The Spirit of Christmas

By Nadia W. Awad – The West Bank 

Christmas spirit is in the air. It is the season of good will and cheer, and a celebration of the birth of Jesus, who is looked upon reverently by both Christians and Muslims. It is a time to express the love you have for family and friends, and a time to consider what you have to be grateful for. For Palestinians celebrating this year, they do have a lot for which to be thankful. They have survived another year of occupation and strangulation. This year has seen more support from international organizations and individuals than ever before, and it is heart-warming that so many people care about the desperate situation Palestinians live in. The fact that they care enough to leave the warmth of their own homes to come and join Palestinians and other members of the international community here – braving the checkpoints, the wall, and the soldiers – is moving.

It is also heart-warming to see Jews around the world defy ruthless criticism and accusations of betrayal by supporting the Palestinians in their demands for an independent state of their own. Just this week, we read about Adalah-NY, who joined forces with Jews against the Occupation NYC to sing Christmas carols in freezing weather while handing out leaflets informing passersby of Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev’s financing of illegal settlement construction and land theft in Palestine. Together, Adalah and Jews against the Occupation have convinced UNICEF, Oxfam, and a number of Hollywood stars to distance themselves from Leviev’s company and money. As Ethan Heitner from Adalah-NY explained, “Their actions show that Leviev’s wealth and diamonds can’t buy impunity.”

In London, another group, the Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, along with the Palestinian group Open Bethlehem, organized a Christmas service in one of London’s largest churches, with the surprise blessing of the Church of England. The service, entitled “Bethlehem Now: Nine Alternative Lessons and Carols”, included a reworking of traditional Christmas carols. Instead of singing about tidings of comfort and joy, the participants sang about war crimes, assassinations and the oppression of Palestinians. The reworked carols included favorites such as ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’, ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’, ‘The Holly And the Ivy’, and ‘Hark The Herald Angels Sing’. The’ Twelve Days of Christmas’ lyrics were most poignant:

Twelve assassinations/ Eleven homes demolished/ Ten wells obstructed/ Nine sniper towers/ Eight gunships firing/ Seven checkpoints blocking/ Six tanks a-rolling/ Five settlement rings/ Four falling bombs/ Three trench guns/ Two trampled doves/ And an uprooted olive tree.

Despite being accused of hijacking Christmas for hatred, of being self-hating Jews, anti-Semitic and the usual array of insults that follow such an event, the service was deemed a huge success and is likely to become an annual occurrence.

The reworked lyrics were in fact scarily accurate in their description of Israeli atrocities. Back in Palestine, Israel, in a fit of ‘generosity’ perhaps due to the Christmas season of cheer, announced that it would be issuing permits to ‘approved’ West Bank Christians, allowing them to enter Jerusalem this year for Christmas. In an annual tradition, Israel ‘permits’ the approved Christians to pass through one of the two main checkpoints into Jerusalem for a limited time each Christmas, providing they receive approval from the Israeli military beforehand and submit a biometric scan of one hand for tracking purposes. This year is especially ‘unique’, as the permission form is not time-stamped, meaning that West Bank Christians can stay overnight in the Holy City – something they have not been able to do for years.

Needless to say, the hypocrisy and effrontery of Israel’s latest ‘generous’ gesture cannot be mistaken. All people have an inherent right to reach their places of worship, not to mention that any Palestinian – Christian or Muslim – who has even the slightest mark by their name in Israel’s security system has no chance of getting a permit. Despite this, Palestinians will rise above it, just as they do every day. They will celebrate Christmas to the best of their abilities, giving thanks, despite the unfairness and hardships of life, for what they have been blessed with.

The 24th and 25th of December are the two busiest days in Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus. Today it will be full of tourists, pilgrims and local Christians and Muslims alike, preparing to enjoy the events of the day. Santa Claus, who took a quick break to attend a peaceful protest of the Israeli separation wall earlier this week, will be preparing to greet children and families in Manger Square. The streets are full of bright lights, plastic Santas, and carolers. Hotels and tourist stores are busy for the first time in years. On Christmas Day, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will attend the parades, prayers and Christmas mass, just as late President Yasser Arafat did almost every year. All the while, local and foreign church choirs and orchestras will serenade the masses in Manger Square with uplifting and soulful music.

However, like all holidays here (irrespective of the religion), this Christmas will be a bittersweet event. Those Palestinians in Bethlehem and around the world who celebrate Christmas this year will do so, but with thoughts in their heads and sympathy in their hearts for the Gazans living under an Israeli siege and the dismal plight of Palestinians on hunger strikes in Israeli prisons. For those who believe in the power of prayer, they will pray for an end to the settlements and the Wall that surrounds Palestinian cities. They will pray for an end to the blockade on Gaza. They will pray for peace.

Happy holidays to the readers, as I leave you with some of the lyrics from ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. Originally meant to paint a picture of the events of the nativity, they instead paint a picture of Bethlehem as it is today:

Once in Royal David’s City,
Stood a big apartheid wall,
People entering and leaving,
Had to pass a checkpoint hall,
Bethlehem was strangulated,
And her children segregated.

– Nadia W. Awad writes regularly for MIFTAH – – where this article was originally published on December 24, 2008.

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