Breaking down walls

Opening Bethlehem to the world

Documentary film makes its western Canadian premiere tonight in Vancouver
Photo: Francisco Martins

Editors' note: The western Canadian premiere of Open Bethlehem is Monday night, Sept. 26 at Vancouver's Rio Theatre. The screening will be followed by a discussion with the director, moderated by author Hadani Ditmars.

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Why is there a disconnect between Christians in the West and the birthplace of Christ? This is one of the questions posed by a documentary called Open Bethlehem by Palestinian filmmaker Leila Sansour, currently on its inaugural Canadian tour.

While Muslims everywhere know where Mecca is, many Christians are at a loss to describe Bethlehem as a city in Palestine, let alone one under siege. Like Iraqi Christians, many Palestinians feel abandoned by their Western brethren.

Hometown rediscovered

Sansour returned to her hometown a decade ago, after marrying an Englishman and settling in London, to make a film about the Wall that was then slowly encircling the ancient city and now surrounds it. She thought perhaps she would stay a year. But as things got worse, with Israeli land grabs in the name of security destroying homes, businesses and thousand-year-old olive groves, she ended up staying for five years and starting an NGO that shares a name with her film.

But even Canada’s churches, seemingly natural allies of Bethlehem, have been relatively silent on its slow strangulation.

Her goal was to save her hometown and by extension encourage the peace and reconciliation process with Israel. While the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement seeks to bring attention to Israeli violations of international law, Open Bethlehem — both the film and the NGO — seeks to build bridges between the city and those abroad as well as with Israeli and Jewish peace groups.

An international tourist destination for centuries, as well as an example of cosmopolitan interfaith harmony, Bethlehem, says Sansour, is a symbol of peace, hope and reconciliation for the region and the world. The best way for people to understand this is to visit in person, and to that end Sansour has organized hundreds of delegations, working with local businesses and artisans, as a foil to the Israeli-controlled tours that bypass the community. Symbolic passports to Bethlehem are offered as a gesture of fellowship.

The project has the blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Desmond Tutu, and the Canon of the Anglican Cathedral in Washington D.C.

But as Sansour embarks on her first Canadian tour — just as the United States signs a $38 billion arms deal with Israel — one might well ask, where are the Canadian voices supporting the people who bear the lived reality and not just the biblical stories of the birthplace of Christ?

Things have gone from bad to worse since I first interviewed Sansour for a CBC Dispatches documentary on Christians in the holy land. I remember spending a sad Christmas time in a grotto-like B&B owned by a once wealthy hotelier who was slowly going broke, redeemed only by the incredibly moving experience of visiting the Church of the Nativity. I spent an intoxicating orthodox Christmas and epiphany there watching Ethiopians, Russians, Palestinians, and Christians from all corners of the earth stay up all night praying, only to experience a full-on strip search at Ben Gurion airport a few hours later. Sansour’s film captures the disconnect not only between the spiritual essence and military occupation of the place, but also that between the West and Palestine.

Trudeau disappoints on Palestine

What can we as Canadians and as Christians do to help the people of Bethlehem, where world heritage sites are at risk and the local population, stripped of their traditional tourist trade by the Wall and by Israeli tour companies, are forced to go through cages at dawn to vie for a handful of work permits for low-paying jobs in Israel? Where every year, there are fewer Christians in the birthplace of Christ?

Prime Minister Trudeau has disappointed many by voting against the UN resolutions on the right of return and other key issues as Harper did, and by not restoring funding to agencies like KAIROS, whose years of good work in the region were undermined by drastic cuts under the Conservatives.

But even Canada’s churches, seemingly natural allies of Bethlehem, have been relatively silent on its slow strangulation, compared to their counterparts in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Open Bethlehem offers us a chance to open our hearts and minds to a historic city under siege.

While Development and Peace (The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace) has sponsored Open Bethlehem’s Canadian tour, the United Church of Canada leads the way nationally. Joining the Presbyterian Church in 2012 in its boycott of products made in illegal settlements, the United Church has also sent 30 people to Bethlehem, Jerusalem and Hebron as “ecumenical accompaniers” through a World Council of Churches program. During a three-month period, the accompaniers live with Palestinian families and bear witness to and document the effects of the occupation. They cross checkpoints with children on their way to school, visit families whose homes have been demolished and take photos, travel with workers noting length of delays at checkpoints and publish their findings internationally. Their presence is symbolic but also pragmatic as it reduces harassment from soldiers.

But other Canadian churches’ relative timidity in the face of the much more robust Israeli lobby is disappointing to say the least.

Oh Canada, isn’t it about time that a country where over 67 per cent of the population are Christian did more to help the people trapped behind a wall in the birthplace of Christ? Open Bethlehem offers us a chance to open our hearts and minds to a historic city under siege. Let us seize the opportunity to build bridges using the Canadian values of peace and reconciliation in a town that has been sending a message of hope to the world for over 2,000 years.

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