How to solve the 'Silent Night' struggle

The author of Defying Silent Night responds to the Talkbacks and proposes a solution.

christmas tree 88 (photo credit: )
christmas tree 88
(photo credit: )
In an article published in The Jerusalem Post on Sunday - "Defying 'Silent Night' in central Pennsylvania" - I recounted how my husband and I reached a decision to pull our children out of a public school in small-town America over disagreements with the principal about the appropriateness of having religious Christian songs sung at a school event. I explained that this was the first time our Israeli-born children had been exposed to Christmas, I described our feelings of shock upon hearing songs glorifying Jesus Christ being sung in an American public school, and I shared our deliberations over whether to confront the principal with our concerns. As unprepared as I was for Christmas caroling activities in my children's school, I was doubly unprepared for the responses this article elicited. In fact, it seems to have touched a raw nerve, with some responses barely stopping short of calling for my - dare I use the word? - crucifixion. [Tuesday's Post carried a selection of the more than 200 responses received from readers around the world in the first 48 hours after the article appeared - Editor, Jerusalem Post.] Many of the responses can be grouped into the "Silent Night - serves you right" category. These readers, who found it difficult to conceal their strong feelings of vindication, were of the opinion that any Jews who do not live in Israel permanently or who do not send their children to a Jewish day school deserve the punishment of being denied the rights guaranteed to every other US citizen by the American constitution. I, for one, cannot argue with those who believe that anyone who chooses to live differently from them should pay the price for it. Another group of responses fell into the "What do you want? - America is a Christian country" classification. The one problem with this argument is that America is not a Christian country. True, it has an overwhelming Christian majority, but that does not make it a country ruled by the Christian church or a country in which the Christian church has any say. Many of these responses also reflected a rather primitive view of what democracy is all about - the rule of the majority. What true democracy is about, in fact, is respecting and preserving the rights of minorities. Some of these respondents took their argument a step further, noting how it was hypocritical for anyone who had lived in Israel, where religious studies are part of the core school curriculum, to expect American public schools to respect the rights of religious minorities by keeping religion out of the classroom. This argument relies on one basic misconception: that there is separation of church and state in Israel. In fact, the contrary is true. In America, however, there is separation of church and state, or at least, there's supposed to be. That is, at least according to the Supreme Court of the United States, which has ruled that encouraging prayer in public schools is inconsistent with the "Establishment Clause" of the First Amendment of the constitution. Nowhere in the article did I make the outrageous claim, as some respondents appear to have convinced themselves, that Christians should not be allowed to celebrate Christmas. All I questioned was whether the appropriate place to conduct these celebrations was in a public school environment. Where I live, at least, there are churches on almost every other block, and as far as I know, it doesn't cost anything to worship in them. My own children receive their Jewish education at a part-time Jewish school run by the local synagogue, whose members, incidentally, have rallied behind us and served as a tremendous pillar of support in this ordeal. I know that Christian families can also enroll their children in any of dozens of Sunday schools run by churches in the community. Some readers suggested that rather than resorting to what they saw as an extreme measure, transferring our children to another school, we should have suggested including more Hanukka songs in the holiday program to achieve more balance. My response to this is that adding a song about latkes to the song about the dreidel would not have the effect of balancing out "Christ the Lord" and "Son of God." Most good Christians, I dare say, would refuse to sing some of the Jewish songs I might suggest as possible matches for "Silent Night" in religious significance. Sharing cultures is one thing, but sharing religious beliefs is quite another, and since it is virtually impossible to reconcile Christian beliefs with Jewish beliefs, the best policy, as envisioned more than 200 years ago by the founding fathers of America, is to leave these differences out of the schools. Other respondents expressed concern that Jews who dare take a stand on controversial issues, like where Christmas should be celebrated, risk provoking anti-Semitism. Anyone following the "War against Christmas" controversy in America, however, knows that this is not a war between Jews and Christians, but a cultural war that crosses religious lines. It is a war between those who believe that the majority has the right to impose its beliefs and values on the minority and those who don't believe there is one "right" set of beliefs and values all Americans should adhere to. Indeed, my husband and I received incredible support in our dealings with the school principal from many Christian families in the community. It was the all-Christian PTO of the school that unanimously voted to eliminate religious content from the school event, and after this decision was overruled single-handedly by the principal, there were several parents who sent letters of protest to her, as well as to the school superintendent, expressing their outrage. One of these concerned parents - again a Christian, not a Jew - noted in her letter that forcing Jewish children to sing "Silent Night" was "blasphemy." Asking that religious Christian songs not be sung in an American public school, some readers charged, smacks of "intolerance," "bigotry" and even worse. I wonder whether these same readers would consider it intolerant or bigoted for African-American parents to request that "Dixie" - a song that became the Confederate anthem during the Civil War - not be sung at a school event because it made them feel uncomfortable. As uncomfortable, I presume, as many Jews feel singing out the praises of "Christ the Savior." SO WHAT should the guidelines be? In an article entitled "December Dilemma: What Should Schools Do About Christmas?" Charles C. Haynes, senior scholar and director of education programs at the First Amendment Center, proposes the following rule of thumb: "Plan holiday programs that serve an educational purpose for all students - programs that make no students feel excluded or forcibly identified with a religion not their own." I couldn't agree more. In fact, I had suggested replacing the "Holiday Sing" at our school with an evening of American folk songs - songs that symbolize what unites, rather than what divides, people in this country.