In Israel, a higher profile for Christmas

By Daniella Cheslow

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 21 2011 12:00 a.m. MST

"I go to the Central Bus Station and I don't feel like I'm in Israel, even though it's my country," he said. Of the decorations, he said, "I don't want to see this in the Jewish State. Then all the Jewish people get carried away with it and start celebrating too."

The foreigners are not the only Christians in the city. Jaffa, a historically Arab town that is now the southern quarter of Tel Aviv, has churches dating back hundreds of years.

Nationwide, Israel has about 110,000 Arab Christian citizens. A wave of 1 million immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the 1990s included between 50,000-80,000 practicing Russian Orthodox. And thousands of other Russian-speaking Jews celebrate a secular version of Christmas.

But unlike these groups, the foreign workers and asylum seekers have little way to gain citizenship.

The workers, who receive temporary permits, often overstay them, living illegally and in fear of the immigration police. For these people, the churches are alternate institutions that help them navigate the uncertainty of their lives on the margins of Israeli society.

Social worker Tamar Schwartz directs Mesila, an aid organization for foreigners funded partially by the Tel Aviv municipality. The church is a key meeting place for the foreign community, she said.

Each year the organization throws a Christmas-Hanukkah party to help bridge between the migrants' foreign backgrounds and the Jewish culture their children absorb.

"They learn only about Hanukkah in school, and then they get home to parents who don't speak Hebrew and they hear that Christmas is the most important holiday," she said. "A child like this grows with a split identity."

Gift shop owner Daniel Seah said that when he first arrived in Tel Aviv from Singapore 15 years ago he brought his own Christmas tree because he wondered whether he could find one in Israel. A week before Christmas he produced an annual Christmas show on the fourth floor of the Central Bus Station, with singing, dancing and a gift basket lottery.

"In the mind of the people who come to Israel, it's the birthplace of Christianity and they really thought Christmas would be a big deal everywhere," he said. "They were disappointed. They expect it to be a little more exuberant."

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