A Christmas tree erected on Monday by the management of the Big Fashion mall in Ashdod is causing controversy in the port city south of Tel Aviv.
Avi Amsalem, a deputy mayor of Ashdod and head of the local branch of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, condemned the decision to put the tree up, and demanded that “the disgrace be removed.”
For his part, however, Mayor Yehiel Lasry said “the Ashdod Municipality does not interfere with commercial considerations of businesses in the city.” He did not take a position in favor or against the tree, which was erected along with a Hanukkah menorah at the entrance to the center on the same day.
A spokesman for the company that operates the mall told Haaretz that the tree was put up following a request by city councillor Eli Nacht, who ran in October’s municipal election on the slogan “Enough with Religious Coercion.” Nacht, who heads the Atid faction, said that many local residents are immigrants from the former Soviet Union who celebrate Novi God, the civil New Year's holiday, with a tree.
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The decision to erect the tree at the Ashdod center – for the first time since it opened, in 2015 – should not be interpreted as an act of defiance against Haredim, said company sources, but rather as an attempt to bring a European atmosphere into the country. Indeed, other shopping malls run by the same firm in the north of Israel have displayed trees for years, they said.
The religious and cultural character of Ashdod – especially, the influence of Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities over the immigrant population – was a major issue in the recent election. The fact that the Big Fashion mall is open on Shabbat has led many local Haredim to boycott it in general.
Until now, the commercial center has functioned "without inciting and divisive symbols,” Deputy Mayor Amsalem wrote in a Facebook post late Monday. But the Christmas tree, he added, is designed “to harm anyone who identifies as Jewish."
Display of the tree was not made any more acceptable by the fact that it was placed next to a Hanukkah menorah, which Amsalem noted was also only put up on Monday, the last day of the eight-day Jewish holiday.
For his part, Ashdod resident Ariel Elharar, a reporter for the Haredi Kikar Hashabat website, suggested that the decision to display the tree was made for economic reasons – to give what he called “anti-religious” members of the public the feeling that the shopping center belongs to them so they will flock there in large numbers.
“I used to go to Big on occasion, but I see the tree display as another nail in the relations between my public and the shopping center, and if everyone agrees on this, I think I too will stop going there,” said Elharar.
David Mor-Yosef, a kashrut supervisor at a local store, said that putting up the tree was an act of pure provocation. Some of the merchants with whom he had spoken, who work in the mall, were surprised to see it, he added.
In response, the Big Fashion mall said residents of the Ashdod area from the former Soviet Union constitute a major proportion of the center’s clientele, "and beyond that, any additional word is unnecessary.”