December 2004

For centuries Christians around the world have accepted the Nativity story at face value – that Jesus was born in a stable in the little town of Bethlehem. But a growing number of Bible scholars and archaeologists are rocking the foundations of Christian faith by suggesting they have identified a different birthplace for Jesus. They claim to have amassed a considerable body of evidence for their theory but say Church leaders are in no mood to listen. The traditional account of the Nativity, contained in Matthew’s Gospel, is that Joseph and a pregnant Mary travelled 150km south from their home in Nazareth in the Galilee to the town of Bethlehem, close to Jerusalem, to participate in a census ordered by the Romans. It was there that Jesus was born.

Email from Bethlehem

20 December 2004

In the Holy Land’s “other” Bethlehem, there are no pilgrims looking for a room – not even at Yosef Yeger’s inn. “Christmas isn’t much of an event in Israel,” says the hotel owner. “This year Christmas falls on the Sabbath so maybe we will have a few extra bookings from couples wanting a romantic weekend.” As Christian pilgrims brave yet another conflict-blighted festive season in the Holy Land, venturing from Jerusalem to the neighbouring Palestinian town of Bethlehem to celebrate the nativity, few are likely to consider a detour 90 miles north to a village of a few dozen homes known in Hebrew as Bethlehem HaGalilit, or Bethlehem of the Galilee.

Remember the longest-running story of the 1990’s? It began at the turn of that decade with the revelation that European banks and financial institutions had been secretly profiting for more than half a century from bank accounts and assets deposited by European Jews who later died in Nazi concentration camps. The banks, it emerged, had avoided returning the money to surviving family members. Soon financial houses across Europe were being called to account. The story reached its climax at the end of the 1990’s with the Swiss banks agreeing to pay out the huge sum of $1.25 billion, after their initial foot dragging was exposed in a media campaign led by Holocaust reparation funds and the Israeli government.

Investigations by the Israeli parliament have dug up disturbing evidence that Israel has been profiting for decades from vast sums invested in local banks by European Jews who died in the Nazi death camps. And even now the banks are delaying returning the money to their heirs. But unlike a similar scandal that hit European banks in the mid-90s, almost no pressure is being brought to bear on the Israeli banks by the Israeli government or by Jewish reparation organisations representing Holocaust families, who were the main critics of the European banks. The Israeli government is believed to be keeping quiet because it is deeply involved in the local banking scandal itself, and the Jewish organisations are reported to be concerned that exposure of the story will damage Israel’s international reputation.