December 25 – 2006

Caspari Center Media Review………….December 25, 2006


During the week covered by this review, we received 56 articles on the subjects of Christians in Israel, Israeli attitudes towards Christianity and Jesus, “Messianic Judaism,” early Christianity, the Pope and the Vatican, missionary and anti-missionary activity, interfaith issues, and Christian Zionism. Out of the total:

  • 15 dealt with Christians in Israel
  • 5 dealt with Israeli attitudes towards Christianity/Jesus
  • 1 dealt with “Messianic Judaism”
  • 1 dealt with early Christianity
  • 3 dealt with anti-missionary activity
  • 6 dealt with the Vatican and the Pope
  • 2 dealt with Christian Zionism
  • 4 dealt with interfaith issues

The remaining 20 articles dealt with matters of Jewish and Christian interest.

In the week preceding and including Christmas, articles relating to the festival figured largely in the Israeli media. The coverage included features on the origin of the feast, its celebration by Christians in Israel – as well as reflecting Israeli attitudes towards Christianity in general and Jesus in particular. While the anti-missionary activities were directed immediately at the Scientologists, one article was devoted to the anti-missionary work portrayed in an Orthodox film shown on El Al flights. While the pope and the Vatican appeared in many articles, these were less directly relevant than in previous reviews – several relating to the potential creation of a pontifical football team!


Christians in Israel

Yediot Ahronot, December 18, 20, pp. 5, 6; Ma’ariv, December 19, December 25; Jerusalem Post, December 6, 22, 24, pp. 3, 13, December 25; Haaretz, December 15, 22, pp. 7, 14, December 25, pp. 1, 9; Globes, December 15; Yated Ne’eman, December 15; HaZofeh, December 24, 2006

The articles featured here cover a range of aspects of the Christmas celebrations in the Land, together with statistics concerning the size and number of the – shrinking – Christian community in the various cities of Israel. To the extent that the former discussions reflect Israeli attitudes to Christianity and or Jesus, they appear in the subsequent section.

A timely article in the Jerusalem Post (December 22) brought Israeli readers’ attention to the fact that Christmas in fact comes “thrice a year” here – according to the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian rites (December 25, January 6, 19 respectively). David Smith noted that “These faith traditions each bring their own customs to the holiday, but share a common focus on the mystery and glory of the event, de-emphasizing the commercial aspects so prevalent in the West.” “Since the Armenians maintain the ancient date of Christmas as well as the old (Julian) calendar, 13 days are added to January 6, postponing Armenian Christmas to January 19 on the modern (Gregorian) calendar. The Armenians focus on revelation, since the January 6 holy day celebrated both Jesus’ birth and baptism … The Greek Orthodox were reluctant to join the Western church in celebrating Christmas on December 25, but eventually did so for the sake of unity. (Both East and West agreed to celebrate Jesus’ birth in December and his baptism on January 6.) Still, Jerusalem’s Greek Orthodox Church clings to the Julian calendar, so when it adds the required 13 days to December 25, it celebrates Christmas on January 7 according to the modern calendar.” [For the origin of Christmas, see the next section.]

Other Christian communities are also represented in Israel. The article mentioned the Christmas service conducted at St. John in the Mountains Church in Ein Karem, citing its “guardian,” Franciscan Father Fergus Clarke, as saying that “Since we’re a very small community, it’s extraordinary that on Christmas Eve our church is full of mostly Jewish people … They come because of some sense of mystery or awe of the divine that comes from the ritual, the music, their memories – transmitted from their parents perhaps. For us it’s a very uplifting ceremony because of their presence and attitude.”

As for the Protestant tradition, it has no official presence in Bethlehem, “although many visit for [sic] interdenominational services ‘shepherd’s field’ services convened by the YMCA in nearby Beit Sahur. Many attend local services in Jerusalem, such as those at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, or at the Baptist Church near the city center.”

According to long tradition, Bethlehem is the focus of much of the Christmas celebrations. An article in Ma’ariv (December 25) pointed out that “under the shadow of the civil war in Gaza,” Bethlehem celebrated Christmas this year “for the first time under the government of Hamas.” While the blight of terror was perhaps not as high as might have been expected in light of the political circumstances, “the economic crisis didn’t pass Bethlehem over.” The number of tourists being well down due to the security situation, the city’s business community came to the aid of Christmas and funded many of the expenses. “The PA, which is in the midst of a severe economic crisis, was simply incapable of coping with the event.” Thus, for example, the cost of the uniforms for the tourist police was underwritten by the Catholic Church, together with the meals for their two-day tour of duty. Those tourists who did make it to the city were escorted by members of the PA security forces. “Israel, for its part, in a special move, allowed Abu Mazen’s security detail to be reinforced” as he attended the celebrations. The head of the District Coordination Liaison office for the Bethlehem area was quoted as saying: “Israel understands the importance of Bethlehem for the Christian world. Therefore we have made every effort to enable entrance to the city.”

The Jerusalem Post (December 24) carried an article on the same subject, reporting on the government’s decision to “ease access to Bethlehem on Sunday with expectations that 20,000 Christian pilgrims will cross into the Palestinian city to participate in Christmas prayers.” It was anticipated that “several thousand Israeli Arabs from Northern Israel” and around “400 Palestinians from the Gaza strip” would cross into Bethlehem on Sunday and Monday. Cooperation with the PA security forces was coordinated in order to “speed up the crossing process which it [the IDF] intends to cut down to five minutes.”

According to a report on the celebrations in the city in Haaretz (December 25), “marching bands, children dressed as Santa Claus and clergymen in magenta skullcaps gathered in the center of Bethlehem yesterday to celebrate Christmas Eve.” The enactment of such traditional Christmas ceremonies as “Palestinian scouts march[ing] through the streets … as they passed by inflatable red-suited Santas” seemed “out of place in the Middle East” [known better for its violence than for peaceful and joyous celebrations in recent times]. While “to alleviate Christian fears [of a radical Islamic government]” Hamas “promised that it would send $50,000 to decorate Manger Square for the holiday,” “it was not clear if the money arrived.”

Bethlehem under Hamas control was the subject of an article entitled “Is Jesus still a Palestinian?” (Haaretz, December 15). In the run-up to Christmas, Bradley Burston reviewed the situation in Bethlehem, opening with the disclaimer, “If you believe in Christmas, Bethlehem may be no place for you.” The title refers to the recent Palestinian claim that “Not only was Jesus a Palestinian [the “real” descendants of Jesus’ Jewish followers], the Palestinians as a people were Jesus.” While Arafat was quite happy to pursue this line of argument, Hamas is far from being as at ease with it. The fact that Bethlehem, once a West Bank city which “belonged to the world” now “belongs” to Hamas “must trouble Hamas even as it does Christians, who are finding it harder and harder to hold on to their presence in the literal birthplace of Christianity.”

If Jesus is no longer a Palestinian, Bethlehem is at risk of no longer being a Christian town: “The tide of Islamization has had telling effects on Bethlehem. There are external signs, like the words ‘Islamic Jihad’ sprayed in graffiti under the steeple of the city’s Christmas [sic] Lutheran Church. There are internal signs, like the reluctance of residents and officials to openly express anxiety over the diminishing Christian character of the city, and the influence that an avowedly Islamic government could have over daily life. There are quantitative signs. Anxieties over Islamization had now added a strong incentive to the exodus of local Christians, a process already spurred by Israel’s military occupation, settlement policies and the separation fence, as well as the violence and upheaval of the intifida … And there are global signs that could give any Christian Palestinian a sense of marginality, such as a Hamas declaration that every inch of Holy Land soil is Islamic land …”

“On Sunday, Haniyeh, holding talks with Iranian Supreme Leader Sayed Ali Khameini, derided past attempts to make a distinction between the Palestinian problem and Islam. Haniyeh stressed that the Palestinian cause is ‘Islamic’ and that Palestine is an Islamic territory. ‘Therefore, no individual and government in Palestine has the right to overlook even the slightest portion of its soil.’” [Editor’s note: It should perhaps be noted that Haaretz is the flagship of the political Left in Israel. The fact that such a paper can run an article of this tenor is significant in its own right.]

The situation of Bethlehem Christians was one of the concerns which the Archbishop of Canterbury raised publicly in his four-day visit to the Middle East (Jerusalem Post, December 24, pp. 3, 13; HaZofeh, December 24). While Rowan Williams laid part of the blame on Islam – citing Iraq’s Christian population which “is dropping by thousands every couple of months and some of their most effective leaders have been forced to emigrate” – he also pointed to “tragic conditions created by the ‘security fence’ that almost chokes the shrinking town.”

Although the Archbishop cited the difficulties the fence causes for Palestinian employment, problems in reaching schools, places of work, and hospitals, Israel’s concern for its Christian citizens is quite visible, especially in the run-up to Christmas. HaZofeh (December 24) included an article outlining some of the procedures adopted in order to ensure that Christian pilgrims would be able to celebrate without fear or interruption. “The deployment includes the IDF, the civil administration, and the police force, which will be reinforced with additional manpower in order to enable the proper celebration of all the religious ceremonies which fall into the framework of the holiday season, as well as enabling a quick, easy, and convenient passage [across the border] for the Christian population.” The latter includes not only tourists from overseas but also “Israeli Christians and Palestinian Christians with permits from all the areas of Judea and Samaria and the Gaza Strip into Bethlehem for the purpose of attending religious rites and participating in the various festive and ritual celebrations. In addition, [the reinforcement] will allow the exit of Christian residents from Bethlehem and from all the areas of Judea and Samaria for family visits in Israel and Gaza.” Part of the preparation included reinforcements to prevent terror attacks on the pilgrims while in PA-controlled territory.

It is, of course, somewhat ironic that Israelis who wish to take part in the Christmas celebrations in Bethlehem cannot do so now that the city is under a Hamas government (Yediot Ahronot, December 18). Under the title “A star of Christmas” (kokhav molad – a pun in Hebrew on the words “Christmas” and “born”), the author gives her readers a list of the places in which s/he can enjoy the Christmas atmosphere: “It isn’t necessary to buy a plane ticket to listen to a Christmas mass and to become heady from the atmosphere of the New Year. Ronit Sabirsky recommends trips to several of the beautiful churches in order to listen to the voices lifted in prayer and to enjoy the sounds of the organ and songs of the choir … We Israelis are primarily familiar with the impressive ceremony which takes place each year in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. A number of years ago, when Bethlehem was still open to Israeli visitors, some people wrapped themselves in warm cloaks and went out into the freezing cold to stand in the plaza in front of the church to listen to the prayers and hymns. For those who wish to listen to the midnight mass here are some possibilities full of the atmosphere of the joyful holiday – in Nazareth, Jerusalem, Haifa, Tiberias, Tel Aviv, and more.” (See also Haaretz, December 25; Ma’ariv, Deccember 18 and the next section.)

Hospitals in Israel are also taking different religious sensitivities into account. According to an article in Haaretz (December 22), Dr. Muhammad Aslia, a surgeon at Rambam hospital in Haifa, recently suggested that the facility erect places for people to pray in: “The Muslims were always praying [three times a day] in the corridors or on the grass outside and it wasn’t dignified. So I proposed that the administration create rooms for prayer for Muslims and Christians in the same way that we have synagogues for Jewish patients.”

An article in Globes (December 15) reported that two Christian workers in Nazareth are asking the Labor Court in the city for permission to work on Fridays rather than on Sundays. They are claiming that their place of work – the Employment Agency – is discriminating against them because of their religious faith. Having closed its Nazareth branch on Fridays, the Agency is now requiring all its workers to be in the office on Sundays.

A population census of the Christian community in Israel was recently conducted and put its size at 148,000 individuals, constituting 1.2% of the general population (Yated Ne’eman, December 25). The majority of local Christians are Arabs (120,000; 81%), while 28,000 are Christians who have immigrated with their families under the Law of Return together with their native-born children – mostly immigrants from the former Soviet Union. Some 5,000 Christians arrived in the earlier wave of immigration in the seventies and eighties, from Romania and Poland.


Attitudes towards Christianity and Jesus

Jerusalem Post, December 19; Ma’ariv, December 19, 25; Globes, December 21, 2006

Many of the articles included in this category are also related to Christmas. The most straightforward is a list of people who were born on December 25, headed by “[Year] 1 b.c.e. – Yeshu” (Ma’ariv, December 25, p. 20).

An interesting article appeared in Yediot Ahronot (December 20) discussing the origin and nature of Christmas. The author, Aviad Kleinberg, began by outlining the traditional account of the “conception” of Christmas: “The Christian world apparently celebrates December 25 as the day on which the messiah was born. Precisely nine calendar months after the archangel Gabriel announced to the virgin Miriam that she would conceive through the Holy Spirit and give birth to the messiah, Yeshu was born in Bethlehem. This was a joyful moment: the New Testament books recount that angelic choirs sang … kings from the east arrived bearing gifts. Since then Christians have marked this historic moment at which redemption began.”

Having summarized the main idea, however, he immediately brought it into question, noting that “in the first hundred years of their faith’s existence, Christians made little of birthdays. No one had any idea when Yeshu was born.” Easter was a far more central date for Christians, because it was the time of the savior’s death and resurrection – and also possessed explicitly Jewish elements. It was only in the fourth century, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, that Christians were “compelled to Christianize the idolatrous world around them.” Baptism was not only necessary for people but also for “buildings and places, as well as the calendar – which was full of Roman gods and their festivals.” Christmas was born out of the Roman Saturnalia, which celebrated the birth of the “Invincible Sun” on December 25 at a time when the days were shrinking to their shortest. Similar “baptisms” took place of the sacred deciduous trees, a sign of renewal in the far North of the empire.” To this has recently been added “American consumerism” – “in America, the real religion is consumption and consumerism is redemption. Who needs boring church services when you can make purchases, drink, eat, light candles, and celebrate around a Christmas tree.”

While none of this is new, Kleinberg sought to suggest that, despite everything, Christmas has some relevance for Jews. There are too many similarities between Christmas and Hanukka to be coincidental (e.g., date, themes of light, deliverance, presents, games). These are some of history’s “ironies” – which also include the fact that Hanukka not only represents the victory of light over darkness but also “Judaism’s (religious) victory over Hellenism (idolatry) and above all the hellenization of Judaism.” Just as Christians paganized Christianity when it Christianized pagan holidays, so post-Maccabean Judaism became hellenized – the very phenomenon against which the Maccabees had risen in arms.

Some diaspora Jews moved to Israel simply to flee Christmas. So the Dutch-born Miriam Natns wrote in a letter to Ma’ariv (December 19) that she “wished to celebrate the Jewish feasts without having to ask for a day off” from anyone. Here in Israel she plans her holidays abroad so that they do not coincide with Christmas. “For me, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of a Jew whose followers became our most bitter enemies, because since Christianity became an official religion Jews have been expelled from their homes, persecuted, and killed.” Having thought to have escaped the clutches of Christmas, Miriam was appalled by the sale of Christmas products – produced in Israel and with a kashrut certificate – in the Jewish State where she had built her life.

In contrast, others are apparently seeking ways to experience Christmas in Israel. In an article devoted to “sites, hotels, and experiences,” Globes (December 21) asked its readers the traditional question asked by “Christians” – “Where will you be for Christmas?” The answer was that they were not required to go abroad but could enjoy all the festivities in “the Christian quarter of the Old City in Jerusalem, visit the Christian villages in the Galilee, and even go for a short trip amongst the shops selling Christmas ornaments, primarily designed for foreign workers and filling to overflowing these days the new bus station in Tel Aviv.” Obviously, Nazareth is also one of the best places to go to experience Christmas. The city not only has “special sanctity in Christianity” but also has a “special atmosphere the rest of the year.” “In contrast to what many people mistakenly think, Yeshu was not born in Nazareth. According to the New Testament, his parents – Miriam and Joseph – who lived in Nazareth, were compelled to return to Bethlehem, the city in which they were registered as citizens, for a population census. Destiny ran its course, and precisely when they stopped to rest for the evening on the way, in a cave which served as a stable for animals, the small child burst forth into the world. According to tradition, he was placed in a manger which served him as a cradle, while a donkey and ox warmed him with their breath – an allusion to the biblical verse ‘An ox knows its owner, and a donkey its master’s manager’ [Isa. 1:3].” The article gives a full description of all the churches in Nazareth and the events which they host – unfortunately too lengthy to bring here. (See also the section above.)

Ma’ariv (December 25) also devoted an article to “those who joined in the festivities” in Israel. Under the familiar Hebrew saying, “the reason for a party [siba l’misiba], the article’s headline ran: “Israelis are also setting up Christmas trees at home.” According to the owner of a nursery that grows Christmas trees – primarily for expatriates and foreign workers – the demand has increased dramatically. “I’m not talking about new immigrants from Russia who have brought the tradition with them but about native-born Israelis. When I ask them why they’re buying trees, they say that it’s a nice tree. Some of them even explain that Christmas is a joyful and happy festival and that it’s a pity that we Jews don’t have a similar feast.” As an example, the article cites the rationale given by a Tel Aviv woman: “It’s not that I’m celebrating Christmas and going to church. I also lit a hanukkia [Hanukka candles]. For God’s sake, all it is is a nice tree that gives off a pleasant smell of abroad [outside of Israel] in the house. If a Christian decided to put a hanukkia in his house, would that mean that he had become Jewish?”

The author Chayim Zeldis, writing in the Jerusalem Post (December 19), recalled how “the ghost of Christmas past” has “haunted” him since childhood – growing up as a Jew in New Haven, Connecticut. This ghost is not primarily the Jesus of the goyim, but more significantly, the Jewish Jesus: “Yet, despite Christian hostility and persecution, despite the fact that Christianity – which owes its very existence to Judaism – uses Jesus against me and my fellow Jews, there is buried deep within a sense that he and I are indissolubly related: And me? Well, what can I say? A Jewish boy, hanging here on a cross beside Jesus, his kinsman, on a hill which overlooks our city, Jerusalem. They will try to change the fact that Jesus and I are related. But the fact will remain. They will try to change the fact that this our city. But the fact will remain. Throughout my childhood and adolescence and on into my adulthood, Jesus never leaves me; but not Jesus the Christian (Christians didn’t exist when he lived), but Jesus, the Jew.” Zeldis’s preoccupation with Jesus led him to write a book – “a tale of two brothers: Judas, who rejects Judaism and embodies all that is immoral and evil; and Jesus, a Jew, who espouses the compassionate and good, and dies a man broken on the rack of the world.”


Messianic Judaism

Jerusalem Post, December 17, 2006

Although it may be hard to construe an article entitled “Hanukka and the limits of pluralism” as concerning Messianic Judaism in any way, Stewart Weiss (an Orthodox Rabbi) in the Jerusalem Post of December 17 concluded his discussion of Jewish identity by defining its boundaries: “But we cannot tolerate those who would change the basic rules of the game. Thus observing the Sabbath on Sunday, believing in Jesus or redefining ‘Who is a Jew’ evoke a call to arms by those who sincerely care about the future of Judaism.”


Early Christianity

Haaretz, December 22, 2006

An article in Haaretz (December 22) looked at the site in Jerusalem known as “the hill of evil counsel” – infamous in local circles as the location of the UN headquarters in Jerusalem. The building was erected during the period of the British Mandate on the hill overlooking the old city and the Temple Mount from the south. As the author explains, the name originally derives from events described in the New Testament: “The name is taken from Christian tradition, which associated the hill with the high priest’s residence during the Second Temple period. The high priest was consulted by the [rest of the] priests regarding Yeshu’s handing over to the Romans.” [Editor’s note: The association was evidently made between the UN and “evil counsel” – not necessarily an anti-Semitic identification of the high priests.]


Anti-missionary Activity

Ma’ariv, December 18; Yated Ne’eman, December 20, pp. 10, 34, 2006

Of the three articles dealing with anti-missionary activity, one deals with the Scientologists’ forays into the Israeli educational system (Yated Ne’eman, December 20, p. 10; see previous Reviews). The other two reports address anti-missionary activity from two different – and unusual – perspectives. The first appears in an article reporting on El Al’s introduction of “kosher” movies for its Orthodox customers – a rabbinic ruling having been issued prohibiting Orthodox fliers from watching in-flight movies because of the latters’ moral turpitude (Ma’ariv, December 18). Now, such customers may occupy themselves in flight without fear of corruption. One of the films on offer is named “Trap” – an “action film which tells the story of children fighting missionary activity. At the center of the plot reside the children of an Orthodox family whose father goes abroad for an operation, leaving his family with a friend. As the story unfolds it becomes clear that the friend is a missionary who attempts to convert the children. But they do not submit to him.”

The second article relates to some of the reactions aroused by Jewish anti-missionary activity. Yated Ne’eman (December 20, p. 34) printed a letter in which the reader expressed his concern at the exposure of missionary activity through the hanging of posters in synagogues throughout the country. The attendants were “shocked” to see pictures of Jews being “baptized to Christianity” hung at the entrance to their houses of prayer “without any consideration for their sensitivities.” “In the name of many people whom it greatly pains, I appeal to synagogue gabbai [“deacon”] that they should remove the obscene pictures.” [Editor’s note: In case the point is not clear to non-Jewish readers: while the writer is offended by the missionary activity and those who are fighting it, he does not think it appropriate for a sacred place to display pictures which defile Judaism.]


The Pope and the Vatican

HaZofeh, December 18; Yediot Ahronot, December 19; Ma’ariv, December 7; Jerusalem Post, December 19; Zman HaKrayot, December 15; Haaretz, December 20, 2006

Given many Israelis’ investment in football, the fact that the Vatican is considering forming a team is an item of great interest (see Yediot Ahronot, December 19; Haaretz, December 20).

Apart from this sporting aspect of the Vatican’s activities, the Jerusalem Post (December 19) reported on a B’nai B’rith meeting with the pontiff in which its international president, Moishe Smith, “called on the Pope to issue ‘an urgent and unwavering moral response’ to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the wake of the Teheran conference.” Coming in short order after Olmert’s meeting with Benedict XVI, the organization’s executive vice president was quoted as saying: “‘Ours and Olmert’s visits underscored the outrage we have and the danger we see from what’s coming from Iran. Our sense of this meeting it that that is understood.’”

Reminding its readers of the Hanukka holiday, HaZofeh (December 18) used the occasion to describe Olmert’s willingness to “endow” King David’s tomb on Mount Zion to the Vatican as “for free, as a Christian ‘hanukka-gelt.’” [Editor’s note: the latter is a traditional Hanukka custom, which in Israel usually takes the form of chocolate coins – but may also be delivered as checks or savings bonds. The reference makes it clear that HaZofeh strongly disapproves of the Prime Minister’s action.]

With the Pope having demonstrated his willingness to intervene on behalf of the captured soldiers (see previous Reviews), an article in Zman HaKrayot (December 15) noted that the soldiers’ families wished to meet with the pontiff, “the person who governs the largest number of people in the world, and the words of people like him are very important, powerful, and influential.”


Christian Zionism

Jerusalem Post, December 19, 24 2006

According to the Post (December 19), “two leading Evangelical Christian leaders with a long record of support for Israel were honored Monday in Jerusalem for their friendship [to Israel] and work.” The two – John Hagee, founder and director of Christians United for Israel and Michael Hedding, executive director of the International Christian Embassy – were “feted at a joint event by the Knesset’s Christian Allies Caucus (KCAC) and the World Jewish Congress (WJC).” The Israel attitude towards these representatives of evangelical Christian Zionism was summed up by Benny Alon (National-Union-NRP): “Realizing that Christians provide strong and consistent political, moral, and economic aid to the State of Israel, the KCAC and WJC have committed to bringing to the attention of the people of Israel the unqualified support Christians have given and continue to give to the welfare and security of the Jewish people.”

Although not strictly a “Christian Zionism” piece, Elwood’s McQuaid’s front page feature for the Post’s December 24 issue is included here because of McQuaid’s position as a Christian Zionist leader in the US and his regular contributions to the subject printed by the Post. McQuaid eloquently took the opportunity to convey the Jewish message of the gospel when speaking of Bethlehem: “For Christians, there is a fusion of biblical truth from the Older Testament and the Bethlehem chapter [sic] in the New. It emanates from the ‘Immanuel’ (God With Us) prophecies, particularly those of Isaiah … The great wonder of it all for Christian believers is that God has chosen to visit this planet. How and when did He choose to do so? It was in a stable in an obscure Jewish village in Judea, through a Jewish virgin’s womb, and in the person of a Jewish Baby in a manger. Mortal man could never have conceived such a plan. Yet God accomplished it.”