With a good generation now under its belt, Israel is settled enough to feel like exploring. The history of modern Israel has been fraught with attack and defense, sheltering from storms, and providing a safe place for Jewish people in a world that just can’t seem to stop with the anti-Semitism. But now with the most formidable army in the Middle East, and a majority who have known no other home, many Jewish Israelis feel safe enough in their identity to venture where the diaspora might fear to tread.
Here’s the shocking news:
“Jewish Israelis have fallen in love with Christmas, and nowhere is this more evident than the northern Arab city where more than two millennia ago, according to Christian belief, a woman named Mary received news that she was bearing the Son of God.” (Haaretz)1
Nazareth, Yeshua’s hometown, was awash this Christmas with Jewish Israelis who had come out of curiosity to see, listen and learn. Hebrew-speaking tour guides ushered their Jewish groups around the sites, explaining the meaning and history behind them. Many had never been to Nazareth before, and had little to no knowledge of the Biblical story of Jesus.
One lady called Neta explained, “We grew up ultra-Orthodox… It’s really nice to see how people from other religions celebrate their holidays. But the real reason I wanted to do this was for my nieces – they need to open their minds a bit.”
Maoz Inon has his finger on the pulse in terms of tourism in Nazareth, having gone into business with a local Arab family to restore their magnificent family home into a guest house. He has noted a sharp uptick in Jewish interest: “In terms of the number of Israeli Jews coming for the Christmas festivities, it’s definitely a record,” he told Haaretz. “Israelis travel abroad more and more, so they’ve become exposed to Christmas.”
The numbers are booming, and whether it’s casual visits to see the decorations or organized tours, Israelis love a party. One Jerusalem-based company saw numbers of tour groups double, and then even ran out of guides. Further north, 30,000 people came from all around the country to see the spectacular decorations in Haifa. Meanwhile, on the border of Lebanon, the village of Fassuta boasts the largest Christmas tree in Israel, and is well-known for its beautiful decorations, drawing 60,000 visitors last year.2
Times are a-changing
This new fascination is a far cry from the revulsion of all things Christmassy that we have seen in the past. Several years ago, the Chief Rabbinate Council formulated an official policy to revoke kosher certificates for any businesses that displayed Christian symbols – such as Christmas trees – during the Christmas season, and the Jerusalem Post reported with some consternation on the controversial placing of a Christmas tree at Jaffa Gate, one of the main entrances to the Old City in Jerusalem.3
Previously, Christmas has been a matter of shock and horror – even among Jewish believers – but as the Jewish state settles and gains a greater sense of identity and security, the panic is subsiding.
The increasingly strong connections between Jewish and Arab believers has led to a somewhat cautious embracing of the celebration, which is very important to the Christian Arab community. Moreover, it seems more and more likely that Yeshua was born mid September, during the fall feasts, which would put his conception pretty much – well – at Christmas.
Appreciating the Arab Community
This morning at Israel College of the Bible, our Jewish and Arab students gathered for worship which included carols and a talk from Shmuel Aweida, an Arab pastor, who shared his perspective.
His family never knew the true date of birth of his mother, so they just picked a date to celebrate. The important thing, he said, was that she was his mother. Not knowing the exact date of her birth made her no less important or loving, nor did it change their relationship in any way. It’s the same, he said, with Jesus. The main thing is that he came. It’s a fact worth noting – the long-awaited Messiah has finally come!
Moti Vaknin, a Jewish believer, said that his family didn’t know the date of their Moroccan Jewish grandmother’s birthday either. Israel is a funny place, with meandering and fascinating history – both of the land and the people. There’s plenty of room for both Jewish and Arab communities, along with their traditions and peculiarities. We share a great deal in common – past, present and future. And maybe, just maybe, the Jewish community has a thing or two to learn from the Arab Christians who live among them, in celebrating the arrival of the Jewish Messiah.
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- Haaretz: For Israeli Jews, a Newfound Love Affair With Christmas, Judy Maltz, 24 December 2018
- Jerusalem Post, Israel’s very Own Christmas Village, Yvette J. Deane, 15 December 2018
- Haaretz, 24 December 2012, Jerusalem Post, 23 December 2012
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash