ASHDOD, Israel -- Fifty Christian Arabs living in the Holy Land joined the staff of Ohr Torah Stone's Center for Jewish-Christian Understanding and Cooperation (CJCUC) to visit the holiday tree at Ashdod's Big Fashion Mall to express their appreciation to the management for not removing it from their premises despite pressure from City Hall. "While the Christmas tree is not worshipped in Christianity nor used in any Christian sacred ritual, it has become the identifiable symbol of the holiday," remarked Pastor Steven Khoury, head of Holy Land Missions and the leader who mobilized the group's visit. He added, that "Christians represent 2% of Israel's population and are committed citizens of the country; it is important that our holiday symbols and concerns are represented in Israel's greater society."
Two weeks ago, Big Fashion Mall erected the holiday tree and it caused a political uproar where Ashdod's Deputy Mayor Avi Amsalem called it an offense to Judaism and requested the management to remove the "disgrace" from the mall's premises. As an Orthodox Jewish organization that advances Jewish-Christian relations in Israel and around the world, CJCUC condemned the Deputy Mayor's remarks. According to CJCUC's Executive Director, David Nekrutman, the remarks of Amsalem hit a raw nerve to the Christian community living in Israel and a more active response was needed that would represent unity and not divisiveness. With the help of Pastor Steven Khoury, a decision was made to bring Jews and Christians, a day before Christmas, to visit the mall as a symbol of unity and peace. "The State of Israel is a democracy and champions religious freedom," commented Nekrutman, "we should embrace our Christian brothers and sisters and make them feel welcome in our country."
In responding to those who find the Christmas holiday symbol an affront to Judaism, Rabbi Pesach Wolicki, CJCUC's Associate Director said, "a tree does nothing to undermine Judaism. In a Jewish state, we should be mindful of those who are not Jewish and respect their traditions." Both Nekrutman and Wolicki observed that in the Diaspora, Jews are very appreciative when Jewish symbols, such as the Chanukah menorah, are displayed in the public places. It demonstrates that the governments and communities accept the Jewish people.