The impossible city

Nicholas Blincoe is a novelist and screenwriter who lives between London and Bethlehem, where his wife Leila Sansour is the CEO of Open Bethlehem, a international campaign to save the city.

O, little town

As a child, studying O-level geography, I was given a list of every conceivable city-type: the fortress, the port, the market town and so on. I remembered the list when I first visited Bethlehem, my wife's hometown.

Many of the cities of the Levant claim to be the oldest continually-settled sites in the world: among them, Jericho and Nablus in Palestine, and Beirut in Lebanon. Bethlehem is somewhere in that ballpark, between four and six thousand years old. It began as a Bronze Age settlement named after the fertility god Lacham, a kind of Middle Eastern Green Man whose garden temples served as campsites for visiting strangers. It is plausible to imagine the Holy Family staying in the one-time garden of Lacham on their visit to Bethlehem, just as Christ stayed in the garden of Gethsemane on his visit to Jerusalem. The site of Christ's birth, marked by a bronze star in a cave within the Church of the Nativity might once have been Lacham's garden temple. I suggest this, not because I want to resurrect a pagan god, but because until very recently Bethlehem was a green and fertile city. When my wife was a child in the 1970s, her whole family would decamp to their orchards in the hills at harvest time, to sleep beneath their trees. This local tradition is echoed in the Jewish Festival of the Booths, when Jews are required to eat a meal beneath a canopy of leaves. Today, my wife's orchards have been stolen by Israel and nationalized by the Jewish Land Agency. The fertile hills have been built over by the settlements of Gush Etzion and Gilo, and though the Jews who live there no doubt continue to celebrate the Festival of the Booths, the age-old traditions they mimic have been destroyed.

Ancient Bethlehem was a modest walled town, an oasis at the edge of a wilderness that stretches to the Dead Sea. All of ancient Bethlehem is now contained within the walls of the Church of the Nativity whose Cru-sader battlements stand on the foundations of the older Bronze Age walls. Bethlehem grew over the centuries, prospering as a city of pilgrimage and, since Thomas Cook's package tours in the 19th century, a modern holiday destination. It was once a thriving, open city: it is now sealed behind a wall, imprisoning the 170,000 Christian and Muslim citizens, while annexing their forests, farmlands and fresh-water springs to the Jewish settlements. There is no more brutal dictatorship than a military occupation. I have been shot at twice by soldiers, once in a group and once when I was alone on the streets during a military curfew. I have even had a pistol pressed to my head for straying too close to the Israeli wall. A renewed cycle of Israeli invasions that began in 2001 have brought closures, curfews and economic blockades and led to a sharp spike in emigration, notably among the Christian population. In the past five years, four hundred Christian families have left the city. Within a generation, the Bethlehem I know will have disappeared, and a bastion of Christianity in the Middle East, as well as a home to an open, multi-faith democracy will have been wiped out.

According to one historical source - let's be honest, the Bible - Bethlehem has been ruled at various times by Amorites, Philistines, Judah and possibly the Hittites, the Moabs, the Jebusites among others. The Bible is confusing, but it is less a history than a kind of legalistic aspiration: it makes the case that Judah, alone, can claim the leadership of the tribes of Israel. The Bible was composed during and after the Jews' Babylonian exile. Though written in Hebrew (at the time, a dead language outside of the temple), the scriptures use the Aramaic alphabet. As English is the language of the age of the internet, Aramaic was the language of the first age of law, chosen by Cyrus as the language of his empire's legal code. This is one of the ironies of the Bible, that while it claims to be an account of Divine Law, handed from God to Moses, it rests upon codes of inheritance, ownership and property derived from Cyrus. The scriptures are filled with painfully spelled-out genealogies, meticulous detailed land purchases and claims to water resources. When Cyrus allowed the exiles to return in 538BC, these legalistic claims became the justification for the dispossession of other people, splitting the religion of Israel into two factions: the Jews and the Samaritans.

The attempted dispossession by Judah of all other people of the Holy Land - Israelites and non-Israelites alike - continues to be a feature of Judaism. The Bible remains the key legal document. It is true, Israel recognizes a panoply of other legal codes. It has used British military law to administer the occupation for almost forty years. It recognizes Ottoman law, which is used to confiscate private land prior to Jewish nationalization, and international law, insofar as it accepts it is engaged in "belligerent occupation", though it disputes the clauses that forbid civilian colonization. In short, Israel accepts a smorgasbord of laws, picking and choosing which ones it will obey. But above all, Israel recognizes the Bible.

It ought to be possible to write a history of Bethlehem that does not rely primarily upon scripture. Although few other historical documents exist, the landscape and the archaeology represent a kind of document. The problem is, archaeology is influenced by the military occupation as much as any other facet of life. In Israel, the only purpose of archaeology is to support the Bible. Israeli archaeologists are like the fireman in the novel Fahrenheit 451; their job is to erase the traces of non-Jewish civilizations, not to investigate them. Another strategy might be to read the Bible for holes and evasions: a kind of deconstruction. Take the confusion over the people of Bethlehem, for instance; all those Amorites, Moabs, Philistines and Hittites. In order to establish the primacy of Judah, the Bible has to continually admit other peoples, multiplying their numbers even as it insists they are long gone and have no further relevance. This stratagem bears comparison with the biblical claim to the primacy of Mosaic Law and Hebrew, which itself depends upon a prior, furtive recourse to the law of Cyrus and the alphabet of the Aramaic language. In both cases, the attempt to aggrandize one people, requires the Bible to posit a pluralistic society and a universal legal code that it simultaneously suppresses and erases.

Bethlehem began life as a walled citadel, and will end as a prison town. Beside it looms Israeli Jerusalem, which has redrawn its boundaries constantly since the occupation. As far as Israel is concerned, Jerusalem's borders now encompass all the settlements surrounding the city of Bethlehem. As an ex-deputy Mayor of Jerusalem has said, the expansion was planned according to Talmudic law which states that a city is defined by sightlines: if a collection of buildings can be seen from another point, then each constitutes a part of the same city. By grabbing the orchards of Bethlehem, Jerusalem has doubled and trebled in size over the past two decades, like a concrete amoeba, whose pseudopodia absorb and digest everything they encircle. Modern Jerusalem is gruesomely ugly. It is also an entirely new kind of city, unimaginable in the 1970s when I studied O-level geography. But, strangled within this modern city, Bethlehem remains an archetype. It is no longer the place it was, but it is a recognizable type familiar from Venice, or Warsaw or Lodz: a ghetto.

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