What Pope Francis might see in the backstreets of Bethlehem

The Pope is visiting Bethlehem tomorrow, holding a Mass in Manger Square and meeting with Palestinian officials. He’ll also meet with some Palestinian refugees.

It is striking to consider what Jesus would be born into today. (Click on the images to see the full picture and caption, then press Esc to return to the blog.)



The main refugee camp lies adjacent to the town of Bethlehem and, like other Palestinian camps, has been in existence since just after 1948 when Palestinians were displaced by the creation of the State of Israel. The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is charged by the UN to care for health, education and social services of “persons whose normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948, and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.” There are about 5 million refugees, located in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, and Syria. Many refugees seek, so far to no avail, the “right of return” to their former homes. Some families still hold the keys to their former homes and the rusted old key has become a symbol of what they have lost and what they hope to regain. Of course, current Israeli policy does not favor any such outcome. Instead, Palestinian land continues to be taken by settlements and the snaking path of the separation wall.

No room at the Inn. The modern equivalent of the manger is a UN refugee camp nestled against a concrete wall studded with gun towers. An unlikely place for a prince of peace to be born. But then again, an animals’ feed trough in a town under Roman occupation was hardly a throne of privilege. It will be interesting to hear what the Pope has to say on these matters.

The long-standing awful track record of the Roman Pontiff (and many, many other Christians) of not treating Jews and Muslims as fellow, equal human beings is well known; pogroms, crusades and genocides are part of the Christian legacy. That a Pope would visit with some Muslim refugees, then walk in the Holocaust memorial (Yad Vashem), a place that makes clear the complicity of previous Christian leadership in the Shoah, and finally honor a Zionist leader (Theodor Herzl) whom previous Popes had refused to support is perhaps a small sign of the Vatican trying to acknowledge past wrongs and find a more peaceful future.

21 thoughts on “What Pope Francis might see in the backstreets of Bethlehem

  1. Mary Lou Knapke

    Thank you,David.
    And I pause with
    Respect and prayer.
    Rusted keys touched
    me deeply.

    Sister Mary Lou

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. Brad Stroup

    You remind us all of the reality in a country with three cultures who are still filled with hubris after 2000 years. I cannot think of another place I would less wish to visit. Brad

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Hi Brad, Despite the conflict, it is a beautiful place. As is often the case, 5% of the people make 95% of the trouble. But visiting certainly brings you face-to-face with that 5%.

  3. Anonymous

    Israel would fit in the state of tennessee 7 times – all that fussing and fighting – You mention, critically, zionism and then congratulate the pope for recognizing a “zionist” leader. Gordian’s knot, that place…

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Indeed it is a Gordian knot.

      Fair point about Zionism, but note that many of the original Zionists had a vision of inclusion and tolerance. The declaration of independence for Israel states that “it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.” It further states that Palestinians should have “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions”. Just as the USA not not always adhered to its better ideals, so too with Israel. Of course, there are also more aggressive visions of what Israel should be, some of which are being enacted by extremist groups on the ground today. So I’d argue that honoring Herzl’s memory is not incompatible with recognizing the injustice in some aspects of the current Palestinian situation.

  4. Anonymous

    thank you. Thoughtful response. I appreciate you taking the time. I’d love to visit Israel. I’m planning to start your book in a few days. Safe travels. Discussing Israel always leads to another door than another then another and on and on an on. So frustrating. I’ve fantasized about “one big raucous family” – it’s just that, fantasy! I don’t believe there is a strong desire for a two state scenario – so, apartheid in perpetuity –

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you. I hope you’ll get the chance to visit. Few places are so culturally rich. As for the likelihood of solutions, what i heard from people on the ground was their desire for leaders who could be brave enough to comprise a little more. Easy to say, much harder to enact in the multidimensional world.

  5. Jay (@jayon3rd)

    I enjoyed your entry on the Hebrew University Botanical Garden.

    Regarding your “former homes” photo in “What the Pope Might See,” that sign illustrates well the source of the continuing conflict: the Palestinian Arabs are not willing to share the land. That image is of the whole country, with the Palestinian flag covering it entirely.

    In that narrative, there is no room for the reality that the Jews have been in the land continuously since ancient times or that, in modern history, Jerusalem has been majority Jewish since the 1880s.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you for your reply. I agree absolutely. The refusal of some Palestinian groups to acknowledge the rights of Jews and the legitimacy of the State of Israel has been (and still is: e.g., Hamas) a major problem. And, yes, Jewish people have been in the land for a very long time, as have many other groups. Finding a way to “ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex”, as stated in the declaration of independence for Israel, still seems the ideal to strive for. When some groups resort to terrorism or illegal land-grabbing, that ideal gets harder to achieve: it pushes people further apart and, in the long run, everyone suffers. Or so it seems to me.

      1. johnsalmond

        phew, you’re not afraid of the hard issues. I think your balanced comments are about striking the right note, for this blog. Starting to get into the details of who was where first or longest (about which there are immensely complicated scholarly arguments to be had) is not productive of good.

        1. David George Haskell Post author

          Thank you.

          I agree, especially when there have been much cultural and genetic interchange and evolution over the past 3000+ plus years in the region. Modern day justice and peace is the (very very difficult) focus.

    2. David George Haskell Post author

      I have modified the caption to state that “The painted map appears to leave no room for the State of Israel, a depiction that points away from peaceful coexistence, rather than toward it.”

  6. Sue Davis

    Thanks for challenging my mind heart.It takes courage to be open to listen to the many voices with understanding and respect in a situation that arouses so much emotion. Sue in Maine

  7. Anonymous

    Thank you, David. Once a devout “gentile Zionist,” twenty odd years ago I landed in the middle of 200 international students from the Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan at Ole Miss and learned the other side of the story. Forever difficult, but ever still a chance when we finally love our children more than we hate our “enemies.” So many do cry out for real peace there. So complex and emotionally loaded–especially now. I suggest viewing “Heart of Jenin” among many other documentaries. You are right about original Zionism. Cultural not military. Right about Israel’s original pledges too. So sad for everyone but we are called to peace-making. Can’t forget and can’t give up or give in to the ever-divisive forces, be they governmental and institutional or random and individual on both sides. I deeply thank you again and am sharing this with friends.

    1. David George Haskell Post author

      Thank you, Kay. Discussing these questions at Ole Miss, an institution with its own stories and troubles (like most southern Universities, Sewanee included), must have been interesting, to say the least. Ever hopeful that the “ever-divisive forces” might ebb and the momentum for justice and peace gain strength. Thank you for reading the bog and for sharing your story here.


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