Life in Bethlehem: an interview

February 28, 2013
Susie Guenther Loewen |

With Christmas having come and gone, I would guess that not many of us are thinking about the “little town” of Bethlehem these days. Even at Christmas-time, many of us probably picture the serene and peaceful image from carols and greeting cards, conveniently forgetting about the harsh realities mentioned in the biblical story: the long journey Mary was forced to take while at the end of her pregnancy, just for a census; the lack of space in the inn, leading to a birth in a squalid stable; the attempts by Herod to find and kill the baby, forcing the family to become refugees to Egypt. This is hardly the silent, peaceful town of Christmas mythology! And even today, violence and unrest continue to be far too common in Bethlehem, as the above image suggests (found here). In order to find out a bit of what life is like in Bethlehem today, I spoke with a good friend of mine, Rachelle Friesen, who’s currently living and working in Bethlehem as a Peace Development Worker with Mennonite Central Committee Palestine. Here’s what she had to say:

Could you explain what your day-to-day work in Bethlehem consists of?

There is very little routine to my day or to my week. Some days I am in the field, visiting farmers whose land has been confiscated or destroyed by settlers. Other days I spend visiting MCC Partners, providing support or just drinking a cup of coffee as we talk about life and work under army occupation. Often people related to MCC show up and I provide them with a presentation of our work in the region, or show them around to see the situation for themselves. On other days I am in my office writing reports, articles, blogs, and planning Learning Tours. Of course, some parts of the week are spent waiting at checkpoints.

You’re fairly young to be working for the church so far from home. Does your age impact your work at all, either positively or negatively (or both)?

My age combined with my gender and my marital status (single) does provide some challenges in working within the church. Despite our best attempts to have the church represent the Kingdom of God, it is still a human institution with all the flaws of the current systems humanity lives in. One challenge in particular is that when I speak about social justice or the situation here, my ideas on occasion have been attributed to me being young and therefore blinded by idealism. Luckily, these comments are not the norm. Mostly people have expressed gratitude at my commitment. My age also requires me to be humble and ask for help and guidance from our partners. Therefore working here requires a team atmosphere and in that, it is very representative of the Kingdom of God.

As a single woman in a cultural context that is very different from the Canadian one(s), how does your gender impact your work and/or relationships with people in Bethlehem?

As an outsider it is easier to be more acutely aware of the patriarchy that exists in Palestine. This allows me to spend time reflecting on feminism and what women’s liberation in a global context means. Westerners often criticize the Middle East for the patriarchal ideas that lead women to cover up; at the same time many people in the Middle East criticize the West for the patriarchal ideas the lead women to undress.

One thing to always remember is that patriarchy, and the accompanying sexism, exists everywhere in the world. Just as it exists in Palestine, it exists in Canada and some of the challenges I experience in my work because I am in a woman are not very different from the challenges I have faced working in Canada. Despite the challenges, I appreciate the opportunity to meet with women of all ages in Palestine and hear about how the occupation affects them as women. It is very humbling to hear women talk about how they care for their sons after they return from prison, to hear about how young mothers worry about the future of their children, and how young women are getting involved in resistance. I have been honored to receive endless wisdom from elderly women, mothers, and young women as they struggle to live in a world of just relationships.

Most of us probably automatically associate Bethlehem with Christmas and the Nativity story. What has it been like for you to celebrate Christmas in Bethlehem?

Christmas in Bethlehem feels raw instead of romantic. In many ways there are feelings of sadness, waiting, and anticipation. Sadness, that another year has passed and the occupation continues - children are arrested, the wall continues, land is confiscated, and bombs drop on Gaza. There is the waiting for a change. Waiting and wondering when this vicious system of violence will finally lose its fuel. There is anticipation, just like the first Christmas, for a liberator to be born out of this oppressive system who will bring peace and justice to all people.

You’ve experienced times (maybe even many times) of danger and unrest during your years in Bethlehem, and yet you’ve recently renewed your term. What gives you the courage to stay and continue working there, knowing that it’s sometimes a dangerous place to be?

Oppressive systems exist everywhere in the world. We are in an age where people around the world are starting to become more aware of these systems and how these systems are not protecting them but enslaving them. From the ‘de-occupy’ movement in Palestine to the ‘occupy movement’ in Canada, people are starting to rise up and speak truth. In response, governments are using various tactics to try to suppress dissent. Wherever and whenever truth is spoken, it is dangerous, and yet as a Christian I am required to speak truth and follow the words of Micah “love mercy, do justice, walk humbly.” Being a Christian puts us in ‘unsafe’ places. However, that does not necessarily mean we need to travel abroad. I am well aware that in Canada and on the streets of Winnipeg people are feeling unsafe. Racism and sexism are still prevalent in Canada resulting in danger and fear for many people.

For me, my eyes have been opened to what is happening here in Palestine and despite the danger, as a Christian I cannot be silent when my brothers and sisters are oppressed. Yet even as I attempt to live in solidarity with those struggling for justice, I am aware that my international white privilege means that I will never be put in the same amount of danger as my neighbours.

What are the main things you wish the Canadian Mennonite church understood about the political and social context you’re in?

Of course, the situation in Palestine and Israel is not so simple as two peoples fighting for one piece of land. When people look at the situation in Palestine, it is easy to become paralyzed by the complexities. Despite the complexities the situation here is not unique. The same systems of oppression were seen (and are unfortunately are still prevalent) in South Africa and in the colonization of Canada. In these situations there are oppressed and oppressor and activists floating in between the two categories trying to remedy and draw awareness to the situation. It is not a conflict of religions or races; rather it is people struggling for justice and trying to overcome institutional systems that require and feed on oppression and exploitation. This struggle is not just limited to Palestine but involves the entire global community and in this struggle there is no neutrality. Therefore it is important for the Mennonite Church in Canada to ask these questions, does our current stance on Palestine contribute to humanity’s quest to liberate itself from empire, or does it further entrench the oppression? As a peace-church are Mennonites willing to take a nonviolent stance with respect to global injustice?

Martin Luther King Jr., said that to act nonviolently takes sacrifice, suffering, and struggle. Palestinian and Israeli practitioners of nonviolence know these three S’s all too well. As Palestinians and Israeli activists head to demonstrations every week, they know they will likely be tear-gassed, have rubber bullets shot at them, and/or be arrested. In Palestine, practitioners of nonviolence know that their actions may cost them not just their life but also the livelihoods of their families.

Sacrifice. Suffering. Struggle. This is a necessary element of nonviolence and pacifism. Is the Mennonite Church in Canada willing to do the same? Are we willing to stand for justice until the point that we are suffering and sacrificing, recognizing that when we take a nonviolent stance we will be isolated, called names, criticized and our livelihoods potentially threatened? The early Anabaptists felt the effects of nonviolence; Mennonites in World War II in work camps felt the effects of nonviolence; Jesus felt the effects of acting nonviolently; and Palestinians and Israeli activists feel the effects of nonviolence. As a church that supports nonviolence, are we willing to do the same?

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