Just when it seemed that the much-ballyhooed “War on Christmas” had run its course, the battle seems to have opened up a new front: Hanukkah.
The Jewish festival of lights ended on Monday. But before it even started, on December 12, the Tennessee chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Governor Phil Bredesen urging him to remove a Hanukkah menorah from the state capitol in Nashville. The menorah display is part of an annual lighting ceremony sponsored by a Jewish organization responsible for 1,500 similar lightings worldwide.
The letter, written by the Tennessee ACLU’s executive director, Hedy Weinberg, stated that “the Center for Jewish Awareness’ request to place a menorah on state property and hold a candle-lighting ceremony is clearly religious. In that context, the display would violate the Constitution.”
This isn’t the first time a hostile group has sought to extinguish the menorah. It isn’t even the first time the ACLU has challenged a Hanukkah display. In the late 1980s, the organization challenged a menorah erected outside the Pittsburgh city-county building. The case ultimately reached the Supreme Court, which affirmed the constitutionality of the display.
Justice Blackmun observed that “the menorah, one must recognize, is a religious symbol: it serves to commemorate the miracle of the oil as described in the Talmud. But the menorah’s message is not exclusively religious. The menorah is the primary visual symbol for a holiday that, like Christmas, has both religious and secular dimensions.”
In Nashville–where the ACLU’s letter appears to have fallen on deaf ears (or at least the politically keen ears of Gov. Bredesen, a moderate southern Democrat seen as a dark horse 2008 contender)–Rabbi Yitzchok Tiechtel of the Center for Jewish Awareness channeled Justice Blackmun: “Although the menorah represents the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, it has become a symbol of religious freedom throughout the world and, more specifically, [of] the basic beliefs of America’s first settlers who themselves were victims of religious persecution.”
This indeed is a central message of Hanukkah, a crucial component of America’s historic religious tolerance, and an oft-forgotten truism of the holiday season.
Last things first. The gory details of the Christmas wars have been exhaustively depicted. Suffice it to say that extremists on either side of this issue have not exactly distinguished themselves.
On one hand, Boston’s renaming of the “Holiday Tree” was silly. The list goes on, and you’ve heard many of the stories. A friend who recently visited Disneyland told me that he and his family rode the temporarily converted “It’s a Small World Holiday” ride only to find the absence of anything unrelated to Christmas. Yet Disney has inanely refused to call the ride what is plainly is–”It’s a Small World Christmas.”
In short, there’s no reason to be afraid of the word “Christmas” and its traditional accoutrements. The efforts of groups like the ACLU serve only to antagonize the vast majority of Americans–with no discernible benefits.
On the other hand, the Christmas warriors convinced of a nationwide conspiracy should also take a deep breath. The White House “holiday” card, for instance–the norm since 1992–isn’t the product of a nefarious plot to uproot Christmas from the American landscape. The “Holiday Season” mentioned in the card refers to Christmas and New Year’s as well as the holidays celebrated by other religions.
What’s more, the ill-conceived effort to boycott Target and Wal-Mart and others as a punishment for their failure to explicitly refer to Christmas in their marketing materials is eerily reminiscent of a similarly foolish campaign.
The upshot is that while the public display of religious symbols–trees, crèches, menorahs–can be perfectly appropriate, so too is inclusiveness, as long as it doesn’t strain credulity.
These, indeed, are the hallmarks of the American tradition of religious tolerance–an openness rooted in religiosity. The formal separation of church and state plays an important, but supporting, role by enabling our rich civil society to simultaneously express its religiosity and welcome people of all faiths–and no faith at all.
This tolerance springs from a distinctly Christian kindness, a spiritual understanding born, as Rabbi Tiechtel observes, of dissenting pilgrims seeking a place to worship freely.
This approach has characterized the overwhelmingly warm reception that American Jews have consistently enjoyed. No slice of the Diaspora has ever treated its Jews as kindly, fairly, and openly as the United States, a tradition that has stretched from George W. to George W. America’s Jewish community bears witness to this modern-day miracle on a daily basis and formally expresses its gratitude in prayer every week. In this day and age, with evangelical Christians so energetically supporting the State of Israel, American Jews have an even more compelling reason to be thankful.
Still, much of the Jewish community in the U.S. suffers from cognitive dissonance. As Dennis Prager is fond of observing, our worst enemies used to be the Christians, our strongest allies the universities. Today, Prager argues, the reverse is true.
Indeed, the worldwide Jewish community will continue to feel dangerously squeezed as leftist and extreme secularist groups tighten their grip on liberalism and as militant Islamists expand their influence in the countries surrounding Israel; while the threat from the latter is incomparably more menacing, it is nourished by the moral relativism sown by the former.
Thus, there’s cause for somber reflection as we usher in 2006. But there’s also joy and appreciation for the miracles surrounding us. May we continually seek and find light, even in Nashville–and even in the face of those who would deny it.
–Michael M. Rosen is an attorney in San Diego and the head of the Republican Jewish Coalition’s San Diego chapter. The views expressed are his own.