Battle Lines Emerge on Marking Holiday

The sound of angry Christians railing against the marginalization of Christmas has become the new tune of this holiday season.

Across the country, from department stores to town halls, battle lines have been drawn over how to mark the winter holidays.

Led by evangelical groups, which say the holiday’s religious significance is being ignored, some Christians are fighting back. They’re threatening to sue school districts that have banned the singing of Christmas carols and other places where “Happy holidays” has replaced “Merry Christmas” as the preferred greeting of the season.

Evangelical leaders don’t cast the Jewish community as Scrooge, yet efforts to highlight Christian themes and celebrations at Christmas historically have come at the expense of religious diversity and tolerance, say some Jewish leaders.

“It is not a movement prompted by an animus against Jews or the Jewish community,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, who in recent months has spoken out on what he characterizes as the growing evangelical influence in the United States. “But the unintended consequence is that Jews may be blamed for it.”

Rabbi Leah Richman of Pottsville, Pa., received angry letters and phone calls when she called for the removal of a nativity scene in her town square.

“The non-Jewish people in the area are very interested in promoting Christmas and they believe that church and state should be more mingled,” Richman said. “They’re taking my stand as being anti- tolerance and anti-diversity because I’m not tolerant of their nativity scene.”

Instead of opposing the nativity scene, some respondents said Richman should place a menorah nearby. Indeed, much of the evangelical community’s argument has rested on a call for more celebrations of both Christmas and Chanukah, part of a call for a return to “Judeo-Christian values.”

“It just seems to me that what we ought to be aiming for in America is recognizing everyone’s traditions, rather than melding traditions into a homogenized whatever,” said Gary Bauer, president of American Values, an organization associated with the Christian right.

The onslaught of Christmas decorations and programming for years has been a source of quiet frustration for American Jews, but decisions about how to handle it have varied. Some Jewish groups have worked to ensure that religious Christmas displays don’t enter the public square, while others — predominantly the Chabad movement — sought equal treatment for menorahs and other Chanukah decorations.

The inclusion of Chanukah and then the African-American holiday of Kwanzaa has forced retailers and municipalities to seek more generic and inclusive ways of acknowledging all faiths. That has led, in due course, to claims that Christianity has been taken out of Christmas celebrations.

Boston renamed a tree in Boston Common a “holiday tree.” Target, the giant retailer, was criticized for airing commercials in December that did not specifically mention Christmas.

Even Pope Benedict XVI has weighed in, declaring this month that a “commercial pollution” of Christmas could alter the holiday’s true meaning. He suggested families erect nativity scenes in their homes.

The pro-Christmas movement comes at a time of growing evangelical political strength, giving their message increased weight and attention. Evangelicals have fought this year against efforts to remove proselytizing from the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., and to promote the teaching of “intelligent design” in public schools. Nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court have been evaluated, in part, on their church attendance and their public proclamations of faith.

Some evangelicals have “come to feel a certain strength in their position in America and in the public that they didn’t feel under President Clinton,” said Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, founder and chairman of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.

Even the White House has been chastised for writing “Best wishes for the holiday season” on its annual Christmas cards.

Those who perceive a decrease in Christmas observance, including media figures like Bill O’Reilly and John Gibson, both of the FOX News Channel, claim Christmas is being excluded from seasonal decorations in a misguided attempt to be sensitive to minorities.

“It’s mostly guilt-ridden Christians,” said Gibson in an interview. He’s the author of “The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought” (Sentinel HC).

Added Bauer: “The Jews I know are not offended by the words, ‘Merry Christmas.’ The controversy doesn’t seem to be coming from believing Jews.”

But some Christian leaders do accuse Hollywood, the media and the American Civil Liberties Union of taking the religion out of Christmas — and all three groups are widely viewed as being run by Jews, Foxman said.

Eckstein warned of a backlash if Jews are perceived as being on the front lines of the fight.

In Coatesville, Pa., Councilman William Chertok was accused by a colleague of voting against an increase in the city’s Christmas parade budget because he was Jewish.

“I understand, Mr. Chertok, that Jews don’t celebrate Christmas,” Councilwoman-elect Patsy Ray said in a meeting in November. Her comments prompted rebukes from the City Council and the local media.

Chertok said he voted against the increase for budgetary reasons.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, has been often cast as the lead opponent of Christmas celebrations. He said evangelical leaders are trying to place Christmas and Christianity above other religions.

“There’s a kind of Christian triumphalism; a feeling that Christians have to win every battle,” said Lynn, who commented by telephone while shopping for Christmas presents. “There is a fear that other religions are going to be treated the same as Christmas, and that means Christmas won’t have its special place five weeks of the year.”

Scholar Jonathan Sarna asserts that the Christian evangelicals have some reason to be concerned. Because at some level, they are gradually losing their battle with history.

“What we’re seeing in America today, with the evangelical emphasis, will be looked back on as the last gasp to hold onto an America that is [solely] Christian,” said Sarna, a professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University.

At the same time, supporters of interfaith dialogue say that as the majority religion in the United States, Christians have a right to see more expressions of their faith.

“It’s a legitimate feeling when 90 percent of the country is for it,” Eckstein said. “I am not threatened by someone who affirms his faith.”

Evangelical Media Gather Around Israel

"FIree soup’s on us!" That was the invitation David Suissa’s Los Angeles-based charity Meals 4 Israel extended to all 5,000 participants of the National Religious Broadcasters Convention in Charlotte, N.C. last month — and it was pastors and ministers who made their way to the booth to sample some soup and learn more about the charity.

Suissa started Meals 4 Israel after reading an October 2003 Ha’aretz article that said that one in five Israelis live below the poverty line. He decided he could let the soup kitchens concentrate on making soup while he raised money for them.

And he turned to the Christian community to do it.

"We really want help from anyone," Suissa said. "But we felt that the Christian community was a huge group with a visceral connection to Israel and a special, biblical affinity to problems like hunger."

So Suissa teamed up with the Christian Coalition of America, a lobbying group affiliated with thousands of evangelical churches, to harness the fundraising potential of the Christian community. Meals 4 Israel went down to North Carolina to set up a booth at Feb. 13-18 event to capitalize on Christian love for Israel and raise more money for needy Israelis in the process.

Meals 4 Israel was only one of several Jewish or Israeli related booths at the convention, which brought together more than 250 publishers, radio and television stations, programs and ministries from across North America. But the largest booth was not a Christian one: it was Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

The preponderance of Jewish- or Israel-related booths appearing among those featuring crosses and the Jesus paraphernalia made it clear that there is a dichotomy in the alliance Israel has with the American Christian community. While Christians attending the conference are ready to invest millions of tourist dollars in Israel and support Israel-related charities, they are also eager to evangelize Israeli and Diaspora Jews.

The Israel Ministry for Tourism sponsored both the Israel booth and a breakfast for about 1,000 convention participants, at a cost of almost $200,000.

"We view the evangelical Christian market as a powerful mechanism to increase tourism in the land of Israel," Israeli Tourism Minister Benny Elon said. "Evangelicals are visiting Israel in tremendous numbers, and we want to continue to increase tourism to the land of the Bible."

Other booths capitalized on Christian love for Israel. Holy Land Gifts sold Christian-friendly products made in Israel, such as shofars and tallises used in some evangelical services, while Mount of Olives Treasures, a Jewish-owned company, sold biblical teas and biblical oils that contain fragrances mentioned in the scriptures.

For all the goodwill toward Israel, there was an evangelical counterbalance. Jews for Jesus had a small booth but a big presence at the convention, with many people walking around carrying their distinctive red-and-white bags. Chosen People Ministries sought to attract young evangelists with a snappy brochure titled, "Jewish Evangelism — Who, Me?," featuring cute coeds. The brochure promised "exciting outreach" opportunities: "Our short-term Missions Department can show your church group the needs of the Jewish community through outreach, cultural understanding and prayer. Our experienced missionary staff will train and lead you in outreach to the different Jewish communities of New York."

Bible Voice Broadcasting, lead by a "spirit- filled believer," Rabbi Moshe Laurie, announced its inaugural Hebrew broadcast to Israel. The Messianic Prophecy Bible sought sponsors to create a Jew-friendly Bible that would "emphasize the messianic prophecies and explain how Yeshua (Jesus) fulfilled those prophecies" and would help save the "14 million unsaved Jewish people worldwide."

Herschel W. Gulley of the Gulley Foundation, who has traveled to Israel dozens of times, told The Journal, "I get a little flutter in my heart every time I hear about Israel."

Gulley has plans for Israel: By the end of the year, he wants to set up free ultrasound clinics in Israel to stop abortions — "No woman who has ever seen her baby has aborted it," he said — and then go into poor communities and give residents presents, like free computers. "Then, they will say, ‘Tell us about this God of yours,’ and then we will tell them about Jesus," he said.

Also disturbing was the response that "The Passion of the Christ" got when it was screened at the NRB Media Awards. In what was possibly a veiled reference to the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a spokesperson from the Alliance Defense Fund, who spoke prior to the film, railed against "the groups who have done everything in their power to keep this film from ever being seen. [These ] groups would like to silence all of us."

Paul Lancer, the film’s public relations director, introduced the film saying, "This movie has been operating on a God level. [This film] is a work of God."

The sobbing and heaving of the 5,000 people attending the screening augmented its soundtrack. Afterward, various clerics and others told The Journal that the portrayal of the Jews was not negative per se, but "historically accurate."

"In the scourging scene, every time the whip dug into his skin, I was thinking, ‘That was for me; that was for me,’" said Sharon Hodde of the Proverbs 31 Ministry in Matthews, N.C. "The Jews are not portrayed positively in the film, but that was historical."

Nevertheless, evangelism and "Passion" fervor are not the main issues facing the Jewish community.

"The real unholy alliance," said Elon, the Israeli tourism minister "is the one between the radical leftists who sit in Hyde Park and the Jew-haters who look to destroy the state, instead of the alliance between people who love the land of Israel and love the land of the Bible."

Jerusalem Mayor’s Visit Sparks Snub

Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert will appear in San Diego Oct. 15, but there will not be any official representatives from the Jewish community to welcome him at the $1,000-a-plate dinner.

However, Olmert will not find an empty room. The mayor was invited by the Mission Valley Christian Fellowship, an Evangelical Christian church that will present Olmert with a $500,000 check “for the urgent, critical and immediate support of the victims of terrorism.”

Olmert’s appearance at the dinner sponsored by the church — which Jewish groups call a proselytizing organization — has sparked a debate in San Diego. It is the same debate that is taking place around the country, as Jewish groups ask: Should we ally ourselves on the Israel issue with organizations that we’d otherwise oppose?

In San Diego, the answer seems to be no. Jewish groups are boycotting the Oct. 15 event, at which part of the money being raised by the dinner for 400 will go to the Nicodemus Project, a church program aimed at spreading the word of God in Israel.

“There are people in the community who are very concerned about the nature of this group,” said Jane Scher, chair of the Community Relations Committee of the United Jewish Federation of San Diego.

At issue in the Olmert visit is whether the Mission Valley Christian Fellowship is simply a community of Israel-loving Christians, or whether it is a group of Israel-loving Christians who are making concerted efforts to proselytize Jews in Israel.

Leslie Decker, a spokesperson for the Christian Fellowship, denied that the church has an evangelical component. However, she admitted that conversion of Jews is a church dream.

“Our Nicodemus Project is going to be spreading the word of God as coming from the Torah alone,” she said. “Our aim is to spread Judaism.

“Of course, we would love them [the Jews] to accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah, but the primary goal is to show them that there are people in the United States who love them, and who are standing beside them no matter what,” Decker said.

“This is subterfuge, and the church is covering it up,” said Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz of Jews for Judaism, a Jewish anti-missionary organization. “Their Web site states that their mission is to ‘seek to point others to Jesus Christ’ and that ‘putting the word of God up throughout Israel will turn the hearts of Israel to the Lord,’ who they say is Jesus Christ. Jews for Judaism did an independent investigation of the church, and we found that they really want to bring Jews to Jesus.”

Olmert would not return calls for comment.

Others in the community said that no matter what the church’s motives are, this may not be the right time for Jewish groups to alienate friends of Israel.

“At a time like this, when the world community is so notoriously anti-Israel, and there are Evangelical Christians supporting Israel, I think Israeli officials have an obligation to accept that support,” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “Israeli officials should be doing all they can to muster Christians’ support of Israel, but that is not to say they should tolerate any missionary activities,” he added. “And if that is the price of support, then they should withhold their support.”

Yariv Ovadia, consul for communications and public affairs at Israeli consulate in Los Angeles, which covers San Diego, said that the consulate supports Olmert’s visit.

“The church that organized and financed mayor Olmert’s trip has been a vocal advocate for the State of Israel, particularly in this hour of need,” Ovadia said. “While we understand the sensitivity of the issue, we feel that a fundraising event for the victims of terrorism in Jerusalem is a tremendous support for the people of Israel, and Jerusalem in particular.”

Around the country, Jewish groups are divided on the issue, concerned about the evangelical underpinnings of Christian support. Right-wing Christians believe that the second coming of Christ will occur when Jews return to Israel, and at The End of Days, Jews will accept Christ as their savior.

In a recent New York Times piece, Maureen Dowd quoted the Rev. Jerry Falwell as saying, “You and I know that there’s not going to be any real peace in the Middle East until one day the Lord Jesus Christ sits on the throne of David in Jerusalem.”

In the same article, Leon Weiseltier, Jewish scholar and literary editor of The New Republic, called Christian support of Israel “a grim comedy of mutual condescension. The Evangelical Christians condescend to the Jews by offering their support before they convert or kill them. And the Jews condescend to Christians by accepting their support, while believing that their eschatology is nonsense.”

But turning away from Christian support might be too much to ask from a country constantly on the defensive in front of world government bodies, such as the European Union and the United Nations, and facing a devastating tourism decline. For example, approximately 3,500 Christians from 70 countries visited Israel during Succot, and on Friday, Oct. 11, the Christian Coalition will rally in support of Israel in Washington, D.C. Moreoever, Christian groups are as vocal in condemning suicide bombings and endorsing pro-Israel politicians as Jewish leaders.

But some are not swayed.

“Do I believe that Christians should give money to Israel? Yes,” Kravitz said. “Should they help the victims of terror? Yes.

“But something is wrong here,” he continued. “We have to do everything to survive — but is it only survival to not be physically hurt? According to Jewish tradition, the spiritual destruction of a Jew is as serious an issue as the physical destruction.”