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Israel’s Ministry of Tourism reports that 75,000 Christian tourists are expected to arrive in Israel to celebrate Christmas this year at the standard Christian pilgrimage sites of Nazareth, Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
But in recent years, an increasing number of Israelis are taking part in a range of Christmas activities—everything from concerts offered by some of the country’s prominent institutions, to Christmas parties at popular bars, to midnight mass offered in Hebrew at the St. James Catholic Church in downtown Jerusalem.
Israelis mingle with Christian pilgrims at the multilingual carol service on Christmas Eve at the majestic Notre Dame Center just outside the walls of the Old City. Ron Dauman, 58, a self-proclaimed secular Israeli from Mevasseret Tzion a few miles west of Jerusalem, has been bringing friends to Notre Dame for Christmas for more than five years. “There’s no religious significance in it for me. It’s a cultural thing that I find appealing and attractive. Non-Jews attend Passover seders—I attend Christmas eve,” he explains.
Just five kilometers from Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the heart of Christmas tourism, is in Area A, under Palestinian Authority control, and is off-limits to Israelis—who are warned to stay out by large yellow signs posted at the checkpoints.
Nevertheless, Shoshana Pardo, 48, a Jerusalem resident and dual U.S-Israeli citizen, uses her American passport to join the busloads of tourists crossing into the small town to visit Manger Square in the days before Christmas. “I consider it part of the Israeli experience,” she says. “I guess it’s because I was raised in a multi-cultural society in America. We shouldn’t be threatened by others’ beliefs.”
A Hallelujah Christmas Concert under the aegis of Jerusalem’s Tower of David takes place on the Friday before Christmas at the nearby Christ Church of the Old City. Ads for the event carry the logo of Israel’s Ministry of Sport and Culture and the Jerusalem Municipality, despite the reputation of Christ Church as a center for missionary activity. A Messianic Hebrew congregation uses the facility on Saturdays.
A Hebrew University sociologist who spoke to JNS.org and requested anonymity equates the phenomenon of the rise of Israeli participation in Christmas activities with two main sources. One is the effort of local evangelical churches to “erase the boundaries between Christianity and Judaism.” A second is the influence of the American idea of transforming Christmas from a religious to a civil holiday.
“Just as Thanksgiving was once a Puritan festival with religious overtones, but became a secular holiday observed by all good Americans, including Jews, so Christmas is losing a lot of its religious significance,” she says. “And everyone knows how much Israelis like to emulate Americans…” she adds.
Along the main streets of most Israeli cities, visitors will find only a few shops decked out with Christmas glitz, but you don’t have to look too far for evidence of the holiday. Every year the Jerusalem Municipality hangs decorative neon lights along a long stretch of Hebron Road, the main thoroughfare leading from southern Jerusalem into Bethlehem. There are no explicitly Christian symbols, just huge bright stars.
For the first time, the Jerusalem Development Authority announced this year is decorating the streets and hanging festive lights around the Old City in honor of Christmas. In contrast, just a few years ago in 2009, the display of a Christmas tree in the window of a Tel Aviv branch of the Zara fashion store sparked controversy. After a public outcry, store managers removed the tree.
Many bars and organizations are hosting Christmas parties this year. One at a popular Tel Aviv bar, organized by the iGoogledisrael tourism website and advertised on Facebook as the “ultimate Christmas party,” had more than 70 people signed up a couple of days ahead of the event.
For Rabbi Dr. Avraham Feder, rabbi emeritus of Jerusalem’s Beit Knesset Moreshet Yisrael, the fact that Israelis attend concerts of Christian liturgical music is not a concern. “Perhaps the fact that we’re in our own country means Jews can be more secure about Christians observing their own traditions,” he says.
“But,” he says emphatically, “for individual Jews who observe Christmas, I believe it shows a lack of ego strength in our own Jewish celebrations.”
Having lived in Israel for decades, Rabbi Feder remarks that for years he enjoyed the fact that Dec. 25 just came and went.
“Recently I’ve noticed it more,” he admits.