THE story goes something like this.

In the febrile atmosphere of the military occupation of Palestine, getting about was ­difficult and it was often hard to find the way. Navigation by satnav was ­impossible, and there was no ­electricity or fuel for luxuries like phone torches.

The streets were barely passable and there were spies and soldiers everywhere. Most of the population were being forced to move around from zone to zone as part of the measures of ­control imposed by King Herod.

A small group of travellers, a bunch of intellectuals it seems, were making a journey of solidarity to be with a stateless family, a foster dad, a new mum and their newborn child who had been displaced from the north to the town where she’d ended up ­having the baby.

They knew enough about ­knowledge to know that it was ­complicated but nonetheless they ­decided their best bet for directions was in the fleshpots of power. It’s an easy mistake.

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Universities, libraries, archives, cultural centres tend to be ­concentrated in cities and near the buildings of ­governors and kings.

When they started asking questions about the wee baby they were ­looking for, the full weight of suspicion, ­censorship and propaganda came upon them and they realised that not everything the empire told them could be trusted and their normally careful ethical guidelines had failed them, and exposed vulnerable people to potential threat.

They picked their way across bombed-out streets and buildings. They made their visit. Then went home giving the palace and the king a wide berth. For the king’s wrath was aroused. He could brook no stateless family, no baby, no hotel for a minor and their fragile parents, he couldn’t bear that they were boat people up there on Lake Galilee.

The more he thought of them the greater his rage. They must be destroyed and to be on the safe side, so must all the babies in the town.

He didn’t go to war, he went to ­massacre. Rachel’s children, all the children, they were slaughtered. He went in with bombs from the sky, with dumb bombs from drones, with shells from the sea and with ­missiles from the streets.

His soldiers went from house to house, they shot ­pregnant women in the street and mowed them down with tanks, they threw pregnant women from the fifth storey, they wiped out whole families just to be sure, just to be sure, just to be sure.

Nine thousand children dead.

Their bodies in mass graves, their heads and limbs blown to pieces, body after grey body, covered in dust and debris, cold.


So very tiny.


Killed by Israel’s soldiers.


“A voice is heard in Ramah, a voice of bitter crying and weeping, Rachel is weeping for her children, she cries and will not be comforted.”

This verse, from Matthew’s Gospel, comes through from the Old and New Testament of the Christian Bible. The text lingers. It lingers over every birth. It lingers as a sign of the ever-present fear of statelessness, of losing the land to a state power in unimaginable brutality.

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Rachel is the woman who ­prefigures Mary, she dies giving birth and is ­buried by a roadside. Mary gives birth to Jesus in Palestine – a refugee, ­under rubble, bleeding out, under occupation and illegal forced displacement, spat upon, a target of zealotry and hypocrisy Then stripped, tortured, and executed with no grave.

December 28 is traditionally the day when the church celebrates those killed by King Herod in what is known as The Slaughter of the ­Innocents.

The Christmas Story is no tinsel town. It is messy, humiliated, ­hungry, cold. It is a collective birth-death ­trauma for stateless people, under brutal occupation, with no escape.

It is Gaza.

Alison Phipps is Unesco chair for refugee integration through languages and arts at the University of Glasgow