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  • Writer's pictureDub

The Geography of Christmas

I'm a history and geography buff. My wife Pam, not so much. Geography in particular has never been been her strongest subject. You may wonder, why is geography important anyway? If I want to know about a place, aren't there maps online and GPS I can use? Well, yes. But sometimes it is helpful to know where things are and when certain events happened in those places that shape our world and our lives today without having to consult the AI on our phones. Please allow me to explain using a few examples.

The Christmas Stable

A couple of years ago I posted this picture of me in Koya Sanjaq, Iraq near the border with Iran. If you're following me on social media you may have seen it again recently. A young friend of mine told me the picture looked fake; like it was done in front of a green screen. That says a lot about how technology and media propaganda has affected our perception of truth and reality. I assured him it was not fake. He still seemed skeptical.

inn and stable
Dub In Iraq

The first settlement in Koya dates back to at least the 2nd century BC. This location is a partially excavated inn with a stable built by Jews in the typical fashion of the period. Jewish people arrived here following the Babylonian and Assyrian captivity around 500-600 BC. Some found work, lives, and homes and remained in this area after the 70 year return to Israel. The ruins of this inn remains attached to the city's functioning bazaar (think ancient shopping mall) in the former Jewish Quarter where Jewish people lived and worked. They were all forced out in the 1950's and repatriated to the newly formed state of Israel.

In this picture you can see a stone watering trough by my left hand. The stable for the animals of the innkeeper and guests is on the first level behind my left elbow. Inside were stalls and a manger for the animal's feed. The rooms for guests of the inn are on the second floor. This inn is likely similar to the inn where Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem as she gave birth to Jesus in the stable and laid Him in the manger.

This picture is probably not what we Westerners have in our heads or in our nativity scenes. And no, this is not in Israel or Bethlehem. It is in Kurdistan, Iraq where Iran frequently rains down missles to attack those it hates across the border. And yet, this picture is not all that dissimilar to the images we see in Israel and Gaza today.

"From The River To The Sea"

You've no doubt heard this chant and seen this phrase on the signs of protestors in support of Palestine since the Hamas attack on Israeli Jews and the military response of the Israeli government. But do you know what it means? What river? What sea?

Political Science Professor Ron Hassner of the University of California at Berkeley was curious whether college students and others calling for Palestine to be "free" "from the river to the sea" understood what that slogan entails, so he recently conducted a survey to find out.

Hassner writes in the NY Times, "When college students who sympathize with Palestinians chant "From the river to the sea," do they know what they're talking about? I hired a survey firm to poll 250 students from a variety of backgrounds across the U.S. Most said they supported the chant, some enthusiastically so (32.8%) and others to a lesser extent (53.2%). But only 47% of the students who embrace the slogan were able to name the river and the sea. Some of the alternative answers were the Nile and the Euphrates, the Caribbean, the Dead Sea (which is a lake) and the Atlantic. . . .

Would learning basic political facts about the conflict moderate students' opinions? A Latino engineering student from a southern university reported "definitely" supporting "from the river to the sea" because "Palestinians and Israelis should live in two separate countries, side by side." Shown on a map of the region that a Palestinian state would stretch from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, leaving no room for Israel, he downgraded his enthusiasm for the mantra to "probably not." Of the 80 students who saw the map, 75% similarly changed their view."

Hassner also reports that a majority of those surveyed who initially voiced support for a single Palestinian state moderated their views "when they learned it would entail the subjugation, expulsion or annihilation of seven million Jewish and two million Arab Israelis."

Does Christmas Geography Matter?

It appears that it does. Especially when you factor in the history of the region. When I hear people speak of Israelis as "white, European colonizers" that stole this land from the Palestinians in 1948, I am amazed at the lack of knowledge expressed in that view. Right now the world is preparing to recognize a universal holiday either as Christmas or a non-religious substitute. Christians and other informed people recognize and celebrate the birth of a Jew in Bethlehem more than 2000 years ago. Bethlehem today is in the West Bank of Israel, currently under the oversight of the Palestinian Authority. But wait. There were no Jews in that land before 1948, right? Didn't they take it from the Palestinians?

No. In fact until just prior to World War I there was no such thing as a Palestinian. That term was created under British mandate after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. The designation "Palestinian" was first used 1898 to refer to all people residing in the historic territory of Israel, regardless of religion or ethnicity, and those granted citizenship by the British Mandatory authorities were granted "Palestinian citizenship". (Wikipedia) The idea that the land was stolen from Palestinians by Jews in 1948 and that they are occupiers is in opposition to the evidence of history and geography.

Jews have been in Israel for over 4000 years. Muslim caliphates drove Jews and Christians out of Israel beginning in 1244 AD and declared that Allah was done with them. For the Jews to return in 1948 and reestablish a Jewish/Zionist state in their own land remains an affront to Islam. As a result, according to Iran, its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah, and Islamists everywhere, all Jews must be eliminated and purged to prove the supremacy of Allah.

That's what "From the River to the Sea" actually means. As Hassner found, something as simple as showing students maps of the Middle East significantly informs and affects their understanding of the current Israel-Hamas conflict. Perhaps instead of fostering antisemitism with calls for the genocide of all Jews in Israel, colleges and universities could instead do what they are supposed to do; educate people in geography.

Christmas Today

Understanding the Christmas geography context, the announcement of the angels to the shepherds that first Christmas brings perhaps more hope and longing today than it did at the time.

"Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest,And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” Luke 2:8-14

As we enter into this Christmas season in the midst of a terrible and sad conflict that is destroying multitudes of people and families, I hope you will join me in praying for an end to this war and all wars. May Jesus, the Prince of Peace, the Light of the World, shine brightly. And may we do our part to show the love, grace, mercy, understanding, and kindness of God to everyone, no matter what our geography.

Merry Christmas y'all.

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