christmas tree 88.
(photo credit: )
I will be forgiven, I hope, for not participating in the panic about recent attempts to restore Christianity to Christmas in the United States. When Jerry Falwell offers legal aid to Americans who believe they've been persecuted for observing Christmas, or Georgia State Senator Ronnie Chance proposes to prohibit government agencies from barring their employees from saying "Merry Christmas," the news at least provides a chuckle, and welcome relief after a year of the tsunami, Katrina and (more) Iraq.
Now, some will say, this cavalier attitude is misplaced, for something much more insidious is transpiring. The real issue isn't just Fox News anchor John Gibson's organizing a boycott of Target and Wal-Mart for using the phrase "Happy Holidays." What we are witnessing, argue the hand-wringers, is the Christianization of America, a process that simply can't be good for the Jews.
Maybe. Yet behind the furor lies an assumption that at its core, America is not a Christian country, and that Jerry and John threaten that status quo. But that reading of America is myopic.
Approximately 80% of Americans define themselves as Christian, and more than 90% observe Christmas. America is Christian through and through, in symbol and in content, and American Jews would be well served by acknowledging that.
The First Amendment's "establishment clause" contributed immeasurably to the thriving of Jewish life in the United States. Ironically, though, by safeguarding Jews' comfort in America, the Bill of Rights also fostered an illusion that America was not really a Christian nation. The "Chrismukka" phenomenon (which originated, apparently, on the TV hit The O.C. but now gets 117,000 hits on Google) is proof that many Christians and Jews want to believe that there are no significant differences between our faiths. But if there is no real difference, then who cares if ours survives?
No longer surrounded by overtly threatening neighbors, American Jews thrived in every way - economically, intellectually and politically - except as Jews. American Jewish numbers seem to be shrinking, and the levels of Jewish literacy among 95% of American Jews, compared to what they were two or three generations ago, are abysmal.
Asked "why Jews should survive," the vast majority of today's American Jewish college students would have virtually nothing substantial to say. If that doesn't change, Jewish physical survival will be meaningless.
Which is why, I submit, Jerry Falwell has unintentionally done Jews an enormous favor. If Gibson and Falwell have accidentally reminded Jews that America is, without question, a Christian nation, they might prompt Jews to reflect and ask, "What do our children need to know and think about as they're growing up, if they're to survive in this environment?"
Such concerns might, if we're fortunate, lead to the desperately needed revitalization of American Jewish education and the questions at its core.
CHRISTMAS COULD help Zionism, too, by helping American Jews see what is truly important about Israel. American Jewish Zionists revel, too often, in images of Israeli power. As critical as Israeli military might is, when I hear about groups visiting Israel going to a military base and firing M-16s as part of their VIP mission, my stomach turns.
If these people went to visit England on vacation, would they add a British military base to their itinerary? Would they show "America" to visitors by taking them to Fort Bragg? Obviously not. Because Fort Bragg was built so that America can exist; America was not created to produce Fort Bragg.
The same is true here. We have an army to defend this country, not as an end in itself. When I point this out to my friends who've just returned from these shooting sprees, they ask (often sheepishly), then what would you have us see? Go to a bookstore, I tell them, and compare it to Barnes and Noble.
I'm serious. During "holiday season" at Barnes and Noble, there's often a table near the front marked "Judaica." Fifteen or 20 titles, selected from among thousands, geared to the Jewish patrons of the store, including many books which I'd love to read.
But compare that to an Israeli bookstore any day of the year. There, not on some army base, lies the real miracle of Israel. A store full of books written in a language that a century ago virtually no one spoke. With hundreds of new titles, written for a population less than that of Los Angeles, ranging from Pulitzer Prize-quality literature to the equivalent of Harlequin romances.
On these shelves the no-longer-religious Bialik shares shelf space with the newly religious Ehud Banai. Post-Zionists and rabid-Zionists are stacked side by side, and Jewish life fights - and flourishes - as it can only where Jews are the majority.
Jewish minorities flourished in the past, but back then, neither they nor their hostile neighbors pretended that the relationship was benign. It is the thorough decency of Protestant America that has destroyed Jewish cultural flourishing. The pockets of creative richness on the Upper West Side, or on the West Side of Los Angeles are extraordinary, but they bear no resemblance to American Jewish life as a whole.
Thus, Jerry Falwell reminds us: Because America is so Christian, Israel matters ever more. Not because it is so powerful, but because it is so Jewish. The point is not that one can't live a meaningful and creative Jewish life in the States, for one obviously can. Or that Jewish life in Israel is sufficiently rich, because it isn't.
The point, rather, is that the latest attempt to re-Christianize Christmas could well be a good thing. It could help us assess more accurately what we're up against in America, and provide clarity on why a richly Jewish Israel matters so deeply.
Imagine: Jerry Falwell gets all worked up, and the Jews become more serious about Jewish education and increasingly aware of why their one and only state matters. Might we be on the verge of another "holiday season" miracle?
The writer is vice-president of the Mandel Foundation - Israel. His next book, Coming Together, Coming Apart: A Memoir of Heartbreak and Promise in Israel, will be published in July.