I recently explored Bethlehem with a friend who lived there fifteen years ago, before the construction of the 30 foot concrete wall that snakes through the city. Back then, West Bank residents did need to cross checkpoints to enter Israel, but people generally moved freely to and from Jerusalem, just a few miles to the north. Tourists flooded the city not just at Christmas time, but year round. Farmers tended the orchards and fields that had sustained them for centuries.
Many checkpoints exist and must be crossed by those living in the Palestinian territories
Today, the separation wall and its system of permits and identification cards generally exclude Bethlehem residents from crossing to Jerusalem, and discourage visitors from entering. The wall creates a very different landscape than the one Gloria had enjoyed all those years ago. Israelis (and international folk) are often convinced that this wall improves the security of Israelis, who have suffered many terrorist attacks, especially during the second intifada, and that it is worth whatever inconvenience it causes local people. But witnessing the wall, which is built almost entirely on the Palestinian side of the recognized border, with one’s own eyes, it is impossible to deny the oppression it represents.
Eerily, the two of us were the only people crossing the checkpoint into Bethlehem on this particular morning. The main road into town is blocked by the wall, so the neighborhood which used to welcome visitors driving in from Jerusalem now resembles a ghost town. Rachel’s Tomb, which used to attract visitors of diverse faiths, has been surrounded by the wall in such a way that it blocks entry from the Bethlehem side. As we followed the wall around and between homes and closed-up shops, Gloria strained even to recognize which streets we were walking on. We took the time to look up close at the graffiti murals covering the wall, and to imagine how it might feel to live in this neighborhood today.
I had been here before, many times – usually
speeding by in a taxi on my way to volunteer at the Palestinian Lutheran schools. On these visits, I support the English teachers and accompany church visitors to share about the powerful ministries taking place among our local partners here. In a recent class, some 11th grade students told me stories of their experience of the wall, explaining that it has a psychological effect just as harmful as the damage to property and restriction of movement. One boy who has watched the wall go up just meters from his home, cutting his family off from their olive orchards on the other side, says that construction has begun on a huge surveillance tower on his family’s property. The lawyers his father hired could do nothing to stop it. “We feel like we are in a cage,” he told me.
The Separation Wall that Segregates Palestinians from Israelis
On my way home from that class, as I crossed the checkpoint to return to Jerusalem (a privilege of holding a US passport) I feared that I have little hope to offer our students, who have experienced so much trauma and humiliation under occupation. Who am I to tell them there is a better future ahead? That this wall will disappear, and its wounds will be healed? I never visited Bethlehem before this wall was built, and as much as I mourn and rage at its construction, I felt ashamed that I could not even visualize the place without it. In that moment, I asked God to show me a vision of Bethlehem freed from the wall. I had come to the realization that I couldn’t do it myself – I did not have the answer. But I prayed that a glimpse of God’s vision might sustain me and enable me to stand faithfully with my students and colleagues in their hopes for liberation and peace.
Later that same week, as I wandered along the wall with Gloria, I saw the vision I had asked for. Many visions, in fact: paintings, collages, comics, and quotes resisting the wall and calling for its removal. The graffiti is the work of both local and international artists. One mural pictures people opening the wall by pulling down a giant zipper; another “cuts” around the checkpoint entrance along a dotted line, like a coupon; my favorite portrays the giant panels of the wall falling toward the viewer, with a clear view of Jerusalem on the other side, and a ladder to heaven revealing God’s love to the people.
Artistry on the Separation Wall
It is the work of the faithful in this conflicted land to seek God’s vision above all the cruelties imposed by human hands and dollars. And for an international volunteer like me, it is my first responsibility to witness the powerful faith, humor, and creativity of the local Palestinian community, surviving in the face of seemingly impossible limitations. We pray together, as in the old Irish hymn, “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart; naught be all else to me save that thou art.” To paraphrase, “Please, God, reveal to us the potential you see in your creation. You are what matters – we want to witness your truth in this messed up world.” God’s powerful vision of peace has the last word.
Rev. Emily Goldthwaite Fries, a native of Eugene, Oregon, is an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ. She volunteers through UCC/DOC Global Ministries in accompaniment with our partners of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land.