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Ray Hanania
Ray Hanania
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Israel, American Jews, Hanukkah and the ‘Holidays'

Comment

When I heard that Israel's Immigrant Absorption Ministry had launched an advertising campaign in America to convince ex-Israelis living in the U.S. that marrying and mixing with American Jews was bad, it made me wonder, because it sounded so familiar — in a strange way.

The message of the million-dollar campaign was to warn these Israelis that their American-born children could lose their Israeli and Jewish identities if they were raised in the United States.

It was kind of an ugly message about America, but even more to the point, it wasn't clear what precipitated the campaign at this time. Was it because we have entered the Christmas season, and many American Jews have conflicted views about the holiday celebrations?

There's a big political correctness debate among mainstream Americans about whether people should be "sensitive" to non-Christians. Some argue that instead of saying the Christian-specific "Merry Christmas," they should say the more PC and generic "Happy Holidays." I say them both. I even say, "Happy Hanukkah," although the Jewish holiday creates even more controversy. First, how is "Hanukkah" really spelled correctly, anyway? Hanukah? Hanukkah? Hanukka?

I don't know how many times I've heard American Jews — not Israelis — eager to explain to others that Hanukkah is a "minor and somewhat unimportant holiday." American friends, including one who immigrated to Israel, have told me they don't celebrate Hanukkah. "It's not like Christmas," they say.

I got the impression that they were right when I was in Israel one December. I didn't see a lot of evidence of an out-of-control "Happy Hanukkah" industry suffocating shopping centers, retail stores and everyday Israelis, or streetlights draped in banners.

I often hear the same thing said by Muslims about Ramadan. It's not "Happy Ramadan." It's "Ramadan Mubarak." Ramadan is a religious period when Muslims fast during the day and eat at night — so much so that many Muslims I know put on weight during the important religious commemoration.

By contrast, Christmas is more than just a religious holiday to Christians. It's a big deal, specifically because of the non-religious commercialization of the event. It's a lifestyle that takes over the early winter months. You can't walk through an American shopping mall without encountering abundant reminders of how Christmas has been commercialized: Santa Claus trying to sell deodorant; elves complaining about the lack of union representation or even the right to vote on TV commercials; or people dressing up $40,000 new cars in Christmas wrapping and red ribbons.

It's hard for anyone — atheists included — to not find himself swept up in the commercialization of Christmas.

It's about money, not religion. Businesses base their next year's survival on how they do in the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas. That also creates an intense social pressure, which is why a lot of Jews in America buy Christmas trees and decorate them with Stars of David, dreidels and images of the Maccabees and redub them "Hanukkah bushes."

I can sympathize with how some Israelis view the United States and its lifestyle as being a threat to their Jewish way of life. Yet, as a Palestinian constantly showered with criticism of Israel from my own community, hearing someone argue that American Jews are a bad influence on Israel struck me in an uncomfortable way.

After all that America has done for Israel, wouldn't you would think Israelis would want to marry American Jews rather than make the argument that raising their children in America is a bad thing? Wouldn't you expect Israelis to be nicer about America's Jewish community? Why do some Israelis think that raising Jewish children in America is such a bad thing?

Maybe the ads were created by a non-American Jewish Israeli who just doesn't understand the role American Jews have played in Israel's creation and fundraising. The largest political action committee is not called EIPAC — the European-Israel Public Affairs Committee. It's called AIPAC. Guess what the A stands for.

Or maybe Israelis are just super-sensitive about everything, more so than American Jews who live in an America inundated by the excessive commercialization of the Christmas holidays and where non-Christian holidays are sometimes pushed aside.

Though I certainly don't claim to be a scholar on Judaism, I do know some things about American Jewish life. I grew up in a "Jewish" neighborhood — Arabs and Jews actually lived in the same neighborhoods in America until the 1967 war. My wife Alison and son Aaron, as you know, are Jewish. My daughter from another marriage, Haifa, is Catholic. I'm Lutheran and Orthodox, depending where I am and what company I happen to be keeping at any given time.

I didn't put up Christmas trees when Carolyn was young, and we don't put up a Hanukkah bush now, but I do know that Americans get very upset when someone who's trying to be sensitive to non-Christians says "Happy Holidays" instead of singing enthusiastic "Merry Christmas" greetings and other holiday hallelujahs.

These are weighty issues that may be too serious even for me, a Palestinian perplexed by how some Israelis view American Jews.

So, knowing that I might upset Israelis and American Christians, I wish Jews a Happy Hanukkah, even though it's not that significant of a holiday. To the rest of the non-Jews, I offer a politically correct "Happy Holidays." And a belated Happy Ramadan, too.

Ray Hanania is an award-winning Palestinian American columnist. To find out more about Ray Hanania and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit www.creators.com.

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