Exile and the Prophetic: A Christmas tree at Auschwitz

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This post is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Is Christmas day a time to reflect Jewishly on the meaning of Christmas?  Aside from endless shopping and fraught family gatherings, there isn’t much to say about Christmas as it has come to be in America. 

Years ago I gave up on correcting folks when they wished me a Merry Christmas.  It just isn’t worth the time.  Now I simply respond:  ‘Merry Christmas to you!’

Jonathan Cook’s post yesterday on the attempt by some Israeli officials to ban Christmas trees in parts of Israel struck me in a more meaningful way.

Before I quote the paragraph of Cook’s article that got me thinking, let me state the obvious.  Everyone should be able to celebrate the religious holy days they want to with the symbols they choose.  I don’t believe in bans on speech or religion anywhere, including in Israel. 

Clearly the desire to ban Christmas trees has to do with Israel being a Jewish state.  My reflections are about issues beyond that discussion.  They concern the history of Jews and Christians in Europe as it plays itself out in Israel/Palestine today.

I have read Cook for years and find his analysis interesting and provocative.  Highlighting a paragraph doesn’t vitiate his overall argument for freedom of religious expression.

Here is the paragraph in Cook’s post that interested me: 

Israel’s large Palestinian minority is often spoken of in terms of the threat it poses to the Jewish majority. Palestinian citizens’ reproductive rate constitutes a “demographic time bomb”, while their main political program – Israel’s reform into “a state of all its citizens” – is proof for most Israeli Jews that their compatriots are really a “fifth column”. But who would imagine that Israeli Jews could be so intimidated by the innocuous Christmas tree?

The first sentences reference the contested notion of a Jewish state.  Jewish Israelis and many Jews feel such discussions as a threat.  Cook is right to call attention to the contradiction inherent there.  It’s the last sentence, though, that’s jarring – and incredibly naïve: ‘But who would imagine that Israeli Jews could be so intimidated by the innocuous Christmas tree?’

If we break down the sentence into two parts, the first is about Israeli Jews being intimidated by symbols of Christmas.  I agree that at this point in history there is no reason for Jews anywhere to be so intimidated. 

But to refer to Christmas tree as being ‘innocuous’?  I can’t go there.

Innocuous is defined as unlikely to offend and not intended to cause offense or provoke a strong reaction and unlikely to do so.  In sum, innocuous means a harmless gesture.  Historically speaking, this surely isn’t the case with Christianity or Christian symbolism. 

In Europe, especially, Christian symbols were displayed to convey their importance for Christians.They were also displayed to convey a triumphalism over Jews and others.  In Europe the Christian holy days, especially Easter, were dangerous times for Jews.  For more than a few Christians, holy days were occasions to demonstrate Christian superiority rhetorically and physically.

When Christians speak to me about Christianity as it is today we’re discussing a reformed Christianity that seeks repentance for Christian anti-Semitism.  Never before in history has Christianity sought repentance for its own behavior toward Jews.  Whether this ‘aberrational’ Christianity can survive over time remains to be seen.

The Christmas tree has its own history, beginning as a pagan symbol, then, as is often the case in Christianity and religions in general, it was expropriated for the newly dominant Christianity.  Nonetheless, today it serves as a Christian symbol.  Christmas trees, however, are far from being innocent symbols.            

There were Christmas trees at Auschwitz and other concentration and death camps as well.  The Holocaust was perpetrated by baptized Christians in a thoroughly Christianized Europe.  I am familiar with the argument that European Christianity was nominal in some ways and even absent in places. Likewise, I am aware that the Nazis adopted a certain form of anti-Christian paganism.  Palestinian Christians had nothing to do with this history of anti-Semitism.

Obviously, these are complicated historical discussions.   What to do with them is similarly complicated.  However, to say that the Christmas tree or any other Christian symbol is innocuous is wrong. 

For Jews, Christian symbols are highly charged.  It is significant that many Christians understand their religious symbols are tainted and that they can be offensive to Jews.  That’s more than I can say for many Jews who don’t have a clue how Jewish symbolism is received by Palestinians, the victims of Israel.

On the Christian side of things, we shouldn’t stop with Jews.  Christian symbols can be offensive to other religious and non-religious populations as well.  Any society, people or culture that has experienced the cycle of violence and atrocity that has often accompanied Christianity may have the same feelings many Jews do.

Of course, what goes around comes around.  No doubt Palestinians are deeply offended – and rightly so – by Jewish religious symbolism that carries the weight of colonialism and ethnic cleansing.  And no matter the exaggerations of Muslim persecution of Christians, the history between Muslim and Christianity communities has its up and downs.  Islamic religious and cultural symbolism, like Christian and Jewish symbolism, isn’t innocent. 

Does this mean that Jews need to be protected against Christian symbolism?  Do Palestinians need to be protected against Jewish symbolism?  You can see where this is going.

This might be an argument for a one-state solution.  In a secular democracy, everyone can have their religious symbolism precisely because they exist outside the political realm.  Religious symbolism no longer has the ability to violate others.  Whether this represents a desire to limit religion to the symbolic rather than material realms is yet another contested issue.

However, the symbolism of democratic secular states isn’t innocent either.  Ask Algerians about French symbolism.  Or Iraqis about American symbolism.

A Christmas tree at Auschwitz.  Star of David helicopter gunships patrolling the sky. 

Religious and secular symbols aren’t innocuous once they’ve created or enabled the cycle of violence and atrocity. 

About Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is retired Director and Professor of Jewish Studies at Baylor University and author of The Heartbeat of the Prophetic which can be found at Amazon and www.newdiasporabooks.com

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