Posted by: Tommy | November 9, 2010

Bethlehem and the West Bank

I went to the West Bank today and it was quite the experience.  Anna was burned out from looking at churches – we went to the Temple Mount and Dome of the Rock this morning, then to church at the Redeemer Lutheran Church, located about 30 yards from the site of the Crucifixion, so I went alone.  It was a whirlwind trip – there and back in less than 3 hours – so I’m using this post to process everything I saw as much as to chronicle it for the blog.

The difficulty I’m having with processing is because there are 2 separate sets of ideas happening in my head at one time.  The first set is a recap of my time there.  I had several notable experiences – some funny, some maddening and one that was easily the most touching I’ve had in Israel – it was a great day.  The other set of thoughts relate to the Palestinian Wall and the segregation.  I’m hoping that I can resolve these two sets of thoughts by dealing with them one at a time, here.  Just know that while in Bethlehem, it was impossible to not face these two realities concurrently, confusingly.  The birthplace of Jesus is an amazing area, but one where Jews are forbidden to enter and where our couchsurfing friends have never been but thought it was cool that we were allowed to go there.  They live 10 minutes away.

As I got off the bus, I was greeted with the very familiar cry of “Taxi? Taxi?”  The other 3 tourists getting off the bus at the tourist stop quickly agreed to 40 shekel ($12) fares.  Ever the budget traveler, I asked how far it would be to walk.  The price lowered to 30 shekels.  I asked again and was told 4 km, in a way that made it sound like I would be better off trying to walk to the moon.  I set out.  There is only 1 taxi guy left, as the other 3 who were waiting each took the 40 shekel passengers.  This guy is clearly annoyed that I am not paying him 40 shekel for what is inevitably a 5 minute ride.  The price drops to 20 shekels.  I tell him I’ll ride for 10, but I’m perfectly happy to walk. And I am, but I’m a little concerned with the time (it’s 2:30 when I arrived and it gets dark here at 5).  He offers 14.  Still walking.  13.  Walking.  He says 12.  I say 11.  He says ok.  I get in his taxi – its a Mercedes with leather interior.

As we are driving, I am introduced to what turns out to be a Bethlehem common practice.  The driver pulls over and shows me a book about Bethlehem sites and speaks in loud, almost comprehensible English – at first I think he’s showing me pictures of the stuff in Bethlehem; he’s told me he’s a Christian and that he can tell I am “a good man”.  I figure out quickly that he wants more than my 11 shekels – he wants to be my tour guide.  For only $40 US, he will take me to all of the sites in his book.  I say no, just take me to the Nativity Basilica, please.  He continues to tell me (as best I can tell) about how screwed I will be if I don’t ride in his Mercedes taxi to all of the sites and get him to explain them to me (again, in his horrible English).  Eventually, he gets the picture that I’m not going to cave and he takes me to the Nativity Basilica.

I only have 1 coin, a 1 shekel.  So I give him that and a 20, expecting a 10 shekel coin in return.  He hands me a 5.  Me: “You owe me 10.  The price was 11.”  Him: 15. Me: No, 11.  And that’s 16, anyway.  Him: Fine. (Hands me my 1 shekel back). 15.  Me: No, 11.  The price was 11.  He throws another shekel in my hand and says, “Get out of my taxi.”  Me: No, the price was 11. We agreed. Him: I never said 11.  Me: I said 10, you said 12.  I said 11, you said ok.  He throws another 2 shekels in my hand, counting (again) the shekel I had already given him as part of my change from 20, not 21.  Fine, I got the ride for 12.  As I’m getting out, he yells, “You’re an f—ing Jew!”  I was surprised to learn that calling someone a Jew in Israel means pretty much the same thing as it does in America.

I walked up the stairs and found the Nativity Basilica – and a really long line.  I stood for about 10 minutes and didn’t move at all.  I was getting worried about the time – I wasn’t sure what time the buses stop running from the checkpoint, but I knew it got dark and I was just setting out.  Then a guide approached me.  This happens all the time here – pretty much everywhere you go that you don’t already have a guide, someone offers to be your guide for “cheap price – $40” or something like that.  One guy offered $100 an hour.  It’s crazy.  Anyway, this guy’s pitch was pretty good – “We can skip the line and I can have you in the grotto where Jesus was born in 5 minutes.”  What?  I bargained him down to 35 shekels for the Nativity Basilica and the St. Catherine’s church, plus directions to the Milk Grotto and the checkpoint back to Jerusalem.

Fadi – the guide – paid immediate dividends as he had a few words with the guys policing the grotto and I was walking in the exit door inside of 3 minutes.  What had been a 2 hour line was now a straight walk-in.  Worth $10, I’d say.  The grotto was packed with people touching the 14 pointed star marking the spot of Jesus’s birth and photographing the manger location, a few feet away.

The Birthplace of Jesus

I took a few photos and headed back the way I’d come.  When I got there, Fadi was speaking to a woman and a man in a wheelchair.  He told me to wait for 5 minutes, the couple needed help getting down the steep, winding steps to see the birthplace.  Fadi tried to let the man grab him around the shoulders, but it was readily apparent that that just wasn’t going to work.  The man was old and spoke no English, but it was clear he just couldn’t hold on enough to support his weight.  Fadi wanted to try carrying the wheelchair, so I grabbed the handles and he grabbed the bottom wheels and we started to pick the man up.  The guard stopped us – the wheelchair wouldn’t fit down the small staircase and even if it would, it wouldn’t have fit in the grotto.

So Fadi got on one side, I got on the other and we each put one of the man’s arms around our necks.  We grabbed his belt and hoisted him up and carried him down the stairs.  When the other tourists in the grotto saw what was going on, they stopped fighting to get up the staircase and let us come down.  The tour guide in the grotto, showing the star to his group made them move out of the way (you have no idea how amazing that was in itself) and Fadi and I brought the man to the base of the star and helped him to the ground.  He sat there for about 15 seconds.  No one moved in the room.  No pictures got taken, no shoving or pushing.  We all just waited on this crippled man who simply wanted to kiss the birthplace of Christ.  He did, then Fadi and I picked up the humbled man and physically carried him back up the stairs and put him in his chair.  His wife, who hadn’t come to the grotto herself, begged Fadi to take some money.  He refused.  She then offered it to me.  I refused.  Fadi and I exited the church, sweating and breathing heavily.  Neither of us spoke for about a minute.  This may be commonplace for Fadi, living in Bethlehem, but it’s not for me.  Helping the old man down the stairs made me feel closer to the Holy Land than visiting all of the other churches combined.

We went back in the church, where Fadi finished explaining the sites there.  The Nativity Basilica is the oldest continuously-run church in the world, dating back to 339.  He showed me the original mosaic floors and the columns put in by the Crusaders in the 12th century.  Then we went to St. Catherine’s.

St. Catherine’s was technically closed for a wedding, but Fadi spoke to the guard and I was able to get in and look around.  There is an underground passageway leading to the cave where St. Jerome translated the bible from Hebrew to Latin that I went in.  There are a lot of caves here…it looked like the rest of them.

Then we were done.  I paid Fadi and he sent me with a “friend that owns a souvenir store, in case you’d like some souvenirs to take home” to show me the Milk Grotto church.  The friend was disappointed to learn that I’m traveling for another 11 months out of a backpack and certainly wouldn’t be taking any souvenirs with me.  But he did lead me to the Milk Grotto Church.  Legend has it that Mary spilled some breast milk when feeding Jesus, turning the stones of the church white.  The church sits atop the cave that supposedly housed Joseph, Mary and Jesus when they hid from King Herod, who was looking to kill baby Jesus.

Milk Grotto

In the Milk Grotto church, there was a “tour guide” – taxi driver who convinced someone to pay the $40 for a personal tour – asking the monk who worked there for some information on the church before his charges came through the door.  The monk told the driver he was too busy to do his job for him and walked off, leaving the driver empty handed.  It was funny to listen to his stammering when the couple he was “guiding” had questions about the grotto.

From the Milk Grotto, I tried heading home.  A friendly shop owner told me it was only a 2 km walk up the hill to the checkpoint so I set off on foot.  Taxis kept stopping me on the way, asking where I was headed.  I blew them off, until one shouted that he could show me the Banksy on the Wall.  For those who don’t know, Banksy is a famous London-based graffiti artist.  I had read about the Banksy works on the Palestinian Wall but had no idea how to find them.  The book didn’t have a map and the wall is huge.  For 10 shekels ($3) , I could get a ride to the checkpoint and see a Banksy at the same time.  On the way, I got to play the – I know we said one price for one thing, but let me try to convince you to do something different for a lot more money- game.  In this case, he told me there were 5 Banksy works along the wall and he could take me to them for 10 shekels – each.  50 total, where we had agreed on 10. After a lot of arguing, he showed me one Banksy and pointed up the hill to the checkpoint.

The Banksy

There was a lot of other graffiti and that’s what got me started thinking.

Well, not started.  It’s impossible to be here and listen to both sides – Arab and Jew – and not think about it.  But it is definitely more concrete, more present when you are in the West Bank after dark.

Several of the Israeli’s we have talked to are unhappy with the current situation. They acknowledge that the wall is a form of segregation; that the people here are not treated equally.  That Apartheid Wall (what the Palestinians call it) is not an unfair name.

Some Jews say they need the wall, they need the checkpoints, for security.  The Palestinians say that they are being oppressed and that they are the victims.  I’m not an expert on foreign affairs or Middle East relations, but it seems to me they are both right.  The Palestinians are certainly not blameless.  Yassar Arafat, president of Palestine when he was alive, was a terrorist and many Palestinians along with him.

But its hard for me to understand how the Jewish people, who experienced the Berlin Wall firsthand, could erect something that looks so similar.

Security Fence or Apartheid Wall?

These are just my thoughts, raw and not fully formed.  If you’d like to see more pictures of Bethlehem, wall graffiti or the magnificent Dome of the Rock, which we visited this morning, look at them here.


  1. Tommy, priceless experiences.
    I am guessing that this trip already beats your expectations.
    Thanks for conveying some of it in words and pictures for the rest of us.

  2. Your kindness really shined here! Helping someone who was not able to walk to see such a sacred site — oh how my heart beamed with pride when I read that! You are an amazing young man Tommy! I am so proud to be your mother.

    All my love — mom

  3. So many people stumble on their faith because they want proof. Maybe it is human nature to want proof. Is proof of someone else’s faith proof? Not really but it certainly inspires one to deepen their faith. Thanks for the inspiration.

  4. The encounter with Fadi & the crippled man, and all those in the grotto with you was most beautiful . I could’nt help but cry from such a tender & meanigful moment for ALL present. You & Fadi were the hands & feet of Christ. God bless you & Anna. xoxox kita

  5. […] day, so it qualifies. Tommy’s Top 5 Coolest Sites: Petra Ta Prohm Taj Mahal Sossusvlei Bethlehem Anna’s Top 5 Coolest Sites: Kremlin Pyramids Stations of the Cross Corrigidor Island Angkor […]

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