Ryvka Barnard

New York University | New York, New York, USA

The Political History of Bethlehem’s Manger Square

Bethlehem’s Manger Square and its accompanying Nativity Church is best known around the world for its significance in Christian mythology and as a site of tourism and pilgrimage. For its local Palestinian community, it also has been a site of traumatic colonial domination and military occupation, as well as inspiring histories of anti-colonial resistance. The latter legacy is often either actively concealed or over-powered by the tourist narrative centred on the site’s Christian value, resulting in the disappearance of stories relevant to a local heritage of resistance, more important than ever in struggles against on-going occupation. This paper attempts to retrieve the political history of Manger Square by exploring the history of colonial/anti-colonial encounters there, and observing some local efforts to preserve that history through alternative tours and narration.

The bulk of the paper is dedicated to reconstructing this political history, framed by questions about the relationship between the production of heritage narratives and communal experience. Using newspaper archives, historical photographs and videos, and other object of material culture relevant to the political history of Manger Square, I trace a genealogy of political uses of Manger Square/Nativity Church since 1967, demonstrating how the Square has been a site of both colonial exclusion and anti-colonial communal solidarity in formative historical moments. I especially focus on how tourism has been used at the Square by colonial actors (the Israeli military, Ministry of Tourism, tour guides, etc.), and how particularly during the first intifada, Palestinians have used creative approaches, including strategic disruptions of tourism to expose the façade of normalcy produced by Israeli colonial rule. These histories lend important insights into the contemporary uses of tourism and representation of/in touristic spaces. I conclude the paper with reflections on how the dominant narrative about the importance of Manger Square, including the UNESCO process, threatens to overwrite this subaltern resistance legacy, and how some local activists are resisting this process by developing alternative tours and interventions in tourist spaces to keep alive the political heritage of resistance in the Square.

This paper is relevant to several larger themes outlined by New Directions in Palestine Studies. I engage questions about the production and reproduction of political culture by looking at debates on how Palestinian heritage, culture, and identity should be represented in tourist spaces. Focusing on the production of touristic representations, rather than looking simply at the “finished product,” allows for a rich analysis of how culture and heritage are imagined by different stakeholders, as well as an important focus on the political economy of tourism and nation-branding. Furthermore, by analysing pre- and post-Oslo materials together, I bring significant historical context to an often presentist analysis of the contemporary tourism and heritage industry, including strategic disruptions of tourism as a crucial piece of the history of tourism, and itself an opening into examining the heritage of anti-colonial resistance. Finally, I bring this background to enrich the very current discussions about the role played by international bodies such as UNESCO in recognising/choosing, preserving, and promoting Palestinian heritage, and the questions on the extent to which the “universal” principles of UNESCO are a useful tool for Palestinian self-determination.

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