Visiting Bethlehem, Then and Now

A Jew Visits Bethlehem

By Israel Zwick, CN Publications

Whenever we visit, we must insist that we are not visiting “occupied Palestinian lands,” but we are visiting “liberated Jewish lands.”

My first visit to Israel was in the summer of 1969. It was the summer when Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon and said, “One small step for man, one giant step for mankind.” I watched the pictures of the moon landing at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. For me, the trip to Israel was also a “giant step.” My parents couldn’t afford to pay for the trip so I used money that I had been saving for graduate school. It was worth every cent, and more. The opportunity to join thousands of Jews from around the world who were eager to visit the holiest Jewish sites in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Bethlehem was priceless. For 19 years these ancient, historic, religious sites were occupied by Jordan and access was denied to Jews. Even worse, the Arabs desecrated Jewish cemeteries and synagogues while the rest of the world remained silent. There were no UN resolutions condemning Jordan for the “human rights violations” that they committed by denying Jews access to their holiest sites. Having grown up knowing these sites only from books and photos, the opportunity to visit them was a precious, emotional experience for me.

Four years later, I still managed to complete graduate school and get married. The first major decision that my wife and I made as a married couple was to set aside some of the wedding money for a trip to Israel. We understood that once the children came, it would be much more difficult and costly. So the first summer after our marriage, we traveled to Israel and the first items on our itinerary were the holy sites in Jerusalem, Hebron, and Bethlehem.

As expected, the obligations of raising children kept us from visiting Israel again for a long time. In 1994, our eldest daughter left for Israel for a year of intensive Judaic studies. Since then, we have always had children studying or living in Israel so my wife and I have visited Israel at least once a year. On our last trip, we had to go separately due to scheduling difficulties. When I got there, I was eager to spend most of my time with my little grandchildren. However, my daughter reminded me, “You haven’t been to the Machpeleh and Kever Rochel in a long time. You should really go, it’s important.” While that may have been a ruse to get me out of the house, I decided to follow her advice anyway.

It was no longer possible to visit these sites in Hebron and Bethlehem independently. For security reasons, Jews had to go on organized tours in bulletproof buses. I had two choices, I could go on an all day tour for American tourists, or I could take the five-hour tour that local Israelis used to go there for prayers at the Tombs of Abraham and Rachel. I opted for the latter, even though my knowledge of Hebrew language was deficient.

Kever Rochel, Now I boarded an Israeli bus in the Haredi neighborhood of Geula and paid 60 Shekel for the five-hour trip to the Kevorim: the Tombs of Abraham, Rachel, and other religious sites. The bus had double, thick bulletproof windows. It was a warm day so air came in through vents in the ceiling since the windows couldn’t be opened. The bus route went through Arab areas in the environs of Bethlehem and Hebron. As we approached Rachel’s Tomb in Bethlehem, the bus traveled on a new road lined on both sides by heavy concrete barriers. The bus pulled up to the entrance and the passengers disembarked, protected by concrete barriers on both sides. When the appointed time to return to the bus had arrived, I found that I couldn’t open the door in the foyer. The guard told me that the doors have to remain locked until the bus arrives. Then when the bus pulled up to the building, the doors were opened and we embarked to travel further to the Machpelah, Abraham’s tomb in Hebron.

On the way to the Machpeleh, the bus made two more brief stops at other Kevorim. The presence of old Jewish cemeteries in the middle of Arab neighborhoods was evidence that Jews once lived there until they were expelled by the Arabs. When we arrived at the Machpleleh, we were given an hour to visit and daven at the burial site of our Patriarch, Abraham. I left a little early in the hope that I could spend a few minutes walking around the area, since it was such a beautiful, warm day. When I started walking into an Arab street, a young soldier approached and told me that I can’t go further because it’s sakonoh– dangerous. I started to turn back when a group of about 20 Christian tourists arrived at the same spot. The soldier told them the same thing, that they are not allowed to go further for security reasons. This time the group leader gave him an argument saying that they have been walking through the neighborhood the whole afternoon, it was perfectly safe, and their bus was waiting for them on the other side. Then the soldier opened the gate and allowed them to go through. So a group of Protestant tourists are free to tour the city of Hebron but a Jew with a kipa is no longer able to walk through the second holiest Jewish city. These experiences filled my mind with images of my first visit to this area, back in the summer of 1969.

Kever Rochel, then In the summer of 1969, I traveled to Israel with a college friend. There was a large influx of American Jewish tourists, all eager to visit the newly liberated areas that were so important to Jewish history, culture, and religion. Since there weren’t enough organized bus tours to accommodate all the tourists, some enterprising Israeli cab drivers conducted their own private tours. They picked up four or five tourists from the hotels and charged each about $5 for a half-day private tour in their black Mercedes taxi. So my friend and I joined several of these mini-tours. The first tour we took was of the Hebron-Bethlehem area. The scenery was breathtaking, a beautiful pristine area, free of military barricades and unsightly fences. The driver was free to drive anywhere he wanted to without concern about being shot or bombed. Along the route, he pointed out several old Jewish cemeteries and historical sites. At each site there were a group of young Israeli and American volunteers who were cleaning and restoring the site from the destruction and desecration caused by the previous Jordanian occupiers. The driver gave us time to tour the major sites: Machpeleh, Kever Rochel, and the Church of the Nativity. As an Orthodox Jew, I knew that I wasn’t supposed to enter a church, but at that time there was such a euphoria and eagerness to view our liberated lands that everyone went in anyway. At each site we were greeted by little Arab children selling bags of fresh figs and cactus fruit. They shouted the only English words that they knew, “dollar, dollar.” I thought that a dollar for a bag of fresh figs was a good deal but someone else told me that it was too much. The Arab children were eager to get American money and would be happy with a few assorted coins. I brought with me a bunch of $1 and $5 bills but no coins, so I had to pay the dollar anyway. But I didn’t mind, there was such a strong feeling of euphoria in the air among both Arabs and Jews, that I was happy to give the children a dollar for their bag of fresh figs.

On another one of these taxi mini-tours, my friend and I visited what was then called East Jerusalem. I think I saw every church in the area, but the highlight of the trip was the visit to the Kotel, and Temple Mount, or Har Habayis. At that time, there were no Jewish restrictions to visiting the Temple Mount. We walked all over the area and we were welcome to enter the two big mosques, the Dome of the Rock and Al-Aqsa. The Arabs in charge greeted us warmly and instructed us how to show the proper respect and decorum for their holy sites. There were no signs of animosity or friction between the Arabs and the visiting Jews. Here too, the ubiquitous Arab children were running around selling souvenir and food items for a dollar. All the residents and visitors in the area seemed so excited about the new, free atmosphere. Everyone seemed so grateful for the Israeli liberation of Jerusalem and its environs. Jews and Arabs mingled together at the outdoor concerts in Bethlehem and the large Arab markets in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.

The liberation of Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron in 1967 was a decisive and resounding military victory. However, the Israeli victors were totally unprepared for the ensuing War of Words. The conflict soon shifted from the battlefield to the podium at the United Nations, to the images in the TV news programs, and to the articles in the leading international newspapers. Over the next three decades, the Arabs showed their superiority at the Battle of Lexicon. The terminology that we were accustomed to slowly began to change. The liberated Jewish lands and religious sites throughout Judea and Samaria, now became “occupied Palestinian lands.” The Sunni Muslims living there, who were the same as in the neighboring countries of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, now became a new ethnic group called “Palestinians.” These nouveau Palestinians were now “victims of Israeli aggression who were struggling for liberation.” Suicide bombers who randomly killed innocent Jewish civilians were idolized in the media for “their desperate struggle to resist the occupation and achieve freedom for their people.” The State of Israel, the only free, democratic country in the Middle East, was described as a “racist, apartheid country.” This new lexicon soon became so popular around the world that even the native Israelis began to use it. The liberated Jewish areas, which had a continuous Jewish presence except for the brief period from 1948 to 1967, became widely regarded as “occupied Palestinian lands,” even though they never belonged to the Palestinian Arabs. Yet the world’s diplomats continue to acknowledge the “legitimate rights of the Palestinian people,” a code word for the establishment of another Arab state carved out of the tiny State of Israel.

The Arabs have won such a decisive victory at the Battle of Lexicon that the whole world has adopted their terminology. The liberated areas are referred to as “Palestine” in tourist books, reference books, and popular media, even though there is no such area. Maps of Palestine at the UN include the entire State of Israel. Even the History channel and Discovery channel on Cable TV acknowledge an area called Palestine, even though it has no defined boundaries. The Arabs living there, most of whom are not indigenous to the area, are said to be “struggling for liberation from the harsh Israeli military occupation.” The Arabs are called Palestinians even though it was the Jews living there who used to be identified as “Palestinishers” before the State of Israel was founded. The mendacious mantras about the “plight of the Palestinian refugees” and the “suffering of the Palestinian people” who are living in “occupied Palestinian lands” are repeated so often that their veracity is no longer questioned. The Arab websites continue to use vitriolic language to describe “Israeli aggression and massacres” against the Palestinian people and the rest of the world quickly accepts it without question. While it is beyond the scope of this article to challenge these statements, the reader is encouraged to examine their accuracy. A good place to start is with the articles and links found on the website,

Today there are about 30 violent conflicts going on around the world, most of which involve Muslims. The battles are being fought not only on the battlefields, but also in the popular media. Israel is still losing the media battle as evidenced by movies such as Paradise Now, media coverage of the Lebanon war, and books by Jimmy Carter. It’s time to fight back. If Jews are going to retain any rights to their historical lands in Judea Samaria, they have to continue to visit the Jewish holy sites and insist on their own “legitimate rights” to these areas. As my daughter advised me, it is important for Jews to visit the religious and historic sites in Judea and Samaria as often as possible. Whenever we visit, we must insist that we are not visiting “occupied Palestinian lands,” but we are visiting “liberated Jewish lands.”

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