There are times when you realise that you are no longer in Malvern. Two such moments have found their way into my memories in the last couple of weeks.
First, Bethlehem. In any normal year a visit to Bethlehem would be a natural extension of any stay in Jerusalem as it lies only six miles to the south. In 2004, the fourth year of the second Intifada, Bethlehem’s character as a Palestinian town in the West Bank overshadows its significance as the birthplace of Jesus.
The Church of the Nativity is impressive and exudes an ancient air, which considering it dates to the 4th century is not surprising. You may remember that Palestinian militants were holed up a couple of years ago and that the church was besieged by the Israeli army. That event is now past and today a trickle of tourists file peacefully into the grotto beneath the church where a golden star, choked in thick incense, marks the spot of Jesus’ birth. Manger Square outside is a sorry sight. Cleaned-up for the Millennium, the rubbish and the rats are making a comeback.
To get to Bethlehem you have to take a taxi from Jerusalem to the checkpoint and walk through past Israeli soldiers. We went on the Sabbath so it was fairly quiet. On the other side stands the infamous Security Wall, 15 metres of concrete that broods like the black monolith of Kubrick’s 2001. I understand the wall – after all, terrorism has dipped sharply as the wall has grown – but as one Palestinian told me, “we all live now in a giant prison”. It will be interesting to see how the wall affects the final status negotiations (should they ever restart).
A taxi driver took us on a tour of Bethlehem. We saw the refugee camps and the bombed-out houses of Beit-Jalah. There’s great stoicism among the people, a will to get on with life, but at the same time people are tired and long for an end to the war.
So that was Bethlehem. Now to the Wailing Wall. Yesterday was the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av (the 9th of the month Av) where Jews remember the destruction of the Temple. The Book of Lamentations is recited, and observant Jews fast for the whole day. (One Rabbi in my class has not shaved for a week, nor eaten meat). We went down to the Wailing Wall, which was packed with the faithful. Despite its significance as a day of mourning, there was almost a festival atmosphere. Police were everywhere, however, fearful not only of Palestinian terrorism but also of any attempt by Jewish extremists to storm the Muslim-held Temple Mount. We saw one guy with a flag upon which “Messiah” was written. Alas, he did not come. If he did, then perhaps he would have been dismayed at the need for snipers and the bravado of Israeli youth who ran cheerfully through the Arab quarter waving the flag of Israel. The Arabs were not amused.
None of this happens in Malvern. A good thing methinks.