BETHLEHEM -It must be wearying for those who live here, in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, always explaining themselves and the situation to a never-ending flow of visitors. They tell their stories, and those in the business of tourism, pilgrimage or politics do so with great polish. Perhaps no other place has, per capita, so many spokesmen, sources and spin doctors.
Yet sometimes one life can illustrate more than a hundred briefings. So I came to Bethlehem on a private visit, to seek out an ordinary man and learn a little about his life. In particular, I was interested to learn about the life of an ordinary Christian in this, the place where Jesus was born.
I will call him Joseph. He is, in fact, a carpenter, so it is a suitable name. Like most Christians here, he depends upon the tourist/ pilgrim business to earn a living. Joseph the carpenter carves nativity sets, crucifixes and religious goods out of the region's native olive wood. A religious man of the Orthodox Church, he is a native of Bethlehem.
He remembers another time, when Christians were more numerous here. In 1948, the city was estimated to be at least 75% Christian. Now it is down to 20%. Who is to blame for that? Joseph casts the net widely enough. He says that the Israelis make life difficult; they give Arabs a hard time. His Muslim neighbors now range from indifferent to hostile, and growing Islamic radicalism has meant that Christian-Muslim friendships are no longer the commonplace they used to be. "Deep down, they hate us," Joseph's friend interjects. And Christians too are to blame, Joseph concedes. They tend to be better educated, more skilled in English and have more relatives and friends abroad--a recipe for high emigration.
Joseph is a proud Palestinian, and is happier living under Palestinian rule rather than Israeli-administered occupation. "No man can live content under rule by another people," he explains, surprised that this needs explanation. Yet in the old days before Oslo, he could drive from Bethlehem to the north, visiting friends in Tel Aviv or in the Galilee. More than 100,000 Palestinians worked in Israel. Now the border is closed, and he cannot even visit his relatives in Jerusalem.
As a resident of the Palestinian Authority, he cannot go to Jerusalem, only a few kilometres away, without special permission or a medical emergency. There are two ten-day periods each year, once at Christmas and once at Easter, in which he can visit Jerusalem. Does he prefer the old days before the peace process? Joseph does not say yes, but does not say no. Like so many questions here, it is not easy to answer.
Business is not too bad these days. The pilgrims who abandoned the Holy Land during the second intifada and the second Lebanon war (how depressing is that adjective, "second?") are back in good numbers. Not without a sense of humor, he observes that the Israelis had to cut down many olive trees to erect the security wall, and so supplies of olive wood are plentiful. He notes too that Muslims are forbidden by their faith from making religious images, so Bethlehem's Christians don't have to worry about competition on that front. He laughs at this, and why not, as the alternative to laughter in Bethlehem can only be tears.
Joseph is better off than most as he owns his own "factory" -- little more than a large room, perhaps a few hundred square feet. He and his two brothers work there, with a table saw for the major cutting and an old, adapted dentist's drill for the finer carving. A friend across town has an even smaller factory, and specializes in statues (Joseph specializes in the stables). He has an Italian machine that permits copies to be made once the original model is carved; it is more than fifty years old. How do they keep it in working condition? "God looks after us."
Joseph has three children, including two teenage boys. It costs him $1000 per year to send them to the private Catholic school -- itself subsidized by Catholics abroad. The Palestinian schools are free, but, he says, "I cannot send them where they learn only the Koran, and where they are taught to fight." He does not have to mention against whom that fighting is to be done.
Will his sons take over the business? Joseph hopes so, but he does not know whether there will be a future for them here. He cannot think too much about ten years from now; immediate concerns are more pressing. Yet he does not worry. It is not only the machines that are the object of divine concern, he confesses: "God looks after us -- this is His city.”