I agree with Rabbi Hirschfield in his post today in the Jewish Journal in which he condemns the group Lobby for Jewish Values for their public fliering against the celebration of Christmas and “foolish” Christian symbols. I agree with him on principle in his outright condemnation of religious intolerance. I applaud his “footnotes” (Biblical references to religious tolerance, really) but I believe his response glosses over the complicated currents running through the incident.
The fliering will no doubtedly raise heated criticism and unrest amongst the Christian Zionists this side of the Pacific. It will likely be met with a sense of indignation and Jewish supremacy by the entrenched Jewish right-wing. And, though I cannot predict the future, most Israelis will continue to respond with apathy and ambivalence. The issue of Christianity, particularly American Evangelism, is, at best, a secondary issue in the Israeli sphere, but its implications run deep here in the Diaspora – both politically and symbolically. This is, unlike most issues in Israel, not a threat of demographics, but of growing fears against multiculturalism, played out via multinational support by evangelicals. Incidents such as this threaten the shaky alliance between the Jewish and Christian right-wings.
Hirschfield’s main argument is that it is immoral for those who have been oppressed (Jews) to become the oppressors (of Christians). The words are charged, even if they are being used in a context separate from Israeli occupation politics. Is this oppression or is it digging deeper the trenches of a Jewish Jerusalem? How big a threat is a Christmas tree in a Jewish state? If it isn’t oppression, it is at least hypocrisy. The ADL and other Jewish-interest groups have for years lobbied for the inclusion of Chanukah as a means of breaking the American religious hegemony. In that context, it would seem intolerant to lobby for the exclusion of Christmas in Israel.
When I was studying abroad at Hebrew University, my Christian classmates were appalled that class was held on December 25th. They understood when classes were held on Sundays, and that was a disservice they could live with. But to hold class on one of their holiest days was unfair, at least in the same way that we feel about class on Yom Kippur. I’m not advocating granting a national holiday for Christmas, but to vastly marginalize a holiday celebrated by some 2 billion people is wrong.
Hirschfield does not go far enough to elucidate the opinions of Lobby for Jewish Values; the article might as well be titled “Bid to ban Christianity in Jerusalem is wrong.” It seems that such a pointed attack on the Christian population (calling their symbolism foolish, for example) is a response to Christian influence in relation to American political policies related to Israel. The anger embedded in the message is misplaced; a Christmas tree does not threaten the Jewish capital any more than outward displays of the Muslim faith. Ultimately, Israel’s anti-missionary efforts are biased in their anti-Christian leanings and infringe on Christian freedom of religion. A precept of Evangelical Christianity is missionary, the core component being to spread the word of Jesus to us non-Jesus types. If they are denied the right to evangelize, then they are being denied freedom of religion.
Some might take this argument to the extreme, saying sardonically that if a religion wants to commit human sacrifice but cannot, then they too are being persecuted. In doing this, we lose sight of what it means to adhere to faith, and fail to recognize our own proselytizing. For one thing, organizations such as Aish Ha’Torah, Chabad or even Jeff Seidel’s Jewish Student Information Centers in Israel are actively pursuing secular Jewish converts to Orthodox Judaism. These organizations rid themselves of guilt convinced that they are doing a service to the Jewish world in create Ba’alei Teshuva (returners to faith). There is no doubt that they provide a number of important, sometimes critical services and outreach to the Jewish community, but it is still done using many of the same tactics developed by Evangelical organizations. BeliefNet.com notes, from an article in Moment Magazine, that “Jewish proselytizing was so successful, it’s estimated that by the first century C.E. fully 10 percent of the Roman Empire was Jewish, close to 8 million people.” Judaism does have a history of conquering nations and converting them, either forcefully or through cultural assimilation. We deny this practice now, after thousand of years of persecution and laws against practicing or converting to Judaism.
Efforts to exclude Christians in Israel are not only seen on the organizational ground level as done by the Lobby for Jewish Values but also at the state level in the efforts of Shas, Porush and other Jewish exclusionists to limit visibility and create legal implications for any Christianizing of the holy city. The International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem throws an annual Feast of the Tabernacles parade that has liminal exposure considering the performative vibrancy of its participants. Clearly there are other fears at play here, and to approach them timidly or to circumvent them is dangerous. Namely, the influence of Christian Zionism (substitute here Messianic Judaism or the International Christian Embassy of Jerusalem or any number of related Christian efforts) which, through foggy theology, support the State of Israel in financial and political means. These Christian Zionists lay claim to Lord Alfred Belfour (of Declaration fame) who was both a Christian and a Zionist, but not necessarily a Christian Zionist, whom I define as a Christian who believes that redemption is specifically tied to a return of all Jews to the Holy Land. Regardless, Christian Zionists have attempted to draw their own lineage and history into the very founding of the State and their involvement in the State is sizable.
The “pro-Israel” mindset of Pat Robertson or Jerry Falwell has grown rapidly in America, where Christian guilt has led to a theology based around redemption and resurrection. The State of Israel is the axis of their apocalypse and its success is tied to the coming of their Messiah. This Messianism is similar in many ways to the outposts of Gush Emunim and the Kookist/Religious Zionists of Israel. These shared views of a Greater Israel, an Israel where all Jews must gather to bring the Messiah, can only extend so far. It is only a matter of time until Christian Zionists realize that we will take their vocal support in Washington, on their television stations and in their Megachurches. We will welcome their money and their support organizations bringing mobile bomb shelters to the South or assistance to marginalized ethnic communities. But, at the end of the day, we will not take Jesus as our collective Lord and Savior.
There is no doubt that these issues are complex and intersect issues at many places in Israeli religious and secular society. Incidents such as this one in Jerusalem complicate the advocacy and experience of Jews in the Diaspora and our relations to our Christian neighbors. I’m not in favor of missionary work. I grew up in Orange County, California where being a Jew meant being encompassed in prayer circles and kind invitations to uncomfortable informal Christian gatherings. But it’s religiously intolerant to push outright condemnations of missionary work – this is how these people practice their faith.
For me, in my time studying abroad, I had a unique chance to practice my own Christmas tradition. Determined to accomplish the impossible, a friend and I sought out an authentic Chinese food restaurant somewhere in Jerusalem. We searched for hours for something, and before giving up, discovered Mandarin off of Shlomtzion HaMalka. Perched up three flights of stairs and heralded by an inconspicuous white door at the top, the restaurant had one of the best hot & sour soups I’ve ever had. If the Lobby for Jewish Values wants to truly try and eradicate American Christmas from Jerusalem, perhaps they should start at Mandarin by asking them to close for the holiday as to avoid Jews practicing any Christmas traditions.