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RISHON LEZION, Israel — In the United States, the so-called “War on Christmas” is commonly known as a political movement by the Religious Right.
Well, the Jewish state is seeing the flip side of the religious coin — to keep Christmas “out”:
The “Lobby for Jewish values” this week began operating against restaurants and hotels that plan to put up Christmas trees and other Christian symbols ahead of Christmas and the civil New Year.
According to the lobby’s Chairman, Ofer Cohen, they have received backing by the rabbis, “and we are even considering publishing the names of the businesses that put up Christian symbols ahead of the Christian holiday and call for a boycott against them.”
Fliers and ads distributed among the public read, “The people of Israel have given their soul over the years in order to maintain the values of the Torah of Israel and the Jewish identity.
“You should also continue to follow this path of the Jewish people’s tradition and not give in to the clownish atmosphere of the end of the civil year. And certainly not help those businesses that sell or put up the foolish symbols of Christianity.”
The Jerusalem Rabbinate also works each year to ensure restaurants and hotels receiving kosher certification from the Jerusalem Religious Council do not put up Christian symbols.
According to a senior official in the kashrut department, this is done each year consensually, but that businesses which do not meet this requirement may find their kashrut certificate revoked.
I was on my way to a New Year’s Eve party in a local pub last year when I stopped in a kiosk. To my surprise, the convenience store was decked out in decorations that would normally be seen at Christmas in the United States. And then I remembered that the owners of the kiosk were Christians who had emigrated from the Soviet Union under Israel’s Law of Return, which allows anyone who has at least one Jewish grandparent to become an automatic, Israeli citizen even it that person is not Jewish himself. Since I had always been friendly with them when I lived in Rishon Lezion, I posed for a picture.
The Israeli city of Rishon Lezion is nicknamed “Russian Lezion” for a reason — sometimes you are more likely to hear Russian than Hebrew in the city center. As a result, there are more than a few shops with Christmas items.
That night, I went to the pub for the New Year’s Eve party, and Christmas was a theme, if understated enough in a way that the secular Israelis there might not have known the connotations that a native American would have seen.
The bar was decorated with red balloons and other items of a similar color. More than a few bartenders and guests wore Santa hats and similar items. After everyone fired flares at midnight, a regular patron dressed as Santa Claus sat on a chair behind the bar and threw gifts into the crowd (see the picture at the top of the post). I did not want to drag the party down, but I had wanted to ask my friends there if they knew that the color red in Christmas decorations, at least according to what I had heard, symbolizes the blood of Jesus, especially on candy canes.
Although there were a few grumblers in the bar who insisted that everyone should be honoring “Sylvester” with its negative connotations rather than the secular New Year, nearly everyone just wanted to have fun. American Jews grow up in an environment in which they feel alienated during Christmas (how far can one go in participating in holiday activities without appearing to endorse the theological theme?), but those born and raised in Israel never had to deal with the complicated feelings that arise since they grew up in a Jewish state. The clothes and decorations are merely yet another excuse for secular Israelis to throw a party, and they are sufficiently Westernized through television and films to be familiar with the standard holidays and associated themes.
And party they did. The bar was not kosher, so it was in no danger of losing a kashrut (kosher) certificate — especially since Rishon Lezion is relatively far from Jerusalem. But I left with lingering questions. The secular, Westernized celebration of the holiday season — and the rabbinical efforts to clamp down on the phenomenon — is yet another example of one of the central paradoxes facing Israel.
The Jewish state wants to be two things: a Jewish state and a free, democratic state. But what is the solution when these competing priorities conflict? If all Israelis start celebrating Christmas (either as Christians or as secularized revelers), then it will arguably no longer be a Jewish state. If the government bans everyone from having anything to do with the holiday, then it will no longer be a free state.