By Kirby Neumann-Rea • Of the News-Register • 

Back, and forth: A stranger invited to dinner on Christmas in Bethlehem

I first visited Israel 43 years ago, at the age of 20. I don’t think then that I gave much thought to the fact a severe war — one threatening the nation’s very existence had occurred only five years earlier.

A Linfield student, I spent my junior year in the Overseas Program at Tel Aviv University, one of four non-Jews in the English-language program. And it was an amazing experience.

That year, the Middle East was its most peaceful in exactly three decades, and highlights for me included visiting Bethlehem at Christmas, an experience more ironic than iconic, in that it involved a unique and inspiring chance encounter. 

My visit occurred during a true watershed year in the Middle East, and hopes would remain high for five to 10 years beyond. It was a time of great optimism, as the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat had come to Jerusalem, and an Egypt-Israel peace was in the works.

I was there when the Camp David accords were signed, triggering a broad round of nervous but hopeful soul-searching. Citizens, soldiers, scholars and politicians examined what life would be like in an Israel at peace with its neighbors — something it had never known.

The Egypt accord brought a guarded expectation that all predominately Islamic nations would fall into line.

The Palestinian accords would follow, and formal peace agreements were signed in later years with the kingdom of Jordan and other Arab nations. But that does not mean Israel is truly at peace — not with the Palestinian issue remaining unresolved.

Regime changes, troubling policies enacted by successive Israeli governments, erection of a border wall and a dearth of regional leadership have combined to grind down relations between Israel and its neighbors to a cycle of puny initiatives. Everywhere are failed attempts at anything resembling reconciliation.

Or is that really the case?

In recent weeks, I have read of networks of Jewish volunteers visiting Arab families’ homes — often makeshift plywood and tarpaulin structures — to teach each other Hebrew and Arabic, study, cook together, and care for each others’ children. Jews and Arabs are finding common ground under highly challenging, often dangerous, situations. 

Formal efforts also continue.

Lee Gordon, a friend of a friend, founded Hand In Hand, Center for Jewish-Arab Education, a multi-cultural school in Jerusalem that bridges divides among youth from both sectors. Lee and I met for coffee in 1983, my second visit to Israel, well before Hand in Hand started, and have been in touch only via email since.

He writes,”This year, more than 2,000 students are enrolled in our schools. We provide our students with an exceptional bilingual and multicultural education, and an immersive framework that allows them to form lifelong bonds with those of different backgrounds. We nurture pluralistic communities that support these schools, engaging thousands of adults and family members in forging a better present and future. Even now, after recent escalation, our Arab and Jewish students and community members continue to show up everyday, embodying true partnership, and spreading egalitarian, humanistic values across the country.”

In an accidental way, 43 years ago in Bethlehem, I personally experienced this brand of humanistic values.

On Dec. 24, 1978, I caught a bus to Bethlehem, arriving with the throngs. At the entrance to Manger Square, security was heavy. Everyone was frisked, in light of the bombings and shootings that had occurred in Bethlehem on Christmas Eve in years past

One of the first things I saw upon reaching Manger Square was a huge lighted sign reading, “Merry XMas.” Even in Bethlehem.

Hawkers and hustlers were everywhere, many using physically intrusive ways to get people to buy trinkets. With a hundred other people, I crammed into the steaming post office to get Christmas Eve postmarks from Bethlehem on my cards.

I stayed in a small Jerusalem hotel and returned to Bethlehem, less than 10 miles away, on Christmas Day. The square was only marginally less busy, and the line to see the holy birthplace, inside the Basilica of the Nativity, was too long for my taste.

The commercialism and clutter was still present, and I felt uninspired. So I started walking back to the main street, where I could catch a cab back to Jerusalem, then a bus home Tel Aviv.

But I wanted one last photo, so I walked up Star Street for a good vantage point. Down what I believed to be an alleyway, I could see the perfect spot.

Thinking it deserted, I followed the alley up a set of stairs to the top of the building — and was startled by the words, “Hello, welcome.”

In the doorway to my left stood a middle-aged man. Embarrassed, I asked if I could take a photo from the top of the stairs.

I quickly took the photo and hurried back down the steps, realizing I had just wandered into someone’s home. When I stopped to thank the man on my way, he invited me to taste some of the meat he was cooking.

I saw he had a table laden with meat, potatoes, onions, peppers, fruits, cheeses, cookies, candy, pita bread and bottles of wine and whiskey.

“Merry Christmas,” said Fuad Aziz. “Please have dinner with my family. You are welcome.”

The visit lasted several hours, during which time I came to know the warmth of this Arab family and taste their delicious food on an open terrace overlooking Bethlehem. We traded stories of life in the United States, where the grandfather, a naturalized Briton, had visited.

The grandfather had served in the British Army during a portion of the Palestine Mandate, a period of British rule from 1922 to 1948. The centennial of its creation will be marked next year.

The language barrier was thin, and it dissolved by my hosts’ genuine hospitality. I felt surprise and happiness as a stranger, being welcomed as a friend by this close-knit family on Christmas Day. 

My memories linger over the masses of tourists, the pervasive commercialism, and the unseemly commotion of Bethlehem at Christmas. But these impressions are overpowered by the memory of the uncomplicated kindness of this hospitable Arab family, representing what Christmas should be all about.

Contact Kirby Neumann-Rea at kirby@newsregister.com or 503-687-1291.

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