Most of my life, I’ve taken Christmas for granted – I’ve lived in parts of the world dominated by Christians, and although they have been liberal societies where freedom of religion is valued, the reality is that I’ve lived in places where Christmas dominates culturally – Christmas trees everywhere, and christmas shopping has always been ubiquitous part of the economy and pop culture.
It’s therefore difficult for me to imagine what it would be like to be a Christian, or culturally Christian, in a place where Christians are an oppressed minority, and the celebration of Christmas felt by the dominant society as an imposition, a threat.
But this is exactly the situation in Nazareth Illit (Upper Nazareth) – the dominantly Jewish town built above the town of Nazareth. Nazareth is, of course, the town where Jesus lived most of his life (also I’ve been told by experts that he was probably born there rather than in Bethlehem).
Upper Nazareth was built above Nazareth after the Nakba, the expulsion of the great majority of the Palestinian population from that lands which would then be claimed by the State of Israel. It was built to keep an eye on Nazareth, which remained mostly Arab. Since its creation, Upper Nazareth has developed a sizable Arab Christian minority, and they would quite like to celebrate Christmas by placing Christmas trees in some of the town’s squares. But the mayor has other ideas:
“The request of the Arabs to put Christmas trees in the squares in the Arab quarter of Nazareth Illit is provocative,” Mayor Shimon Gapso told AFP.
“Nazareth Illit is a Jewish city and it will not happen — not this year and not next year, so long as I am a mayor,” he said of the northern Israeli town.
“Nazareth is right next door and they can do what they want there,” he said.
It’s easy to see the “us and them” attitude of the Mayor, who doesn’t seem interested in serving his Arab Christian population in upper Nazareth, preferring them to do what “they” want in the town next door. Despite 10 thousands Arab citizens of upper Nazareth (mostly Christian) the Mayor insists it is not a “mixed” town but a “Jewish” town. This is plainly racism against Arabs; since the issue is Christmas it can’t be chalked up to a conflict between Jews and Muslims.
It would be easy to chalk this up to the conflict between Zionists and Palestinians, but in my time in Nazareth I saw a city quite unlike other places in Israel and the West Bank – a place where Jews and Arabs live together in relative harmony. Israeli Jews come down from upper Nazareth to play cards and smoke with the old men in Nazareth, and various programs in Nazareth emphasize cooperation between the Jewish and Arab communities. Therefore this attitude on the part of the Mayor, while it might be normal elsewhere in Palestine, actually seems quite extreme and more racist than usual for the Nazareth area.
Note: The news story cited is from last year, and I haven’t been able to find if this ban on Christmas trees is continuing this year.