I haven’t anything original to add to the debate about the so-called art installation ‘Bethlehem Unwrapped” that has been erected outside St James’s Church Piccadilly, but the whole thing seems so ignominious and unhelpful that I want to say something, original or not.
The BBC seems to have avoided the subject, despite the fact that the Rev Lucy Winkett is involved, and Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steel are performing for the cause. They’re all all BBC regulars, and the BBC’s favourite popular philosopher of the spiritual kind, Giles Fraser, has ‘weighed in’ over at the Guardian.
The perpetrators of this, and other recent crude gestures, vehemently insist that they have nothing to do with antisemitism, but their actions creep closer and closer to the real thing. It’s as if they’re trying to see how close they can get to the precipice, like a game of racist chicken.
I’ll never be able to watch Masterchef again without feeling a little uncomfortable each time a chef plates up a spoon-shaped dollop of desert.
There’s a radio 4 ‘profile’ of Lucy Winkett, the rector of St. James’s Piccadilly. Apparently she has a marvelous singing voice, and is an all round good egg. Everyone questioned was unable to think of a single flaw the Rev Lucy might have. I can think of one.
“I’m Lucy Winkett rector of St. James’s Piccadilly. This Christmas we’ve built huge wall right across the front of our church. We’d really like you to come and see it because it’s what the people of Bethlehem are experiencing today.”
Mindlessly disseminating propaganda with antisemitic overtones is a flaw, surely. If Lucy Winkett has deluded herself into genuinely believing that the people of Bethlehem are entirely peace-loving, and not part of a movement calling for a third intifada, let’s hope the real wall stays in place so that her theory hasn’t a chance of being put to the test.
The Bethlehem Unwrapped director, Justin Butcher has something of the Will Self about him. I bet they’re mates. “We’ve spent eight months planning this replica of the separation wall” he boasts. “This is a festival of hope, reaching out to the people of Bethlehem behind the wall’ he continues. “an eight meter high separation wall surrounding it” proclaims he, inaccurately. He is delighted with himself for organising a childish stunt based on prejudice and ignorance and aligning the church with haters who indoctrinate their children and each other with the crudest most virulent antisemitism imaginable.
Don’t people look angelic when they gaze wistfully heavenwards? They are thinking pious thoughts about the poor peace-loving Palestinians who have been brutally separated from their prey.
“Stand up against the wall with Jeremy Hardy” announces Butcher. “Jeremy Hardy versus the Israeli army! Mark Steel!!” “Come down, make your mark on the wall. Send a message to the people of Bethlehem this Christmas”
“The River to the Sea” for example. “Free Palestine”, or how about a nice swastika fashioned out of the letter ‘S”. Peace! Stuff like that. Oh yes, and ‘This wall saves lives’
St. James’s has put out a pious statement that it
‘… opposes all forms of racism including antisemitism and supports the right of the State of Israel to exist with secure internationally recognised borders’.
But Melanie Phillips tends to be dismissed as a ‘she would say that” Zionist apologist, although she is a terrific writer, which must be irritating for those who don’t like her politics.
Melanie Phillips explains:
· The ‘wall’ does not surround Bethlehem.· For most of its length it is not a wall at all but a simple chain link fence.· It has been constructed not to oppress Palestinians but solely to prevent Israelis from being murdered by Arabs.· This security barrier has had to be built as a wall alongside one area of Bethlehem because a fence here – cheek by jowl with Jerusalem – would be insufficient to prevent the very real threat of some of its inhabitants murdering large numbers of Israelis.· The undoubted hardships caused by this barrier are solely the result of the ever-continuing attempts by some of those living behind it to murder yet more Israelis.· Since this security barrier was constructed, the number of Israelis murdered in terrorist attacks has decreased by some 70 per cent – while the number of attempted attacks remains high."
“Bethlehem is a real place cut off by a concrete wall and that it has very little in common with the fantasy, Narnia-like version that is the stuff of Christmas cards.” says Giles Fraser. Yes, and the Palestinians have very little in common with the three wise men, away in the manger and while shepherds wash their socks by night all seated round the tub. Or Santa Claus.
“The online reaction to this installation has also been predictably binary. For some it is a powerful testament to Israeli government brutality; for others it's another example of Christian antisemitism seeping into the liberal church. And some of the graffiti on the Piccadilly wall reflects this same for-us-or-against-us division. Some have written about its illegality under international law; others have written that this wall saves lives.”
The wisdom of Giles Fraser. A powerful testament to Israeli brutality? The brutality of separating innocent civilians from fanatics who have been whipped up into murderous frenzies with the same perverted zeal we saw only the other day in Woolwich.
“Thirteen times the shepherds thrust their knives into the women, breaking bones, tearing flesh, even impaling one to the ground. As the Jew played dead, she watched the ßChristian friend hacked to death before her very eyes.The shepherds returned home glorifying and praising Allah for all that they had seen and spread the word concerning what had they had done. ‘Today near the town of David two Jews have been slaughtered,’ they declared. They plotted and schemed, boasting to their neighbours, ‘this will be a sign, they will find two of their own, all meanly wrapped in bloody clothes and in the bushes laid.’ And everyone who heard of it, was amazed.”
A below-the-line commenter has countered her affecting testimony with tales of atrocities carried out by Israeli settlers who been given unforgivably lenient punishments by the Israeli courts for murdering innocent Palestinians. This appalls me, but there is one fundamental difference. Neither the Israeli public nor the Israeli press condone these aberrations. They do not erect statues to them, name streets after them glorify their actions or pay their families lifelong salaries. Using this argument to justify the St. James’s stunt is like bringing up Baruch Goldstein or Anders Breivik every time a Zionist or a right-wing commentator expresses an opinion one disagrees with.
My view of this barrier is quite different than that of these (pro Palestinian solidarity tourists) visitors. The heightened security for which it is responsible has changed all lives for the better. For local Israelis, its physical presence is felt only where, for a short distance, the barrier actually assumes the form of a wall. This is where Route 60 skirts the Arab town of Beit Ja’ala, south of Jerusalem and runs adjacent to Bethlehem. It is here, at the height of the Second Intifada, that automatic weapons were fired from rooftops in Beit Ja'ala onto the road. Today this extended wall strategically blocks the line-of-fire from the town onto this section of the highway. Apart from a single grey lookout tower positioned to oversee the southern end of Beit Ja’ala and the valley beneath it, there is nothing that suggests the wall's security purpose. There is no unsightly barbed wire; rather, its brick facade is stylized and decorated with shrubbery and young trees. At this point along its route the wall might be confused for a standard highway acoustical barrier. A different section of this wall situated closer to the eight-lane (four in each direction), permanent checkpoint is admittedly more ominous. It is much higher, rising some 25 feet, and its grey exterior is makes it appear much more foreboding. It would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for potential suicide bombers to physically negotiate any section of this barrier, or for snipers to again menace the thousands of daily local commuters, Jews, Arabs, or even overseas tourists, that travel this highway.
Along Route 60 near Beit Ja’ala the security barrier does not divide private Arab property. No one is physically separated from their workplace or field. In fact, a large vehicular and pedestrian tunnel, a complicated and costly engineering undertaking, was created beneath Route 60 to allow residents of Beit Ja’ala direct access to the neighboring village of Hussan. Foreign visitors are not impressed by this costly accommodation to the needs of local residents. In their eyes, this wall is an expression of human separation and repression. Even though it is a proven deterrent to terrorism, this barrier remains a sore in the eyes of every group I meet. As with the checkpoints, this barrier seems a greater evil in the eyes of many visitors than the murder of innocents at the hands of terrorists that is prevents.
Giles Fraser thinks the separation barrier is a monstrosity. So it may well be. But where the church is very wrong is in its implied conclusion, which is that tearing down the barrier would have a peaceful outcome. They might think abolishing restrictions on Palestinians’ everyday lives would amount to stage one on the rocky road to reconciliation, as though the Palestinians were a homogenous body of ManelaGhandis. They must surely know that is wishful thinking.
I understand that some of the organisers had not heard of the Fogel family, largely thanks to the BBC’s selective reporting. If the indeed the organisers have relied solely on the BBC to accurately and impartially report the Israel/Palestine situation, that would account for their dogged anti-Israel activism.