Last year, at the end of a meeting I attended, the presiding officer, a Jewish woman, in the process of wishing attendees happy holidays and happy New Year, included Happy Chanukah among her greetings. This despite the fact that Chanukah had been over for more than a week. It was, I know, a reflex borne of long habit, but that habit is rooted deeply in the way that Chanukah is all but invisible to Christians when it is not near Christmas on the calendar and, when Chanukah is visible, it is all-too-often turned by those same Christians into the “Jewish Christmas.” A perfect example of that phenomenon is the Fox News host who declared, after someone allegedly set fire to the network’s Christmas tree, that:
“[The Christmas tree is] a tree that unites us, that brings us together. It is about the Christmas spirit, it is about the holiday season, it is about Jesus, it is about Hanukkah…It is about everything we stand for as a country and being able to worship the way you want to worship.”
If that statement doesn’t epitomize both cultural appropriation and the hegemony of Christianness, I don’t know what does. Not only are Christmas and Chanukah two very different holidays, with very different origins and very different significances, but to say that the Christmas tree is about Chanukah is to erase the historical fact that Christians oppressed Jews for the sake of what Christmas meant to them.
More even than that, though, what the Fox News host said put me in mind of the central idea explored in David Nirenberg’s book Anti-Judaism: The Western Tradition, which has to do with the ways in which Christians, and Western thought in general, have made use of the idea of Judaism and the Jews, regardless of whether those ideas are connected to the actual individual and collective lives of Jewish human beings.
The way that Fox News host used the idea of Chanukah seems to me a good example in that it served a distinctly (if secularly and ecumenically expressed) Christian end: to reinforce the idea that the United States is fundamentally a Christian country and that it is in fact Christianity that ensures “everything we stand for as a country and being able to worship the way you want to worship.”
All of this crystalized for me this morning into the idea that stands as the title of this post. It needs a lot of unpacking, but it’s an unpacking that I think will be well worth it. For now, I’m just going to leave it here, as a provocation to further thought, if nothing else:
Christianness— not Christianity, Christianness—is to Jews and the people of other non-Christian religions as whiteness is to people of color.