Christmas tree
Christmas treeISTOCK

The burning of a "Christmas tree" in the southern Israeli city of Arad has turned into a major political issue in the town, pitting Arad's haredi council members against the mayor, and lawmakers from the Yisrael Beytenu party.

Last month, a tree was publicly displayed in Arad to mark 'Novy God' - the Russian New Year's celebration.

Due to the close similarities to Christmas trees, the display sparked controversy, with some of Arad's religious residents and at least one MK objecting.

The display was twice vandalized, knocked to the ground and damaged.

Mayor Nissan Ben Hamo and the Yisrael Beytenu party defended the display, with MK Alex Kushnir saying protests against the Novy God display and the acts of vandalism were hurtful to immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

"I'm sad to see the year being started this way, with protests and demonstrations, instead of being together with family. This is a violent, offensive act which offends the dozens of Russian speaking families living in Arad, and the Russian-speaking community in general," said MK Kushnir.

Last Wednesday, the tree was found destroyed by fire, drawing condemnation from Mayor Ben Hamo, who blamed critics of the display, claiming it was destroyed by arson.

But some haredi city councilman pushed back on the mayor's claim, saying police had not established that the fire was sparked intentionally, and that it may have been caused by faulty wiring.

Moshe Kavas, a member of the city council affiliated with the Chai party, wrote to Mayor Ben Hamo, a member of the Yesh Atid party, accusing the mayor of a double standard, citing the torching of a sukkah during the Sukkot festival and the burning of a haredi shopping center.

The letter makes mention of the devastating fire at an Arad shopping mall occupied exclusively by Haredi storekeepers, and the burning of a sukka shortly after someone on a municipal WhatsApp group recommended burning sukkot erected in public. At each instance, the mayor only addressed the incident at all after being subject to harsh criticism, and even then made no genuine condemnation, Kavas wrote.

In each case, the mayor defended himself by claiming that the police had yet to classify the matter as arson.

“Nevertheless,” the letter continues, “The mayor has proven he knows how to condemn something at need, before either police involvement or any proof of malicious intent. He condemned the burning of the Christmas tree as an act of religious extremism; investigators have since proven it nothing more than faulty wiring.”

“None of this, of course, prevented the mayor from being proudly photographed with a new tree, and proclaiming that he would not allow extremism to take over his city, without, as mentioned, producing any proof of human involvement in the burning of the original tree. In contrast, he has yet to release to the public the classified information in his possession that indicates human involvement in the arson of the shopping mall and sukkak. When thousands of Jewish residents are becoming an increasingly frequent target for crime, terror, or vandalism, he remains silent; when non-Jewish residents are targeted, he rushes to slap labels wherever he can.”

A member of the haredi community told Kikar HaShabbat: “Mayor Ben Hamo does not see the religious Jews of his city as legitimate residents, and so feels no need to act in their defense. For instance, only last week the municipality insisted on publishing the data on new COVID-19 cases in the city separately for the Haredi population, saying that they were not fully integrated into the population and proving once again the untenable stance of the city towards Haredi residents.

Mayor Ben Hamo said in response, “I gave an unequivocal condemnation of the incident involving the shopping mall, both at City Council meetings and on various online platforms, despite the fact that the police have yet to establish any anti-Haredi motives for the incident. I am myself curious why the Haredim do not condemn the burning of the religious symbols of the rest of the city’s population.”