Three days before Christmas, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein has wished Israel’s 160,000 Christians a Merry Christmas by delivering them an almighty snub. Hanna Swaid MK had politely requested that the Speaker install a Christmas tree in the Knesset, as “a gesture toward Christian members of Knesset and citizens of Israel, and a symbol of [Israel’s] ties to the Christian world generally”. Edelstein refused: the request was not “appropriate”. No explanation was supplied.
This snub is totally unacceptable.
In Western liberal democracies, it is common to respect religious minorities by publicly honouring their traditions. The British prime minister lights Chanukah candles at 10 Downing Street, and a giant menorah towers over London’s Trafalgar Square; another stands at the base of the Brandenburg Gate. In the United States – a majority-Christian country with the same proportion of Jews as Israel has Christians – the President even hosts an annual Passover Seder at the White House.
As a British Jew, I feel respected and honoured by my country when the government joins the Jewish community in celebrating its festivals: it is a small but hugely meaningful way of reminding us that we belong, that we are valued, and that the state belongs to us as much as it does to Anglicans and ethnic Englishmen. If Her Majesty’s Government were to snub Britain’s Jewish community as the Knesset has done to Christians, without any explanation whatsoever, I should feel offended by my country and unwanted.
So as a member of a religious minority, I understand how powerful such symbolic gestures can be, and how demeaning it must be for Israel’s Christians to be ignored in such a casual, dismissive manner. Israel may be the Jewish homeland, but for many Christians, this is their home too: this is where they belong, and where they must feel welcome.
Does Edelstein not realise that Israel already suffers a legitimacy problem among its Arab population, of whom one in ten is Christian? According to the Israel Democracy Institute, over a third of Israeli Arabs feel “part of the State of Israel” to only a small or very small extent. Well over fifty per cent are “not so proud” or “not proud at all” to be Israeli. A similar number do not think that Israel can be both Jewish and democratic, or are convinced that it cannot. For the Knesset to encourage that perception by validating it, no less, is nothing short of criminal.
Twenty per cent of Israel’s Christians aren’t Arabs anyway: they came with the Russian aliyah. What are they to make of this snub? Having arrived in Israel through the Law of Return, are they entitled to call this country home or aren’t they?
President Peres has already celebrated Christmas with Israeli Christians in Ramle; the Knesset normally hosts an Iftar meal to break the fast at Ramadan. Speaker Edelstein’s decision, therefore, simply comes across as rather arbitrary. Israel has certainly not turned its back on its religious minorities, and in the Middle Eastern context Israel stands as an exemplar. But it is hardly enthusiastic to embrace them either.
If you don’t buy the line about respect for the dignity of minorities, then forget it: this decision makes no political sense if Israel wants to secure the loyalty of its non-Jewish citizens. Christians are making efforts to integrate in Israel, as the Druze have done: Christians are increasingly volunteering for national service, and a new party – Sons of the New Testament – is encouraging enlistment to the IDF. Facing stiff resistance, these Christians need Israel’s help and moral support. For the state to snub them is counterproductive and supremely unhelpful, if nothing else.
Christians are viciously persecuted in the rest of the Middle East, and Israel spares no effort in reminding other countries about just how good its Christians have it. Meanwhile, the rest of the world blames Israel for the flight of Christians from Bethlehem, and the Methodist Church is considering joining forces with the international boycott movement. If Israel wants to combat this with a straight face, it should put its money where its mouth is and use it to buy a Christmas tree for the Knesset.
Perhaps Edelstein knows this, and has caved in to pressure from right-wing reactionaries, who want an Israel as Jewish as Iran is Islamic. What a lack of backbone. If Edelstein expects religious zealots to make a scene, he should let them: at least then we know who they are, and how unscrupulously petty the enemies of democracy and liberalism can be.
It may sound like this criticism is somewhat over-the-top, but it is precisely because a Christmas tree is such a innocuous symbol that Edelstein’s refusal is such an egregious slap-in-the-face. This decision cannot help but contribute to a cumulative perception that Israel’s Jewish character is, in practice at least, inconsistent with proper respect for religious minorities as full and equal citizens.
It is not as if Swaid had requested to replace the Knesset Menorah with a cruficix, or to stage a re-enactment of the Passion of the Christ in the Chagall State Hall. The Christmas tree is a harmless and thoroughly secular symbol of holiday cheer: it cannot by any stretch of the imagination be associated with historic persecution of Jews by the Church. All Swaid asked for was a fir tree with some tinsel and baubles on top, but it seems this was too much to ask for. Quite why, the Speaker still refuses to divulge. Insult to injury indeed.
Mr Edelstein, Israel is the birthplace of Christian faith. It is the Holy Land for Christians worldwide. It is the home of Jerusalem, Nazareth, the Sea of Galilee and – if your party has anything to do with it – of Bethlehem too. For the sake of Israel’s Christians – not to mention its commitment to itself to “ensure complete equality… to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion” – don’t be the grinch who stole Christmas. It is not too late to order a Christmas tree before the chag comes in. As a gesture, it might be small; as a statement, it would be profound.