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Ways of the World

Carol Stone, business economist & active Episcopalian, brings you "Ways of the World". Exploring business & consumers & stewardship, we'll discuss everyday issues: kids & finances, gas prices, & some larger issues: what if foreigners start dumping our debt? And so on. We can provide answers & seek out sources for others. We'll talk about current events & perhaps get different perspectives from what the media says. Write to Carol. Let her know what's important to you:

Monday, December 18, 2006

Bethlehem: Plenty of Room at the Inn

"What is Christmas?" I thought as I contemplated how Ways of the World might commemorate this season in a more formal way than the corny song parody we posted earlier, its important message notwithstanding.

Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem that night because the Roman government was taking a census in order to compile tax rolls. Now these are terms and policies an economist can identify with. The town, hardly the quiet little place in Phillips Brooks's famous carol, was abustle with travelers. Business was no doubt booming in all the shops, not just the hotels and restaurants. There were probably lots of animals in the stable, and the innkeeper probably sold feed for them too – or charged a "stabling fee".

Bethlehem is just under four miles south of Jerusalem. Even in ordinary times, it might have made a good place for travelers in and out of the city to stop for refreshment or to stock up on supplies without having to pay city – or temple – prices.

Life There Was Better Back Then
This vision of the busy little town in the year 5 or 4 BC is speculative on our part, based on just a few facts. But this week, as we revisit it in our imaginations, one aspect of life there is based much more in reality: the good townspeople of that day were almost surely much better off – economically, politically, psychologically – than the people who live in Bethlehem now.

Economics is widely known as the "dismal science" and a famous late 20th Century book about it is called The Joyless Economy. I generally take the other side of such value judgments: people, who are, after all, made in the image of God, use ingenuity to make their current lives and their current work go better. Good work is deeply gratifying, conveying inner joy and satisfaction. But these positive outcomes presume people have access to opportunity and are not oppressed in the pursuit of their daily living.

The current residents of the "Little Town of Bethlehem", where was born "[Christ] of whom the angels sing" are really hard up. If you are not aware, Bethlehem is part of the West Bank, under the general governance of the Palestinian Authority; its immediate population is about 30,000, with some 100,000 others in surrounding districts. Official data for the year 2005 put unemployment at some 20% of the "labor force", but 60% of the adult population is not in the labor force at all. Turning that statistic around, fewer than one-third of eligible adults have gainful employment. For comparison, the US figure is about 63% and, as a regional example, in Turkey, it is 45%.

The Separation Wall Makes It Harder
Further, these data don't reflect fully the impact of Israel's "Separation Wall", which was constructed during 2005. The first completed portion of the Wall runs between Bethlehem and Jerusalem, making it hard for Bethlehemites who have jobs there to get to work. The Wall also runs between the town and some surrounding farm land. This is the season of the olive harvest, the West Bank's main export. But farmers who live in town cannot count on being able to get through the Wall on any given day to work the fields, so a good portion of the olives may be lost.

This situation reflects the intensification of pressures between Israel and Palestine. The UN's Special Coordinating Office (UNSCO) in Jerusalem has estimated the number of workdays each year that are affected by "closures" of checkpoints. The information appears in a recent World Bank report. In 1994-99, the days subject to closure averaged 11 per year, and UNSCO calculates that workers could therefore get to their jobs on about 81% of available workdays. By 2003-2005, closures were averaging 97 per year, chopping to 56% the proportion of actual workdays to the potential total.

Tourism Is Way Down
Tourism, another major source of business in the West Bank, especially Bethlehem, has fallen sharply. From 100,000 monthly pilgrims prior to 2000, the number is estimated at 20,000 in recent months. This Christmas, the best four-star hotel in town seems to have several rooms open to Mary and Joseph.

Victor Batarseh, Mayor of Bethlehem, asserts in a Reuters news story published December 13 that his town will indeed have a fine Christmas celebration. And why not? Look what they and we have to celebrate! Nevertheless, their situation is dire enough to give even the most optimistic of economists a bad taste of the dismal science.

Ways We Can Help
A good way we can give a boost to Bethlehem's celebration is to buy products from them, to honor their livelihood. This is not an ad, but we've bought Bethlehem olive wood items and they are very nice. There are distributors in the US. It's probably too late for Christmas, but the variety of religious articles will fit any occasion. Here's one website:

A brief search on Google also produced numerous charitable outreaches. Here are four specific ones.

· Our own Episcopal Relief and Development provides health care in the region, partnering with the Diocese of Jerusalem. The affiliated facilities are in the Gaza Strip and the Nablus area of the West Bank, north of Bethlehem. Here is a link to the program description:

· The International Orthodox Christian Charities is renovating nine schools in the region. The main funding source is a grant from USAID, the first instance of US government funding to faith-based schools in the Holy Land. Read more at

· The Hope Flowers School is a local initiative. The school uses Montessori methods and mixes big doses of peace and democracy in with the Palestinian Authority's standard required curriculum. Guests are welcome to visit the school and also to volunteer in classrooms or at other tasks. See their informative website at

· Finally, there is Bethlehem Bible College, a non-denominational Protestant school with about 135 students. It is also based locally, run by Arab Christians. Its 25,000-volume library is open to the public, and according to its website, is the only public library available to the people of the West Bank. Learn more at

Christmas Blessings, Mr. Mayor!
"We really need help from all our Christian brothers everywhere in the world," the Mayor told Reuters. "This is the city where Jesus Christ was born. Now is the time to help us."

Copyright 2006 Carol A. Stone


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wasn't the Security Fence put up to hinder Homicide Bombers from killing innocent women and children? Doesn't Israel or any state have as a first obligation the protection its people? Perhaps if the Palestinian people were to hold demonstrations in support of true peace with Israel including its right to exist instead of voting in the terrorist Hamas things might become different. Do we forget that Yasser Arafat turned down an Israeli proposal that gave him over 90% of what he asked for.

Don't the Palestinian people have some responsibility for their present condition due to the fact that they send their kids to "Suicide Bomber Camps” and that virile anti Semitism is taught in their schools.

Why wasn’t there a demand for a “Palestinian” state before 1967 when the West Bank And Gaza were part of Jordan and Egypt?

12/29/2006 9:28 AM  

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