• PALESTINE \ Nov 24, 2004
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    The story of a Christian choir in Ramallah
The story of a Christian choir in Ramallah Two weeks ago the Jerusalem Choir gave its biannual concert at Ramallah's Latin Church. For years its members from Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jerusalem took part in its weekly rehearsals, and performed "everywhere."

Those days are gone. Now the weekly rehearsals along with the two yearly concerts are held exclusively in Ramallah, home town to most of the choir's members. There's no other place to go: The ban on movement which dates to before September 2000, and road-blocks erected at later stages of the intifada, are now being replaced by impenetrable walls and barbed wire fences.

There's no reason why the fate of this local choir formed in 1955 - which sings a wide repertoire from Christian liturgy - should attract the attention of the Western Christian world more than the status of senior citizen facilities and orphanages run by the Catholic Church (workers are unable to reach these institutions due to the wall that runs between Abu-Dis and Azzariyeh). Yet the choir and these social welfare institutions can be seen as a microcosm of hundreds of other Palestinian groups and activities which are crippled by Israel's policies of closure and separation.

For all Palestinians, Ramallah, Jerusalem and Bethlehem are now three separated, closed-off entities, with a sea of Israeli obstacles and bans separating them. For Christian Palestinians, these three cities were once one unit connected by familial and economic ties, with religious rites and services provided by Christian communities. Once the towns were cut off from one another, these links were destroyed.

The blow to the choir is negligible compared to the devastation wrought to Palestinians' right to education by the separation of eastern Jerusalem from the West Bank; and the damage to the choir seems unimportant compared with the economic catastrophe wrought by the fences and walls and the massive land expropriation of assets owned by residents from the "Christian triangle" of Bethlehem, Beit Jala, and Beit Sahur.

And the choir's woes are, perhaps, insignificant compared with the sorrow of worshipers who are unable to travel from Bethlehem to Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, or from Ramallah and Jenin to Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity. But the damage done to the choir is another example of the mortal blow delivered by Israel's policies to the Palestinians' social fabric. By maintaining large settlements and building fences, these policies divide Palestinian lands into small enclaves.

There's no reason why the choir's misfortune should receive attention which isn't given to far more agonizing troubles experienced by people such as the members of the Christian Awad family from Beit Jala, which will lose its remaining lands so that a large IDF base can be built along the tunnel road; or members of the Muslim Zawahara family from Beit Sahur, which is confined by a grid of fences and security roads. Tens of thousands of Palestinian families experience a similar fate.

Most singers, but not all, of the Jerusalem Choir are Christian, and many members of Ramallah's Christian community turned up two weeks ago for the concert at the Latin Church, though many Muslims came as well. The mixed crowd - men and women mingled together - sat beneath drawings of scenes from the life of Jesus. Many in the audience are not religious, and some indeed are inveterate atheists.

"N," a pianist, surveyed the crowd with disappointment, noting that attendance from her own Christian social circle drops each concert. N's son, also a musician, completed his studies overseas, but is unsure about returning to this country: over the past four years, Israel has periodically banned Palestinians younger than 35 from leaving the territories.

Should the son return, he will not be able to fulfill outstanding musical obligations overseas. The departure ban enforced by Israel applies to all Palestinians, not just Christians, but in a relatively small community - 46,000 Christians live on the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip - the decision of one resident not to return to the country makes a real difference.

The Christian Palestinian community exerts a disproportionate influence in Palestinian society as a whole. Elements of pluralism and cultural openness are connected to the Christians' social traditions. As members of the middle class, the presence of these Palestinians is felt in institutions of higher learning and research, Palestinian Authority ministries, and business companies. The decline of this community has a huge negative impact upon Palestinian society as a whole.

The plight of the Jerusalem Choir, and similar institutions, poignantly attests to Israel's strength in the Christian West. The West has a sufficient number of diplomats and embassies in this country to be aware of the deep fracture which has been caused by Israel's policies in the Holy Land, in Palestinian society. But complaints lodged by some Christian delegates have had no impact. These protests are drowned out by the military assistance given to Israel by the U.S., by Israeli arms deals in France, and by Israel's cultural and commercial ties with Germany.