A spate of articles appeared in the American press between Christmas and New Year's Day charging Israel with being less than welcoming to Christian tourists. Typical was Lee Hockstadter's Christmas Eve piece in the Washington Post, which begins with the results of a Gallup Poll that shows that 75 percent of Israelis cannot identify the significance of Dec. 25; two-thirds have no Christian friends; and 50 percent either did not know of the pope's upcoming visit or were unexcited by the prospect.
These results, he claims, highlight the "deep ambivalence" of most Israelis about hundreds of thousands of hoped-for Christian tourists this year.
Another article, by Flore de Preneuf of the St. Petersburg Times, complains of a lack of welcoming signs, and read something sinister into Israeli security officials installing video cameras on the streets and assigning security agents to Jerusalem churches.
Somehow the hermeneutical enterprise here seems a little overblown. Israelis are as eager for tourist dollars as anyone. True, they might not know much about Christianity, but they don't necessarily know much about Judaism, either. A quarter can at least identify Jesus' birth date according to the Catholic calendar. (In this part of the world, the Orthodox calendar, with a very different Christmas, is at least as widely followed.) Nowhere near that number could identify Moses' birthday.
If Israelis don't have many Christian friends, that might just have something to do with the fact that there are so few Christians who live here.
We may not be turning cartwheels over the pope's visit, but it has more to do with the Vatican's non-recognition of Israel than with a lack of interest in Christian tourists. (It must be admitted that a millennium of pogroms and persecution, often church-sponsored, is not erased from the memory banks in a minute.)
Perhaps the fears of apocalyptic cults and of lunatics suffering from "Jerusalem syndrome" who believe themselves to be the messiah are overblown, but the recent deportation of precisely such a cult from Denver gives those fears more than a little credence. And it is Israel who will be blamed if anything goes wrong, just as it was in 1969 when an Australian tourist suffering from messianic delusions torched the Al Aksa mosque.
So the video cameras and security guards are to protect Christian tourists, not to drive them away. Equally baseless is the charge of Messrs. Hockstadter, de Preneuf and others that Haredi (fervently religious) Jews have shown a particular animus to Christian tourists, especially through the Jerusalem rabbinate, which did not allow hotels to host open parties on Christmas Eve or New Year's Eve, both of which fell on Shabbat, or permit the hotels to have Christmas trees in their lobbies.
In truth, Orthodox Jews have a much easier time with religious Christians than does the average American or Israeli Jew. They do not get hysterical every time some Christian preacher expresses doubts about whether Jews have a place in heaven or when the Southern Baptists declare their intent to convert the Jews. They neither fear that their children will fall victim to those conversion efforts or care very much about the details of other people's theology.
While not interested in ecumenical dialogue, they have no problem forming political alliances with evangelical Christians, for instance, and do not instinctively recoil from those with deeply held Christian beliefs, as do many secular Jews. As Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, the late Rosh Yeshiva of Ner Israel, frequently said, "We are much better off in a Christian America than an atheist one."
Not surprisingly, then, the advent of hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims is a matter of grave indifference in Jerusalem's Haredi neighborhoods. The Jerusalem Rabbinate did not snub Christians, but rather stuck to the principle that Jewish Jerusalem runs according to Jewish time. Be it Christmas Eve or New Year's, it is still Shabbat.
It was not Christians, who were permitted to hold their own private parties, who were offended, but rather Jewish hotelkeepers. One hotel manager explicitly told Mr. de Preneuf that hoteliers had hoped to use this year's festivities to open up Jerusalem's hotels to weekly Friday night parties.
In every Western country, the religious symbols at this time of year are overwhelmingly Christian. They remind Jews - and rightly so - that we are still in Exile. Jews, with the sole exception of Chabad, have neither expected nor sought to place our religious symbols in the public square. Lighting the menorah is a mitzvah, and its place is the Jewish home and synagogue.
But is there anything so terrible if in one city in the world, Jews do not have to feel like strangers, whose calendar is determined by other people's festivals? And isn't it a trifle ethnocentric for American reporters to complain of not finding in Jerusalem the same Christmas tree and tinsel-festooned streets that they knew back home?