Today's real Bethlehem not much like the one in the song
Fourteen years ago, I went with then-president Bill Clinton to Bethlehem where he participated in the lighting of the tree in Manger Square.
As we looked out from the square we could see Jerusalem. In between was a green hill called Jabal Abul Ghnaim. The Israelis had announced plans to construct a settlement there, and despite Mr Clinton's stern protests the hill was already scarred by bulldozer tracks.
Today, Jabal Abul Ghnaim, formerly a part of Bethlehem, is called Har Homa, an Israeli settlement housing over 17,000 people. It and other Israeli colonies (19 in total), and a nine-meter concrete wall now separate Bethlehem from Jerusalem. They are strangling the town, inhibiting its growth and the ability of its residents to do business.
This week's news that Israel will build another 6,000 homes in these settlements, and construct two new colonies in the area around Jerusalem, raises grave concerns in Bethlehem. These developments, when completed, will completely cut Bethlehem off, not only from the Holy City but also from the northern part of the West Bank. This will cause irreparable damage to the Palestinian inhabitants. It is a cruel and terrible way to mark the Christmas season.
President Barack Obama's administration has, of course, protested, calling these Israeli actions part of a "pattern of provocation". We've heard that before. Israel will pocket the protests, as it has done for decades, and continue to build. Unless world protests are followed by some decisive action, by next Christmas these settlements will have been completed, destroying lives and the hopes of so many who yearn for freedom and justice.
It is a tragic irony that when we, in America, sing this Christmas of the "little town of Bethlehem", what comes to mind is not the living, breathing, suffering, and real Palestinian city, but rather a Bethlehem that exists only in our imagination.
A few years back we conducted some polling in the US, to determine what Americans understood about Bethlehem. Most, it turned out, didn't know where it was. Six in 10 thought it was an Israeli city, populated by Jews. Only one in seven knew it was a mixed Palestinian Christian/Muslim town. Most Americans believed that Bethlehem should be protected by Unesco as a World Heritage Site. And yet there was no public outcry when Congress cut Unesco funds last year as punishment for the Palestinian Authority gaining membership in that world body so that they could push, over Israeli objections, for this recognition for Bethlehem.
Americans also didn't know that the city is literally corralled by a huge, oppressive concrete wall, or that most of its surrounding lands have been stolen for Jewish-only housing projects.
And they don't know that there are in Bethlehem today hundreds of unemployed skilled craftsmen who were once world-renowned for their olivewood carvings and mother-of-pearl artistic creations. These workers have been idled by occupation, the blockade of their city, and lack of access to export markets.
Western ignorance of the plight of Bethlehem, and western silence in the face of its suffering, symbolise the entire Palestinian situation. In our mind's eye we can clearly see Israel and our imagined Bethlehem, but the Palestinian people of today are less clear. They remain an abstraction or simply a problem to be solved on Israel's terms.
As I have noted before, it might be a good thing for all Americans to resolve this Christmas to come to know the real Bethlehem and its real people - Christians, who have been living there since the time of Jesus, and Muslims - and the lives they live and what might be done to ease their burdens.
If we did that, we might be able, like the "heavenly hosts" whom we are told greeted the birth of Jesus by singing "peace on earth, good will to men" and bring some of each to the people of the land of Palestine.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa
Updated: December 24, 2012 04:00 AM