Moshe Dann: Who Comes from Bethlehem?

Roundup: Historians' Take

[The author, a former assistant professor of history at CUNY, is a writer and journalist living in Jerusalem.]

For those who grew up outside of Israel the answer brings back familiar Christmas carols, shopping day count-downs, Santas and reindeer. On Christmas Eve, thousands of Christians flock to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to celebrate. Built in the early Byzantine period (the fourth century CE) by Queen Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine ("The Great"), this church commemorates the birth of Jesus. Jewish history, however, offers another perspective.

When the Patriarch Jacob, his wives and family returned to Eretz Yisrael, heading back to Hebron, his ancestral home, a tragedy occurred. Near a place called Efrat, which was called Beth-lehem ("House of Bread"), Rachel died in childbirth; her baby, Benjamin, lived. "And Jacob buried his beloved wife on the way, and placed a monument on her grave." (Gen. 35:16-20)

Revered as a holy site by Jews for millennia, and recently by some Muslims, a cenotaph was built over the grave; similar to tombs at Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, and Joseph's Tomb in Nablus. In the mid-19th century Moses Montifore built a small domed building around the grave. After 1948, when Jews were prohibited from visiting the site, local Arabs built a cemetery, homes and shops around it; since 1967, they have expanded building throughout the area....

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