In his Christmas greeting video, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu boasted of Israel’s supposed religious tolerance.
“Today Christian communities around the Middle East are shrinking and in danger. This is of course not true in Israel. Here there’s a strong, growing Christian community that participates fully in the life of our country,” Netanyahu said.
Vowing to “continue to protect freedom of religion and thought,” Netanyahu also promised “to safeguard Christian places of worship throughout our country” and not to “tolerate any acts of violence or discrimination against any place of worship.”
Making a pitch for Christian Zionist tourism he urged listeners to “Come see our ancient land with your own eyes. Visit Nazareth and Bethlehem, wade in the Jordan River, stand on the shores of the Sea of Galilee and next year come visit our eternal capital, Jerusalem.”
His inclusion of Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, as well as the banks of the Jordan River, can be taken as another affirmation that Israel, despite its rhetoric, has no interest in a “two-state solution” and intends to absorb all of historic Palestine as an exclusively “Jewish state.”
Disappearing Christmas trees
Netanyahu’s professions of tolerance would have come as news to Palestinian Christian students at Safad Academic College in the Galilee. There, students who could not get home for the holidays bought a Christmas tree and set it up outside their dorm.
But in the evening when they got back from class, they found the tree was gone, Israel’s Walla! News reported.
“This is the saddest Christmas,” said Gabriel Mansour, 24, a third-year political science student, identified by Walla! as a representative of Arab students. “All we wanted to do was provide some good cheer for all the students who remained alone in the dorms, and who were unable to go home to their families.”
When Mansour investigated, he was told by college officials that the tree had been hidden lest it spark riots among the Jewish students.
“I was angry to hear this,” said Mansour of the claim that the tree might spark riots among Jewish students and residents of Safad. “Unfortunately they don’t respect our holidays. We fully respect all Israeli holidays. Why can no one respect our traditions? Why can’t we put up a Christmas tree?”
“I do not think Christmas should be marked with such ostentation,” Walla! quoted an unnamed Jewish student saying. “The college has a distinctly Jewish character. It’s not healthy for anyone to be able to do whatever he wants.”
Caught with a Christmas tree
And there was a mini-scandal when the girlfriend of Yair Netanyahu, the son of the Israeli prime minister, posted a photo of the youth wearing a Santa hat and posing next to a Christmas tree, on Facebook. Under the photo was the caption “My Christian boy.”
The prime minister’s office was forced to issue a statement that the image was a joke and that Yair had been attending a party hosted by “Christian Zionists who love Israel, and whose children served in the IDF,” Israel’s Channel 2 reported. Nevertheless the photo was removed from Facebook.
State rabbis order bans on Christmas
The ban on Christmas at Safad college is no isolated incident. For several years, Shimon Gapso, the notoriously racist mayor of the Israeli settlement of “Upper Nazareth” in the Galilee, has banned Christmas trees, calling them a provocation. “Nazareth Illit [Upper Nazareth] is a Jewish city and it will not happen – not this year and not next year, so long as I am a mayor,” Gapso said.
According to journalist Jonathan Cook in Nazareth, such bans continue and are widespread this year with Israel’s state-financed rabbis warning hotels and restaurants that they will lose their kosher certifications if they put up trees or other Christmas decorations or hold Christmas events.
“In other words,” Cook says, “the rabbinate has been quietly terrorising Israeli hotel owners into ignoring Christmas by threatening to use its powers to put them out of business. Denying a hotel its kashrut (kosher) certificate would lose it most of its Israeli and foreign Jewish clientele.”
Publicly visible Christmas tree could “injure the souls of Jews”
When the Israeli occupation municipality in Jerusalem this year put up a small Christmas tree near the Jaffa Gate, there were strong protests from rabbis. Occupation municipality city council member Rabbi Shmuel Yitzhaki told settler news website Arutz 7 that the display was a “desecration” and a “grave offense against the Jewish people” and that it was “inconceivable” that a Christmas tree should be allowed in a “public place” where it might be seen by Jews on their way to pray at the Western Wall in eastern occupied Jerusalem.
Mina Fenton, a former city council member, said, “There’s a Christian Quarter. They can put it [the tree] up there,” where it couldn’t “injure the souls of Jews.”
Christmas trees as propaganda for ethnic cleansing group JNF
While Israel’s official rabbis, colleges and municipalities discourage or ban displays of Christmas trees, the Jewish National Fund (JNF), the racist state-backed agency actively engaged in ethnically cleansing Palestinians and stealing their land for exclusive use by Jews, has found a way to use Christmas trees to paint a false image of itself as a promoter of multicultural harmony.
The JNF, which misrepresents itself as an environmental charity, now gives away some trees and felled branches particularly to foreign embassies, for use as Christmas trees in private homes, and markets the initiative as outreach to maintain “good relations between religions.” Against the background of the JNF’s true activities, such cynical propaganda should convince no one. But it might be useful in raising donations from Christian Zionists.
Discrimination against Christianity inherent in Israel’s “Law of Return”
The efforts by Netanyahu and the JNF to present Israel as tolerant and friendly to Christians are important to maintain external, especially Christian Zionist support, and to hide a much uglier reality.
Israel claims to be a “Jewish state.” Its blatantly discriminatory “Law of Return” grants the automatic right to those it recognizes as Jews from anywhere in the world to immigrate and receive citizenship even if they have no connection to the country. At the same time, Israel prevents indigenous Palestinian refugees, including those born there, from returning home just because they are not Jews.
But according to the US State Department in its 2011 report on religious freedom around the world, Israel specifically applies a blatantly anti-Christian test in applying this bigoted law:
The question of whether one believes Jesus is the Jewish Messiah has been used to determine whether a Jew was qualified to immigrate. The [Israeli] Supreme Court repeatedly has upheld the right, however, of Israeli Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah to retain their citizenship. The immigration exclusion was routinely applied only against Messianic Jews, whereas Jews who were atheists were accepted, and Jews who chose to believe in other religions, including Hindus and Buddhists, were not screened out.
In other words a “Jew” can be an atheist, Hindu, or Buddhist – anything at all – and be granted citizenship by Israeli authorities. It is only a belief in Jesus that disqualifies them.
Attacks on Christian holy sites
As for Netanyahu’s promise that Christian holy sites would be protected, he failed to mention that in recent months, Israeli settlers, acting with the collusion of Israeli authorities, have stepped up so-called “price tag” attacks on Christian holy sites.
Meanwhile, Christmas celebrations proceeded this year in Gaza and in Iran, where municipal authorities in Tehran have in recent years put up banners celebrating the birth of Jesus on many main streets. Both Iran and Gaza are Muslim-majority places that Israeli propaganda loves to paint as particularly intolerant of religious minorities.
Few countries live up to their own claims about religious freedom and tolerance and many must do better. But selling Israel in particular, whose whole raison d’être is to privilege Jews qua Jews over the indigenous Palestinian population of any religion, as a paragon of tolerance and pluralism is patently absurd.