London (CNSNews.com) – To mark the holiday season, British pro-Palestinian activists have announced plans to hold an evening of “traditional carols with untraditional lyrics” to protest Israeli policies in Bethlehem.
The historic church of St. James’s in central London’s Piccadilly will host a number of Christmas carols concerts through late December.
In a twist, however, two Palestinian solidarity groups sponsoring one of the events, on Nov. 26, have rewritten the lyrics to make a political statement.
Palestinian Authority-controlled Bethlehem, traditionally regarded as the birthplace of Jesus, is bordered on three sides by a network of security walls and fences separating it from nearby Jerusalem.
Movement is heavily restricted by the Israeli government, and the P.A. says the local economy is badly affected by the loss of tourism.
Organizers of the Nov. 26 concert said the first verse of “Once In Royal David’s City” will be changed to reflect what they say is the day-to-day reality:
Once in royal David’s city
Stood a big apartheid wall;
People entering and leaving
Had to pass a checkpoint hall.
Bethlehem was strangulated,
And her children segregated.
Deborah Fink, an organizer with Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods, one of the two sponsors, said the holiday season provides a once-a-year opportunity to reach out to Christians and to those who celebrate Christmas.
She said the rewritten carols are not meant to be disrespectful but to communicate the seriousness of what was going on.
“They’re not making fun of Jesus or anything,” she said. “Basically all these carols are about Bethlehem, and we wanted people to know what is actually happening to Bethlehem.”
Fink, a professional singer, said a friend first rewrote a carol six years ago, then Fink rewrote one. She then joined a group of friends and activists who were singing on the streets of London.
St. James Church, designed by Christopher Wren and built in 1684, has a long tradition of holding lunch and evening concerts, many by classical musicians but some by noted pop artists such as REM.
Church rector Charles Headley said the church was happy to rent out the space for the concert, which Fink said will involve four professional singers.
He said the concert should not be regarded as a Christmas celebration, per se, but rather as a different take on what is happening in the Palestinian territories.
Geoffrey Smith, director of Christian Friends of Israel (UK), a Christian ministry that supports Israel both practically and morally, condemned the concert.
He called it “cynical” and “appalling” for anti-Israeli groups to use the Christmas season as an excuse “to bash Israel.”
“It’s distressing for Christians who love Israel,” he said. “It really drives a wedge between the Christian community and the Jewish community when every year there are attacks on Israel around this time.”
In late 2007, the Amos Trust, a British non-profit group, generated controversy by selling Nativity scenes that depicted a security barrier cutting off the traditional manger scene from the three wise men.
Made by carpenters from Bethlehem, the Nativity scenes are on sale again this year, with the funds raised going to help residents of the West Bank town.
Smith said the security barrier, though regrettable, was needed when both Jews and Arabs were being killed on buses by suicide bombers, some of whom came from Bethlehem.
“It wasn’t wanted by the [Israeli] left and it wasn’t wanted by the right,” he said. “It was necessary, though.”
Proceeds from the Nov. 26 concert will go to the other organizing group, Open Bethlehem, an international advocacy campaign, and to a group called Medical Aid for Palestinians.