The story out of Lancaster, Pennsylvania seemed to illustrate everything that has gone wrong with America in 2016. Reportedly, a Jewish family’s objection to the mention of God in the annual fifth grade production of “A Christmas Carol” at a public school led to the cancellation of the play. Fox News and Breitbart.com then seized on the story and whipped up anti-Semitic sentiments against the family. The family, remembering what happened when a fake-news story inspired a violent extremist to shoot up a Washington pizzeria, was then forced to take their kid out of school and flee their home out of fear that a right-wing mob would come for them. The moral of the story seemed obvious. On the eve of Christmas and Chanukah, the nation had to wake up to the spread of intolerance and violence.
But unfortunately for the liberal media outlets that were promoting the story as evidence that conservatives emboldened by Donald Trump’s victory are inciting anti-Semitism, there were some problems with the narrative.
The play wasn’t canceled because of a Jewish family seeking to take God out of the public schools via Tiny Tim’s famous line, “God bless us all, every one!” The school district said the play was axed because of lack of time for extracurricular activities, a decision that led to an understandable local controversy that apparently got mixed up with arguments about religion and state.
Fox and Breitbart didn’t identify the family or speak of their religion. Both outlets merely picked up and ran with the errors reported by an entirely credible local news site, Lancaster Online. Nothing in either the straight news piece run on Breitbart or an opinion article on the Fox website could be construed as anti-Semitic or advocating violence. The Fox piece merely lamented what seemed, if the local news report had been true, a new battle in the never-ending pointless controversies that fall under the rubric of the “War on Christmas.
Last, and perhaps most important, as the Anti-Defamation League has now pointed out, the family didn’t “flee.” It merely left for a long-scheduled holiday vacation.
Lancaster Online appears to have got the story wrong and it set off a chain reaction of conservative “War on Christmas” and liberal right-wing incitement stories that doubled down on the original error. But let’s not let the fact that there was no real “War on Christmas” story, right-wing incitement, or a potential pogrom causing Jews to flee for their lives get in the way of an opportunity to accuse Trump and his supporters of recreating the last days of Weimar Germany, right?
Once we sweep away the bad local reporting and the even worse interpretations it generated, there are a couple of points about this tale and the annual angst over the holidays that are worth discussing.
The first is that if there were an effort to ban the performance of “A Christmas Carol” on account of Tiny Tim’s invocation of a heavenly blessing, it is neither intolerant nor prejudiced to say such an action was wrongheaded. The Constitution protects us against state religion and religious persecution. It was not intended nor should it be used to drive all expressions of faith, no matter how anodyne, out of the public square or even public schools. While many liberals instinctively distrust religion, they need to understand that the faith of the majority is no threat to the minority and that attempts to repress public expressions of faith in the name of an aggressive secularism are a far greater peril to our liberties than any Christmas play, tree, or display.
Second, this weekend provides one of those rare calendar years when Chanukah and Christmas fall on the same day. That’s good news for retailers. But it also encourages the belief that the two holidays are about the same things. I’ll leave it others to hash out the conflict between spirituality and materialism that Christmas provokes. Yet, the American Jewish custom of over-the-top gift giving notwithstanding, it’s important to point out that Chanukah is not just a blue-tinseled Jewish Christmas. Chanukah is not about good will to everyone. It is rooted in a tale about fighting for freedom against a foreign oppressor. But at it’s heart it is the story of how a determined minority refused to bow down to the idols of popular culture embraced by the majority.
The lights of liberty that commemorate Chanukah should resonate with all people of faith in an age where popular culture so often denigrates and marginalizes faith. In this holiday season both the left and the right should remember that efforts to marginalize religion or to stigmatize minorities are equally repugnant.
With that in mind, the editors of COMMENTARY wish our readers a happy Chanukah, a merry Christmas and a happy and healthy New Year.