A War on Christmas in the Middle East?

Holiday madness has arrived early in the Middle East. On Sunday, Israel’s Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein rejected a fellow MK’s request for an official Christmas tree to be displayed in parliament during the holiday season. Meanwhile, in certain neighborhoods of Istanbul – a metropolis that has thoroughly embraced the commercial spirit of Christmas and New Year’s – there have been local efforts to “ban Santa.” Protestors held up signs reading “Christmas is a coup against Islam.” (For more on the changing attitudes towards Christmas in Turkey today, read this piece by Pinar Tremblay.)

The incidents stand alone, but the parallels are uncanny and the symbolism quite apparent. Jesus was born in what is now the State of Israel (unless you follow the New Testament narrative, in which case he was born in the West Bank. For more on this debate, read Reza Aslan’s Zealot). Saint Nicholas (270/6 – 343 AD), whose deeds inspired mythology of Santa Claus, was born in Turkey. His hometown of Demre is a pilgrimage site for thousands every year.

An advertisement to give Santa the "old heave ho"

An advertisement to give Santa the “old heave ho”

Demre city center, home of Saint Nicholas – or Santa Claus as some know him

Being a home town hero doesn’t guarantee you an eternity’s worth of good will, however it is disturbing to see the Middle East’s two democracies struggle with religious pluralism. The fact remains that while Israel and Turkey were both founded by secular movements, their foundations were deeply rooted in Jewish and Muslim values (respectively). More importantly, both nation states were conceived with distinctively mixed attitudes about the Christian world.

There will always be religious radicals who reject the public recognition of other faiths, so the while communal protests in Turkey against Santa may be disturbing they are not necessarily indicative of government policy (although there are very strong cases that suggest just this).

But the decision to not allow a Christmas tree in the Knesset cannot be misinterpreted. While I am an advocate of Israel being a “Jewish State”, I do not believe it must come at the cost of democracy and pluralism. In other words, Israel should be defined by what it is, rather by what it is not. It may not be a Christian country, but it is a country with some 150,000 Christians citizens, strong ties with the Christian world, and the location of countless Christian holy sites. Israeli politicians should be judicious enough to recognize the importance of religious tolerance in a state whose primary purpose was to provide religious freedom.

This isn’t to say that Israel doesn’t exhibit religious tolerance, in fact it possesses a almost sterling record on that account. Nevertheless, a Christmas tree in the right place is simply good business in an increasingly globalized and multicultural world, and Israeli politicians continue to appear unaware of what that really means.

Posted on by Gabriel in Israel, Turkey