Happy inclusive holidays!
Seasonal greetings should not resort to euphemisms
It’s peak season for festive euphemisms. People with advanced cultural sensitivities are carefully avoiding marking the national festival occurring this weekend by actually wishing anyone “Happy Christmas”.
Perish the thought! Someone who isn’t a Christian might very understandably regard such a message as a micro-aggression and cancel the well-wisher from their own properly meaningless greetings list.
So it’s heartening that the Duchess of Sussex, upon whom we rely of course as the supreme icon of tact and lovingkindness to all, wished everyone on her family’s card a “joyful holiday season”.
Other timely greetings specifically designed to be meaningful include “Have a jolly holiday”, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”, or the indisputably inclusive “To you all”. Which could equally be a condolence card.
The aim is to avoid offending people of other faiths and none. Truly, you can’t be too careful these day to avoid ethno-supremacism or its corresponding evil, cultural appropriation.
So how should minority faiths greet the cultural majority at this time of year? After all, we Jews are the people who are supposedly among the minority offendables if we receive a card with anything more specific than a robin and “season’s greetings”.
Are we therefore absolved from giving offence in our own greetings? Should we wish our Christian-heritage friends “Happy Christmas”? If someone wishes us “Happy Christmas”, how should we reply?
Call me reckless (and many do), but I regularly wish “Happy Christmas” to those who aren’t known to be of a non-Christian faith. I assume they will all understand this as an expression of goodwill pegged to the festival that gives this season its name.
If people wish me “Happy Christmas” knowing that I’m a Jew, I might view it as a bit unthinking or crass. But I still appreciate the friendly intent.
I do wince a bit, though, when in everyday life some people in Britain start their email messages to me with “Shalom!” before continuing in English.
Look, I’m British born and bred, I have a UK passport and I speak what used to be described as “the Queen’s English”, OK?
The “Shalom!” bit channels my inner trigger warning. And since you so kindly ask, this was happening before I ever set foot in Israel.
Speaking of which, Israeli Arabs say “Shabbat shalom” and “chag sameach” to Israeli Jews as a matter of course. Even more strikingly, when you say to them “Ma nishmah?” (“How are you?”) they may well reply, as does an Orthodox Jew, “baruch Hashem”.
Yet if a secular Israeli Jew asks another Jew, “how are you?” and receives the answer “baruch Hashem”, the secular person is likely to deem the responder a religious nut. Faced with an Orthodox believer, many secular Jews immediately feel oppressed by “the other”.
What a minefield this whole identity thing is. Thank goodness Chanukah doesn’t present this problem, eh?
For many diaspora Jews, Chanukah is regarded as Christmas-lite with gifts, diet-destroying delicacies and a lighted menorah in place of a glittering tree.
And there can hardly be much danger of offending anyone with a card displaying a chanukiah, dreidel or doughnut, or standard anodyne message such as “Festival of lights”, “Love, light, latkes” or “Peace, love and miracles”.
Hold on a minute. Chanukah is not actually a festival of peace and love. It celebrates instead the victory of the Maccabees who went to war against both the Seleucid Greeks and the Hellenists, Jews who were themselves drawn to the pagan ways of their Greek overlords.
The Maccabees were not apostles of peace. They were more like resistance commandos, fierce and uncompromising warriors who fought their Greek oppressors.
Moreover, they also committed violent atrocities against the Hellenised Jews who had absorbed Greek universalism and as a result had taken aim at circumcision, Shabbat observance and Torah study.
The Maccabees regarded those overly-assimilated Jews as traitors to Judaism and dealt with them accordingly.
In the saccharine world of much Chanukah observance, the Maccabees are commonly presented as heroes fighting and defeating the tyrannical Greeks. This was undoubtedly true.
But other commentators equally plausibly describe them as zealots, violent religious extremists who forced Jews to conform to a strict interpretation of Judaism and expelled non-Jews from the land. To the Hellenised Jews, they were religious nuts.
Ring any bells? Today, many diaspora Jews (and liberal Israelis) are hyper-ventilating over the likely inclusion in the new Israeli government of three men whose agenda has distinct echoes of the Maccabees.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, the putative security minister, called in his younger days for the expulsion of the Arabs from Israel (although he says he has changed his views). Bezalel Smotrich, tipped as a finance minister, has said his ultimate aim is an Israeli theocracy.
And Avi Maoz, who is set to run an office of “Jewish identity”, has taken explicit aim at the “Hellenising Jews” of the Israeli left and progressive denominations whom he terms “the real darkness”.
Celebrating the Maccabees might therefore be seen as celebrating Ben-Gvir, Smotrich and Maoz.
Well that’s the end of Chanukah cards, then.
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