Christmas in Britain is a legal holiday devoid of faith – unless you’re
The British TV channels seek British hearts not so much by
sending film crews to churches or monitoring children singing hymns, but by
analyzing and broadcasting the best Christmas movies and songs.
to British media, the stars of Christmas were Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Jimmy
Stewart and Mariah Carey – and not Jesus, Mary and the three wise
Beyond who sold how many songs or movies, the analysts seem to
disagree regarding whether it was a victory for “White Christmas” and It’s a
, or for Die Hard
– which qualifies as a Christmas movie in
Britain because Bruce Willis goes to a Christmas party before battling
It is not clear how many British Christians go to Christmas
parties, but it is clear that not too many go to church. Of about 25 million
baptized in Britain’s Anglican Church, only a million go to church on Sundays,
according to the church. A similar falling off in synagogue attendance has beset
But many British Jews use Christmastime as a period to
shop for Jewishness, by going to the annual conference known by the Hebrew word
“Limmud” – study.
And the stats are impressive: 1,102 sessions, 25 films,
55 panel debates and 30,000 meals served to about 2,500 people – roughly 1
percent of Britain’s 250,000 Jews.
It is a celebration of Jewish
peoplehood held at a British university campus whose students are on Christmas
vacation, and this year it was at the University of Warwick, a town that boasts
of one Britain’s oldest and most beautiful castles (with moat).
flailing ice-storms and gale-force winds, while Christians hunkered down to eat
minced pudding, watch movies and listen to the queen’s Christmas speech, many of
the Jews – including whole families with baby carriages – braved the harsh
weather and came out of their shells in every sense.
Jews in Britain tend
to try to stay under the radar, and they usually succeed. They do not display
their Jewishness or make a big deal about Hanukka or other things.
Christmas many Jews come out of the closet at the Limmud
Many, including women, wear kippot and take classes ranging
from Jewish musicology and Talmud to Israeli films and politics and Jewish
feminism. As befits a Jewish conference, more questions are asked than are
Limmud, like the idyllic version of Christmas, is
also a family affair, sometimes taking on the qualities of summer camp in
blustery December. Whole families, equipped with baby carriages, come to the
conference to hear educators from Britain, America, Israel and other
Britain’s chief rabbi was there, and so was Natan Sharansky
and many more. I gave two talks on terror and was a panelist on a discussion
about Jews in US politics.
The Jewish film society also showed the movie
The Gatekeepers for which I was a commentator.
way it was featured at the conference raise some important issues not just about
how a democratic society fights terror but also about how conferences about
Israel and the Jews sometimes allow themselves to be used against Israel and the
Real democracies ask tough questions about themselves, and this is
especially a good Jewish quality, but Gatekeepers has more than a few elements
of anti-Israel propaganda – combining real material with fabrications.
the film several former heads of Israel’s domestic intelligence service, the
Shin Bet, accuse Israel and its elected leaders of crimes, while not being
really confronted regarding their own complicity in these alleged crimes, their
personal motives or their shortcomings.
The Gatekeepers might have been
be a good launching point for discussing how democratic societies can fight
terror in an ethical manner. In fact, it is a broadbased attack on Israel, on
Israeli leaders, and on settlers.
That was good enough for a nomination
for an Academy Award, or to get on a program at Limmud.
Such fare has
become the regular diet at Israel studies conferences around the world, along
with featuring speakers who say Israeli soldiers are murderers or who compare
Israeli policies to South African apartheid.
Perhaps some of these
conferences should invite some of the thousands of dark-skinned Eritreans,
Somalis and Ugandans who clamber across jungles and deserts to get a taste of
what sets Israel apart.
That too should be part of the menu and part of
the conversation when Jews get together on Christmas and at other times of the
Jews meeting regularly to discuss aspects of Jewish life may not
cure the ills of falling birth rates and rising intermarriage, but it is not a
bad start for Jews to come together and think of themselves as part of one
family. It is the kind of thing of which one does not see enough in America or
Israel.The writer is the author of
Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites
Terror Threat, published by Threshold/ Simon and Schuster. He teaches at
Bar-Ilan University, and is the Schusterman Visiting Professor at University of
California, Irvine for 2013-2014.