Jerusalem braces for Christian pilgrims

Hordes of tourists are coming to the holy city for millennial celebrations, but a clash between Orthodox and secular Jews has created a ban on Christmas in the city's kosher hotels.

Published December 23, 1999 5:00PM (EST)

Three million tourists, many of them Christian pilgrims, are expected to praise the Lord, wish for peace and spend mountains of money in Jerusalem, starting this Christmas and for the next 12 months. Yet the holy city these days is showing remarkably little holiday spirit.

Instead of draping the city walls with "Welcome" banners and festive tinsel, Jewish authorities are busy installing video cameras in the streets, assigning security agents to Jerusalem's churches and issuing decrees against Christmas trees in Jewish hotel lobbies. Readers of an ultra-Orthodox Jewish weekly have been warned against Christian missionaries posing as friendly pilgrims, and instructed to bar modern-day crusaders from visiting the city's main Jewish landmark, the Western Wall.

Stories about the recent arrests of apocalyptic cult members who allegedly planned to take part in a millennial battle between the forces of good and evil have circulated widely in the international press. But most residents think the threat of doomsday religious violence is overblown. Among some, the fear is that the city of 600,000 people, which Jews consider their eternal, united and indivisible capital, will somehow lose its Jewish character under the onslaught of Christian celebrations and hordes of foreign gentiles. But an overwhelming majority of Israelis consider Jerusalem's wariness parochial, and believe the negative signals emitted by hard-line rabbis will spoil a golden opportunity for business and religious understanding.

In many ways, the lack of enthusiasm has more to do with the recurring conflict between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews than with xenophobia directed at Christians. "It's not an anti-gentile campaign, by any stretch of the mind," said Yaron Ezrahi, an analyst at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank.

According to local rabbis, some politically influential Orthodox Jewish leaders fear their less observant brethren will be vulnerable to the religious culture of Christian missionaries, who are headed to the holy city in droves.

Christians in Jerusalem are nothing new. Tradition holds that Jesus Christ was buried here almost 2,000 years ago, where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Christianity's holiest site, now stands. Christians have their own quarter in the Old City, alongside those of Muslims and Jews; and the cityscape has been dotted with the steeples of churches since the Byzantine era.

Although Jerusalem, annexed by Israel in 1967, is under single Israeli administration, the city's Jews, Christians and Muslims live in separate worlds. In the Old City's narrow alleyways, a pious Jew wearing a yarmulke may walk past a veiled Muslim woman and brush shoulders with a robed priest, but the three communities manage to largely ignore each other.

The millions of pilgrims expected next year threaten to change this status quo and transform the city into a "vast center for Christianity," warned Yated Neeman, a weekly newspaper written for and by Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority. "They will carry their crosses on their hearts and in their heads and will blatantly do all in their power to publicize and parade their crosses and their sacrilege."

Fearful that Jewish-run hotels will abandon their traditions to accommodate the crush of Christian guests, the Jerusalem rabbinate, the city's Jewish religious authority, has issued guidelines for hotels wishing to retain their kosher certificates (religious seals of approval which, in Israel, are key to commercial success). Israel's Chief Rabbi, Yisrael Meir Lau, said recently that crosses and Christmas trees were offensive since they are "an integral part of Christian belief -- a way of serving God that is forbidden to Jews." He commended the rabbinate's decision to keep the Christian symbols out of Jerusalem hotel lobbies and exclusively behind closed doors of reception halls reserved for gentiles.

In addition, there will be no festive music in kosher hotels on Christmas and New Year's because both holidays fall on the Jewish Sabbath, when observant Jews avoid using electricity. Some Jerusalem hotel managers -- including Rony Timsitt, manager of the Jerusalem Hyatt -- have complained that the dour atmosphere in Jerusalem hotels will cost them business on New Year's Eve and have asked the rabbinate to make an exception for the occasion. Rabbi Lau dismissed the idea: "Why should we, because of one evening, destroy everything we have built together?"

The absence of Christmas carols and Muzak is a blessing for some. "If there's one city in the world that should be Jewish, it should be Jerusalem," said Jonathan Rosenblum, a columnist for the daily Jerusalem Post. "As someone who grew up in the United States, I appreciate the fact that there is one place where Jews don't feel like they're living in a foreign culture."

Praying at the Western Wall the other day, Odeya Rotem, a 34-year-old religious woman in a long skirt and soft hat, said "The year 2000 has no meaning for me. We have our own calendar." According to the Jewish calendar, the year is 5760.

But not all Jewish residents agree with the ban on Christmas in Jerusalem. Many Israelis -- who consider Jerusalem their capital, but would like it to be an open, cosmopolitan city -- are appalled by the hostility expressed by some religious Jews. Rabbi David Rosen, director of the Anti-Defamation League in Israel, deplored "Rabbi Lau's retrogressive mind-set."

He went on to say that Lau's statements highlight the weakness of the rabbinate as an institution, one that is intimidated by hard-line ultra-Orthodox Jews. "I don't think Christmas trees irk a majority of Jews in the slightest -- only those who are very insular. A large proportion of the public isn't excited by them, but not upset either. The overwhelming majority of Israelis welcome the pilgrims -- not just because they'll be good for the tourism industry -- but because they want friends for Israel."

At a diplomatic level, when Palestinians and Israelis are engaged in negotiations over the final status of Jerusalem, it is important for Israel to show that members of all faiths are treated fairly under its rule, said political analyst Ezrahi. In nearby Bethlehem, the Palestinian Authority has channeled more than $100 million of foreign aid into revamping the birthplace of Jesus, in the hope that tourism will yield long-term benefits and curry goodwill for Palestinians in the Christian world.

Jerusalem city officials have also made an effort not to antagonize Christians. "The gates of Jerusalem are open," says the motto on the city's millennium Web site. The new millennium is an opportunity for Jerusalem to "take advantage of its status as a holy city" and present itself as "a city of peace, pluralism and understanding between religions," said Michael Weil, special advisor for Jerusalem 2000 at the city hall.

But the municipality's hands are tied in various ways. Doomsday scenarios are keeping authorities on their toes and creating a climate of wariness rather than joyful expectation. Although the risk that a pseudo-Christian cult will try to blow up Jerusalem's shrines, unleash Armageddon and hasten Jesus' Second Coming has been much exaggerated by the press, the municipality has to be prepared for the worst.

According to Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's leading newspaper, some 15,000 policemen, soldiers and security officers are expected to patrol Jerusalem on New Year's Eve; 400 video cameras are being installed in the Old City's cramped alleys. "If the Christian celebration is a celebration of the end of days, then their celebration could be our demise," emphasized Rabbi Donniel Hartman, a teacher at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

While Jesus look-alikes are eyed suspiciously by the security services as potential terrorists these days, wealthy Christian pilgrims are viewed as dangerous proselytizers by ultra-Orthodox Jews. "It's evident from the Web sites of Christian groups that they're planning to make a special missionary effort for the millennium," said Rabbi Mordecai Plaut, editor of the English version of Yated Neeman. "They're putting a lot of money into it."

Rabbi Plaut's concern is that Christian missionaries will try to win "those out there who are less secure, less involved with their Judaism."

Ultimately, though, the lack of enthusiasm toward Christian tourists has less to do with these pilgrims' religion than with Israel's domestic divisions. "The ultra-Orthodox would like Jerusalem to be a ghetto," said Ezrahi. "They have an aversion against strangers of all kinds and in the category of strangers, secular Jews -- who have an alternative understanding of Judaism -- are much more of a threat to them than fundamental Christians."

All year long, in the towns on the Mediterranean coast where most Israelis live, Jews desecrate the Sabbath by driving to movies, watching soccer on TV and drinking freshly made espresso. Jerusalem used to be different -- a more conservative and spiritual city. But even here, to the dismay of the ultra-Orthodox, secular Jews are clamoring for a lifestyle less confined by traditional religious rules.

When Timsitt, the Hyatt Hotel manager, spoke in parliament recently in favor of allowing music on Friday nights, he was thinking more about the freedom of his establishment than in terms of Christian rights. Timsitt hopes that hotels in Jerusalem will be subject one day to the same kind of religious laws as hotels in Eilat -- a relaxed beach town at Israel's southern tip where hotels are awarded kosher certificates for complying with Jewish dietary laws but are free to operate nightclubs on the Sabbath.

Indifference to Christianity remains the most widespread attitude among both religious and secular Israelis. High school students learn very little about Christianity -- and only in the context of history lessons which dwell on the overwhelmingly negative 2,000-year-old story of Jewish-Christian relations. Ignorance coupled with an aversion toward religiosity in general help explain why Israel's secular majority has allowed a hard-line minority to dominate the millennium issue, said Rabbi Hartman.

At a governmental level, the decision to keep celebrations low-key also reflects domestic concerns. Despite the huge organizational effort that hosting millions of tourists demands, the official line is that the new millennium is a Christian celebration, not a state event. The Israeli government does not want to provoke the religious parties who hold about a quarter of the seats in parliament, said Ezrahi, because they are instrumental in supporting the peace process with Syria and the Palestinians. "The Israeli government is making a rational calculation about what is important to Israel. The ultra-Orthodox will eventually lose their power, but only when peace is consummated -- sometime in the next millennium."

By Flore de Preneuf

Flore de Preneuf is a Jerusalem writer and photographer.

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