Rabbis Versus Christmas: Religious Rivalry in Jerusalem Benefits No One

The 'Lobby for Jewish Values' is trying to exorcise Yuletide festivities from the streets of Jerusalem.

On the streets of Jerusalem, the religious war on Christmas is on. Last week, the "Lobby for Jewish Values" started handing out fliers condemning the holiday and inciting the public to boycott restaurants and hotels that sell or put up Christmas trees and other "foolish" Christian symbols.

Backed by rabbis, and with the self-righteous air of the American Christian right, lobby chairman Ofer Cohen told the Israeli media that he had considered publishing a list of businesses bold enough to put up Christmas decorations, call for a boycott against them, and - with a little help from Jerusalem Rabbinate - revoke the kashrut certificates of said hotels and restaurants.

According to the Israeli media, the fliers distributed by the Lobby for Jewish Values contain the following call to arms:

"The people of Israel have given their soul over the years in order to maintain the values of the Torah of Israel and the Jewish identity. You should also continue to follow this path of the Jewish people's tradition and not give in to the clownish atmosphere of the end of the civil year. And certainly not help those businesses that sell or put up the foolish symbols of Christianity."

It's unclear exactly what is considered "foolish symbols of Christianity," and, on top of that, how displaying them can result in withdrawal of the certificate confirming you adhere to Jewish dietary laws.

Is it really necessary for rabbis and Jewish lobbies to issue a naughty list and play the kashrut card? Is it not enough to encourage people to avoid hostelries with Christmas displays, or are brightly lit Christmas trees invisible to Jewish eyes?

The Lobby for Jewish Values and the Jerusalem Rabbinate say that Christmas - the birth of Jesus - is just not kosher. That rules out the manger scene and all things nativity. But what about the traditional Christmas tree - a pagan ritual interpreted by fundamentalist Christians as a heathen practice and thus forbidden? Should pine trees be banned in Israel? What about Santa Claus and his elves? And what if the Christmas tree has been certified kosher?

In Israel, where there is no division of synagogue and state, religion - and religious muscle - rules, but to what end? Samuel J. Scott, an American former journalist now working at the Refuah Institute in Jerusalem raises an important question.

"The secular, Westernized celebration of the holiday season - and the rabbinical efforts to clamp down on the phenomenon - is yet another example of one of the central paradoxes facing Israel," he writes.

"The Jewish state wants to be two things: a Jewish state and a free, democratic state. But what is the solution when these competing priorities conflict? If all Israelis start celebrating Christmas (either as Christians or as secularized revelers), then it will arguably no longer be a Jewish state. If the government bans everyone from having anything to do with the holiday, then it will no longer be a free state."

Whether the Jewish state becomes a nation of Christmas revellers or not, today's battle is being waged in Jerusalem, a city with a Christian population of two percent, and dropping. This is not a boycott of Christian symbolism, but of the Jews that cater to the tens of thousands of Christian tourists who amass in the Holy Land every December.

The boycott advocates would do well to remember that if Christian cash is not welcome in Jerusalem, it's greeted with open arms in Bethlehem.