A Jerusalem store with a non-kosher clientele is decked out for Christmas. Although Hanukkah is the central winter holiday in most of Israel, Christmas is becoming more mainstream. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

Israeli university defends student union Christmas tree over rabbinical objection

A Jerusalem store with a non-kosher clientele is decked out for Christmas. Although Hanukkah is the central winter holiday in most of Israel, Christmas is becoming more mainstream. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

A Jerusalem store with a non-kosher clientele is decked out for Christmas. Although Hanukkah is the central winter holiday in most of Israel, Christmas is becoming more mainstream. RNS photo by Michele Chabin


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

JERUSALEM (RNS) Administrators at the Technion, a public research university in Haifa, are rushing to defend the presence of a Christmas tree in the campus’ student union building.

Their statement of support is part of a larger pushback against Jewish religious authorities who hold that such decorations have no place in public settings in predominantly Jewish areas in Israel.

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On Monday (Dec. 19), university Rabbi Elad Dokow called the tree a “pagan” symbol and suggested students should avoid entering the building.

“Jewish law clearly states that whenever it is possible to circumvent and not pass through a place where there is any kind of idolatry, this must be done,” he said. “So (Jews) should not enter the student union if it's not necessary to do so.”

A statement from the Technion noted that Dokow’s views, written on his personal Facebook page, do not reflect the inclusive views of the university, which is based in a multiethnic city with a large Arab population of Muslims and Christians.

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“The Student Union of course recognizes all of the Jewish holidays, but at the same time acknowledges students of other religions, their right to express themselves out of respect, friendship and tolerance,” a university spokesperson said.

Fights over religious diversity in the Jewish state are growing, but so, too, is acceptance.

Christmas-themed items among other winter options at a store in Jerusalem. RNS photo by Michele Chabin

Christmas-themed items among other winter options at a store in Jerusalem. RNS photo by Michele Chabin


 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

In Jerusalem, the city’s two chief rabbis told kosher hoteliers and restaurants that it is forbidden to celebrate non-Jewish holidays – including secular New Year’s Eve. Yet the municipal-funded Jerusalem Development Authority touted Christmas events, including concerts and a marketplace.

“Just as the lights of Chanukah can be seen outside and in the windows of homes across the city, over the Christmas period, Christmas trees can be seen along every alley and in every entrance to the many churches and monasteries scattered throughout the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City,” the municipally funded development authority statement said, adding that Christmas decorations “bring joy to the city's residents of all faiths.”

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David Bogomolny, director of online communication at Hiddush, a nonprofit organization that advocates for freedom of religion, said, “Overall, there is no war on Christmas in Israel, but some leading religious officials who work for the government continue to treat other faiths with suspicion.”

Although historically many Christian communities around the world persecuted Jews at Christmastime, Bogomolny said, “when Jews have their own state, it’s no threat to anybody to put up a Christmas trees in a hotel lobby.”

(Michele Chabin is RNS’ Jerusalem correspondent)

Comments

  1. I hope Rabbi Dokow knows of the Mishnah’s story of Rabban Gamliel (same as from the Book of Acts) visiting a bathhouse that contained a statue of Aphrodite. When confronted with this, Gamliel pointed out that Aphrodite was not being worshipped at the time, reasoning that men would not walk around naked, possibly having just ejaculated, and urinate in front of an idol they were worshipping. No one is worshipping this tree, so “lighten” up.

  2. The pagan origin of the “Christmas” Tree, notwithstanding, and the like association with the “sacred groves” which predominated in Canaan and ancient Israel (during certain periods), none of the vile and lurid practices associated with those pagan customs attach themselves to the modern celebration. Some emblems and icons can be classed as spiritually “neutral,” what matters is what the heart and attitude of the celebrant is towards God.

  3. As I understand it (and I may be wrong) the “groves” that the Israelites were told to cut down were imagined by the Bishops who translated the Bible in the 16th century (which, with some modification became the KJV). They did not understand the word now referred to as Ashera(?) and, (with the vague stirrings of druidic ideas in their minds?), decided that the cutting down of the Ashera meant destroying scared groves.

    I believe that it is now understood that the Ashera was a tree (a sapling or a representative branch) placed in a socket beside the altars to Baal and subsequently also those to Jehovah. The representation was of the earth goddess – effectively Mrs Baal in Baal’s territory by the coast and Mrs Jehovah in Jehovah’s patch up in the hills. When the Israelites first split from the other Canaanites they were not, of course, monotheists – hence the first commandment.

    Apparently early altars to both Baal and Jehovah have been discovered with the Ashorah’s socket adjacent.

    You may know better.

    As to the intolerance of those who see their power and influence waning – it’s not restricted to religious environments – I suspect such controlling twerps would find an alternative if the ideal of the absence of religion could be attained.

  4. Poor baby. How tolerant of you. And I have to look at ridiculous Christmas crap during the holidays. How the righteous have to suffer!

  5. Thanks for the info Give. I see the Xmas tree as a purely secular object.

    Your last sentence about the diminishing power and influence of Christians in America is true. They still dominant America politically, culturally and socially, but not to the extent they used to. That had them up in arms, imagining slights where none exist.

  6. There are a few problems with your analysis, I find your speculation with regard to the Bishops (more correctly, scholars) who framed the KJV to be unlikely based on my own readings, but one point is explicitly clear, the Israelites did not “split from the other Canaanites,” they never were Canaanites, though they did comingle religious practices in the manner you describe. The greater point is that whether the context is spiritual or not, as you have pointed out, proximity to power is a double edged sword with both risks and reward. In the case of spiritual things, speaking truth to power can get decidedly dicey, as evidenced by the fate of a number of biblical prophets. Tradition holds that Isaiah was placed inside a hollow log and sawn in two. John the Baptist was beheaded, as was Paul. Jesus, of course was crucified by the “powers that be.”

  7. “…what matters is what the heart and attitude of the celebrant is towards God. ”

    Yes…well said.

  8. ” “The Student Union of course recognizes all of the Jewish holidays, but at the same time acknowledges students of other religions, their right to express themselves out of respect, friendship and tolerance,” a university spokesperson said. ”

    The spokesperson couldn’t have said it any better.

    Using the words respect, friendship and tolerance is the best way to illustrate all worthy attitudes

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