Banksy or Jesus? Bethlehem or bust.

This Christmas, I did what every normal person living in a biblically-historic Christmas-less country would do, I visited a  site where Jesus himself frequented. There are a few here in the Jewish state of Israel, such as Nazareth (the site of the Annunciation), and of course Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified. There are even JC trails you can hike to relive some of the more memorable moments in his life and some Christmas trees scattered about in Arab towns that are more ethnically mixed, such as Jaffa and Haifa.  This year, however, I decided on the ultimate JC site for a holiday fieldtrip, the coordinates of Christ’s birth on the day of his birth – Bethlehem on Christmas.

Manger Square, located in front of  the Church of Nativity which is possibly the oldest church in the entire world, was tastefully decorated with a beautiful and big, simple, yet elegant, Christmas tree centerpiece. Surrounding the Square is Bethlehem’s Mosque of Omar and the Palestinian Peace Center. I applaud the Palestinian Authority, or the municipality of Bethlehem, for the subtle and not gaudy Christmas decorations in the city’s pedestrian only focal point. The sunny, picturesque day with the perfect amount of clouds in the sky provided ample photo opportunities with Santa and friends. No candy canes or reindeer in sight, but plenty of nativity scenes carved out of olive trees and chocolate Santas for sale at negotiable prices. The place was bumpin’ with mostly Asian tourists and a lot of Russians too, but I was surprised at the relatively low turnout of religious pilgrims or devout Catholics weeping at the site where Mary once lactated (the Milk Grotto located around the corner from the church). Granted, I did miss the infamous midnight mass and the procession from Jerusalem, which takes place annually on Christmas Eve, the night before, but the anti-climactic scene got me thinking about the imagery of Christmas and of course, since we’re in the West Bank again, the imagery of occupation.

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Bethlehem is located in an occupied Palestinian territory and behind a massively controversial wall better known as the Separation Barrier. Every visit to the West Bank is always an adventure, because technically, the grey shades of legality for someone in my position is always a gamble. But I march on, confident, with my American passport, to see the sites.

What I found most interesting this time around was the colorful graffiti on the other side of the wall, which is a stark contrast to the Israeli version looming over the highways as if embarrassed, and at the same time proud, of its sterile- Kinkos-eque-florescent light-beige-vanilla feel to it.

I was very eager to see the infamous Banksy stencils on the wall and imagined it might be somewhat difficult to find; however, to my surprise, taxi drivers were well versed in the exact locations of his works. And for a fee (the guide books say no more that 20NIS), will take you to the tourist attractions. There is also now a Banksy shop, entitled Banksy’s Shop, near the checkpoint that sells t-shirts, mugs, posters, etc. Young hipsters, with impressive camera lenses hanging from their necks, bundled up in pseudo Winter gear, were spotted taking photos of the art and reading the words sprayed on the wall with, what looked like compassion and genuine interest.

I wondered, how many tourists go through the checkpoint and immediately ask their taxi drivers to take them to Banksy, rather than Jesus.

As I was photographing with my unimpressive iphone the bursts of color at different angles along the the Separation Barrier, I was indeed affected by the sheer size and length of the wall, which loomed massively taller and wider than my eyes could comprehend. Walking along, nose running, overlooking a beautiful sunset over the rest of the city, I suddenly noticed the wall had taken me into a cemetery. I felt like I was trespassing, but the barrier just kept on winding around for as far as was visible, meandering and twisting away… I decided to stop and turn around, not feeling very comfortable walking on graves.

Nearer to the checkpoint, I kept photographing the creative depictions (no nativity scenes here) and repeated, common slogans in these here parts: “Made in Palestine,” “Illegally occupied,” “Resistance,” “Revolution” – you get the picture. My favorite was an image of a girl in black in white with red laser beams coming out of her eyes: “When I grew up I’ll blow this up with my laser sight.” The sales associate from the Banksy shop approached me and asked me to come into the store “just to look.” I said sure, but asked if he could tell me where I could find real Banksy pieces on the wall. He pointed above my heard to the familiar image of a little girl being lifted up by holding onto balloon strings. “Is it a real Banksy?” I asked, “Or just a stencil?” “Sure,” he responded. “We have real Banksy in the shop.”

It dawned on me pretty quickly, that it didn’t matter if it was real or not; what mattered was it was there, it existed, and people were flocking to the stencil to see for themselves.

Banksy wasn’t born in Bethlehem, like Jesus was, but he did visit the place with the sole purpose of leaving a mark. Jesus, well I won’t speculate about Christ’s mark, but Banksy did indeed leave a mark that now, years after his visit, still draws crowds. The masses definitely gathered in larger quantities at Manger Square on this fine Christmas afternoon, but on any other given day, I wondered if Banksy’s numbers were higher than JC’s. Does #MangerSquare get instragrammed more on regular days than the #SeparationBarrier? Obviously on Christmas, Jesus won the battle, but who was winning the war of Bethlehem’s tourist sites – Banksy and young Palestinian graffiti enthusiasts or Christ himself?

Maybe it’s because Banksy’s imagery is a bit easier to swallow than religion, but I have a sneaking suspicion that the Separation Barrier, as a symbol of conflict, the occupation, and everything else that is so wrong with the world today, gets more attention. A simple image of a little girl holding on to balloons and floating upwards symbolizes flight, freedom and the endless possibility of living without the constraints of a wall. Or another Bethlehem, Banksy piece of a little girl innocently dressed patting down an IDF soldier (that one was a real Banksy, I’m pretty sure) is thought provoking because it is so easy to understand and agree with – how ridiculous and out of hand this whole big business of occupation has gotten. I support graffiti, I support adding hints and bursts of color to walls that are otherwise just ugly, political symbols serving nasty functions of separating and isolating. I don’t support the existence of the wall; however, I do recognize the perception of the need for it. So at the end of the day, with my iphone in hand and my Santa hat on my head, I’m just another tourist supporting Instragram and trending #Palestine, right?

I’m not sure what Palestinians think about all the graffiti on the wall, but I do know that the wall is not welcome or popular among them. Obviously the preferable alternative would be to have no wall at all, but would they rather have the generic, blank canvas version like on the Israeli side? Since the art generates interest and perhaps a minimal amount of income – what is the harm of having this become a tourist destination? Maybe “Occupational Tourism” isn’t so bad?

The municipality of Bethlehem (or is it the Palestinian Authority?) blamed Israel’s rigid checkpoints on the poor show of tourists this Christmas, and I’m pretty sure they do the same just about every other year. As a tourist, I will say it is very easy to get into the West Bank but, of course, a bit trickier to get back into Israel. But isn’t that part of the appeal – the danger and drama of it all? Art enthusiasts can see Banksy pieces in New York City and all over London, but they come to Bethlehem for the symbolism of revolution, freedom, injustice, and other things that make this place both infuriating and compelling. At the end of the day both Banksy and the baby Jesus generate some heat in Winter, some income for Bethlehem – drawing in international tourists for the sites, and then the authentic hummus and falafel balls and a place to sit down with a coffee while contemplating the meaning of it all – definitely some souvenirs to take home too. Would I have visited Bethlehem just for Jesus if there was no such thing as this wall? I’m pretty sure I would because I enjoy biblical ruins and history, but to be honest there are plenty of similar sites in Israel proper that have the same Christmas effect.

There is nothing holy about an ugly prison-like wall, but I’m pretty sure baby Jesus gets a little popularity boost from the occupation.

Maybe we should visit Syria next?

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