Lighten up over Christmas and Christians

Even in relatively tolerant and officially secular America, Jews long have had to do a dance around the holy days of the majority population. There’s a national party going on and, let’s face it, we are not invited.

The issue then is how to deal with it. There seems to be three basic responses.

One, give in “to the spirit,” even if that means elevating Chanukah into an ersatz version of Christmas, with excessive gift-giving and demands for equal time with the bigger holiday.

Two, rail against the pervasiveness of the holiday, and of Christianity, in our core culture. For some that means waging a kind of secularist jihad to remove all spiritual aspects from the season.

Third, just keep a respectful distance and let the Christians enjoy their holiday to the fullest, including allowing trees, mangers and reindeer in the parks. Use the time to reconfirm to yourself, and more importantly, your children our status as a proud and very separate minority.

In some ways, the first approach seems akin to giving in to the majority faith. We boost Chanukah, a relatively minor holiday, into mega-status and turn our children in Yuletide wannabes. Let’s face it, most of our kids don’t need more excuses for presents.

More serious, and immediately damaging, is the opposite tendency, which amounts to eliminating everything that is Christian about Christmas from the public sphere — from trees, green lights and mangers to the singing of Christmas carols.

In the words of Amanda Susskind, Southern California regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, furious efforts must be made to maintain “a wall of separation” between the public realm and religious tradition.

In theory, this is a fine idea. I certainly would not like to see public school students forced to sing Christmas carols or listen to a Billy Graham lecture. Yet Susskind is talking about circumscribing all manner of spiritually tainted behavior. The ADL has even issued a somewhat silly pronouncement called “the December dilemma” that supplies guidelines so schools don’t dip their toes into even vaguely religious waters at this time of year.

Such efforts, in my mind, turn the state from neutral toward religion to advocates for what may be called the secularist faith. Instead of admitting that religious ideas, primarily derived from Jewish and Christian roots, stand at the root of our constitutional republic, the ADL and the even more secularist ACLU seem to see any acknowledgment of religion — from the singing of “Jingle Bells” at schools to discussions of the religious roots of Christmas — as a grave threat to civil liberties.

Rather than wage silly battles with such well-meaning people over Christmas carols, Jews need to lighten up. Christmas and traditional Christianity today simply do not represent serious threats to the existence of Jews in the contemporary world. Our mortal enemies, and those of Israel, can more likely be found among the most hip, pro-Palestinian churches, some of which back a boycott of Israel, as well as among the longtime anti-Zionists in the secular intellectual left.

Finally, we should also recognize that the attempt to drive all religious thought from the schools also represents a threat to the intelligent understanding of our republic. The founding fathers, many themselves steeped in the traditions of the Torah, would have found it ludicrous that our kids are expected to learn about the roots of American republicanism without some notion of the role played by basic Jewish as well as Christian moral principles.

For these reasons, learning about our faith, along with Muslim, Buddhist and Christian traditions should not be verboten within public education. Indeed, the study of history has convinced me that you can’t understand the past, and how we got to be who we are, without a full comprehension of the religious past.

It’s time for Jews to realize that traditional Christianity — and its symbols — represent less a threat than an important potential ally. By showing respect, and keeping our distance at this time of year, we can build on this historically miraculous development instead of creating the basis for yet another season of discord.

Joel Kotkin, a resident of Southern California, is a fellow with the New America Foundation, and author of “The City: A Global History,” to be published by Modern Library in April.