History of Bethlehem Diaspora
Emigration from Bethlehem started at the end of the 19th century, as in much of Palestine, due to economic hardship, with many Palestinians seeing a move abroad as an opportunity to raise their standards of living. The majority of Bethlehem’s population were agricultural peasants, with the remaining quarter of the population working in traditional religious handicrafts.
Bethlehemites initially travelled abroad to sell their products, returning back to the town to invest, building houses and re-investing their profits in the local economy until World War 1. However oppressive Ottoman policies and economic hardship persuaded many to emigrate permanently, and emigration continued steadily until the end of World War 1 and the beginning of the British Mandate in Palestine. Subsequently the British issued the citizenship law, whereby many Bethlehemites who had immigrated to South American countries were blocked and forbidden to return, as part of the British policy to restrict the return of the Arab Palestinian population. This policy was implemented while simultaneously allowing mass Jewish immigration to Palestine.
The depopulation of Bethlehem continued during the British mandate, despite pressure from town leaders to allow Bethlehemites who had emigrated to return. These calls were not heeded by the British administration, and the Mandate’s policies from 1936 to 1948 encouraged more Bethlehemites to emigrate to join relatives in the South American states and elsewhere.
After 1967, emigration continued, especially amongst the younger generations, who were looking for a better life and to raise their standards of living. It is estimated that in Chile alone, around half a million émigrés from Bethlehem, Beit Jala, Beit Sahour now reside there.
Bethlehem municipality is one of the most active institutions that reinforces and endorses the Palestinian and Bethlehemite cultural identity. This is reflected through sponsored projects such as the rehabilitation of historic buildings and the organization of festivals throughout the year.
The municipality has a clear vision to reconnect the local community with the Palestinians of the diaspora and encourage those who have emigrated to have a role in the development of their homeland.