visitors to Bethlehem would carry over to Jews wishing to visit Rachel's Tomb. For the last four years by order of the army, the only way Jews can get to the site is by bullet proof vehicles with an army escort. No plans for any changes to that order, I was told. It's still too dangerous to allow Jews to travel unprotected to the heavily fortified holy site.
So we drive past the barbed wire and the unfinished security wall that is supposed to cut Rachel's Tomb off from Bethlehem. The wall ends uselessly at the side of the road several hundred yards short of the tomb--halted because of legal challenges brought by Bethlehem city officials.
There's barely any traffic on the road leading to Manger Square, but armed, black-uniformed Palestine Authority police have set up roadblocks anyway, presumably to show just who's in control. Several of them are wearing black parkas with the insignia 'USRD 84' on their shoulders as they lounge next to their brand new pale blue police cars.
As a cold drizzle begins to fall over the hilly town, a parade of local scouts makes its way into Manger Square, the focal point for Christmas activity. The expressionless teenagers with small Palestinian flags sewn onto their shirts march without enthusiasm to military music. Across the square a few shops are open, but there are few tourists around. A small group of Japanese visitors huddle around their tour guide and we hear English from a few people, but most of those who gather in the famous square are locals.
The northern side of the square is bounded by the Bethlehem Peace Center, home to various PA ministries. A gigantic poster of Yasser Arafat hangs from the roof.
Few people bend down to enter the small opening into the Church of the Nativity. Inside, there's no evidence of the desecration that took place when a few dozen Arab terrorists and their International Solidarity Movement sympathizers decided to use the church as a refuge for a few weeks back in 2002.
Today, uniformed Palestinian police patrol the church. The Christian monks passing out candles don't seem to notice the presence of a Palestinian policewoman wearing the traditional hajib headscarf.
As the music from the parade outside fades away, a harsh voice from the mosque on the western corner of Manger Square starts to broadcast. It's loud enough that the message is heard all over the winding streets and steep alleys of the old city. Nothing much is happening in the square, but hundreds of men begin to gather. Men of all ages start to spill out of the mosque and line up in rows facing south to Mecca. Media photographers are drawn as if by a magnet to the scene as the faithful lay down their small prayer rugs on the wet stones.
In unison, called by the imam broadcasting from the mosque they fall to their knees covering almost half the square directly in front of the Church of the Nativity. In just a few hours, Christian clergy officials will make their official Christmas Eve entry to the Church, but at midday a visitor would be hard put to recognize Manger Square as a Christian holy place.
There are less than 150,000 Christians in the entire country today, and they've been fleeing Bethlehem in droves over the past four years. Today, only 35 percent of the town is Christian--around 21,000 people. Of course the Christian mayor blames the situation on Israeli restrictions, but Moslem intimidation of Christians in Bethlehem and neighboring Beit Jala is well documented.
The US State Department International Religious Freedom Report for 2004 noted that, "The Palestinian Authority failed to halt several cases of seizures of Christian-owned land in the Bethlehem area by criminal gangs. There were credible reports that PA security forces and judicial officials colluded with members of these gangs to extort property illegally from Christian landowners. Several cases of physical attacks against Christians in Bethlehem also went unaddressed by the PA."
The security wall and fence (most of it is a fence--only 3 percent of the anti-terrorist barrier is the concrete wall that photographs much better than an electronic fence) are in place around most of Bethlehem because of the number of Arab terror cells in the town. The two bus bombings that rocked Jerusalem in 2004 (on the #14 and #19 routes) were both perpetrated by terrorists from Bethlehem.
In the center of Bethlehem we find Martyrs Street, marked with a special black and red street sign. Posters of armed "martyrs" are everywhere, along with posters reading: "We will return," over a map of the entire state of Israel.
Indeed, the propaganda battle goes on all over Bethlehem. At the beautifully appointed International Center of Bethlehem, an attractive young Arab woman is holding court with a few western journalists. In the complex filled with a brand new health club, restaurant, art gallery and media center she tells them: "People are losing their homes, our kids are being taken to prison, men and women are losing their lives." The nodding reporters dutifully transcribe her comments but don't ask a single question during the 10 minute monologue.
Maybe they should have talked to the nuns who run Bethlehem's Caritas Baby Hospital. Yesterday they said that they were afraid: "Palestine might become an Islamic state." Palestinian Christians have no illusions, they explained. "Christians fear they are becoming a shrinking minority, overwhelmed by Muslims who are having more children." The nuns denounce "Islamic extremism...[that] makes life for Christians very difficult."
Judy Lash Balint is a Jerusalem based writer and author of Jerusalem Diaries: In Tense Times. www.jerusalemdiaries.com