Photographer: MUSA AL-SHAER/AFP via Getty Images

Israel Rabbis Issue Christmas Tree Warnings

  • Tree at Technion remains in place -- next to Hanukkah menorah
  • Liberal Jewish group demands clarification for hotels

In many places around the world, the Christmas tree is a symbol of a merry holiday season. In some Israeli cities, rabbis say the twinkling icon poses a heathen threat to Judaism.

At the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, the school’s community rabbi said Jews should avoid the student union hall after a Christmas tree was placed there for the benefit of Christian students. Calling the tree a pagan, anti-Jewish symbol, Rabbi Elad Dokow took to his Facebook page to urge students not to enter the hall even to buy food.

“Too much Jewish blood has been spilled by those who have been inclusionary,” Dokow wrote.

In Jerusalem, the city rabbinate informed hotels that displaying Christmas trees contravenes Jewish law and is prohibited. Reprinted on a website, the rabbinate’s letter also said hotels should not hold New Year’s parties on Dec. 31, since Jews observe a different new year.

The skirmishes over holiday observance reflect continued strife over religious pluralism between Israel’s Orthodox establishment and secular Jews -- not to mention the nearly 25 percent of Israelis who are not Jewish. While controversies over Christmas trees are an annual chestnut here, pluralism debates have erupted on several fronts in recent months, including over mixed-gender Jewish prayer at Jerusalem’s Western Wall and an Orthodox demand that the government not carry out repairs to the country’s train network during the Sabbath.

In Israel, where the Orthodox rabbinical establishment exercises broad authority over daily life and personal status, the warnings on Yule trees have provoked a backlash.

“Now I know why I felt the need to eat bacon and cheese together,” one student wrote sarcastically on the Technion rabbi’s Facebook page, implying that the tree’s presence had led him to violate Jewish dietary law in multiple ways. 

The school said the rabbi’s comments reflected only his personal opinions. 

“At the Technion, the many various holidays are celebrated and recognized throughout the year,” university spokeswoman Doron Shaham said.

Hiddush, a group that promotes religious pluralism in Israel, called the rabbinate’s Jerusalem letter “very serious” and demanded that the Ministry of Religious Services clarify that there’s no legal prohibition against displaying Christmas trees. The Chief Rabbinate, which oversees municipal rabbis, has said putting up a tree would not cost a hotel its kosher certification.

This year, the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah begins on Christmas Eve. That might offer one way to defuse the tensions. 

“In the current case,” Technion spokeswoman Shaham said, “a menorah has been placed next to the Christmas tree.”

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