The Trump that Stole Christmas (in Bethlehem 2017)
In late October, at the Olive Harvest Festival on Manger Square in Bethlehem, people were already looking forward to Christmas in Bethlehem this year. The number of visitors to Bethlehem has been on the rise this year. In spite of the limitations, harassment, and controls imposed by the Israeli occupation, people were encouraged by early hotel bookings for the Christmas season.
The Separation Wall winding its way around Bethlehem serves as a constant reminders that Bethlehem is an incarcerated city living under Occupation. And yet, at Christmas time Bethlehem is transformed with lights, music and celebration. In extraordinary ways, the people of Bethlehem embody the spirit of Christmas, resisting their oppression by living in hope as they celebrate Christmas in homes, churches, and on Manger Square.
Like every year, the festivities this year began with the lighting of the Christmas tree on Manger Square. The streets of Bethlehem were filled with lights and numerous concerts and theater productions were planned along with parades featuring scout groups with bagpipes. One of the annual highlights is a Christmas market with artisans selling their crafts and specialty Christmas sweets.
As the season commenced Bethlehemites had been especially eager to welcome the festivities for this year and the thousands of anticipated visitors to their “Little Town”. Among those welcoming the season were the members of the DIYAR Theater as they annually present an original Christmas play to the excitement of school children and adults as well.
All of these wonderful events were unfolding and then on December 6th, US President Donald Trump made his pronouncement about Jerusalem. Immediately there were worldwide condemnations against his actions and Palestinians held a three-day national strike and days of protest that shut down the West Bank. Within hours of Trump’s address, the US State Department issued a temporary travel advisory to American citizens to stay away from travel in the West Bank.
For Bethlehem, it was like the children’s story by Dr Seuss, it was “The Trump Who Stole Christmas”. Like in the fable, it was as though Trump reached into Bethlehem and stole all the wonderful things they had planned for Christmas. Immediately, many tour groups canceled reservations; many performances were canceled; during the national strike days the lights on the tree on Manger Square were turned off. The darkness of December set in over the city.
Trump and his Vice President had talked about their concern for Christians in the Middle East yet they seemed oblivious to the harm they were doing to Palestinian Christians and to the critically important Christmas season in Bethlehem. The mayor of Bethlehem, who had been scheduled to receive VP Pence on a visit, let it be known he was not welcome and a graffiti artist expressed this sentiment on the Separation Wall.
Palestinian Christian leaders spoke out condemning the Trumps actions including Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb who issued a theological reflection:
“The Christmas story starts with an imperial decree signed by Caesar Augustus. As I was watching President Trump’s address yesterday evening on our TV, I could not help but think of the so-called Balfour Declaration signed 100 years ago when the British empire promised Palestine to the European Jews as their national homeland. Trump’s address yesterday was indeed another such imperial decree recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Again and again we, the Palestinian people, are sacrificed at the altar for imperial politics. In that sense nothing is new for us Palestinians.”
Now, two weeks after Trump’s address, friends in Bethlehem report that the Church of the Nativity has only a hand full of groups visiting. Many families dependent on tourism will suffer from loss of income. Protests continue daily mostly near checkpoint 300 along the Separation Wall and in the nearby refugee camp. There are nightly raids by Israeli soldiers into the refugee camps.
In other sections of the city, life appears more or less normal except the joy of the season has been stolen. People go to work and to school. Families gather in their homes to share special Christmas meals, beverages, sweets and bake goods.
The faithful people of Bethlehem will recall the story of Christ’s birth in their “little town” and celebrate Christmas with the joyful pageantry and traditions as they have through the ages.
Trump Stole Christmas?
Unlike the Dr. Suess’ children’s fable, “The Trump That Stole Christmas” is not a fable and Trump is not giving back his decree seeking forgiveness. Trump’s actions only add to Palestinian suffering and with many tragic consequences. One of the consequences is that the creativity and hopes for Christmas in Bethlehem this year have been damaged.
Rev. Mitri Raheb has written that “The Christmas story is a mirror of the reality for the Palestinians today….it is a very realistic story that comes out of the experience of the people of Palestine throughout the centuries.”
“Where is hope in this story? Despite everything, Herrod was not able to destroy that community and that voice that kept proclaiming good news in that time when the occupation of Palestine was very harsh.”
Rev. Raheb continues “If you are looking for hope today, Bethlehem, in-spite of everything, is a place for hope. As I watch young Palestinians performing in Christmas concerts, theater, and gallery talks; when you see these young people on the stage they embody life in a context that is shaped by death. But, it is their determination and their steadfastness that especially gives me hope.”
Rev. Raheb concludes that the Christmas story is “a story of word becoming flesh. The human and divine are joined; so standing up for human rights is the divine message.” In this way, the joyous Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem serve as a message of hope in the face of the injustice of the Occupation. Even Donald Trump can’t steal this.”
Please remember the people of Bethlehem this Christmas through solidarity and generous support.