What was Bethlehem Unwrapped? What happened? What remains?

 An amazing festival, with an astonishingly powerful installation at its centre, high profile names in a superb programme of events placing the Palestinian cause firmly in the mainstream, live audiences of 30,000, reaching more than 8 million people worldwide, dynamic new partnerships forged and many future opportunities …

 Below follows a summary of the festival’s achievements. As festival director, and programme curator, I would like to thank all those whose hard work, vision, trust and generosity have made Bethlehem Unwrapped such a success: the Rev Lucy Winkett and the whole community of St James’s Church, Piccadilly; our nine partner organisations – Amos Trust, Holy Land Trust, Interpal, ICAHD (UK), Jews for Justice for Palestinians, P21 Gallery, Tipping Point North South, War on Want and Zaytoun CIC – and our 54 individual donors. Thank you all.

 Justin Butcher, Creative Director, Bethlehem Unwrapped


1. The Bethlehem Unwrapped festival and the Wall installation have sent a powerful and high profile message of hope and solidarity to the people of Bethlehem and wider Palestine, from a prominent and prestigious church in the heart of London at Christmas time. In the dynamic collaboration of Palestinian, Israeli, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and secular organisations and artists and contributors who came together to create the festival, we offered up a vision of cultural diversity and cooperation in the cause of a just peace.

2. We welcomed approximately 2,000 visitors per day throughout the 2 weeks of the festival (Dec 23rd-Jan 5th), who were engaged vividly with the physical reality of the Wall in Bethlehem, informed about its devastating impact on Palestinian lives and encouraged to write or draw their own messages and prayers of hope, peace and solidarity on the Wall itself.  In response to the installation, and the film sequence projected on to it, and the exhibition of children’s art from Bethlehem inside St James’s Church (‘All They Draw Is The Wall’), many testified to an extraordinarily powerful and moving experience of the real Bethlehem at Christmas.

3. We mounted a festival of diverse, high profile cultural events – poetry, comedy, film, cuisine, music and dance – celebrating the life and spirit and rich traditions of the people of Bethlehem. Artists and contributors ranged from the amazing performance poets Rafeef Ziadah, Dizraeli and Harry Baker to comedians Jeremy Hardy and Mark Steele, Palestinian film-makers Leila and Larissa Sansour, the world renowned Israeli and Palestinian chefs  Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, Palestinian dabke dancers Al-Zaytouna and the fabulous musical line-up of our closing night concert, featuring singers from The Tallis Scholars, Clara Sanabras & Harvey Brough and the unforgettable genius of Nigel Kennedy. Every performance was packed to capacity (nearly 2,000 tickets sold) and the audiences cheered and stamped and raised the roof. The extraordinary concentration of talent in our festival programme was remarkable not only for its diversity and quality and enjoyment, but also for its kudos and prestige – mainstream names boldly endorsing the cause of the Palestinian people – and thus bringing a new level of ‘cultural legitimacy’ to the struggle for Palestinian rights.

4. The PR impact was significant. The Wall and the festival were written up in 71 publications in print and online across the world, including The Guardian, The Independent, The Metro, The Times, Evening Standard, New Statesman and The Spectator, with 46 positive stories and 25 negative, and Critics’ Choice listings in The Metro and The Times. Television coverage included Al-Jazeera, Al Alam TV, BBC Arabic Service, BBC Worldwide News, France 2 News, Islam Channel and Press TV, and on radio, BBC Radio 4’s Sunday Programme with Edward Stourton, BBC London’s Inspirit (two interviews), BBC 5 Live’s Richard Bacon Show, BBC Radio 2’s Arts Show and BBC Radio London’s Gaby Roslin Show.

Our Youtube film of our opening ceremony (http://www.youtube.com/?gl=GB&tab=w1) has now had more than 62,000 views.

On Social Media, the festival reached more than 8 million people worldwide through Twitter, with support from significant Tweeters such as Stephen Fry, Naomi Klein, Vicky Beeching and Anonymous, as well as our artists and supporting charity partners. On Facebook, the total number of unique users who saw Bethlehem Unwrapped posts was 82,800 (total impressions 177,800). The top post, seen by 8,068 people, was from our launch night, inviting the public to visit the Wall, and was shared 95 times. Our closing night concert photo album had 9,812 interactions (clicks anywhere within the post), with 731 unique users. Each official Facebook post from Bethlehem Unwrapped received on average 1,200 views. Requests for ‘Facebook friendships’ are still appearing daily, suggesting the festival is perceived as more than a one-off event.

Inevitably, there has been some negative commentary, some of it astonishingly vitriolic, from a vocal minority, but this has been outweighed by the overwhelming messages of support.

Such criticism as there has been is strongly challenged by the church and Festival organisers. This is because of the care that was taken in stating unequivocal support on all the Festival literature and display boards for the State of Israel to have secure, internationally recognised borders.  This was stated many times. Bethlehem Unwrapped also included a public debate entitled “Separation or Security: Both sides of the Barrier”.  Within the context of strong support for the people of the city of Bethlehem, every care was taken not to stoke old animosities but to campaign openly and honestly for equal rights for all: Palestinians alongside Israelis.  The wilful mistinterpretation of this Festival and other human rights campaigns only serves to toxify the debate and is a naked attempt to silence support for Palestinians.


5. Bethlehem Unwrapped represented an astonishingly successful collaboration of organisations and individuals working together, united in a passionately held common cause (and a very tight budget!) to mount an extraordinary event. The endeavour has built a new coalition of partners and forged ongoing working friendships between my creative team and St James’s Church, the Amos Trust, the Holy Land Trust, Interpal, ICAHD, Jews for Justice for Palestinians, the P21 Gallery, Tipping Point North South, War on Want and Zaytoun CIC. By their own testimony, the festival has galvanised and inspired the community of St James’s Church, with more than 50 volunteers and 25 staff involved in stewarding and staffing the installation and the events, many of whom have direct experience of visiting and working in Israel/Palestine. As a festival, Bethlehem Unwrapped has been asked to have an involvement at the Bet Lahem Live Festival in Bethlehem, June 2014, and at the Greenbelt Festival, Northants, August 2014, and we are being invited to build Wall installations all over the UK, Europe and the USA! We’ve discussed with some of our key artists an embryonic vision to create a series of ‘Bethlehem Bridge’ festivals in different cities across the world.

We have rightly expressed gratitude to St James’s Church, our partner organisations and donors, but I would like to close with thanks and greetings to our friends in Bethlehem – Sami and Zhougbi and Nidal and Eyad and Marwan and countless others – peacemakers and bridge-builders who strive every day in the shadow of the Wall to keep hope alive, to resist injustice with non-violence and with the ‘beautiful resistance’ of cultural celebration, to endure and thrive and to shine the light of their faith and courage across the divide. Support them: go to Bethlehem if you can and see for yourself, or support them by your friendship, your action and your prayer. This will be the best legacy of Bethlehem Unwrapped.

Justin Butcher, Creative Director, Bethlehem Unwrapped