Not Just for Christmas

Not Just for Christmas

Thu 11 Jan

My new book, Bethlehem: Biography of a Town (Little, Brown, 2017), came out the same week that Donald Trump announced he would be moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Immediately, I received invitations to write columns, appear on US talk radio, and perch on precarious stools in TV studios to debate with Israeli journalists. In America, the principle that a country should be able to choose its own capital seems so obvious, Trump’s decision was welcomed as a no-brainer: an easy ‘win’ for a man obsessed by winning. My job was to explain that what Israel now called ‘Jerusalem’ was an artificial construct, far larger than any historical iteration of that city. The newly drawn borders extend deep into neighbouring towns, and include territory annexed by Israel following the 1967 war. The acquisition of territory through war is deemed illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and the reason that the US has only a consul rather than a full embassy in Jerusalem.

The Geneva Convention was drawn up after the Second World War as a response to the German annexation of swathes of Czechoslovakia in 1938. The law was intended to prevent future politicians following the example of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who approved Germany’s expansion. Today, we forget what Chamberlain was actually appeasing with the Munich Agreement, imagining that his crime was tacit approval of Nazism or even of the death camps. Before the war, the annexation of German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia was popular across all sections of German society, not only among Nazi party supporters. The idea that these territories included the semi-mystical “cradle” of the German nation had taken hold long before the rise of Nazism; indeed, it had been a key idea of German nationalism from its beginnings in the 18th Century (as I first learned, reading the excellent Germania by Simon Winder). A similar idea can be found among the Serbs, who regard Kosovo as the cauldron of their own Serbian nation.

Israelis see reverence for Jerusalem as key to the Jewish identity; indeed, the term ‘Zion’ is a synecdoche for Jerusalem: Zion being the name of a hill in the city (though no one now knows where this hill is). In the aftermath of Trump’s decision, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu gave a speech in Paris declaring that Jerusalem had been the capital of the Jewish nation for three thousand years and the city had “never been the capital of any other people”. Without minimising the importance of Jerusalem to the overwhelming majority of the world’s Jews, every part of Netanyahu’s statement is either debatable or easily shown to be false.

The decision as to whether to approve or condemn Israel’s annexation of territory will be taken by lawyers and law-makers in reference to the Fourth Geneva Convention. The decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital will be taken by Israelis (who already regard the city as their capital) and by foreign politicians (who are only waiting for a peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians). But the question as to whether or not the city has been a Jewish capital, alone, for three thousand years is the province of historians. Netanyahu made his claim in order to deny that Palestinians are also a people, and it is because attempts to marginalise or silence other people keep returning to haunt us, that the work of historians remains so important.

I did not write a history of Bethlehem to tell Jews how to be Jewish, nor Israelis how to choose their capital city. I did it because I had a story to tell. Bethlehem is my wife’s hometown, and over the twenty-five years that I have been travelling there, I had fallen in love with it. But because Bethlehem lies so close to Jerusalem, just five miles south, it allows for a different perspective on the country and the history of its people. Bethlehem was established as a city 2300 years ago in order to bring water to Jerusalem to cope with the demands of the Jewish pilgrims. At this time, there were rival Jewish capitals and rival Jewish kings in Amman and Samaria. The construction of a Bethlehem-Jerusalem aqueduct, and the retro-engineering of a story to justify Jerusalem’s pre-eminence over these rivals, were political acts. The rulers of Jerusalem had vision and ambition, but this did not make Jerusalem the sole Jewish capital: it is one of a number of Jewish capitals that have existed through recorded history. Nor were the people in Jerusalem and the surrounding countryside necessarily Jewish themselves. It is part of the relentless march of history that the silent indigenous people of a land – whether they are peasants and farmers, ex-slaves, immigrants, refugees or the emerging middle-classes – acquire a voice and develop their own political ambitions.

A history of Bethlehem necessarily becomes a deconstruction of the history of Jerusalem, at least as told by Israeli nationalists. Palestine is a very old term, extensively used by ancient kingdoms like the Egyptians and Greeks; indeed, it is older even than the words ‘Israel’ or ‘Judea’. By the 15th Century, when the Christian architect Murad al-Nasrani refurbished the Bethlehem-Jerusalem aqueduct, the name Palestine was the common word for the country, and Jerusalem was its capital. In the late 18th and 19th Centuries, Palestinians began to think about political identity and autonomy, in common with many other nations across the Ottoman Empire, like the Greeks and Serbians. We often speak of dual narratives with regard to Israel and Palestine but this obscures the extent to which a single historical consensus on the land and its people is emerging. An agreement on this history is unlikely to temper the behaviour of the most aggressive Israeli politicians, but one hopes that the rest of us will recognise that their wilder fantasies cannot erase the real history, nor the Palestinian people.

Nicholas Blincoe lived in Bethlehem for over twenty years. He is a best-selling, award-winning novelist, playwright and screenwriter and is currently a critic and leader writer for the Daily Telegraph.

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