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Christmas in Bethlehem is about looking beyond miracles

Christmas is rarely a time to ponder geopolitical contexts, but a visit to Bethlehem brings up thoughts of the true meaning of the festivities

Worshippers in Manger Square, adjacent to the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank town of Bethlehem. (AP)

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Way back in 1984, when I was still only a teenager, my family received special permissions to visit “The Holy Land” that were printed on pieces of paper we were told to discard upon departure from Ben Gurion Airport. At that time, our passports—like those of every other Indian—carried this prominent proscription: “Not Valid for Travel to Israel, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia”.

Today, as we all know, it is not at all uncommon for urban Indians of every background to visit Israel, and many thousands of Konkani Catholics just like my family from Goa have undertaken tour-operated pilgrimages to various locations that are mentioned in the Bible. Back then, however, relatively few ventured to those iconic sites—Jerusalem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee—and no one we knew had made it out there for the apex event that is Midnight Mass in Bethlehem, in the Basilica of the Nativity, the oldest site of Christian worship in the world and the supposed birthplace of Jesus.

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Unbeknownst to us, that very Christmas Eve wound up being an important turning point for the West Bank, the occupied territory that would rapidly become more than 200 Israeli settlements, scattered amongst almost as many “islands” of civil authority which most countries—including India—now recognise as the State of Palestine. It had been first seized from Jordan in 1967, after the so-called Six-Day War when Israel decisively defeated an Arab coalition (and simultaneously occupied the Golan Heights from Syria, and the Gaza Strip and Sinai Peninsula from Egypt), but overt controls were exercised relatively gingerly until the precise moment in 1984 that my family headed there, which is when Shimon Peres also unexpectedly turned up as the first Israeli leader to visit the iconic shrine.

We had been expecting crowds, but now found ourselves penned in immobile, standing shoulder-to-shoulder for hours just to be screened for entry to Manger Square. Finally making it all the way through, we were startled to see the gnomic Israeli prime minister pop up onstage, from where he exhorted us in English: “I bring a greeting of peace to all those who seek peace.” It was an indelible moment that has remained seared in my memory: this earnest, forbidding figure looming in the middle distance and delivering amplified promises that sounded distinctly like threats, while an army of alert snipers stood poised against cloudless dark skies on the rooftops all around us. I recall feeling trapped, and more than a little helpless. The “holy night” became tinged with menace, and the unmistakable spectre of violence.

This was something new, which permanently shifted my perspective, because, until that moment, our family Christmases had only ever followed the typical Goan Catholic formula of unstinting merriment and community-centred good cheer. It is the time of year when the classic Mario de Miranda illustrations spring to life: hand-made stars lit up from within, multi-generational clan banquets, the groaning table filled with delicacies, with violins and voices raised in song. The way we celebrate is wonderfully inclusive, loving and multi-denominational, where everyone belongs and has a place at the table. The first time it really sunk in to me that things aren’t naturally like that for everyone was behind the barbed wire in Bethlehem in 1984.

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In retrospect, from the vantage of 2022, more than two decades after the catastrophic World Trade Centre attack in New York on 9/11, followed by the devastating “War on Terror”, it is quite hard to describe just how different Israel and the West Bank felt back then. There was no giant wall cleaving the two populations into an archipelago of fragments, and, every day, tens of thousands of Palestinians headed to work back and forth “across the border” with minimal fuss. At that time, even the idea of Hamas (which would eventually become a dominant political and military force in Palestine) was still some years away. After our intense Christmas Eve experience, my family proceeded to thoroughly enjoy our visit, with the others falling hard for the more cosmopolitan precincts of Jaffa and Haifa, while my own soul stirred most profoundly in the primeval wadis (valleys) that rise in sharp, serried ranks from the Dead Sea.

Preparations for Christmas service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve.
Preparations for Christmas service at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve. (AFP)

Those landscapes of Ein Gedi—they’re mentioned in the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible—drew me back the following year to volunteer for Israel’s Nature Reserves Authority. Now, most of my day was spent tracking leopards and counting ibex (and also picking up garbage), but it was highly educative to work alongside Arabs under Israeli bosses, and I also learned a lot from up-close observation of the troubled assimilation of the Falasha, thousands of Ethiopian Jews who had just been airlifted to “the Promised Land” where they faced the humiliating demand by rabbinical authorities that they be “reconverted”. It was an immediately recognizable echo of what had happened in the 1950s to Indian Jews when they “made aliyah” to Israel, and of course I also thought of Partition and what happened to members of my own family in that time of our own great Exodus.

In those years, I had been fond of reading the great W.B. Yeats, who had famously asked, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” With prophetic power, he wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world/ The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/ The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst /Are full of passionate intensity.” That refrain lingered in my mind, and even though I was still not nearly well read or experienced enough to recognize what was happening around me in the middle of the 1980s, I definitely got the impression of impending cataclysm, and that’s precisely what began to unravel after I returned home. My family had witnessed some of the initial building and bulldozing, but now it mushroomed, and the population of settlers doubled by 1987. That is when the first Intifada exploded into violent resistance, and an open state of warfare entrenched itself across the region, which has never alleviated.

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What happens to ‘Joy to the World’ when you have tasted occupation, and begun to understand the violent backdrop to the original Nativity, along with its inevitable corollary contemporary resonances? Here, I have always found it useful to revisit Mahatma Gandhi’s original anti-colonial insights from 1938: “There are hundreds of ways of reasoning with the Arabs, if [the Jews of Palestine] will only discard the help of the British bayonet. As it is, they are co-sharers with the British in despoiling a people who have done no wrong to them. I am not defending the Arab excesses. I wish they had chosen the way of non-violence in resisting what they rightly regarded as an unwarrantable encroachment upon their country. But according to the accepted canons of right and wrong, nothing can be said against the Arab resistance in the face of overwhelming odds.” The logic is impeccable, no matter where your emotions may lie: Israel yes, by all means, but not at the cost of anyone else’s human rights.

It's an excruciating tightrope to walk in practical terms, of course, and one of the more impressive facts of India’s foreign policy has been scrupulously maintaining this position. We all know the BJP is notably close to the Israeli right, as embodied by the controversial Benjamin ‘Bibi’ Netanyahu, but just last month Prime Minister Narendra Modi also reiterated his “unwavering support to the Palestinian people.” That diplomatic stance holds firm even after India has become by far the largest buyer of Israeli weapons, and the constant interplay between religious nationalists of both polities often spills over into an overtly Islamophobic conflation about “the common enemy.” Here, we must note that, according to a 2009 poll taken by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, some 60% of Indians have a positive view of Israel, which is one of the highest percentages in the world.

Over the years, just like me in the 1980s, many Indians have looked at Israel and thought about what is happening on similar lines back home. Yet, we don’t often realize the opposite is equally obvious, which is why Nadav Lapid’s interventions at the International Film Festival of India in Goa last month had such a sensational impact. Speaking as the chairman of the competition jury at the closing ceremony, he said “We were all of us disturbed and shocked by The Kashmir Files, that felt to us like a propaganda… for an artistic competitive section of such a prestigious film festival. I feel totally comfortable to share openly these feelings here with you on stage since the spirit of the festival can truly accept also a critical discussion, which is essential for art and for life.” As inchoate fury erupted across social media, Lapid explained to Haaretz: “The truth is that I also couldn’t help but imagine a similar situation that might happen one day soon in Israel, and I would be happy that in such a situation, the head of a foreign jury would be willing to say things as he sees them.”

It’s true that we don’t usually ponder the geopolitical contexts, and full underlying meanings, of the famous old songs that we sing at festivals and feasts, but this year at Midnight Mass, I will certainly be thinking hard about all we have learned, when the congregation sings these lines from my favourite Carol: O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie / Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by / Yet in thy dark streets shineth, the everlasting light/ The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”

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