Even in relatively tolerant and officially secular America, Jews long have had to do a dance around the holidays of the majority population. There's a national party going on and, let's face it, we are not invited.
The issue then is how to deal with it. There seems to be three basic responses.
One, give in "to the spirit," even if that means elevating Chanukah into an ersatz version of Christmas, with excessive gift-giving and demands for equal time with the bigger holiday.
Two, rail against the persuasiveness of the holiday and of Christianity in our core culture. For some, that means waging a kind of secularist jihad to remove all spiritual aspects from the season.
Third, just keep a respectful distance and let the Christians enjoy their holiday to the fullest including allowing trees, mangers and reindeer in the parks. Use the time to reconfirm to yourself and, more importantly, your children our status as proud and very separate minority.
In some ways, the first approach seems akin to giving in to the majority faith. We boost Chanukah, a relatively minor holiday, into megastatus and turn our children into Yuletide wannabes. Let's face it, most of our kids don't need more excuses for presents.
More serious, and immediately damaging, is the opposite tendency, which amounts to driving religious Christmas out of the public sphere. This is something not exclusively supported by Jews, but it's no big secret that Jews are prominent in many of the organizations -- like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) -- that spearhead the anti-Christmas secular jihad.
To a large extent, this approach seeks to eliminate everything that is Christian about Christmas from the public sphere -- from trees, green lights and mangers to the singing of Christmas carols. It reached the point of ludicrous when our former, illustrious governor, Gray Davis always craven in the service of his heavily Jewish donors, renamed the state Christmas Tree into a Holiday Tree.
This kind of idiocy, which was reversed this year by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, comes out of a mistaken belief that to ensure a secular state, we need to eliminate any hint of Christian belief from the public sphere. In the words of Amanda Susskind, regional director of the ADL, furious efforts must be made to maintain "a wall of separation between the pubic realm and religious tradition.
In theory, this is a fine idea. I certainly would not like to see public school students forced to sing Christmas carols or listen to a Billy Graham lecture. Yet Susskind is talking about circumscribing all manner of spiritually tainted behavior. They have even issued a somewhat silly pronunciamento called, "The December Dilemma, " to supply guidelines so schools don't dip their toes into even vaguely religious waters at this time of year.
Behind these efforts lies what I suspect is a more elaborate agenda. Susskind, for example, expresses "sympathy" for the French government's decision to ban crosses, head scarves and yarmulkes from public schools. She isn't ready to take this on in America, but more zealous secularists, like the ACLU, might be sorely tempted.
Such efforts, in my mind, turn the state from neutral toward religion to advocate for what may be called the secularist faith. Instead of admitting that religious ideas, primarily derived from Jewish and Christian roots, stand at the root of our constitutional republic, the ADL and the even more secularist ACLU seem to see any acknowledgement of religion -- from the singing of "Jingle Bells" at schools to discussions of the religious roots of Christmas -- as a grave threat to civil liberties.
Perhaps, the most egregious local example of this can be seen in the ACLU's so far successful attempt, with full backing from the ADL, to get the Board of Supervisors to excise the mission cross from the Los Angeles County Seal. This effort grew out of the notion that having a cross on the seal for the past half century represented, in the ADL's words, and affront to the "diversity of the people of the community." Zev Yaroslavsky, easily the most influential Jewish politician in the county even called the cross a "symbol that divides us."
David Hernandez, one of the leaders of a broad-based effort to overturn the country's decision, considers this decision an example of legislative arrogance. It was taken without considering the idea that many church-going Christians, as well as Hispanics proud of their historic role in the City of Angeles, might object to having their heritage expunged from the seal.
After all, Catholic missionaries built the first schools, brought medicine and many other elements of European civilization (not all positive, to be sure) to this part of the word. Reducing the mission symbol to a kind of jumped-up Taco Bell is not only an affront to L.A.'s Hispanic Catholic heritage but to the critical role faith has played in the evolution of the city since then.
Nor can anyone but a total paranoid compare people like Hernandez to the kind of bigoted Christians who have tormented us in the past.
"People are surprised I am not a Bible-Belt, right wing Christian fanatic," explains the middle-of-the-road Republican insurance adjuster from Valley Village, who is a member of such dangerous groups as the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, the North Hollywood Neighborhood Council and the Executives support group for the Jewish Homes fro the Aging.
This guy is about as close to Father Coughlin as, well, Kris Kringle.
Rather than wage silly battles with such well-meaning people over Christmas carols, of a mission cross, Jews need to lighten up. Christmas and traditional Christianity today simply do no represent serious threats to the existence of Jews in the contemporary world; outside of the Islamicists, our mortal enemies and those of Israel, can more likely be found among the most hip, pro-Palestinian Churches, some of which back a boycott of Israel, as well as among the longtime anti-Zionists in the secular intellectual left.
In 2004, we have more to fear from Micheal Moore and the archbishop of Canterbury than we do from Graham and ex-urban megachurches. It's long since time to admit that the political and social landscape has changed greatly from the time our grandparents fled the czarist shtetl.
Finally, we should also recognize that the attempt to drive all religious thought (except perhaps pagan ideas) from the schools also represents a threat to the intelligent understanding of our republic. The founding fathers, many themselves steeped in the traditions of the Torah, would have found it ludicrous that our kids are expected to learn about the roots of American republicanism without some notion of the role played by basic Jewish, as well as Christian, moral principles.
For these reasons, learning about our faith, along with Muslims, Buddhist and Christian traditions, should not be verboten within public education. Indeed, the study of history has convinced me that you can't understand the past, and how we got to be who we are, without a full comprehension of the religious past.
By removing religion from the public realm entirely, evicting the ecclesiastical role from our histories, plays and pageants, we essentially end up embracing in its place another theology, one that sees human history in exclusively economic class or biological terms.
Given these realties, it's time for Jews to realize that traditional Christianity -- and its symbols -- represent less a threat than an important potential ally. By showing respect, and keeping our distance at this time of year, we can build on this historically miraculous development, instead of creating the basis for yet another season of discord.