Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Time to end the war on Hanukkah

Since the day after Thanksgiving, television, even public television, has been all Christmas, all the time.

Nevertheless, I predict that it will not be long before James Dobson, Bill O’Reilly, and others start to complain about the so-called War on Christmas. In recent years they’ve been fixated on the practices of retail merchants: should store associates say “Happy Holidays” or “Merry Christmas”? 

One year I was interviewed by a reporter for local television news. The station was planning a feature about this War on Christmas and wanted me to be the representative of our small Jewish community. Would I be offended if a cashier said “Merry Christmas” to me?

I replied that I tried to accept the greeting in the spirit in which it was intended, but usually responded with “Happy New Year.” This was the only part of the interview that they used.

I did add that most people say what is comfortable and familiar, but also said that it’s not much of a problem in real life.

The reporter somehow concluded that I had no problem with Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Christmas concerts, or Christmas parties in public schools. I told her that public schools were a different question, because the school district is an arm of government and the Establishment Clause of the Constitution applies, and because school attendance is compulsory. She seemed startled again. News reporters for small-town stations are usually just out of college.

[In fact, I don't object to religious music in public schools, as long as (a) singing it isn't compulsory, and (b) it's not intended to be a religious observance. In the Jewish world today, I am out in left field on this. Also, I admit that children may perceive it as religiously motivated even if the school officials do not.]

So where did this War on Christmas idea originate? Not with Fox News, and not with Focus on the Family. 

The claim that there is a War on Christmas really originates with anti-Semitic, white nationalist groups. Max Blumenthal traces it to one Peter Brimelow, a former editor of Fortune magazine. The idea was briefly taken up by the National Review; when that magazine dropped it, Brimelow founded, an anti-immigration web site named for the first European child born in America, Virginia Dare. According to Blumenthal, Jared Taylor, a white supremacist publisher, and Kevin MacDonald, an evolutionary psychology professor who has argued that Jews are genetically equipped to out-compete Gentiles, joined Brimelow there. The Southern Poverty Law Center describes VDare as a hate group.

So please understand why I’m suspicious of claims that it subjects Christianity to unfair discrimination if anyone at all says “Happy Holidays.” 

From the point of view of a Jewish educator (my training), these complaints about a War on Christmas constitute a War on Hanukkah, in various senses. First, it’s a claim that the United States is a Christian nation, maybe even a Christians-only nation. Since Jews have lived here since 1654, when New York was still New Amsterdam, and most Americans are proud of our country’s history of welcoming people of many faiths and ethnic backgrounds, this is a strange idea.

Second, it’s a claim that there is pervasive discrimination against Christianity and Christians in the United States. Given that Christianity is more successful here than in any other modern democracy, maybe even more successful than in some medieval monarchies where the king could force it on everyone at the point of a sword, such a claim is bizarre. If any religion is suffering from discrimination in the U.S., it’s not Christianity.

Finally, it attempts—through Focus on the Family’s boycott of merchants that use “happy holidays”—to punish those who acknowledge that some of their potential customers might celebrate a holiday other than Christmas, or no holiday. One year there were also objections to Best Buy’s advertising for Eid Al-Adha.

So let’s all give up the War on Hanukkah (and on other celebrations). Let individuals say whatever they like as a greeting, including saying nothing. Let retailers do whatever they think is best for business. And let’s all stop using a mendacious and unnecessary defense of religion to gain political advantage, build ratings, or raise money.

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