‘Israeli leaders expect the US to be religiously inclusive, but then they refuse to practise the same at home,’ Hanna Swaid told Al Jazeera.
~Jonathan Cook/Days of Palestine
As tens of thousands of Christian pilgrims converge on the Holy Land, this week, to celebrate the birth of Jesus, senior Israeli rabbis have announced a war on the Christmas tree.
In Jerusalem, the rabbinate has issued a letter warning dozens of hotels in the city that it is âforbiddenâ by Jewish religious law toÂ erect a treeÂ or stage new yearâs parties.
Many hotel owners have taken the warning to heart, fearful that the rabbis may carry out previous threats to damage their businesses by denying them certificates declaring their premises to be âkosher.â
In the coastal city of Haifa, in northern Israel, the rabbi of Israelâs premier technology university has taken a similarly strict line.
Elad Dokow, the Technionâs rabbi, ordered that Jewish students boycott their studentsâ union, after it installed for the first time a modest Christmas tree.
He called the tree âidolatry,â warning that it was a âpaganâ symbol thatÂ violatedÂ the kosher status of the building, including its food hall.
About a fifth of the Technionâs students belong to Israelâs large Palestinian minority.
While most of Israelâs Palestinian citizens are Muslim, there are some 130,000 Christians, most of them living in Galilee. More Palestinian Christians live under occupation in East Jerusalem, which Israel has annexed in violation of international law.
âThis is not about freedom of worship,â Dokow told the Technionâs students. âThis is the worldâs only Jewish state. And it has a role to be a âlight unto the nationsâ and not to uncritically embrace every idea.â
Rabea Mahajni, a 24-year-old electrical engineering student, said that placing the tree in the union was backed by Palestinian students but had strongly divided opinion among Jewish students and staff. The majority, he said, were against the decision.
âOne professor upset [Palestinian] students by taking to Facebook to say that the tree made him uncomfortable, and that those who wanted it should either put one up in their own home or go to Europe,â he told Al Jazeera.
Mahajni added: âThis is not really about a Christmas tree. It is about who the tree represents. It is a test of whether Jewish society is willing to accept an Arab minority and our symbols.â
He pointed out that Palestinian students had not objected to the studentsâ union also marking Hanukkah, referring to the Jewish winter âfestival of lightsâ that this year coincides with Christmas.
For most of Israelâs history, the festive fir tree was rarely seen outside a handful of communities in Israel with significant Christian populations. But in recent years, the appeal of Christmas celebrations has spread among secular Israeli Jews.
Russians brought it to Israel
Interest took off two decades ago, after one million Russian-speaking Jews immigrated following the fall of the Soviet Union, said David Bogomolny, a spokesman for Hiddush, which lobbies for religious freedom in Israel.
Many, he told Al Jazeera, had little connection to Jewish religious practice in their countries of origin, and had adopted local customs instead.
âThe tree [in the former Soviet Union] was very popular but it had nothing to do with Christmas,â he said. âEach home had one as a way to welcome in the new year.â
Nazareth, which claims to host the tallest Christmas tree in the Middle East, has recently become a magnet for many domestic tourists, including Jews, Christians and Muslims. They come to visit the Christmas market, hear carols and buy a Santa hat.
Haifa and Jaffa, which became almost Jewish cities with significant Palestinian Christian populations after the occupation of Palestine in 1948, have recently started competing. Jaffa, next to Tel Aviv, staged its first Christmas market last year.
Meanwhile, hotels are keen to erect a tree in their lobbies as a way to boost tourism revenue from Christian pilgrims, who comprise the bulk of overseas visitors.
But the growing popularity of Christmas has upset many Orthodox rabbis, who have significant powers over public space.Â Bogomolny said that some rabbis were driven by a desire to make the state âas Jewish as possibleâ to avert it losing its identity.
Others may fear that the proliferation of Christmas trees could lure Israeli Jews towards Christianity.
Wadie Abu Nassar, a spokesman for the Latin Patriarch in Jerusalem, said that he had noticed an increasing interest from Israeli Jews in Christian festivals, including in some cases requests to attend Christmas mass.
He told Al Jazeera this was not a threat to Judaism, but healthy curiosity. âIf we want to live together in peace, we have to understand each other and learn to trust,â he said.
The controversial status of Christmas in Israel was underscored four years ago, when Yair Netanyahu, the 21-year-old son of Israelâs prime minister, caused a minor scandal by being photographed wearing a Santa hat next to a Christmas tree.
The office of Benjamin Netanyahu hurriedly issued a statement saying that Yair had posed as a joke while attending a party hosted by âChristian Zionists, who love Israel, andÂ whose childrenÂ served in the [Israeli army].â
Christmas tree harms Jews
Two years earlier, Shimon Gapso, the mayor of Upper Nazareth, originally founded for Jews on Nazarethâs land, banned allÂ signs of ChristmasÂ in the cityâs public places. He has been a vociferousÂ opponentÂ of an influx of Christians from overcrowded Nazareth.
The Israeli parliament, the Knesset, has also been declared a Christmas tree-free zone.
In 2013, its speaker rejected a request from Hanna Swaid, then a Palestinian Christian legislator, to erect a tree in the building. Yuli Edelstein said it would evoke âpainful memoriesâ of Jewish persecution in Europe andÂ chip awayÂ at the stateâs Jewish character.
Swaid pointed to the prominence of Jewish symbols in public spaces in the United States, including an annual Hanukkah party at the White House, during which the president lights menorah candles.
âIsraeli leaders expect the US to be religiously inclusive, but then they refuse to practise the same at home,â he told Al Jazeera.
He also noted that the religious freedoms of the Palestinian minority were under ever greater attack, most notably with the recent drafting of a so-called âmuezzin bill,â which would crack down on mosquesâ use of loudspeakers for the call to prayer.
âGiven this hostile political climate, the battle to gain legitimacy for our religious symbols becomes all the more important,â he said. âOtherwise, we face a dark future.â
Nonetheless, there has been a backlash, especially from secular Jews, against the rigid control exercised by Orthodox rabbis.
Haifaâs mayor, Yona Yahav, overruled the cityâs rabbi in 2012 when he tried to ban Christmas trees and new yearâs parties. The Jewish new year occurs several monthsÂ beforeÂ the Christian one.
And, last year, in the face of a legal challenge from Hiddush, the chief rabbinate backed down on threats to revoke the kosher certificates of businesses thatÂ celebrate Christmas.
But while the ban on Christmas trees has been formally lifted, in practice it is still widely enforced, according to Bogomolny.
âThe problem is that the chief rabbinate actually has no authority over city rabbis, who can disregard its rulings, as we have seen with the letter issued by the Jerusalem rabbis,â he said.
Most hotels wanted to ignore the prohibition on Christmas trees because it was bad for business, but feared being punished.
âIt is a problem throughout the country,â he said. âThe hotels are afraid to take a stand. If they try to fight it through the courts, it will be costly and could take years to get a ruling.â
One hotel manager in West Jerusalem to whom Al Jazeera spoke on condition of anonymity said he feared âretaliationâ from the rabbis.
âThe letter was clearly intended to intimidate us,â he said. âThe Christian tourists are here to celebrate Christmas and we want to help them do it, but not if it costs us our certificate.â