The Supreme Court, when ruling on the issue of whether religious symbolism could be displayed on public land (think court houses and schools), came up with a lot of issue-dodging, fact-based factors to consider. SCOTUS said that one factor is whether the religion’s symbol is part of a greater tableau including multiple religions or traditions. SCOTUS got it wrong, as it frequently does.
This tableau notion has permeated our culture and has gone beyond government-owned land. We now rely on political correctness and “inclusiveness” when deciding how to go about our religious business in public rather than focusing on the central issue of whether religion ever even belongs in public given the disparate impact that public display of religion has on religious minorities. Our society presumes it’s OK to put up a creche, a tree, a santa as long as we throw up a token menorah alongside it.
This is hugely problematic, because it means that Christians are appropriating symbols of my religion to justify the presence of their own religious symbolism in public locations. It’s patronizing, offensive and blatantly disingenuine.
1. I rarely, rarely ever see other religions included besides Judaism. Judaism makes up a whopping 1.7% of the American population, while Muslims make up 0.6% and Hindus make up 0.7%. 4% practice no religion. While there may be twice as many Jews as Muslims or Hindus the difference between these groups in terms of percentage of population is hardly significant, and there are also twice as many atheists, apparently, as there are Jews. (The world, meanwhile, is 22.3% Muslim and only 0.22% Jewish, with Hindus and Buddhists falling inbetween). The reality is that, except for religions so uncommon that it would simply be impracticable to include them, there’s no reason we should not include all religious minorities. Christianity is by far and away the majority and as far as I’m concerned that leaves all the other religions on equal footing with each other, with Judaism no more or less dominant.
The reality is, however, that whether a religion is among the more dominant religions should not be an argument for whether it should be represented in a social tableau. I would argue that the less powerful or prevalent a minority the MORE important it is to include it in a tableau. Christianity does not NEED to be included in a tableau because the vast majority of Americans already have exposure to Christianity. It’s the minority religions that should be out on display – if there’s going to be a display at all.
2. I have heard Christians refer time and time again to Channukah as “the Jewish Christmas.” I have no doubt that the inclusion of menorahs or, God forbid, the invention of things like “Channukah bushes” and “Channukah Harry,” have led Christians to make this conclusion. But it is both offensive and inaccurate. And highly ironic, since Channukah celebrates Jewish nonassimilation into dominant religion and culture. It also commemorates a military battle in which we basically revolted against our host society, not a religious event, and most historians agree that the story about the oil miracle was added later on by the rabbis who were lobbying to make Channukah into a holiday. Channukah does not appear in the Torah and it is among our least significant holidays. It has nothing to do with Jesus. It is not the Jewish Christmas and it is as much an insult to Christmas to make this false connection because it ties the birth of Christianity’s most important figure to an insignificant holiday birthed in violence.
3. Nevertheless, Christians go out of their way to include Jews around Christmas time and acknowledge Channukah even though our most important holidays (and the bulk of our holidays) occur in the Fall. Rarely do Christians know about these holidays, acknowledge these holidays or put up decorations then. It’s clear that the only reason Christians acknowledge Channukah is because it falls around Christmas. This shows that attempts to include Judaism on any serious level are disingenuine, that no real attempt to research or understand my religion was made. At best it shows Christians recognize that most of the country becomes preoccupied around Christmas time and doesn’t want Jews to feel left out and alienated, but this leads to another problem…
4. We don’t want or need to be included around Christmas time. Judaism is sufficient on its own. I am proud of my Jewish heritage and identity. I don’t need to be included in Christmas in order to feel like I am a part of something great and I am not missing out on anything because I have my own wonderful traditions. Some of my Jewish friends do put up trees and Christmas decorations and I disagree with them 100%, but that debate is beyond the scope of this note and, frankly, not the business of anyone who isn’t a member of the tribe. Many others come from mixed-religion homes and for them both Judaism and Christianity are important parts of their identity. Many Jews, however, myself included, abhor the notion of doing anything remotely related to Christmas except to the extent that we are supporting our Christian friends in their own private celebrations (for example, I will attend a friend’s tree trimming party just as I’ll invite her to my Channukah party, but you will never catch me trimming a Christmas tree in my own home or putting up lights).
I’ve had people actually tell me they feel “sorry” for me that I don’t “get” to celebrate Christmas. I don’t want to celebrate Christmas. I have no interest in commemorating the birth of a savior that I don’t believe in. I’ll happily attend interfaith ceremonies that are genuine and that truly treat each involved religion as an equal player, that are aimed at creating understanding between different peoples without implying that any particular religious tradition is superior to another, but most attempts at inclusiveness are fake, half-assed, poorly researched, patronizing and more offensive than just leaving us out of it entirely.
For instance, my landlords put out a Christmas tree and many large Christmas decorations in our lobby every year, plus they play Christmas music over the hall speakers. They also put out a dinky menorah off to the side on which the candles are never lit and over which the right blessings are never said. This year Channukah came super early and overlapped Thanksgiving, but they didn’t put out the menorah until they started putting out the Christmas decorations. That means that they didn’t put out the menorah until after Channukah was OVER. How is this including Judaism in any kind of way that is meaningful? They have relegated the menorah (actually guys, it’s called a Channukiah) to the status of a Christmas accessory.
5. There appears to be an internal battle within Christianity as to whether Christmas is a secular holiday, and the government is a central player in that battle by taking “secular” Christmas symbols and placing them on public property as though they are not religious and are in fact part of some greater secular American culture. Christians should be alarmed by this because the American government is seeking to define their religious beliefs for them and that is exactly what the government is not supposed to do. As an American I am alarmed. I am also alarmed as a Jew. Taking on indicators of Christian identity is a denial of my Jewish identity. For the government – or for anyone – to tell me that symbols like Christmas trees and Santas and wreaths are actually part of secular American life is equivalent to telling me that if I don’t take on some aspects of Christian identity – thus denying my Jewishness – I’m somehow less American.
I love being Jewish, and I love being American, and I am equally proud of both facets of my identity, which are not mutually exclusive. I would not be American were it not for the fact that I am Jewish because my family came here generations ago to escape religious persecution. I could not be Jewish were it not for the fact that I am American. All my relatives who remained in Europe were killed during WWII because they were Jewish. This means that America basically saved my life. If my family had not immigrated here they would have all died and I would never have been born.
So it is an offense to imply that I am supposed to assimilate myself into some secularized, watered-down version of Christianity in order to be American when my Jewishness is a core part of my Americanness, and when true freedom and equality for all religions and peoples is one of the great founding principles that make America, and not Israel, the country I consider to be my homeland. All this public celebration of Christmas plus patronizing inclusion of Jewish symbols offend me as a Jew and, more importantly, as an American.