By Shalom Goldman, Duke University
American Jews have long struggled with the Christmas Season. It may not be our holiday, many Jews have felt, but it is after all a great American holiday. How then are we to relate to it?
For more traditional Jews, the national Christmas celebration generates anxiety about their place in the American religious landscape. In the second half of the 20th century, as Jews became more assimilated to American society, that anxiety was reduced in two ways: by turning Hanukkah in a Christmas-like holiday, and by viewing Christmas as more of a secular holiday than a religious one.
And for that secular holiday many American Jews have created their own rituals—most famously going out for Chinese food and a movie.
In that same period Christians have accommodated themselves to the fact that not all Americans celebrate Jesus’ birthday. In cities with large Jewish populations friends and co-workers have learned to greet Jews and other non-Christians with “Happy Holidays” rather than with “Merry Christmas.”
In Philip Roth’s great novel about Jewish-Christian differences, The Counterlife, the protagonist, who is married to a Christian woman, records his reactions to sitting in church on Christmas Eve: “I am never more of a Jew that I am in a church when the organ begins…I have the emotions of a spy in the adversary’s camp and I feel I’m overseeing the very rites that embody the ideology that’s been responsible for the persecution and mistreatment of Jews.”
Roth’s novel, published in 1985, caught brilliantly the tone of an earlier generation of American Jews. But one of the signs that American Judaism is changing as quickly as the rest of the country’s religions is that Christianity is no longer perceived by Jews as a threat. And for that reason the sense that Christmas (and to some extent Christianity itself) is inimical to Jews and Judaism is diminishing. And it is in Israel, as much as in the United States, that the signs of this accommodation with Christmas are most striking.
Of course, Jewish accommodation with Christmas and its rituals is not new. Nearly one hundred twenty years ago the founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl made this note in his diary:
December 24, 1895—“I was just lighting the Christmas tree for my children when [head Vienna rabbi Moritz] Gudemann arrived. He seemed upset by the ‘Christian’ custom. Well, I will not let myself be pressured! But I don’t mind if they call it the Hanukkah tree—or the winter solstice bush.”
Thus the “Hanukkah Bush” is not an American Jewish innovation, but one that was already familiar to the founder of Zionism. But despite Herzl’s Hanukkah tree, he and his less-assimilated followers could not have foreseen the possibility that the citizens of the future Jewish State would embrace Christmas.
Over the past few years astute Israel-watchers have noted a trend toward Christmas celebration among secular Jewish Israelis. (January 1st New Year’s celebrations, known locally as “Sylvester,” after the saint’s name, have long been popular in Israel.) Israel’s Arab Christian citizens, some 2 percent of the population, have of course always marked Christmas. But their marginal position in a culture dominated by the Jewish majority and large Muslim minority (some 18 percent of the population) has meant that Christmas celebrations and symbols have never dominated the late December urban landscape of Israeli cities. But this year, more Israeli Jews than ever before have embraced Christmas—and Israeli children are embracing Santa Claus at the swankiest urban malls.
For many years I found that going to Israel during the Christmas season was a break from the crass commercialism of American holiday celebrations. This Christmas I found this no longer to be true. Christmas decorations and trees decorate malls in Haifa and Nazareth, and Israeli children I spoke to at malls said they expected “real” presents this time of year—not the chocolate money and little toys they received on Hanukkah.
As Haaretz reported on the day after Christmas 2013:
There may not be many Christians in Israel, but Jewish Israelis are adopting the holiday in order to shop… items include chocolate in Santa Claus wrapping, Christmas trees and decorations. …In previous years, the increase in Christmas-related purchases had been observed mostly in areas with sizeable Christian populations. This year, however, it’s at all the stores, even in Tel Aviv. “It’s turned into a legitimate holiday and a reason for celebration,” said store manager Cohen. BIG Shopping Centers, which include Big Fashion in the Muslim and Christian Arab town of Nazareth, reported a peak of 120,000 shoppers last Saturday. Most of them were Jews, said the mall chain. “We decorated the shopping center and had a man dressed up as Santa Claus wandering around and handing out gifts to the Israelis. We’re seeing lots of Jews who come to visit and along the way buy Santa caps and other Christmas paraphernalia,” said Chai Galis, VP of BIG Shopping Centers.
Perhaps this shopping trend can be explained by globalization and the “Americanization” of Israeli culture. But the decision by Prime Minister Netanyahu to send a Christmas greeting from Jerusalem to “Israel’s Christian friends” worldwide is a change driven more by the intersection of politics and religion than by the market. Here I’m not speaking of the annual greeting sent by Israel’s president and prime minister to the country’s Christian citizens, but to a new Netanyahu “tradition” of addressing the Christian world at-large.
As the Jerusalem Post reported on the day before Christmas, which was preceded this year by a rare heavy snowfall in Jerusalem:
“This is Jerusalem of gold, now it’s Jerusalem of snow,” Netanyahu said as snowflakes floated all around him.
“We celebrate Christmas with you. We know the importance you attach to our common heritage, to the State of Israel, and to the city of Jerusalem where so much of our common history was forged,” he continued.
“We have a great past, we have common values, we have the desire to seize a common future of security, prosperity and peace,” the prime minister said. (“Netanyahu sends Christmas greeting “ Jerusalem Post, December 24th)
But Christmas was also in Israeli headlines this season for reasons other than the Jewish-Christian relationship. Jewish-Muslim relations, already strained to the limit, were also effected. This year Palestinian Authority President Abbas published his own Christmas message in which he called Jesus “a Palestinian messenger who would become a guiding light for millions around the world.”
Jesus a Palestinian? An Israeli government reaction was not long to follow. According to the Times of Israel: “Israeli officials reacted with bitter scorn to a Christmas message from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in which he called Jesus a Palestinian and suggested Israel was to blame for the exodus of Christians from the Holy Land. ‘He should have read the Gospel before uttering such offensive nonsense, but we will forgive him because he doesn’t know what he’s doing,’ Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel on Monday.” (Times of Israel, December 24)
For historians of the interactions between the monotheistic faiths, this was a remarkable moment: a Jewish government spokesman was arguing with a Muslim political official about the “nationality” of Jesus.
And just when it seemed that things couldn’t get stranger, Yuli Edelstein, the Speaker of the Knesset (parliament), announced that the government would not allow a Christmas tree to be placed at the entrance to the parliament building. The request to do so came from an Arab Christian member of parliament who felt that as citizens of Israel his constituents should have their religious symbols displayed in the same manner as Jewish symbols are displayed.
Edelstein told Israel Radio that “such a public display of a Christian symbol could be construed as offensive. Jews have suffered from centuries of persecution by Christians.”
In the light of Netanyahu’s embrace of Israel’s “Christian friends” and the increasing acceptance of Christmas by Israelis, Edelstein’s decision seemed out of sync with the changing times.
When I mentioned this dissonance to my Israeli colleagues, they reminded me that Speaker Edelstein is himself an example of the complexity of interfaith relations in the Holy Land. Edelstein’s father, who did not join his son in Israel, is a Russia Orthodox priest, prominent human rights activist, and vocal opponent of Vladimir Putin.
Netanyahu has been known to admire some of Putin’s macho energy and style. And he is not above changing some of the decisions of government officials. This year, though, the Prime Minister did not overrule the Knesset Speaker’s Christmas tree ban. But as Netanyahu is on record as describing Evangelical Christian Zionists as “Israel’s best friends,” next Christmas in Jerusalem may not be white, but it may see the parliament building graced with a “Hanukkah Bush.”
Shalom Goldman, Religion Department, Duke University