Politics of Christmas Trees in Israel

“For the customs of the peoples are vanity; for it is but a tree which one cutteth out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman with the axe.” Jeremiah 10:3 (The Israel Bible™)

A shopping mall in Ashdod created a political uproar when it placed a Christmas tree as a holiday ornament

Last week, Big Fashion, an Israeli shopping mall chain, put a tree in its Ashdod mall as a decoration for Christmas. The display became the focus of outrage for some people in the community and in an attempt to appease them, the management placed a Hanukkah menorah in the mall on Monday. Avi Amsalem, the current mayor of the city, protested the display on his Facebook page. Amsalem is a member of Shas, the ultra-Orthodox religious political party that primarily represents the interests of Haredi Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews.

“For five years, the Big mall has gone without symbols that incite sedition and divisiveness. This is no longer a matter of Orthodox and secular, between the Sabbath and weekday. This is intended to hurt anyone who defines himself Jewish: traditional – secular – religious – Orthodox, anyone who is a Jew!

Dear Management, throughout the generations, tradition has always won. I am calling out to you in an emotional plea; respect the consumers and especially the business owners in the mall- your job is to produce trade and not to place symbols that hurt the feelings of the traditional city people and the business owners.”

“The Hanukkah Menorah that was put up this morning does not nearly make amends for the mistake. As a reminder, the last candle of Hanukkah was yesterday…”

“Remove the disgrace – and the sooner the better.”

The management of Big responded that more than 25 percent of the city’s population are Russian immigrants, many of them Christian. Novi God, the secular Russian New Year, incorporates many of the symbols traditionally associated with Christmas including a decorated pine tree. Big also noted that Christmas trees had been displayed at other locations with no negative response.

 

David Nekrutman, Executive Director of the Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding & Cooperation (CJCUC), and Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, the Associate Director of the CJCUC, responded to criticism of the display of the Christian symbol.

“The inflammatory remarks of Ashdod’s Deputy Mayor, Avi Amsalem, regarding the Christmas tree at city’s Big Fashion Mall goes against the democratic nature of Israel and Jewish values. In his Facebook post on December 11th, Amsalem described the presence of the Christmas tree, at a privately-owned mall, as an ‘inciteful and divisive symbol against Jews,’ and requested its management to remove the “disgrace” from the premises. We, at the Ohr Torah Stone’s Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC), condemn the negative remarks of the Deputy Mayor.”

Rabbi David Nekrutman visits a Christian Arab family in Bethlehem. (Credit: CCJUC)

“A Christmas tree at a commercial mall does not threaten the Jewish State,”their statement read. “It lets local Christians – citizens of Israel – know that they are acknowledged and accepted by the Jewish people. The State of Israel has always included and will always include minorities of other nations and faiths. Even the idealized picture of the nation of Israel described in the Torah does not exclude members of other nations who are not Jewish as part of society.”

“Among those non-Jews who live among us in Israel, there is no population more ready and willing to live peacefully with us in this land as friends and neighbors than Christians. If we want to strengthen our presence in this land and fortify our chances for peace internally and with the wider world around us, there is no better place to start than by treating the Christians of Israel with inclusion and respect.”

“Jews, living in the Diaspora, are appreciative when local businesses and governments publicly display Jewish symbols such as a Chanukah menorah. It demonstrates respect for the Jewish religion and values Jews as part of greater society. We would expect the Deputy Mayor, who is an elected official for the State of Israel, to demonstrate the same courtesy to other faith communities living in Israel.”

A similar situation arose in 2016 at the Technion, the Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa. Rabbi Dr. Elad Dukov forbade the religious Jewish students from entering the Student Union building due to the presence of a Christmas tree, which he called “anti-Jewish.”

“It is not a Christian religious symbol but, even worse, a pagan one,” Rabbi Dukov said.

The rabbi’s statements were controversial and many of the religious Jewish students disagreed and did not honor his request to refrain from entering the building.



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