For a period of three hours next Wednesday morning, city officials will run a tree distribution center at the entrance to the Old City at the Jaffa Gate. The Jaffa Gate is the endpoint of Jaffa Road, one of Jerusalem’s main thoroughfares, and is among the more popular tourist destinations in the city.
According to the municipality, this gesture has been taking place yearly since the time of Teddy Kollek, who served as mayor of Jerusalem from 1965 until 1993, when he was unseated by Ehud Olmert.
The International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem, a Protestant Zionist organization, lauded the practice. A spokesman for the group called it “a lovely gesture.”
However, there is some controversy surrounding the city’s actions, which are funded by taxpayer money. The distribution of trees by a Jewish government is seen by some as an unacceptable promotion of religion.
Jonathan Rosenblum, the director of Jewish Media Resources and a popular chareidi columnist for the Jerusalem Post, expressed his disappointment with the Jerusalem city government.
Rosenblum told the Five Towns Jewish Times that Israel is the only country in the world where Jews are not constantly reminded of their minority status and where the nature of the public square is Jewish.
The columnist stated that this initiative is “just another way of conveying the message to Jewish youth in Israel that there is nothing to take pride in, there is no reason to be jealous of the public square in any way,” and calling it “another blow to Jewish identity.”
While Rosenblum objects strongly to the measure, he was emphatic that the State of Israel “should not impede the Christians in Israel.”
However, he contends, for the city government to “simply make no distinction or go out of its way to make a public message to bring Christmas into equality…is a disaster.” Rosenblum claims that Jerusalem’s leaders “are in no way try[ing] to preserve the Jewish nature of the public square.”
“Interest will be among non-religious Jews,” Rosenblum warned.
The Municipality defended the practice, explaining that it engages in activities for the benefit of all three major monotheistic faiths.
A city spokesman explained that by distributing trees at one central location for free, the city has prevented Christians from opening disruptive Christmas tree markets.
Michael Ben-Ari, a freshman Knesset member from the right-wing National Union party disagrees strongly. Ben-Ari told the Five Towns Jewish Times that the municipality’s explanation is “stupid.”
The fiery legislator stated that “the city of Jerusalem is going out of its way to be cordial regarding the Christian holidays. The distribution of trees is an appropriate response to the religion of grace, which in the past, distributed hanging trees [to the Jews] and which brought Jews to the auto-da-fé.”
Religious opposition in this matter stems from the way in which Christianity as a religion is classified in traditional Jewish legal sources. Since Christianity believes that God is made up of a trinity of beings, rabbinical codifiers such as Maimonides have described the religion as avodah zarah, a Hebrew term whose nearest English equivalent is idol worship. Under Jewish law, it is forbidden to financially support such worship. As such, observant Jews are opposed to the use of their tax dollars for the purpose of aiding in the celebration of a Christian holiday.
The liberal and secular Meretz party, however, disagrees with the Orthodox position. The Meretz platform calls for “separation of religion from the state and separation of religious institutions from political institutions.” The party is generally considered at the forefront of the battle for separation of church and state.
A Meretz spokesman explained that so long as the city of Jerusalem is supporting Judaism, Islam, and Christianity in the same way, the party has no objections to the practice of distributing Christmas trees.
She explained that such a view does not contradict the party’s platform regarding the mixture of church and state. The party’s main objection, she offered, is the power of the Israeli Rabbinate and the role of Jewish law in such matters as marriage and divorce.
According to the 2006 Israeli census, Christians make up only two percent of Jerusalem’s population. ♦