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How the mayor (of a Nazareth suburb) stole Christmas

Nazareth's "Mary's Spring" in 1894. The hill in the background is the site of today's Upper Nazareth.

Nazareth, Jesus’s hometown, is today a bustling city of over 70,000 people. The people of Nazareth are termed “Arab citizens of Israel” or “1948 Palestinians,” depending on one’s politics. About a third of Nazarenes are Christians, the rest are Muslim.

On the hill rising above the dense town and its imposing Basilica of the Annunciation, lies Upper Nazareth (Hebrew: “Nazareth Illit”). This community was founded by Israel in 1957, a Jewish town situated so as to overlook the country’s largest solidly Arab community. However, realities in the Galilee transcend nationalist aspirations. Families from Nazareth proper have been moving over the years to the airier hilltop suburb. Today, about 15 percent of Upper Nazareth residents are Arabs, mostly Christians.

These Arabs have witnessed the enormous Hanukkiyahs (menorahs) places by the city over the Jewish holiday of Hannukah. Now, with the coming of Christmas, they approached the mayor, Shimon Gapso, and requested that a Christmas tree be placed as well. Gafso, reports Israeli news site NRG (owned by Maariv), refused staunchly. “Upper Nazareth is a Jewish town and all its symbols are Jewish,” said Gapso, “As long as I hold office, no non-Jewish symbol will be presented in the city.”

Arab members of the city council, representing a moderate public that chose to come and live in a heavily Jewish suburb, insisted. They mentioned the Hanukkiyahs erected in American cities that aren’t designated Jewish. Gapso ignored their pleas. “Let them go down to Lower Nazareth,” he said this week. To his support came the city’s chief rabbi, Isaiah Herzl, who said that erecting Christmas tree is unthinkable since it would be “offensive to Jewish eyes.”

Unlike the reporter at NRG, the author here at +972 Magazine has liberty to comment and analyse. It is almost scary to attempt this, since such a story would read so differently to different readers. Being a Jew, I know exactly how threatening Christmas is to us, being the most tempting symbol of non-Jewish life (I wouldn’t even say Christian life, since the roots of the holiday are pagan, it is celebrated by non-Christians and has been greatly stripped of its Christian content over the past century). We have all been brought up with the notion that holding on to Judaism requires resisting such symbols.

In the heart, that is.

By declaring Upper Nazareth Christmas resistant, Mayor Gapso exposes the great insecurity and confusion of the Jewish state. If the only way to maintain the Jewish character of his town is by showing complete lack of tolerance and resisting integration of its non-Jewish residents, then Upper Nazareth is in fact a self imposed ghetto, walled by fear and intolerance and so, by extension, is the entire state of Israel.

Having lived within these walls for so long, Mayor Gapso has absolutely no clue what non-Jews around the world would feel when hearing that the mayor of a Nazareth suburb bans Christmas trees. He is the mayor who stole Christmas, the mayor of an ethnocentric town with a name that hints at superiority, who rejects a symbol of universal tolerance.

Make no mistake, mayors always think forward to the next election. Mr. Gapso, who in the past made efforts to draw Jewish families into his town and reduce the percentage of Arabs in it, predicts that his act will draw support from the community. In that he does not differ from the Jewish mayors of other mixed towns, such as Akko’s Shimon Lankry, who take an intolerant position whenever that is an option, gaining power from the animosities within their communities.

In the spirit of the holidays, let us conclude this not with them but with a fond mention of a different city. The city of Haifa, under Mayor Yona Yahav, placed a huge Christmas tree right at the boundary of the its Jewish and Arab neighborhoods, (in fact, a bit further into the Jewish area), proving that sharing the festive season is possible even in this troubled land.

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    1. There is a basic misconception here, also found almost everywhere. The so-called “Christmas” tree is just a European pagan folk tradition, unlike the menorah and the cross, which are real religious symbols.

      Reply to Comment
    2. erika reif

      As an America born to parents that were ambiguous about those trees forcing me to decorate avocado trees and sculptures many X-mas’. The Tree is more a symbol of hope. Of brotherhood with fellowman. Of giving, thinking about others and sharing life. It is a time to greet strangers and wish the best for them. I suppose all this would be strange to zionists. Few jews where we lived. Most jewish holidays seemed to be about wars and suffering to me. Glitter and cheerful songs would be a threatening competitor

      Reply to Comment
    3. I think even our holidays that stem from histories of war and suffering tend to be pretty nice, take Hanukkah with its candles and donuts or Purim with its costumes. I think jewish tradition has a lot to offer that would counterbalance a tree strangely burdened with plastic orbs. That Santa Claus, though… he’s a force to reckon with.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Peace on Earth
      Human Decency to Man

      Reply to Comment
    5. Ben Israel

      This may be hard for many of you out there to understand, but Xmas has negative connotations for many Jews, particularly those of Ashkenazic-European backgroud. You see, for many generations, Xmas was not a time of “good-will” for Jews, it was a time of fear because anti-Jewish riots were not uncommon at that time of the year, and also at Easter, because the priests would remind their parishioners that it was their Jewish neighbors who supposedly killed Jesus. There was also the memory of forced conversions to Christianity.

      Now, as this “972” site is constantly pointing out, Jews and Israelis are irredeemably racist people, backwards, corrupt, and primitive, totally unlike our Arab neighbors. So in order to begin to raise us out of our benighted state, I suggest the Christians first go into an Arab/Muslim town, such as Um el-Fahem and put Xmas trees up there. The Muslims resident there, who are part of the most tolerant religion in the world as they themselves are always telling us, in addition to President Obama, would no doubt welcome such signs of Christianity being displayed prominently in their town, and then we backwards Jews can then learn tolerance from them.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Notice, BI: the first paragraph in the post states that Nazareth itself has a Muslim majority. It goes without saying that the Muslims there accept their Christian neighbors and their celebrations. Umm Al Fahm has less Christians in it than does Upper Nazareth. If it did have a Christian minority, that minority would have been entitled to a Christmas tree and would have likely gotten one.

      Yes, Christians in the Middle East suffer prejudice from Muslims too, but that is an issue for these two groups to resolve. I take responsibility for my own group’s actions and this is why I deal with its flaws (and not because I think we are irredeemably primitive, as you suggest). By ignoring our flaws, we are certainly not doing anything to better ourselves nor the world.

      As for Christmas pogroms, yes, they have existed. They were the fruit of blind prejudice and inacceptence of those different from the mainstream community. Let’s not fall into the same traps of hatred. We should accept the Arabs in Upper Nazareth exactly because our forfathers were not accepted in Europe.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Ben Israel

      I am afraid that the Muslim-Christian problems are not just an issue “for them to decide”. When you consider that the Christian population of the Arab Middle East has shrunk to the point that the Christians are only about 2% of the population of the region, it makes one wonder why there is a problem at all. The problem , to put it bluntly, is Muslim extremism. And it doesn’t affect only the Christians, it affects us as well. Recall the recent massacre in the Church in Baghdad? The fact that the Christian population in Iraq is fleeing for their lives? For that matter, do you follow the seemingly unending mutual slaughter of Shi’ites and Sunni Muslims in places like Iraq and Pakistan, and the intercommunal tensions in Lebanon and the trouble between Coptic Christians and Muslims in Lebanon? Remember ALL THOSE INVOLVED ARE ARABS and recall that Arabs are a people who view themselves as “brothers”. US, ON THE OTHER HAND, THEY DON’T LIKE!
      Let’s talk about Nazareth-the city was once overwhelmingly Christian, today they are a dwindling minority. Do you remember the attempt to build a huge mosque across the street from the Church of the Annunciation-one of the most famous churches in the world? The mosque, which initially received approval from the Israel gov’t to build it was going to tower over the church, in order to give the message about who is in charge. Finally, the Vatican complained and it was cancelled.
      Blogger Seth Freedman, who is a progressive, wrote a couple of years in the “Comment is Free” section in the Guardian (a progressive newspaper) that he visited Nazareth and in the saw that someone had put a huge green banner facing the church that had written on it, in English and Arabic something to the effect that “those who don’t believe in Islam are going to rot in Hell”. Doesn’t sound like the “tolerant Islam” we keep hearing about.

      Do you remember Pope John Paul II visit to Israel in the year 2000? He conducted an outdoor mass in Bethlehem and the Muslims in the city decided to “honor” by putting the areas loudspeakers on the mosques of the area on full blast so that it drowned out the Pope’s words. More of that famed tolerance.

      The progressives are now telling us that Jerusalem has to be “shared”. You can see how that will work out…the Jews would be driven out of the Arab parts of the city, the seam line between the Jewish and Arab parts of the city will become a shooting gallery, and Jews and Christians attempting to visit their holy places will be harrassed. There is no question about it. Preventing that is more important than the progressive agenda which seems to call for ignoring the intolerance of the Muslims. Well, many Jews will not ignore it and will not let that situation come about.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Grand. Then you must be completely with me on the Christmas tree question (more for hate of Haman than for love of Mordechai, but whatever). Don’t waste your time commenting here. Write Mayor Gapso today. 🙂

      Reply to Comment
    9. Having said that, I would like to add that I don’t view the the Muslims as “Haman”. The reason that Christian populations in this country are dwindling has everything to do with Israel’s treatment of Arabs (this is true in Nazareth and true sevenfold in Bethlehem and Beit Jala, for example.) Those who can, often choose to leave, if only temporarily, and the Christians tend to be a somewhat economically stronger group, which means they can. Israel makes life difficult for Palestinians as means of getting them to willfully immigrate, and gets itself rid most often of the moderate, more westernized Christians.
      Intolerance is never justified. We are not any more entitled to treat the Christians intolerantly than Muslims are. Even the memory of Christmas pogroms doesn’t give us this right. Remember that during the Crusades, entire armies of Christians made their way to this country, specifically in order to “rescue it from the heathens”. They burned and pillaged countless Muslim communities. That doesn’t justify intolerance towards Christians here today. Nothing justifies it. We are in a position to be tolerant and accepting and we must be.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Season’s greetings from Inside the Beltway in Washington DC.

      Both the USA and Israel will have to overthrow their present leaders if they are to return to the values of Western civilization since the Age of the Enlightenment.

      The USA is itself attacking the values upon which it was founded, the values of its founding fathers and its constitution. We live in a failing democracy.

      Israel is free to find its own way to prosperity for all, to civic institutions that serve its people, to security at home and to a position of world leadership that flows from moral as well as physical strength. Think big, and join me in a toast to the next 5700 years.

      Reply to Comment
    11. David

      Christmas trees should be allowed in Nazareth Illit. Menorot should be allowed in Nazareth le’mata as well.

      It is strange that most ‘religious’ people in Nazareth Illit don’t realize there’s a huge monument built by Tumarkin. Considering that Tumarkin is the same guy that put tefillin on porks… And even so he got an Israel Prize. Nasty, eh?

      Reply to Comment
    12. “You are adam [“man”], but goyim [gentiles] are not called adam [“man”].” Kerithoth 6b

      “The seed of the goyim is like an animal.” Sanhedrin 74b

      “All Gentile children are animals.” Yebamoth 98a

      Israeli Soldier: “They are animals, we are humans!”


      “The best of the gentiles: kill him; the best of snakes: smash its skull; the best of women: is filled with witchcraft.” Kiddushin 66c The uncensored version of this text appears in Tractate Soferim (New York, M. Higer, 1937), 15:7, p. 282.

      “The best of the gentiles should all be killed.”


      The Complete Guide to Killing Non-Jews

      Ma’ariv 09.11.09 (p. 2) by Roi Sharon


      Here is a full translation of the article in the Maariv newspaper of Israel


      Rabbi Eliyahu exhorts the killing of women and children:


      Reply to Comment