Joy to the World, but in Bethlehem Grief
Kenneth Woodward on “The Plight of Bethlehem” in today’s WSJ:
A mere nine kilometers separates Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, from Jerusalem, where he was crucified, died and was buried. Pilgrims can easily visit both the Church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in half a day–as long as they are not Palestinian Christians. Israel’s security wall, its restrictive exit permit system, roadblocks and military checkpoints now make it impossible for most Holy Land Christians to visit the shrines that, for all Christians, make the Holy Land holy.
Like East Jerusalem, Bethlehem is part of the West Bank, not the State of Israel. Temporary exit visas to go from one to the other to worship–or see a doctor or even visit relatives–are hard to come by, of brief duration even when granted, and always subject to the whims of Israeli soldiers.
The squeeze is economic as well as religious. Few producers in Bethlehem can get their goods to markets in Jerusalem. Fewer buyers can get to Bethlehem to sustain its markets. Tourism, a huge segment of the city’s economy, is up since 2004, but it is still far from robust.
When last I was in Bethlehem, in 2000, an average of more than 91,000 tourists visited the city monthly. This year, the average is half that number. When buses do arrive, tourists are routinely whisked in and out without time to shop. As a consequence, nearly 100 hotels and restaurants have closed since my last visit. More than 250 workshops that made olive wood crèches, mother-of-pearl crosses and other religious souvenirs have disappeared too. And so, of course, have many of the stores that sold them. In sum, where Bethlehem once enjoyed one of the lowest urban unemployment rates in the Holy Land, it now has one of the highest–by some estimates as much as 60%.