One of the things that I have always appreciated about life in Israel is the ability to celebrate the Jewish holidays "all the way," unadulterated and undistracted by an overwhelming Christian majority culture. Pesach, for example, is a national holiday, and the preparations for it and the celebration of it permeate every aspect of life and every institution. The "Pesach season" for us is like the "Christmas season" in the United States, with both the positive, value-laden aspects and the negative, commercialized aspects. Purim expands here from a relatively minor one-day holiday to a whole week of festivities: there is the celebration in schools, and the parties and carnivals, and the holiday itself, and the day after, when according to biblical commandment Purim is celebrated in cities that were fortified in biblical times (e.g., Jerusalem). By the time it is over, no one wants to see another hamantasch for a year. And there is the special atmosphere of the three weeks from Rosh Hashana through Sukkot. And there is the refrain, heard increasingly through August and into September whenever you want to order a product, plan a meeting, etc., of "after the holidays..." Now, at Chanukah time, there are the big electric menorahs on public buildings, and the sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts - the Israeli answer to latkes) on sale at every kiosk and served at every coffee break, starting already weeks before the holiday - and disappearing the day after.
It is easy, as the Jewish majority, for us to forget about other people's holidays; they tend to get lost in the shuffle. Ironically, it is at Chanukah, with its overtones of zealotry and nationalism, that we are most conscious of the Christians among us. (And this year, one of the major Moslem holidays coincides with the Christmas/Chanukah season as well.) Not only are there 100,000 Christian Arabs who are citizens of Israel, 10% of the 20% Arab minority, but in recent years an increasing number of non-Jewish immigrants from the FSU have made their Christian identity manifest. It is definitely a strange feeling to drive through Arab villages and that are decorated with the Christmas trees and Santa Clauses that I associate with a very different culture and climate -- and even stranger to see the same decorations in Jewish apartment blocks of Jewish Upper Nazareth or Karmiel.
Encountering the symbols of other religions doesnt bother me; I somehow find they make the environment richer. I dont feel threatened by them; indeed, I wonder how it feels for Christians to be in the minority, to see Chanukah menorahs on every public building. I grew up on the concept of Israel as the Jewish state, the place where our holidays are the national holidays, where our symbols dominate public space, where we dont have to explain ourselves to anyone. I never asked the question, if we argue in principle that Christian symbols should not dominate public life in the US, shouldnt the same argument hold for Jewish symbols in Israel? I took for granted the assumption that in "our" state we can do what we want, finally, after all the centuries of living in "others" states. And now here we are in our state, but were not alone, and the question is, do we act like the majorities we have always known, or do we act in the way we always wished they would have acted? And if we were to apply the American ideal of universalism, of a neutral society, to Israel, then what becomes of the dream of a Jewish state? I have mixed feelings about these questions, and I am reminded of this dilemma every year as I wonder how Santa Claus gets around in the desert, and why he needs a fur-lined jacket and cap in our Middle Eastern climate.
Interesting that I grew up with Chanukah as a festival of religious freedom, of the overthrow of a regime that persecuted a minority religion; yet here, Chanukah is a holiday of nationalist pride. I guess symbols have different meanings when we look at them through different historical lenses.