The War on Christmas Opens a New Front in Jerusalem Hotels

Ultra-Orthodox hint that their religious sensibilities should be considered, as Israeli Jews flock to Christian Arab celebrations of holiday season.

File photo: A Christmas tree in Jerusalem.
Tess Scheflan

It is, literally, an evergreen battle.

As the Christmas and New Year’s holiday season approach each year, many Israeli hotels, particularly in Jerusalem, make an effort to deck the halls with festive decorations so tourists visiting for the holidays feel welcome. That rankles the sensibilities of the ultra-Orthodox-dominated Israeli rabbinate, who believe that a Jewish state should not permit blatant Christian religious displays and do their best to discourage wreaths, tinsel and trees, and an argument ensues.

This year, the controversy began with a letter from the Jerusalem rabbinate, faxed to hotels on December 7 and recently published in the press. The letter, signed by the city’s two chief rabbis, contained a “reminder” that “it is clear” that putting up a Christmas tree in a hotel “is forbidden” under Jewish law. It also said that New Year’s Eve celebrations should not be held, helpfully “reminding” them that the Jewish New Year takes place in the fall, not in December.

The tone of the letter, however, was notably and deliberately toothless. In the past, the rabbinate has openly wielded its power to threaten hotels that they would revoke kosher certification if they refused to comply with their wishes. Kashrut was used as a tool to pressure hotels on a wide range of matters unrelated to food, including Christmas decorations and New Year’s parties.

This changed in March 2015 , when the national rabbinic authority, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, issued new kashrut regulations to hotels that reduced its rabbinic involvement in matters unrelated to the kosher status of food.

The move came following a petition by Hiddush, a non-profit organization promoting religious freedom, which protested the multiple restrictions on hotels under threat of having their kosher certificates taken away. Those demands violated existing laws that were in place, which made it clear that kashrut certificate qualifications had to fall in line with the law, Hiddush argued. The rabbinate could not and should not use kosher laws as a way to bully hotels into rules like forbidding music and photography on the Sabbath, turning all elevators into Shabbat elevators that prevented the pressing of buttons, or banning Christmas trees and New Year’s Eve parties.    

Hiddush threatened that it would petition the High Court of Justice if the rabbinate didn’t change its ways and comply with the law.

The Chief Rabbinate capitulated, announcing that its non-food rules, including bans on Christmas trees, was also lifted. At the time, Hiddush CEO Rabbi Uri Regev cheered that “we put an end to the zany phenomenon by which hotels cannot welcome groups of pilgrims arriving in the country in their masses at the end of the civil new year with a fir tree,” he said. “We should be thankful that the attorney general and the Religious Affairs Ministry made it clear to the Chief Rabbinate that Israeli law applies to them, and their regulations cannot contradict the law.”

As a result, when this year’s letter to the hotels discouraging them from holiday decorations was leaked to the press, the Chief Rabbinate hastened to distance itself, saying that although they agreed in principle that such decorations are “unkosher,” the letter was a “private initiative” by their local Jerusalem branch, emphasizing that it did not threaten to withhold kashrut certification but merely “remove signs of Christmas observance out of consideration” for observant Orthodox Jews.

Still, hotel owners complained to the media that the Grinch-like attitude of local rabbis put a damper on tourism and made pilgrims feel unwelcome.  

Jerusalem wasn’t the only place Christmas tree drama was playing out. As the Jerusalem hotel controversy was taking place, drama was also playing out at the Haifa Technion, where Rabbi Elad Dokow of the Technion issued a prohibition against Jewish students entering the university’s student union due to the Christmas tree that has been put up in the building, respecting Christian students’ commemoration of their holiday. Dokow said that after it gave “a place to religious Christian identity” and “idolatry” it was not permissible for observant Jews to buy food or eat in the student union, saying “unfortunately, I do not see any way to permit this, especially since there is a problem with uttering God’s name and reciting blessings in a place where such problematic things are found.”

Among Israelis, Christmas is popular despite disapproval by ultra-Orthodox rabbis. Public commemoration of Christmas has become more widespread and popular, and many Jews flock to cities with significant Christian populations – especially Nazareth and Haifa – to gaze at the sparkling Christmas decorations, eat holiday treats and shop in Christmas markets. Christmas has been making inroads in Tel Aviv as well: This year, as last, Jaffa is hosting a Winter Festival and a Christmas market at its port.

Many Jewish immigrants to Israel from the former Soviet Union, who grew up decorating their homes, continue the practice in Israel as well, driving sales of Christmas decorations beyond the approximately 160,000 Christians who live in the country.

This week, as in years past, the Jewish National Fund has distributed Christmas trees to  churches, monasteries, convents, embassies and sold them to the public for a token cost of 80 shekels (about $20). The Arizona cypress trees come from the thinning of the JNF plots and are designed to discourage the practice of illegally cutting down trees for use at Christmas.

One location that will not feature Christmas trees, however, is the Knesset. In 2013, the parliament’s speaker Yuli Edelstein turned down a request by a Christian member of the Israeli-Arab Hadash party to place a Christmas tree in the Knesset, telling him he could place it in his office or in the party’s faction room. Edelstein said it could offend some Knesset members and even awaken “painful memories” among Jews, and told Israel Radio that the initiative is part of an Arab campaign to chip away at Israel’s Jewish nature.