I knew this separation wall existed, but to see it in person was more intense than I would have thought. Especially when a wall built to separate two segments of a population is plastered with a huge sign that says "PEACE BE WITH YOU." We passed through the barrier on our way to Bethlehem, and again on our way back to Jerusalem - without trouble, of course, since we were a bus full of American tourists.
(Which brings me to a strange feeling I found coming over me during our visit to Israel: a sense of entitlement. In many ways, Israeli officials treated us with efficiency and respect. In others (at the border, for example, though that's not the only place), it was as if they didn't want us to be there. Whenever such a situation arose, I could feel the indignation mustering because American tax dollars and American protection help keep Israel living in the style to which they've become accustomed. This concept has long been a source of irritation for me, and so I felt like the least Israel could do when we taxpayers actually came to visit was roll out the red carpet.)
On the way to the Church of the Nativity, our guide said he knew of a great place where we could eat lunch. He spoke of a large room with tables and chairs and where the owners would serve us free beverages. Even before he continued speaking, Jeremy and I knew exactly what was going on here: this place of which he spoke was almost surely his friend's souvenir shop, and Jimmy himself would get a kickback for anything we bought while we were there.
Sure enough, we pulled up at this lunch-eating-facility and it turned out to be an olive-wood carving shop. The only "table" available was their display counter, which they offered to clear off. The free drinks were only on the condition of us buying stuff from them. Our professor walked in, took one look at the situation, realized what was going on, and walked right back out. Our guide never tried that trick on us again.
Bethlehem was a nice place, and not so conflict-ridden as it has been in recent years. The skyline was riddled with crosses...and antenna wires that kind of looked like crosses. No word yet on whether that is intentional.
The Church of the Nativity was opulent in a Russian sort of way, so that was something familiar. It was also full of Russian pilgrims who were taking their sweet time posing for photos down in the cave.
I mentioned earlier my sentiments regarding honoring these places as legitimate markers of a historic religious event. In the Church of the Nativity, that "holy" feeling was almost entirely absent for me. In fact, I found myself (I'm mildly ashamed at this) more interested in the Church as the place where the IDF laid siege to 40 wanted Palestinians for two months in 2002. Interestingly, when I asked our guide about that incident, he clearly did not want to talk about it.
After seeing the church, we wandered around the nearby shops. One shopkeeper (a female) called out to us, wanting to know where we were from. When we told her we were from America, and also spoke in Arabic, she went off in a tirade about George Bush. We've heard everything bad anyone can say about him about a million times, so we were ready to just smile and nod and walk on. But she was also upset that we wouldn't buy anything from her, and in fact took it as a sign that we hated the Palestinian people. The fact that we were, you know, speaking Arabic to her seemed to escape her notice.
Here is a Jewish settlement. Just as I knew about the wall, I knew these existed. But it was still fascinating and unsettling to actually see one in action (you can almost see it spreading, can't you?).
This is the Damascus Gate, of Miriam's-middle-name fame. Seeing this gate made me think of the movie Kingdom of Heaven, and then I wished I had loaded the soundtrack of that movie onto our iPod before the trip. Because it would have been awesome background music for most of our traveling.
As I said before, the BYU Jerusalem Center is a wonderful place. Miriam loved dropping rocks in to the fish pool. I let her do that for a while, but I stopped short at letting her climb into it herself like she wanted to.