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Mary and Joseph at the Checkpoint

(From an article recounting a 2003 demonstration in which a couple playing the roles of Mary and Joseph tried to cross an Israeli checkpoint at the border of the West Bank territories...)

The demonstration emanated from a simple question: would Mary and Joseph have been able to get to Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus had they been traveling today?

Mary and Joseph were two Jews living under Roman occupation. Their travel to Bethlehem was necessitated because of a census ordered by Caesar Augustus. Palestinians are living under Israeli occupation today, and their travel is restricted and sometimes completely prevented. Two days before Christmas 2003, two Palestinians dressed as Mary and Joseph attempted to cross an Israeli military checkpoint from Sawahreh and go on into Bethlehem. Mary was actually a 20-year-old student from Beit Hanina, a Palestinian town annexed to Jerusalem. Even though she sat atop a donkey, the fact that it was not 2,000 years ago was betrayed by her jeans and stylish boots protruding through the bottom of her traditional dress. Joseph was actually a villager in his 30s from East Sawahreh.

As the two approached the checkpoint, the idyllic Christmas-card scene was broken by the soldiers asking “Mary and Joseph” for IDs, by another soldier training a machine gun on us, and a third filming the whole proceeding, possibly for security purposes. The two soldiers manning the checkpoint took the whole event in their stride, asking the two actors in Arabic “You’re re-creating the Mary and Joseph scene?” One asked the two where they were from. As one observer in the crowd quipped “Nazareth!”, the two gave their true residences. This gave the answer to the basic question: our Mary and Joseph could not cross. The best the soldiers could offer was a little walk around the metal barrier by the checkpoint as some in the crowd sang “O Little Town of Bethlehem”.

Why couldn’t Mary and Joseph cross in the 21st century? Our Mary has an Israeli passport and therefore cannot legally enter Bethlehem, which is part of the West Bank. Citizens of the State of Israel are not allowed to enter the West Bank for “security” reasons. Our Joseph has a West Bank ID and, as such, could legally go from one West Bank town to another in this area, but he didn’t have it with him at the time. Therefore he couldn’t cross either. The fact of the matter is that many West Bankers are delayed and sometimes barred from going from one part of the West Bank to another. Furthermore, our Mary and Joseph really couldn’t live together and therefore be married. He couldn’t live in her town because it is part of Jerusalem, and most West Bankers are not allowed in Jerusalem. She could give up her Jerusalem status and go live in the West Bank with him, but that would be economic suicide. Jerusalemites who do that lose their Jerusalem status and are barred from entering the city or Israel.

- Larry Fatah, "How Would Mary And Joseph Have Fared at a Checkpoint?" in Perspectives, online journal of the Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) , December 2004.