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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

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

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.

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.

“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

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.”

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)

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Michele Chabin

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