Thursday, April 26, 2007

Occupied Voices: Sami Awad - "Never Give Up"

I've been meaning to write about this topic for a while, but the truth is that I've found this to be a surprisingly emotional topic and I haven't wanted to face it.

Last week I received an email from my friend Sami Awad, director of the Holy Land Trust with the subject "From Palestine to Virginia Tech: We a you with you in this Time of Pain." Sami explains that they had dedicated there weekly demonstration to the victims of Virginia Tech:

Once we reached the path created by the by the bulldozers for the building of the Apartheid Wall we dug the earth and plated the thirty two olive trees in a row...Over 150 Israeli soldiers came to dismantle our protest. Our commitment to nonviolence and to achieve our goal completely paralyzed their weapons and their goals and eventually our power made them withdrawal. The planting of the trees was followed by reciting the names of all those who were killed in the Virginian massacre followed by a fifteen minute period of silence before the group moved back to the villages.
I think that this is the aspect of Palestine that I will never really get used to. Time and time again, my Palestinian friends express an incredible sympathy for the pain and grief of my community. When the four CPTers were kidnapped in Iraq, our Palestinian friends organized huge protests on their behalf. I could understand that - CPT has worked hard to end the occupation of Palestine. But I'm blown away by the incredible compassion my friends have for people who they don't know, who probably don't care about their pain. There's some much that I need to learn from Palestine.

Sami is always blogging about the dynamic nonviolent movement that continues in Palestine. Check out what he has to say - I believe that it the most important news coming from the West Bank.
Occupied Voices: Voices from Palestine - Palestinian Children Write

I woke up as usual this day, went to school but first I got to Qalandia’s checkpoint the first part of my long journey to school. Passing it has become a normal thing for me. Most of the people might think it’s easy, but no one really knows what I go through everyday just to educate myself to the best of my ability at school.

More and more Palestinian children are sharing their stories through blogging and "Voices from Palestine" is particularly charming, terrifying, and sad. Children contribute their thoughts and photographs and incredibly well spoken. Check it out!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Palestine Fair Trade Association Featured on PBS Foreign Exchange!

Fair trade olive oil from Palestine, Canaan Fair Trade and the Palestine Fair Trade Association will be featured in a segment that will air on PBS Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria the weekend of April 20 - 22. Check the website for local listings and after the weekend for streaming video.

PS: No Sweat is now featuring shirts made in Bethlehem. Yay!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Death and Taxes

It's tax day and what could be more fun than a look at some of the places that America's tax dollars are going!

Percentage of US discretionary budget spent on education and other social services: 8%

Percentage of US discretionary budget spent for military: 53% - 57% (depending on how you calculate it)

US Military Budget as a percent of World total military expenditures: 49%

Number of Americans classified as “food insecure” in 2004: 38 million

Number of Americans without health insurance: 45 million

Total direct aid to Israel 1948-2006: $255 billion

Total Cost of US Support for Israel: $1.688 trillion

Federal aid for each resident in Louisiana in 2002: $1,500

Direct U.S. aid for each Israeli citizen in 2003: $581

Direct U.S. aid for each Ethiopian citizen in 2004: $2.50

Percentage of U.S. foreign aid that goes to Israel: 27%

Population of Israel as percentage of total world population: 0.1%

Number of Palestinian minors killed by Israeli security forces (2000-2007): 814

Total number of Palestinians injured or killed (September 2000-April 2007):

Number of bullets fired by Israeli security forces in the first week of the
second Intifada: 1,300,000

Number of unexploded Israeli bombs strewn across South Lebanon after the 2006 war: 1,000,000 or 1.4 per resident

Slightly modified from the 1040 ez tax form available at

This came to me via Mazin Qumsiyeh, but I think it's been floating out in the world wide web for a while...Chart from the War Resister's League.
A Photo-Tour of the Bethlehem Checkpoint

Two years ago, if you wanted to go to Bethlehem, you would pass through this checkpoint. Vehicles could travel through, along with tourists.

Today, the gap in the wall and a soldier with a gun has been replaced with a terminal, complete with metal detectors, x-rays, and video monitors.

Most vehicles are barred entry, squelching all hopes of economic development. Coming into Bethlehem, you hop off the bus and see this sign.

Next, you enter the first of several turnstiles and show your ID to the soldier sitting behind plate glass.

A turnstile later, you cross the past the sign saying "Peace Be with You"

through another turnstile, and out into the city of Bethlehem.

But this route - traveling from Jerusalem to Bethlehem - is comparatively easy. Going from Bethlehem to Jerusalem is more guerling. This is the enterance to the Bethlehem checkpoint from Bethlehem city at 6:20 in the morning. Hundreds and hundreds of people line the wall, waiting for hours to show their ID cards at least twice so that they can go to work in Jerusalem.

These Palestinians are lucky. They hold a coveted Israeli-issued permit to travel to Jerusalem, a permit available to less than one half of one percent of Bethlehemites. But holding a permit isn't neccessarily enough. Palestinians can be turned back by Israeli soldiers at any time. Palestinians first pass through a door and show their ID to the first Israeli soldier. Then they must stand in line instead a structure resebleming a cattle chute

until they get to another turnstile. A disembodied voice yells through loudspeakers at people as they wait for the lights above an automated turnstile to flash red to green. Israeli soldiers control these serral system, giving orders (often unintelligibly) through the loudspeakers, watching waiting Palestinians through video cameras, and pushing buttons. It's chrystal clear who is in control and even priveledged forgieners, like myself, feel frustrated and dehumanized.

Next, Palestinians have to place their belongings on conveyor belt of that a soldier sitting in a glass both can x-ray them. Then it's time for another turn stile and another line. Finally, a soldier checks IDs and permits again and, hopefully, the ordeal has ended.

Inside the terminal there are special rooms for interrogations and searches where no one can see what is happening. Separation, humiliation, and dehumanization seem to be designed into the very architecture of this terminal. I can't tell you of many times that I've stood inside this checkpoint- trying to understand what the soldiers were saying, trying to lug a bag through a narrow door, or just trying to figure out which way to go - and knew that if this were my life, if I were subjected to the same rudeness and restrictions that Palestinians experience, I wouldn't be able to stand it.

There's no way to describe that feeling.

(most of the photos are credit to my friend Jill, photographer par excellence. I took only the first. The "peace be with you" photo was taken by the lovely and talented Frank.)
At-Tuwani: Israeli military targets shepherds, seven-year-old boy in South Hebron Hills
16 April 2007

This week, Israeli soldiers abducted several shepherds, including a 7-year-old boy, who were grazing their sheep near Israeli settlements in the Southern Hebron District. In none of the cases did they send them to the Israeli civilian police for the required legal processing.

On Sunday, 14 April, Israeli soldiers detained seven-year-old Maher Ahmed Moussa Ibnes and his cousin, sixteen year old Nadal Samir Moussa Ibnes in Imneizel. At approximately 9:00 a.m., Maher Ahmed Moussa Ibnes was grazing sheep on Palestinian land near the Israeli settlement of Beit Yatir when a stone he threw to move the sheep in the desired direction hit the settlement fence.

At approximately 9:00 a.m., Israeli soldiers arrived at the boy's home. They informed the family that they had surveillance video of the boy throwing a stone at the settlement and insisted on taking him into custody. They allowed his cousin, Nadal Samir, to accompany him in the military jeep, which took both boys to the checkpoint at Beit Yatir. The boys' families and members of the community of Imneizel followed on foot to the checkpoint. IDF soldiers informed the family that they would release seven-year-old Maher Ahmed, but would arrest his cousin, Nadal Samir, who was not present at the alleged incident, and did not appear on the surveillance tape.

The soldiers then blindfolded Nadal Samir and transported him to the military base at the settlement of Susiya, which has no police station. They released him about two and a half hours later in response to calls from a representative of the Red Cross.

On 15 April, Israeli soldiers took shepherds Yusef Ibrahim Abed Mur of Imneizel, and Muhammed Jihad Halil Abu Aram, of Qawawis as they were grazing on Palestinian land. The arrests occurred after Yacov Dalia, a settler from the area, invited soldiers onto the land and argued that the State of Israel owned it.

Soldiers arrested Ibrahim at approximately 11:00 a.m. and Jihad at 3:30 p.m. The soldiers took the shepherds without warning, and without allowing them time to secure their flocks. Ibrahim was grazing his sheep by himself, and a shepherd from the Palestinian village of Jinba collected his sheep for him. Soldiers released the detainees at 7:00 Sunday night from the military base at Susiya, forcing them to walk home past the settlement in the dark.

Last month on 18 March, soldiers detained five shepherds near Beit Yatir. Soldiers took the shepherds, Jihad Ibrahim Mor, Mohamed Halil Suliman Rashid, Ahmed Mohamed Halil Rashid, Ezhaq Ahmed Ali Hrezat and Samir Ahmed Mohamed Hrezat, to the army base at Susiya and released them without any legal processing in the early evening.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Slingshot Hip Hop TRAILER

What can I say? My love for Palestinian hip-hop is simply unending. This video comes to you courtesy of the Slingshot collective.

Thanks to

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Welcome to Absurdistan

A West Bank woman has developed special socks to help Palestinians suffering from swollen feet as they wait at Israeli military checkpoints...The socks are made from nylon and gel that molds around wearers' feet to prevent discomfort, even if they stand for hours, as they sometimes have to...Ms Latif says the socks are "like sleeping on a waterbed, which is far more comfortable than a regular mattress.
Jean Zaru is the matriarch of the Ramallah Friends (Quaker) Meeting and one of my favorite people. She has a gift for both honesty and love- a rare combination. I'm told that she has been know to quip that occupied Palestine should be called "Absurdistan." I couldn't agree with her more.

When we think of war, we think of dead children, bombed out buildings, a pulverized infrastructure. Those who live in safe, wealthy, well-guarded lands are often drawn into a strange sort of algebra, a calculus of how many people must die before the situation is really "bad," before we'll bother to care. 926 Palestinian children killed since 2000? 118 Israeli children? Oh, that's nothing. That's hardly a war. It's hardly worth caring about.

I could pontificate about this sad lack of compassion that privileged people, like me, fall into, but that's not my point. Palestine has no lack of dead children, demolished houses, or destroyed infrastructure. But what privileged people are most unable to see is the systematic injustice, the death-by-unfair-bureaucracy, the economic strangulation, and the utter absurdity that comprises so much of Palestinian daily life. Perhaps we are blind to this aspect of Palestinian oppression because it too closely resembles the systems of oppression and exploitation that our own privilege rests upon. But for whatever reason, we are able to see (and dismiss) the death, the destruction, and the grand tragic elements of the occupation, but we are utterly blind to the pain of daily life. We can't see Absurdistan.

Absurdistan is the land of gel-filled socks to ease the discomfort of standing at checkpoints for hours. It's a country where 14 year-old-boys are beaten and jailed for throwing rocks at well-armed men and women. Its citizens are 6 year olds who are denied permission to visit the zoo, only 5 miles away. Its cities are cut in half by a concrete wall, separating Absurdistanis from fellow Absurdistanis. The homes of Absurdistanis who fail to obtain impossible-to-obtain permits are demolished, but the practice of demolishing the homes of alleged terrorists has ended because it's been shown to increase terrorism; naturally, demolishing the homes of law abiding Absurdistanis will have no consequences.

Absurdistan is an unending and always changing maze. Roads close, checkpoints move, and walls appear suddenly. On a hot summer day, my friend Allyn and I drove around the back roads of Ah Ram, trying simply to find the entrance of the checkpoint so that we could flash our passports and re-turn to Jerusalem. The "security" wall had been built and then re-routed since Allyn had last been in Ah Ram and the streets had been transformed into a maze we couldn't see our way out of.

'This is what drives people over the edge,' said Allyn.

30 minutes later, still driving around Ah Ram, I believed him.

Welcome to Absurdistan.

Friday, April 06, 2007

The Palestinian Stations of the Cross:
A Meditation for Christians on Good Friday

Today is Good Friday, the day that Christians, like myself, celebrate the passion of Jesus. This year, I gathered with an ecumenical group to walk and pray through the Stations of the Cross, a liturgy based on the sufferings of Jesus as he was condemned to death, humiliated, and crucified. Through the Stations of the Cross are often reduced to fourteen reasons to feel sorry for Jesus, they contain within them revolutionary potential. Jesus was commended to death because of the way that he disrupted the religious, political, and military status quo and made the wealthy and powerful deeply uncomfortable. In this way, Jesus' suffering shows us the consequences of nonviolence. (drawing by Palestinian cartoonist Naji al Ali, creator of Handala.)

As we prayed the Stations of the Cross today, we prayed for people in our own community who are suffering: veterans and victims of the war in Iraq, people without health insurance, people who are hungry and more. I was immediately inspired to offer up a meditation on the pain of Palestinians, another group of people whose suffering and nonviolent resistance should be remember by Christians today and all people every day.

And so "The Palestinian Stations of the Cross" was born. I've used the traditional Catholic stations and scripture references from the United Confederacy of Catholic Bishops. The queries, a Quaker touch, are taken from Preaching Peace and are intended to bring the reader back from the specificity of the Palestinian situation to a broader context. I feel a unfortunate need to clarify my intention. These mediations are not intended to make the claim, "The Jews killed Jesus, now look what they are doing to the Palestinians!" Quite the opposite. That claim is hate-filled and incorrect. Instead, my intention is to invite Christians to examine our complicty in occupation of Palestine. The author of Preaching Peace writes "On the Sunday of the Passion, we [Christians] all cry out as part of the crowd, “Crucify him, crucify him!” For those of us who need the Stations, it is this cry that gives us our best entrance. To do anything less is to minimize the reality of the Passion so that we might cushion its impact on us. Alongside this impact vanishes the Passion’s power to convert." I hope that this clarifies my intention.

Enjoy! Good Friday blessings to those who are celebrating today and special blessings to all people of all faiths and those of none!

A note: this is a rough draft - I'm sure that there are plenty of typos right now. Rather than wait until its perfect, I've decided to aim from punctuality instead. Thanks for your indulgence.

The Palestinian Stations of the Cross:

Station One: Jesus is Condemned
When day came the council of elders of the people met, both chief priests and scribes, and they brought him before their Sanhedrin. They said, "If you are the Messiah, tell us," but he replied to them, "If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I question, you will not respond. But from this time on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God." They all asked, "Are you then the Son of God?" He replied to them, "You say that I am." Then they said, "What further need have we for testimony? We have heard it from his own mouth." Luke 22: 66-71
Jesus was condemned by beloved members of his own religious community. Today, Palestinian Christians find themselves abandoned by the global Christian community. Today, Bethlehem lies behind a 25ft high cement Wall, erected by the Israeli army. Christians pilgrims who used to visit Bethlehem now leave it off of their itinerary and leave their Christian family suffer. Other Christians offer political support to Israel to the exclusion of friendship with Palestine.

Queries: How many times do I have the knowledge and the power to say no, and stay silent? How many times do I participate, by my silence, in the Passion of Jesus? Who will die because I do not say no?

Station Two: Jesus Takes Up His Cross
When the chief priests and the guards saw [Jesus] they cried out, "Crucify him, crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Take him yourselves and crucify him. I find no guilt in him." ... They cried out, "Take him away, take him away! Crucify him!" Pilate said to them, "Shall I crucify your king?" The chief priests answered, "We have no king but Caesar." Then he handed him over to them to be crucified. So they took Jesus, and carrying the cross himself he went out to what is called the Place of the Skull, in Hebrew, Golgotha. John 19: 6, 15-17
For 40 years, Palestinians have born the cross of military occupation. Palestinians have lost their land, their homes, their olive trees, their cultural traditions and their lives. Throughout these 40 years, Americans of all religious faiths, but especially Christian Zionists, have offered their support to the Israeli military occupation of Palestine. Because the unconditional support our government offers the state of Israel, all Americans are complicit in the suffering of the Palestinian people.

Queries: When have I said, “Well, he certainly deserved that!” or “It’s only fair. Look at what she did!”? When have I failed to forgive as I have been forgiven? When have I laid more weight on your blessed shoulders?

Station Three: Jesus falls the first time

Palestinians bear the cross of land confiscation. 329 thousand Palestinians are separated from their land by an Israeli erected "security" wall which runs mainly inside the West Bank. This wall has been built in violation of international law and causes daily hardship to Palestinians. But in villages like Bi'ln, Marda, and at-Tuwani, Palestinians are using nonviolence to struggle for their rights.

How many times, Lord, have I sacrificed my “I” as I took satisfaction or pleasure in the fall of another? How many lynchings have I started with my laughter?

Station Four: Jesus meets his mother
Standing by the cross of Jesus were his mother and his mother's sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary of Magdala. When Jesus saw his mother 11 and the disciple there whom he loved, he said to his mother, "Woman, behold, your son." Then he said to the disciple, "Behold, your mother." And from that hour the disciple took her into his home. John 19:25-27

Palestinian mothers bear a special cross under occupation. Like Mary, they are faced with the reality that they cannot ensure their children's safety. In addition to all of the responsibility mothers all over the world bear, Palestinian mothers must worry as their children pass through dangerous areas on their way to school, as safe play areas are demolished or blocked off by the path of the Apartheid Wall, and as children cope with trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder. As more and more Palestinian men lose their jobs to ever-skyrocketing unemployment, Palestinian women have also stepped in to provide of their families through alternative income generation projects. To be a mother under military occupation is a feat nothing short of miraculous.

Queries: How many times, Lord, have we watched another suffer, but from a safe distance? How many times have you looked out through the eyes of another for comfort, but were unable to find it?

Station Five: Simon helps to carry Jesus' cross
They pressed into service a passer-by, Simon, a Cyrenian, who was coming in from the country, the father of Alexander and Rufus, to carry his cross. Mark 15: 21
Palestinians bear the cross of home demolitions. To date, thousands Palestinian homes have been demolished. The majority of these homes were demolished only because the Palestinians who owned them were unable to obtain permits from the Israeli authorities. Thankfully, many people have stepped into bear this cross like Simon, including Rabbis for Human Rights and the Israeli Campaign Against Home Demolition. We praise God for their willingness to stand beside Palestinians through advocacy, rebuilding, and nonviolent direct action.

Queries: How many others have we called on to do our violence for us? How many soldiers pulled triggers because we could not? How many executioners pushed buttons for us?

Station Six: Veronica wipes the face of Jesus

The story of Veronica wiping the face of Jesus is a story of humanity reveled. Palestinians bear the cross of denied humanity. Today, the international press castigates all Arabs, but especially Palestinians, as terrorists. An accurate reporting of Palestinian political concerns and demands is difficult to find, but images of the humanity of Palestinians - of children going to school, of parents going to work, of Christians and Muslims worshiping God - are ignored. Furthermore, the military occupation of Palestine itself denies the humanity of Palestinian by subjecting them to humiliating searches and delays at checkpoints and by making daily life impossibility difficult.

But like Veronica, many Israelis, Palestinians, and internationals are working to revel the humanity of Palestinians. Organizations like Tayuush, Checkpoint Watch, Christian Peacemaker Teams, and International Women's Peace Service witness and document human rights violations in the West Bank and intervene nonviolently. In doing so, they wipe the face of God and revel Palestinian humanity to the world.

Queries: How many times have we missed your humanity, Jesus? How many times has it been easier to deal with your suffering because we left your face marred beyond recognition? Do we have it in us to see your face?

Station Seven: Jesus falls a second time

Palestinians bear the cross of violence at the hands of Israeli settlers. In the city of Hebron and in villages like at-Tuwani, Israeli extremists harass Palestinians, sometimes shooting or shooting adults and children. These settlers do not represent mainstream Israeli opinion and illegally occupy West Bank land that once belonged to Palestinians.

Queries: How many times have we added our voices to the mob’s, kicked someone when she was down? It isn’t that it’s easier for us to attack someone who’s weakened, it isn’t easier; it is necessary. We need you to fall, so that we can see you as different, as disappointing, as worthy of our hatred.

Station Eight: Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem

A large crowd of people followed Jesus, including many women who mourned and lamented him. Jesus turned to them and said, "Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me; weep instead for yourselves and for your children, for indeed, the days are coming when people will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed.' At that time, people will say to the mountains, ‘Fall upon us!' and to the hills, ‘Cover us!' for if these things are done when the wood is green what will happen when it is dry?" Luke 23: 27-31
All women living in Jerusalem bear the cross of division. Palestinian women must negotiate the realities of living in a national limbo. As Jerusalemites, they are not treated as citizens of Israel, but neither to they hold West Bank or Gaza ID cards. They must have home demolitions, substandard social services, unfair tax burdens, and harassment at the hands of Israeli police and other power holders. Israeli women living in Jerusalem must bear the burden of a national policy of violence, colonization, and injustice. Many live in fear of suicide bombing and all suffer from a national budget which priorities military power over human needs. But we can thank God that some Israelis and Palestinians are choosing to work together to end the occupation. The brave example of organizations like Women in Black shines for all of us.

Queries: How many times have we contemplated your Passion, Lord, and wanted to cry for you? How many times have we wanted to weep because of your pain, and not because we caused it? How often have we blinded ourselves to our complicity in violence by feeling sorry for the victims?

Station Nine: Jesus falls a third time

Palestinians bear the cross of movement restrictions. As they travel through the West Bank, Palestinians are blocked by more than 500 different road blocks, checkpoints, gates and other barriers. These restrictions prevent economic development and keep Palestinians from going about their normal lives.

Queries: How many times have we seen another’s weakness as an opportunity to shape them, to change them into what we want them to be? How many times do we take advantage of the fact that you are too weak to resist, Jesus, and fasten you to the Cross?

Station Ten: Jesus is stripped before the crowd
When the soldiers had crucified Jesus, they took his clothes and divided them into four shares, a share for each soldier. They also took his tunic, but the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece from the top down. John 19:23
Palestinians bear the cross of humiliation. Like Jesus, Palestinians, especially women, are regularly subjected to strip searches and sexualized harassment as they enter or exist the Palestinian territories or at checkpoints within their homeland, as they travel from their homes to their schools or markets.

Queries: How many times have we branded someone with a scarlet letter? Drunk, convict, weakling? How many times have we labeled our brother or sister, so as to set them apart, reduced them to nothing by using shame?

Station Eleven: Jesus is hung on the cross
When they came to the place called the Skull, they crucified him and the criminals there, one on his right, the other on his left. [Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them, they know not what they do."] Luke 23: 33-34
Like Jesus, Palestinians also face torture. According to human rights lawyers with Addameer, Palestinians who are arrested by Israeli authorities face mistreatment ranging from beatings, to being force prisoners to sit on a tiny chair with hands and feet tied, sleep deprivations, and violent shaking, to psychological games and humiliation. As the majority of Palestinian men spend time in Israeli prisons, this torture is a national scar that touches every Palestinian community.

Queries: Mute with horror, we stumble to our homes, as though the earth were moving under our feet. The ground itself seems unsteady as we contemplate a world without violence. On what will we stand?

Station Twelve: Jesus dies on the cross
It was now about noon and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon because of an eclipse of the sun. Then the veil of the temple was torn down the middle. Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Father, into your hands I commend my spirit"; and when he had said this he breathed his last. Luke 23: 44-46
At least 1,021 Israelis and 4,070 Palestinians have been killed since September 29, 2000. We must morn all deaths caused by the conflict and occupation. Equally importantly, we must examine the ways in which we are complicit in these deaths and begin to work for justice and peace.

Queries: How often, O Lord, have we fled our own horror, left the care of the dead and the dying to others? How many times have we let our fear of the power of death drive us into hiding?

Bethlehem 2006

A happy accidental discovery for you: a short home video documenting some of my favorite things about Bethlehem and one of my favorite Bethlehem organizations, the Holy Land Trust. Take a look!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

An Open Letter to Rick Steves, Travel Writer and Guide:

Dear Rick,

My name is Joy Ellison and this is my mom, Kay. She is probably one of your biggest fans. When I was 15, Mom took our family on a two month summer expedition all over Europe. Thanks to Europe Through the Back Door, I survived the Louvre and became a world traveler.

Since that first trip to Europe, I've traveled in India, Bolivia, Northern Ireland and one very special place that I want to tell you about: Bethlehem, Palestine. In the summer of 2006, I spent three months living in this small town and it became one of my favorite places on earth. Bethlehem is rich with history and filled with the most friendly, warm, and hospitable people I've ever meet. I want to invite you to come and visit Bethlehem, hosted by Open Bethlehem, an alternative travel organization. Bethlehem needs caring people, like you, to share its treasures with the world.

The entire Bethlehem area has been declared a World Heritage Site because it's chock-full of religious sites held important to all three Abrahamic faiths. Bethlehem is the the birthplace of King David and home to Rachel's Tomb, Ruth and Naomi's Field and the Church of the Nativity. I'm not much for churches, but these religious sites aren't just among the most significant in the world, they're also the most interesting. In the Church of the Nativity alone, you can find statues for a saint with a strange affection for a skull, real bones in an out-of-the-way corner,three different Christian traditions worshiping in separate services, and Christians and Muslims worshiping side-by-side in the Milk Grotto.

Most visitors focus on churches and miss out on Bethlehem's true charms, like the Cremisan Monastery, a tiny Catholic school and winery. The multilingual head priest gives wonderful tours and wine tastings. Pick up some falafel and you've got the perfect Rick Steves picnic.

Or visit Mar Saba, a Greek Orthodox monastery that clings to the side of a cliff just outside of Bethlehem. Only men can visit the church, but anyone can enjoy the quiet majesty of the desert.

I'm sure you would love Cremisan and Mar Saba, but as you taught my family, it's the people who live in a place that are truly worth visiting. The most wonderful part of a visit to Bethlehem is talking with Bethlehemites. Palestinians are quick to invite new friends home and feed them until they nearly burst. You'll want to socialize in the market, play backgammon with the old men sitting outside the Citadel and smoke hookah at The Tent. I'll teach you a few Arabic phrases, and before you know it, you'll have a new Palestinian family.

I'm sure that you would enjoy visiting Dheisheh refugee camp and its world renown Ibdaa Center. “Ibdaa” is Arabic for “making something out of nothing” and that just what the residents of refugee camps do every day. At the Ibdaa Center, you can meet young people who've traveled the world performing traditional Palestinian folk dancing called dabkeh. Dabkeh is something like a cross between Greek folk dances and Irish step. If you ask nicely, the kids of Ibdah might give you a lesson.

You won't want to miss the Palestinian Heritage Center. The owner is a gregarious woman dedicated to preserving and sharing the folk costumes of Bethlehem. For about $5, she'll let you dress up in traditional dress and take pictures inside a reproduced Bedouin tent. It's a delightful way to learn about the local culture and reminds me of something my mom and I would find in your guidebooks.

I'm certain that you would love visiting Bethlehem, Rick. This city is a treasure and you could share it with the world. The truth is, Bethlehem needs your help. My friend Bethlehemite Carol Dabdoub works for an organization called Open Bethlehem, which is working hard to share the magic of Bethlehem. Carol says that “Bethlehem was a city of tourism before the word even existed.” But because of the political situation, most tourists whiz into Bethlehem, spend ten minutes in the Church of the Nativity and leave. As a result, Bethlehem's economy is dying. But Carol and other Bethlhemites are working hard to change that. They have created a culturally sensitive guidebook called Palestine and Palestinians and are now taking groups on back-door tours based in Bethlehem. I don't like tour companies, especially in the Holy Land, but Open Bethlehem is dedicated to helping visitors have the experience they want, while keeping tourist dollars within the local economy. I'd entrust my closest friends to this wonderful organization – and my favorite travel guide.

Bethlehem is a perfect “back door” destination. Rick Steves readers and listeners should be visiting Bethlehem, taking tours of olive wood factories, sipping Taybeh beer, attending an Orthodox mass, and using Bethlehem as a home-base while visiting the surrounding area. Bethlehem has a developed tourist infrastructure – cheap lodging is abundant, most residents speak English and it's easy to find visitor information at the Bethlehem Peace Center, the Alternative Information Center, or in the pages of “This Week in Palestine.” Bethlehem is safe, inexpensive, and above all, friendly. So Rick, come visit and share what you learn. Carol and I would be happy to show you around. As Palestinians say, Ahlan Wa Sahlan. Welcome to Bethlehem!

Thank you, Rick!