Christmas tree in Acre.
(photo credit: PR)
What is remarkable about the Acre Municipality’s decision to erect a decorated tin Christmas tree in a central location in the city is the lack of controversy surrounding the move.
There was, of course, the token religious bigot – Acre Chief Rabbi Yosef Yashar – who told Ynet that “there is no room for a Christmas tree in a Jewish city.” But even Yashar, who receives a monthly salary from the municipality for his rabbinic services, and who is receiving a prize this Friday from Rotary Israel for his work in fostering coexistence between Jews and Arabs in one of Israel’s few truly integrated cities, trotted back his comments in an interview with The Jerusalem Post’s Arab Affairs reporter Ariel Ben Solomon.
“Acre is a mixed city, and to remove the tree at this point would cause disrespect and create a provocation,” said Yashar.
It was a grudging concession, but a concession nonetheless.
Other than Yashar’s, said Hatem Fares, a Maronite Catholic who is a member of the Acre City Council, the reactions to the Christmas tree, the first ever erected by the municipality, have been positive.
The precedent should be a model for other mixed cities such as Haifa, Jerusalem and Jaffa. It should also be extended to the Knesset.
Last year, MK Hanna Swaid (Hadash) asked that a Christmas tree be installed in the Knesset as “a gesture toward Christian MKs and citizens of Israel and a symbol of [Israel’s] ties to the Christian world generally.”
Unfortunately, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein rejected the request.
There is nothing in Israel like the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause. In fact, one could argue that such a separation of religion and state is impossible in a state that defines itself as not just “democratic” but also “Jewish.”
But the state’s promotion of “Jewish” aspects of the state – such as fostering a Jewish majority through the Law of Return and encouraging Jews to marry Jews by empowering an Orthodox Chief Rabbinate to oversee marriages and divorces – has necessitated state funding of religious services for Muslim and Christian citizens as well.
What has developed is not unlike the Ottoman Millet system that existed here before the establishment of the State of Israel, with Judaism clearly the dominant religion in all aspects from national symbols to immigration policy to the national calendar.
But a Jewish state can and must find ways to incorporate its large non-Jewish population. Symbolic acts by state institutions – such as installing a Christmas tree or hosting an iftar meal during Ramadan – can foster a sense of belonging among Christian and Muslim citizens.
Because Christians are viciously persecuted in much of the Middle East, it is especially important for Israel to make a moral statement via state-sponsored gestures.
The likelihood that such gestures will be reciprocated on the part of Christians is particularly high.
Increasingly, Israel’s Christians are volunteering for national service, thanks to figures such as Greek Orthodox priest Gabriel Nadaf of Nazareth, who is a vocal supporter of Christians who choose to volunteer for military service.
Israel’s Christians have made a conscious effort to assert an identity that is unique and separate from the Arab community. This is reflected in the community’s request, which was granted by former interior minister Gideon Sa’ar, to define itself as a discrete ethnic group called “Arameans.” Christians’ political agenda need not be dictated by Arab nationalism.
If the evolution of Christians’ relations with Israel can be facilitated by something as innocuous as a Christmas tree – not a strictly religious symbol like a crèche or a cross – it is a crime not to grab the opportunity.
Though Acre has had its difficult moments – such as the riots that broke out around Yom Kippur 2008 – today there is a remarkable atmosphere of peaceful coexistence there. Religion, when taken too seriously, tends to exacerbate tensions. But the Christmas tree in Acre is an example of how religion, or a quasi-religious symbol, can help foster goodwill. The Acre model should be duplicated elsewhere.