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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. 

Marc H. Ellis

Marc H. Ellis is Professor of History and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for the Study of the Global Prophetic. His latest book is Finding Our Voice: Embodying the Prophetic and Other Misadventures.

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25 Responses

  1. yourstruly on December 25, 2012, 12:21 pm

    when will religious and secular symbols be innocuous?

    the moment the real world is what matters most of all

    & symbols?

    rendered past tense

    brought about by?

    the emergence of palestine, just & free

  2. yourstruly on December 25, 2012, 12:54 pm

    & then what sort of world?

    won’t it be up to each and every one of us?

    based on?

    one equals one
    always in the spirit of those eighteen magical days in tahrir square

  3. Citizen on December 25, 2012, 3:47 pm

    The point I am making is average Christians have a memory too, including dating back to olden days, same as the Jews, and it’s not the same memory as of former and current Christian elites. Here’s just a small taste, in one area, where Jews were privileged over the average Christians as a pattern, and I’m sure they took full advantage:

  4. joemowrey on December 25, 2012, 5:42 pm

    Maybe I’m misunderstanding your argument, but you seem to be suggesting that because Jewish history makes Jews sensitive to Christian imagery we should cut the Israeli rabbinate some degree of slack for trying to prohibit the display of Christmas decorations in Israel.

    I’m right there with you concerning the violence and atrocity which has been spawned by Christianity, (not to mention U.S. empire) and the effect certain cultural symbols can have on people. But it seems reasonable to assume that the Israeli rabbinate and the Mayor of Upper Nazareth want to prohibit the use of Christmas decorations because of racism and religious bigotry, not because of any touchy-feely sensitivity to the role Christians played historically in the suffering of Jews.

    You make a good academic point about religious and secular iconography, but I’m not sure that is “the point” of Cook’s article, or that a consideration of religious symbolism throughout history explains the disgusting situation Cook documents in his piece. Even if it does explain it on an intellectual level, we shouldn’t excuse it. (I’m not suggesting that you do excuse it.) Perhaps we need to quit blaming history for people’s bigoted attitudes and hold the individuals themselves accountable in real time for their hateful actions.

    • Avi_G. on December 26, 2012, 5:30 am


      I’m in agreement with you on that point. Jonathan Cook lives in Nazareth. As a result, when he wrote his article he was writing from the perspective of someone living there.

      So Marc Ellis’ perspective about the symbolism of the Christmas tree is perhaps unique either to American Jews or to Marc Ellis only.

      More importantly, how does Mr. Ellis know the reasoning behind the Israeli authorities’ ban?
      Is he supposed to possess special information by virtue of being Jewish? And does that supersede Mr. Cook’s knowledge of what is happening locally, in Israel? That certainly seems to be the thrust of Mr. Ellis’ argument.

      Moreover, where does it all stop? Today a tree is not an innocuous symbol, tomorrow it could be churches and Crosses.

      I understand Ellis’ argument, but he must evaluate and judge Cook’s article within the context in which the author wrote it.

      • Mooser on December 28, 2012, 3:57 pm

        Avi, a Christmas tree may not be innocuous, but back when they used real candles on them, they were deadly! And considering the inefficiency of fire-fighting back then, it showed real commitment to have one.

        I alway put my Menorah in a large bus-pan of water before lighting.

  5. Castellio on December 25, 2012, 8:40 pm

    Do you accept that its not only the Palestinians that might be “deeply offended – and rightly so”, but the Lebanese as well? The multiple invasions and bombings are recent, and remain as present fears. And for those who died in the Iraq invasion, solidly supported and instigated by the same pro-Israeli forces visible again in the constant threats to Iran… can they, too, be “deeply offended – and rightly so”.

    How many “particulars” are necessary for the “general” to be accepted? When does the fear of the general symbol become acceptable as a reasonable response?

  6. kalithea on December 26, 2012, 1:18 am

    I feel like I just read an article authored by the Grinch himself. First of all, the Nazis did not create Christmas and neither did they own it because of one supposed Christmas tree! One Christmas tree at Auschwitz does not Christmas make! Are you honestly saying that because there was a Christmas tree at Auschwitz, I’m to believe that millions of Jews are terrorized by Christmas trees??? Well that’s a bunch of crock if I ever heard it. Then you’re trying to make us think that they actually had Christmas trees during the Inquisition, right, because how else could you justify this theory of yours??? How do you make the link between Christmas trees and the Inquisition by the way – I must have missed that.

    I’ll bet you anything Jews had their own version of the Inquisition back in the day when they ruled the roost is Judealand! You know what really, really irritates me is when someone brings up ancient history to knock Christmas trees. It’s kinda like using the victim card to knock Palestinian rights! What is it with Jews and Christmas trees??? And don’t gimme dat it’s one Christmas tree at Auschwitz that terrorizes Jews today – this is the first time I hear this excuse and boy, it’s a good one! But it stinks! Do you really expect me to take this seriously? Do you really expect me to think oh, the Inquisition = cross = Christmas tree today??? That’s a weird stretch if I ever heard one since the Christmas tree came MUCH LATER, like TWO TO THREE HUNDRED YEARS LATER.

    Let me tell you something: Christmas is a guilty pleasure; i.e. temptation for Jews. They’d do it in secret if they thought no one was looking AND Jews are jealous of Christmas. Some Jews can’t stand Christmas, because everyone’s busy making happy and they’re not part of the party, unless they’re lucky enough to have Christian friends or family who invite them over. And those Jews: THEY LOVE CHRISTMAS, ’cause they get to eat EVERYTHING Jews don’t usually eat, and they enjoy the food and it makes them feel good, and they love Christmas decorations and Christmas songs and they especially love it when there’s presents under the tree for them. I guarantee you you; I’ve seen it with my own eyes!

    So don’t gimme all the bunk about how the Christmas tree is so scary and traumatic!

    The Inquisition was hundreds of years ago and it targeted Muslims too, but you don’t usually hear about Muslims trying to do away with Christmas trees. And why is that, since they were the victims not only of the Inquisition but the Crusades as well. Gee, you don’t hear Muslims reaching for the victim card and whining every time Christmas and Easter come along!

    And please, quit with the apples and oranges. It’s one thing to have modern day helicopter gunships, drones and F16s with the Star of David symbol plastered on them slaughtering people in Palestine in the name of the Jewish State every second week IN THE PRESENT and quite another to conjure up a tree at a prison camp from 70 some years ago and then go back half a century to dig up why the Christmas tree is soooooooooo scary for Jews!

    Oh lord, I’ so tired of this war on Christmas trees! It’s so freaking hypocritical and disingenuous!

    • Mooser on December 28, 2012, 4:20 pm

      “Oh lord, I’ so tired of this war on Christmas trees! It’s so freaking hypocritical and disingenuous!”

      I’m sorry if it perturbs you but there’s a darn good reason for it.

  7. dbroncos on December 26, 2012, 1:27 am

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

    Well said.

  8. Eva Smagacz on December 26, 2012, 5:32 am

    Well, Polish people were terrorised and killed in Auschwitz ( and don’t you dare to minimise their, or their families’ suffering) and they don’t live in terror of Christmas trees. So the Christmas tree is what you make it. Same with menorah in the window, which for some people is a sign of Jewish people showing their Gentile neighbours a finger.
    It is not the occasional racist bigots that are the problem. It is racist and/or bigots in positions of power – intellectual or elected – that are the problem.

  9. piotr on December 26, 2012, 10:46 am

    I never heard about New York Jews (and there are quite a few) complaining about Christmas trees, some of which are pretty big:
    If you visit New York around this time, notable trees are also in Metropolitan Museum of Art, with 18 century Italian decorations and a tree decorated with Origami in Metropolitian Museum of Natural History
    So wherever they go, New York Jews suffer humiliations of the Exile at this time of the year. I suffered from the effects myself, spending a lot of hours to produce origami decorations for our own little display (you need a book with instructions and nice paper, but a single nice animal may take 50-90 folding steps).

  10. jon s on December 26, 2012, 12:08 pm

    Eva, it’s true that many Poles were killed in Auschwitz, and the Polish people, in general , suffered horribly in those years. However, the vast majority of the victims in the death camps were Jews. The Jews were the ones designated for genocide.

    If the menorah in the window is “a finger” (for some people , as you say) then so is the Christmas tree.

    • Citizen on December 27, 2012, 2:14 pm

      @ jon s
      I think the proportion of Roma killed by the Nazis was equal to the proportion of Jews. The Nazis killed as many Poles as they could for racial reasons, but there was just too many Poles to equal the proportion of them killed when compared to the Jews. I wonder if the Roma have the tradition of putting up Xmas trees in their homes. Anybody know? Here’s a brief history of the Xmas tree–note that the Puritans banned Xmas trees, and that the Germans and Scandinavian immigrants to America brought the Xmas tree tradition to USA shores:

  11. PilgrimSoul on December 26, 2012, 2:36 pm

    Marc’s series “Exile and the Prophetic” is beautiful for many reasons, not least of which is that they go together: attempt the prophetic, and you find yourself a pariah in exile from all the Promised Lands, willingly or otherwise. But as a heretical Christian I can’t agree with Marc that Christianity has reformed itself, because it hasn’t yet come to terms with the explosive belief that arguably drives Christians to make scapegoats, the belief in blood atonement: that the torture and murder of Jesus was God’s plan to save the world, which generates salvation for the believer.

    That idea sends a powerful message that violence is redemptive. The result is too often a profound and very toxic Christian identification with aggression (all exceptions happily granted), which I believe drove the growth of Christian antisemitism.

    For one progressive/heretical Christian’s idea about the manner in which Christianity might rid itself of this dangerous addiction to redemptive violence can be found at the following link:

    • Don on December 27, 2012, 11:59 am

      “…sends a powerful message that violence is redemptive.”

      Amazing how much I seemed to have missed during 16 years of formal Catholic education. You don’t suppose, Pilgrim, that the message was actually “suffering is redemptive”? Particularly when undertaken for others?

      I will say this again…you cannot logically assert that Christianity (per se) is responsible for the violent behavior of Christians…without somehow accounting also for the selfless behavior of countless Christians (as noted in post below).

      It makes far more sense to simply assert that the violence some Christians have inflicted on others, including fellow Christians, is due to the human capacity to ignore moral precepts (Christian or otherwise).

      In all honesty, it is astounding to me any one raised Christian could come to the conclusion that the message of Christianity is “violence is redemptive”.

    • American on December 28, 2012, 6:03 pm

      I am going to croak…seriously. I think I’ve opened few ellis articles without reading about the evil of Christianity and what it did to the Jews
      And now for the seasonal condemnation installment, one on how they suffer all this trauma to this day at the sight of a Christmas tree.

      For years……and years….30 years at least….we have had Jewish friends for Christmas dinner and Christmas holiday parties… and guess what?…they also eat ham!…yes stuff themselves with ham! and oysters and lobster bisque and turkey…and they bring Christmas presents!… and sit next to our Christmas tree!.. they even enjoy it!……OMG, call the Rabbi squad or the Mossad somebody….!! don’t they know they’re in eminent danger by partaking in anything Christmasy and associating with trees?
      I’ve never had a one confide to me that he was upset at the sight of the tree or feared he was losing his Jewish identity/ religion by being around Christmas celebrations.

      This is so ridiculous I know nothing else to say…gives me a headache to see this nonsense promoted.

  12. Don on December 26, 2012, 4:31 pm

    Well, if this wikipedia review is accurate…and it seems to be extensively well documented…the behavior of the Poles in the second world war was nothing short of astounding…given that assistance to Jews meant death…

    I admit my own very strong bias against the “Christianity was the cause of the Holocaust” argument. It seems to me that argument is asserted when the evidence seems to fit “the Holocaust happened in the heart of Christian Europe”…and it is also asserted when the evidence is entirely contradictory…as with the Poles and the Italians.

    Hannah Arendt suggests that the Italian refusal to participate in the slaughter of Jews was due to the “outcome of the almost automatic general humanity of an old and civilized people”. Couldn’t possibly be related to Christianity…what impact could Christianity have had on Italian civilization?

    As an ethnic Italian…I’ll gratefully accept the complement. But the fundamental issue remains…

    It makes no sense to blame Christianity when Christians do terrible things…and leave Christianity out of the discussion when Christians do wonderful things (i.e. so many Poles risking their lives…and giving their lives…to assist and protect Jews.)

    Or am I missing something?

  13. on December 26, 2012, 9:43 pm

    When you teach your children that the Christmas tree symbolizes Christian theological enmity and persecution of Jews – then the tree becomes a threatening symbol.

    When you teach your children that the Christmas tree is an innocuous custom with little Christian meaning, practiced by believers and non-believers – then it IS innocuous.
    When you tell your children

    • Mooser on December 28, 2012, 4:06 pm

      “When you tell your children”

      Germany is very lucky to have children who listen so well! Here in America the little bas….uh, children tend to doubt everything you tell them.

      • on January 4, 2013, 4:54 pm

        “Germany is very lucky to have children who listen so well. Here in America the little bas….uh, children tend to doubt everything you tell them.”
        Mooser –
        I was out of town (in France) for a week, so I’m late to respond. But I got to tell you: You are at something intrinsically German: obedience to authority, official ideology. – That’s worrying me. Uri Avnery said this on the matter of German anti- and philo-Semitism:

        “The term “Antisemitismus” was invented by a German … and anti-Semitism was the official ideology of Germany during the Nazi years. Now the official German ideology is pro-Semitism.”
        As was then and as is now: Germans abide by the official ideology.
        – As you know, I don’t. I’m a skeptic of ideologies by nature.

    • Mooser on December 28, 2012, 4:13 pm

      “When you teach your children that the Christmas tree symbolizes Christian theological enmity and persecution of Jews – then the tree becomes a threatening symbol.”

      Are you saying your children are Jewish? Oh, well I guess non sequiturs are the blades on your tunnel boring machine.

  14. MHughes976 on December 27, 2012, 11:34 am

    Very true, Klaus. If you let yourself get to a point where all the symbols even vaguely associated with a religion or ideology to which you object makes you shudder conspicuously you put yourself in a position where you can’t be fair to the exponents of that religion and your objections become less rational and more prejudiced.
    My wife has a big birthday on Jan.1 and we’re returning to our honeymoon location, Venice, where they have a recently invented ancient custom of everyone gathering and exchanging a kiss. If a kiss is exchanged, somewhere in this process, between an Israeli Zionist and an anti-Zionist English Christian no harm will be done.

  15. libra on December 27, 2012, 4:23 pm

    What a wonderful Christmas it’s been at Mondoweiss this year, what with Phil single-handedly bringing the British Boxing Day tradition to America.

    But highlight must be the Mondo Nativity Play, now set in the Happy Holidays Inn, a rundown motel on the Florida coast on the way to Disney World. Here there really is no room for Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus who presumably are left to find shelter in the local Volkswagen dealership. Instead the central (and, indeed, only) character is the Ass in the Manger, transformed with a wickedly subversive delight into a pantomime horse (played to great affect, both front and rear, by Professor Ellis) that knocks over the Christmas tree, tramples on all the children’s presents, and generally has great fun spoiling Christmas for everyone else. A rare treat for everyone who hates Christmas.

  16. Mooser on December 28, 2012, 4:10 pm

    You know what they say, Libra: “If wishes were horses, you could take an ass around the world”

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