To the Jews in the United States, the period between Hanukkah and Christmas is known as the "December Dilemma." It is the dilemma faced by mixed families as well as Jews dealing with the tension between their Jewish identity and the general American identity in a predominantly Christian society.
This year, more so than ever, the dilemma has also found widespread expression in the general media, as well as reflecting the changes taking place in American society in the wake of George Bush's victory.
The public discourse on religious symbols in American society has taken on special significance following an election campaign that was decided, in the view of many, in a struggle that centered not only on political and economic questions, but also in primarily moral and religious issues.
The Christian-religious right, boosted by its victory, has taken advantage of December to launch an attack on the liberal and atheistic organizations that are against allowing religious symbols at shopping centers. They argue that the liberals have stripped the holiday of its religious content, leaving behind only the consumer/commercial aspect.
The principal target of the attacks has been the American Civil Liberties Union, with its significant Jewish, liberal representation. According to the Christian right, the ACLU has imposed a reign of intimidation under which the U.S. Constitution has been turned into a pagan document that does not permit monotheistic symbols.
The U.S. media played up a number of absurd situations created by the demand for a separation between religion and state in the framework of political correctness: The traditional fir is being called a community tree, not a Christmas tree; and people are refraining from wishing others a Merry Christmas in public, as was the case with a Massachusetts mayor who issued an apology for inviting the public to a Christmas party rather than a holiday party.
Consumers in Florida and California berated store managers in malls who displayed signs wishing shoppers merely a happy holiday, and even threatened a boycott of chains such as Macy's and Bloomingdale's. In New York, a court ruling that permitted public displays of the menorah at Hanukkah and the Muslim crescent during the month of Ramadan, but not pictures of the birth of Jesus at Christmas, raised a major uproar. And comments from a Florida store owner who explained that a menorah was legitimate because it was not a religious symbol but one that marked the victory of the Jews over the Greeks, and who was quoted throughout the United States, caused much embarrassment.
These conflicts are being waged against the backdrop of a religious reawakening in the United States. Time and Newsweek dealt at length with the issue of the birth of Jesus from a historical, academic point of view. The subject of Jesus, including his Jewish roots, is a popular one in the United States of today. According to a survey published this week by Newsweek, America is a religious Christian nation, in sharp contrast to Europe. Some 84 percent of Americans define themselves as Christian, and around 82 percent see Jesus as God or the son of God; 79 percent believe he was born to the Virgin Mary.
In the spirit of the new era, the voice of the Jewish right, which sees no danger in the Christianization of America, is being heard today louder than ever. Rabbis say there is nothing wrong with a Merry Christmas greeting because there is no fear today of anti-Semitism. A Washington Post columnist, Charles Krauthammer, a conservative Jew, argues that Jews should not blur religious symbols or signs in American society because they are part of a culture and heritage. In the Los Angeles Times, another conservative Jew, Dennis Prager, described the excitement he felt at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony at the White House that he attended with Orthodox rabbis, and expressed regret at the lack of Christmas decorations at the stores.
In contrast, important liberal Jewish writers are expressing concern about the strengthening of the Christian right.
The argument over religion's public place in America reflects the change within the Jewish community - which has seen the emergence of two opposing camps on the issue of religion and state - and displays the strengthening of the ideological affinity between the Christian right and the conservative- Orthodox stream of Judaism.
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