December 22, 2005
Did the Jews Kill Christmas?
Last year's big holiday debate was whether the Jews had ruined Christmas. This year, with erev Chanukah coinciding with Christmas Day, people have begun asking how we can save it. The Wall Street Journal reports that retailers hope an unusually late Chanukah can boost holiday sales and bail out underperforming retailers.
If higher sales mean more yuletide cheer for our Christian neighbors, it's the least we can do. Not that Bill O'Reilly and the Catholic League and a bunch of others are exactly blaming Jews when they complain that a secular, politically correct "elite" is preventing store clerks from chiming "Merry Christmas."
But theirs was certainly an us-and-them argument, and I, a card-carrying member of the ACLU (that is, AMERICANS who observe CHRISTMAS with LO-MEIN and an UNCROWDED movie theater), was pretty sure who the "them" was.
O'Reilly is being joined by a colleague on FOX News, John Gibson, the author of "The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought (Sentinel). His book "focuses on the instances of very secular signs of Christmas being banned because they are thought to be too Christian or that they would offend someone," Gibson writes. "These symbols include: Santa, the Christmas tree, the word Christmas and even the colors red and green."
Gibson calls the school districts and city administrators who would tone done such symbolism "anti-Christmas warriors."
Gibson's thesis is as overblown as his language. He trots out a few highly publicized incidents (highly publicized by FOX, that is) -- including the Maplewood-South Orange, N.J., school district's decision to ban religious instrumental music -- to suggest that the Christians have become the new Marranos, secretly honoring the birth of their messiah while publicly declaring their allegiance to Michael Moore.
The idea that a vast religious majority in this country is being suppressed by a small but powerful band of "liberals" -- O'Reilly calls them "the loony left, the Kool-Aid secular progressive ACLU America-haters" -- would be funny if it didn't speak to a dangerous sense of victimhood within much of conservative Christian rhetoric. With Republicans firmly in control of the White House and Congress, and with a president now attempting to shape the Supreme Court in a way pleasing to his evangelical base, you'd think Christian activists might be able to proclaim, "Mission Accomplished."
Instead, Christian activists are waging the culture war with a worrisome combination of triumphalism and insecurity. Note how Christian activists responded to objections -- from Jews and others -- to a climate of insensitive, even aggressive proselytizing at the U.S. Air Force Academy.
"The long war on Christianity in America continues today on the floor of the House of Representatives," Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) thundered last spring in response to a House amendment calling for an investigation into the academy. Seventy members of Congress signed a letter to President Bush denouncing sensitivity guidelines for the academy, saying it was Christian clergy who were facing intolerance.
This is all necessary background to the debate surrounding recent remarks by two Jewish leaders -- Rabbi Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League and Rabbi Eric Yoffie of the Union for Reform Judaism.
Foxman talks about the Christian right's "arrogance in their efforts to pull every institution toward Christianity." And Yoffie says, "In our diverse democracy, Americans need a common political discourse not dominated by exclusivist theology. [Americans] do not want to hear that unless you attend my church, accept my God and study my sacred text, you cannot be a moral person."
Even many Jews were made uncomfortable by Yoffie's and Foxman's remarks. Much of that is the debt many think we owe to Christian Zionists who, at a time when Protestant churches are talking divestment and secular Europeans would throw Israel to the wolves, are offering the Jewish state their unconditional support.
Or maybe not so unconditional. As Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, perhaps the top Jewish figure in outreach to pro-Israel evangelicals, told Salon's Michelle Goldberg: "I don't think it's reached that point that Jews should be alienating their greatest friends in the real battle of Jewish survival."
The internal Jewish struggle of the moment is determining exactly what that "point" is. When your fourth-grader is encouraged to sing "O Tannenbaum," it's probably too early to complain. When the Cossacks start knocking on the windows, it's too late. But somewhere in between the things that make us uncomfortable and the things that make us truly suffer, we need to find our voices to demand the things that make us Americans.
In his famous letter to Newport's Touro Synagogue, George Washington applauded the "liberal" idea (his word, not mine) that America was founded on: That non-Christians are not merely "tolerated" in this country, "as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people." Instead, he wrote, "All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship."
Compare that to what Gibson told syndicated radio host Janet Parshall on Nov. 17: "I would think if somebody is going to be -- have to answer for -- following the wrong religion, they're not going to have to answer to me. We know who they're going to have to answer to.... And that's fine. Let 'em. But in the meantime, as long as they're civil and behave, we tolerate the presence of other religions around us without causing trouble, and I think most Americans are fine with that tradition."
Maybe this won't sound civil or well behaved, but if it has reached the point that merely by standing up for diversity Jews are alienating their friends, it's time to ask what kind of friends they really are.
Andrew Silow-Carrol is editor in chief of the New Jersey Jewish News.