Christmas as usual in Nazareth despite Trump’s Jerusalem decision
In Nazareth, one-way signs are suggestions, not requirements. A ride through the town’s older neighbourhoods reveals a maze of narrow streets and twisted alleyways, each accommodating two- and sometimes three-way traffic. Motorists squeeze past each other, their vehicles grazing centuries-old stone retaining walls.
Like most places in Israel and the Palestinian territories, Nazareth traffic is a complex system but it usually gets the traveller to the intended destination. That is, until the arrival of the holidays and particularly Christmas.
Each Christmas season in this biblical, storied village brings a new round of visitors, eager to explore the historic Church of the Annunciation and browse the city’s famed Christmas market. The rush of tourism shuts down the already-congested old city, packing hotels, guesthouses and cafes with local and international tourists. It is an annual and predictable economic stimulus for a town known as Israel’s “Arab capital” and the childhood home of Jesus.
That’s why, when reports surfaced that Nazareth Mayor Ali Salam planned to “cancel Christmas” in response to US President Donald Trump’s designation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, residents questioned the validity of the reporting.
“Christmas is extremely important to Nazareth. It is an economic lifeline for the city,” said Bassam Hakim, operation manager of the Hakim Guest House, in the heart of the old city. “People come from all across Israel, Europe and the United States to experience the holiday here. Rooms all around town are booked three months in advance. They can’t just ‘cancel’ Christmas.”
Cancelling Christmas would have thrown a wrench in the plans of thousands of tourists and strip local shopkeepers of a much-needed boost in retail sales. Seeking to avoid being portrayed as a Grinch who stole Christmas, Salam had a news conference to assure the public that festivities would proceed largely as planned.
“Reports that Christmas events would be cancelled this year are incorrect,” Salam said in a statement. “Just like every year, the city is decorated for the holiday and we look forward to welcoming tens of thousands of visitors.”
Salam’s clarification runs counter to a previous statement, first reported by the Times of Israel, in which he proclaimed: “Our identity and faith are not up for debate. The decision [on Jerusalem] has taken away the joy of the holiday and we will thus cancel the festivities this year.”
Why the about-face?
“This is all a misunderstanding,” explained Sharif Safadi, director-general of the Nazareth municipality. “What the mayor meant to say was that the singers and performances would be cancelled but the main events — the parade, the Christmas market, the lighting of the tree — would all go as planned.”
Indeed, a handful of major singers, including Palestinian singer and “Arab Idol” winner Mohammed Assaf, scheduled to perform in Nazareth’s Christmas Eve festival cancelled their appearances following Trump’s Jerusalem designation. In a statement, Assaf explained the move was taken “in solidarity with the Palestinian people” adding that he would “use his voice to defend the rights of Palestinians in Jerusalem.”
Trump’s decision on Jerusalem inspired protests, pontification and politicisation across the region. Actors ranging from politicians to NGO directors and militia leaders seized on the news, using the issue of Jerusalem to further their own political and economic agendas or demonstrate sympathy for the Palestinian cause.
In Nazareth, though, the Jerusalem designation has not had a meaningful effect on Christmas festivities.
“People aren’t really talking much about [Jerusalem],” said Bassam. “Part of the reason this whole issue is on the radar is because an election is coming up and individuals try to take advantage of the currents.”
Municipal elections in Israel are to take place in 2018 but it wouldn’t necessarily be fair to accuse Salam of politicising the Jerusalem designation for his own ends. After all, the cancellations that have taken place, including by Assaf, were done by the artists and were largely out of the mayor’s hands.
All of this bodes well for Salam, who can enjoy the political benefits of his alleged cancellation without sacrificing the economic boost that Christmas tourism means to the city. In that sense, he can have it both ways. In Nazareth, there are no one-way streets.