Public First Program


Shane Elson


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December 2006 # 2

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Back to Editorials 2006

Away in a Manger

As the Christmas season shifts into top gear and our minds turn to who will bring what for lunch, where lunch will be and who will be there, let’s turn our minds, just for a few minutes, to the birthplace of the “reason for the season”. 

The Bible story tells us that Jesus was born in a manger in the town of Bethlehem, just down the road from Jerusalem. The same story tells us that prior to his birth his mum and dad had to flee their home country as refugees. 

As we follow the story we find that after the king who caused their exile died, they were able to return home. But much had changed since their sojourn abroad had begun. There was no room at the inn. 

Joseph and his pregnant bride were offered the stables at the back of the inn and it was there that the little baby Jesus was born. In modern Bethlehem you can visit the Church of the Nativity just off Manger square. 

In Bethlehem at this time of year the Palestinian Christians are gearing up for their celebrations. Unfortunately for them, this year will be one of the worst since the Occupation began. 

You may recall that for the last three and a half years we’ve been hearing the neo-con cheer squad belting out their chant “What do we want?” “Peace and Democracy.” “Where so we want it?” “In the Middle East.” “When do we want it?” “Now”! 

Unfortunately the Palestinians had the gall to imbibe in the fount of democracy and hold elections that were deemed by the International Observers, including the former US president Jimmy Carter, to be as good as anything we get in the so call “free democracies” of the West. The unfortunate thing was they elected the “wrong” party – Hamas. 

Since then the US, Australia and many European nations have turned off their aid tap. Israel, the chief protagonist in the region, also stopped their internationally mandated support, violating the conventions that it had signed. Even though their aid was nothing more than a slow drip feed – not enough to sustain life in the ever decreasing Palestinian territories – it was part of the deals Israel has that allow it to receive funding from the West. 

And so it is that in the land of the birth of the “Peacemaker” and “Giver of Life”, poverty, deprivation and suffering is enforced at the end of guns, under the tracks of tanks, on the blank, unsigned cheques and in the empty promises of the so called “developed world”. 

While we fret over the cost of this year’s turkey and trimmings, many Palestinians, especially those in the refugee camps, wonder where and how they will spend Christmas. The widows will weep over their dead husbands and the orphans over their dead parents. The Israeli army will, no doubt, continue their intimidation and humiliation of the descendants of the Christ’s fellow countrymen. 

What I find incredible at this time of year is that our churches don’t come out and call a spade a spade. Now that the Israeli PM, Ehud Olmert, has admitted that Israel has nuclear weapons, some of us eagerly wait for him or one of the other US coached Israeli officials to admit that their treatment of the Palestinians and the construction of the 10 metre high, concrete wall is also illegal and inhuman.  

While the Christian churches are happy to preach “good will to all men (sic)” and “peace on earth”, I find it incredible that they don’t come out and condemn the treatment of the people who have more in common with the man Jesus than we do with the Jews.  

Perhaps they are afraid that if they say something too close to the truth they won’t make it onto the evening news on Christmas day. However, here’s a strategy that seems to work amongst the ‘coalition of the willing’. If they all say the same thing, then no matter how it’s covered, what they want to say will be the only thing that gets broadcast. 

But no. Alas. I fear that the churchmen and women who will preach the Christmas day sermon will only make passing reference to the suffering of the people in the land of their saviour’s birth. They may pray for peace in the “complicated” circumstances. Perhaps they may even pray for “justice” in the Middle East but very few of them will actively call on their congregations to oppose the illegal occupation of Christ’s homeland. 

However, those that will call on their congregations to rise up and call the actions of the Israeli government what it is – an atrocity of monumental proportions – can probably be counted on one hand. These few brave souls and the people they shepherd will not make it onto the evening news. No. That is reserved for pictures and words that reassure us the suffering of the world is well removed and distant from us. 

Jimmy Carter told CNN in February this year, just after the Palestinian elections, that he hoped “the people of Palestine - who already suffer … under Israeli occupation - will not suffer because they are deprived of a right to pay their school teachers, policemen, welfare workers, health workers and provide food for people.” 

This year as our thoughts turn to the end of year parties, the thoughts of those who live around Manger square will turn to how to feed themselves and their loved ones. While we focus on getting the shopping done, the Palestinians whose homes have been encircled by the concrete wall and who can no longer access their farms, will wonder how the rest of the world could abandon them. 

Nonetheless, even amongst this hardship and dispossession, Palestinians will find time to laugh and love and share, regardless of their religious faith. While we will count the cost after Christmas and lament the amounts we spent, Palestinian children will do what all kids do and play with each other creating imaginary worlds free of bossy adults and jet fighters that bring sonic booms. 

When I was young I used to look forward to Christmas. These days I find its meaning has completely gone, replaced by the superficiality of self indulgence and ego. So while I will spend Christmas safe and happy with my family, we will, once more, set aside an empty plate to remember those whose suffering is so often ignored.

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