In the heart of London, a wall of controversy

Not all visitors to the Bethlehem Unwrapped exhibition are sure what it means

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A visitor to the Bethlehem Unwrapped exhibition at St. James's Church in London writes on a replica of the separation barrier, January 2, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)
A visitor to the Bethlehem Unwrapped exhibition at St. James's Church in London writes on a replica of the separation barrier, January 2, 2014 (photo credit: Elhanan Miller/Times of Israel)

LONDON — In the courtyard of St. James’s Church, an Anglican house of worship just off Piccadilly Circus in central London, tourists stood under an eight-meter concrete wall, intermittently writing on it with large crayons and photographing it with their smartphones.

The wall, erected on December 23, is the centerpiece of a two-week festival called Bethlehem Unwrapped, inspired by a 2009 call by churches in the Palestinian territories known as the Kairos document, and is meant as a “life-size replica” of the “Separation Wall that surrounds Bethlehem.”

“At Christmas, we sing about the ‘little town of Bethlehem.’ This Christmas, we are hosting a festival celebrating the people of Bethlehem today and drawing attention to the Barrier that affects every aspect of daily life,” reads a statement on the church website.

Tony, an artist from the Midlands, took his two teenage children to view the exhibit at the advice of Palestinian friends living in London “so that we see the magnitude of the scale of what is in Palestine and Israel.” He said it was a shame the exhibit was not displayed more prominently and felt a little tucked away.

“I don’t see provocation as a bad thing ever,” Tony told the Times of Israel. “Because of the political viewpoint behind objects like this, it’s always going to incite reaction and always going to provoke … For the average person living in London, I think it can only be a positive thing to see something like this.”

But many in Israel and around the world have considered the exhibit deeply offensive; a sign of careless — or worse, intentional — disregard for Israel’s security needs. Construction on the real security barrier began in 2002, a year in which 225 Israelis lost their lives in 47 suicide attacks, many emanating from the West Bank. Unlike the impression given by St. James’s exposition, the vast majority of the barrier is a wire fence, not a wall, its critics remark.

“Your ‘wall’ … is hopefully just a result of your own ignorance and generalizations concerning the complex situation here in the Middle East,” wrote Kay Wilson, the survivor of a terrorist attack which emanated from Bethlehem in 2010, in a Times of Israel blog.

“It is simply wrong, I believe … ­ to flaunt one people’s suffering as righteous while condemning another people for simply seeking to secure themselves and their children from vicious attack,” wrote Dr. Denis MacEoin in his open letter to the church.

Mary, a member of the St. James’s congregation handing out leaflets about Bethlehem Unwrapped, said she could certainly understand such criticism, but felt that the exhibition was important nevertheless.

“We feel it’s very important that everyone can express their point of view,” she said. “Personally, I feel I’m here more to listen to people, actually. I don’t think it’s my role to tell people what they should think.”

Mary traveled to Bethlehem in October with 20 other members of her church in what was described as “an alternative pilgrimage.” In the holy land, they met with members of all three monotheistic faiths, a Jewish settler included.

“I felt very privileged to see more than your average pilgrimage,” she said. “It was really important and powerful to hear those different voices.”

Irene Naftalin, a retired university lecturer from Manchester currently serving as community director for StandWithUs UK, a pro-Israel advocacy group, said that Mary and her colleagues at the church were simply naive about the political significance of the exhibition; but that was quickly changing in light of the vociferous protest she and her volunteers were staging across the church on a daily basis.

“When it started out last week it was all about building bridges, now it’s more political,” Naftalin said. When speaking to people on the street she felt they were often entrenched in their positions; but the media coverage received by the protest against the Wall has encouraged her.

“It is important to have a presence, to send a message to the Church and the organizers that this is not OK. We’ve been successful at this,” she told The Times of Israel.

Although Naftalin claimed that “neutral” people on the street tended to glance at the exhibit from afar and walk by rather than enter the church compound, Andy, a tourist from the German city of Trier, said he was intrigued by a wall he thought at first glance was being used to allow teenagers to legally paint graffiti.

He stood with his girlfriend next to the wall, debating whether to write something on it.

“Is this on the border between Israel and Syria? Or the Gaza Strip? No? Then I don’t know.”

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