So who nixed the Seattle menorah?

TSMy247689One of the most interesting stories in the 2006 Christmas Wars broke the other day in the Pacific Northwest, where the staff at the Port of Seattle hauled off all the Holiday Trees because of a conflict with a rabbi from the Chabad-Lubavitch organization about a long-delayed request to erect a giant Hanukkah menorah.

It was a familiar story. The trees went away. Civic officials were not happy about answering questions asked by angry citizens. A nationwide media furor erupted, creating waves of nasty calls to the Port authorities and, of course, to Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, who, it should be noted, never opposed the trees in the first place. Yada, yada.

Then came the second act, as written by Seattle Times reporters Janet I. Tu and Lornet Turnbull:

The holiday trees that went away in the middle of the night are back.

Tonight, Port of Seattle staff began putting up the trees they had taken down Friday night after a local rabbi requested that a Hanukkah menorah also be displayed. Port officials said the rabbi’s lawyer had threatened to imminently file a lawsuit, leaving them with insufficient time to consider all the issues.

. . . “This has been an unfortunate situation for all of us in Seattle,” Port of Seattle Commission President Pat Davis said in a statement. “The rabbi never asked us to remove the trees; it was the Port’s decision based on what we knew at the time. We very much appreciate the rabbi’s willingness to work with us as we move forward.”

A menorah will not be displayed this year.

There are all kinds of interesting stories involved in this case, starting with an angle that I tried to cover last year for Scripps Howard News Service. The goal, it seems, is to fill the public square with safe, neutral, “secular” symbols of the non-religious holidays. The lawyers want it that way.

Thus, a “Holiday Tree” is a neutral symbol for Christmas and a menorah is supposed to be a neutral symbol for Hanukkah — as if it is possible to find safe, secular symbols for holidays built on claims of divine miracles.

And then there was the fallout from the civic decision. Take this, for example:

Robert Jacobs, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said about 14 organizations or rabbis had reported receiving hate e-mail. On Monday, his organization was advising local Jewish institutions that have received significant numbers of hate e-mails to consider having security during Hannukah and other holiday season events.

However, unless I have missed this fact in all of the coverage, it does appear that the Seattle Times failed to ask one crucial question in this story. It’s a rather obvious question: Who opposed the erection of the giant Hanukkah menorah in the first place?

That question may have been hard to answer. You see, there is a reason that lawyers are so nervous about giant menorahs — they represent a fault line in the public square between the left and right wings of Judaism. The primary voices protesting the civic menorahs are Jewish. The people cheering are traditional Christians. Click here to read a story about this conflict, which dates back to the late 1980s, published in the daily Jewish newspaper called the Forward. Here is a crucial clip:

In 1987, Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress wrote a report titled “The Year of the Menorah.” In the report, Stern said, “we believe the Lubavitch campaign undermines Jewish interests in a most fundamental way.”

“To the American Jewish Congress, the menorah on public lands clears the path for the creche and the Cross,” Stern wrote.

… “We’re no more enthusiastic about Chabad’s campaign than we were before,” Stern told the Forward. … “If it’s done properly, though, there’s not much that can be done legally to stop them.”

So who tried to nix the menorah? The ACLU? Generic secularists? The Jewish left? Lawyers nervous about all of these folks?

I do not know the answer to this question in the Seattle case.

Still, this news story began with a decision to reject the Chabad request. Thus, I think it would have been interesting to know who opposed the Hanukkah menorah in the first place. A rather basic news question, right?

Print Friendly

About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    So, according to “separationists”, there is no “naked public square”; but menorahs can not be allowed because that would encourage Christians to claim equal rights to clothe the non-naked. Do I have it straight?

    With Jews like these, he mutters, who needs anti-Semites?

    “Remember, Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Solstice and Grunthar’s Ascendance are coming!” — BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER

  • http://ontheotherfoot.blogspot.com Joel

    I wonder if there was an unspoken fear of a Muslim reaction to a menorah.

  • frank burns

    tmatt states — “Thus, a “Holiday Tree” is a neutral symbol for Christmas and a menorah is supposed to be a neutral symbol for Hanukkah — as if it is possible to find safe, secular symbols for holidays built on claims of divine miracles.”

    –That is not true about Christmas, which was celebrated in Europe long before anyone there even heard of Christianity. It was not about a divine miracle at all, but about the winter solstice — and they used the Christmas tree as the symbol then. The Roman Catholic church invented the idea that the holiday was to have a different meaning — but by all signs our descendants will still be celebrating Christmas even after some other religion replaces Christianity in these parts, and I predict they will still be using the tree.

  • John

    The menorah is not referred to as the holiday candle, so the Christmas tree should not be referred to as a holiday tree.

  • Ian

    heh, I’m supprised I haven’t heard “holiday candle” yet.

    A holiday Tree is only a Holiday Tree if it is ment to symbolise ALL the different “Holidays” of the season, if it is going to be the “Holiday” tree then thier shouldn’t be a manorah. Now having said that…as far as I know Christmas and Hanukkah are the two biggist such holidays in the nation, so why not do both? There certainly shouldn’t be any objection to it.

  • M Goldberg

    Christmas trees have no more to do with Christ’s birth than Easter egg’s have to do with His death. A menorah, on the other hand, has plenty to do with Chanukkah.

  • http://randyslife.typepad.com Randy

    I really agree with the comment above mine.

    I don’t put a Christmas tree up because I’m religious (which I’m not) or because I relate it to Christ at all. I put a Christmas tree up because it’s pretty, festive, and gets me in the mood to deal with the crowds to buy all the dang presents I need to.

    I refuse to call a Christmas Tree a “Holiday Tree”. That is outrageous! I am tired of all these P.C. fanatics trying to change and dictate what is right and wrong. They can bite me!

    It’s a damn Christmas Tree, and it always will be.

  • http://www.draknet.com/proteus Judy Harrow

    This really is a toughie! All who pointed out that the ever-green tree is a symbol of Solstice that predated and was adopted by Christianity have got their history right. But, in current culture and consciousness, it’s a Christmas Tree, and nobody is fooled by simply changing its name. Y’know the word “awful” once meant the same thing that “awesome” means now, but the language changed. This is the same sort of thing: the symbol of the tree has become associated with the newer religion, and the meaning changed in the popular mind. No matter what it once was; this is what it is.

    Since just about all of us do have a feast at this time of year, I think it would be marvelous to have a truly neutral symbol that all of us could share without need for balance. Otherwise, the public square could wind up just being cluttered and chaotic.

    While we’re on this topic, there’s something I’ve been wondering for a while. Completely apart from any issues of diversity/inclusivity, or polite disinclination to shove one’s religion down the throats of one’s neighbors of different faiths — I would think devout Christians would be happy to see their Sacred feast firmly separated from the commercial hype. “Merry Christmas” being used to sell stuff at the mall strikes me (looking at it as a non-Christian) as being exploitive almost to the point of blasphemy. What am I missing here?

  • Camilla

    Glad that the trees are back at the airport. Just remember that Christmas is an American National Holiday and the tree is a symbol of that.

  • Ben

    Frank Burns is wrong.

    He should study actual history instead of recent revisions. Paganism was EXTINCT in Europe before most of the modern trappings of decorated Christmas trees developed begining in the 16th century.

  • MattK

    It never occured to me that Jews would oppose a menorah on public lands. The link to Forward just shows that specialized media is usually better at covering stories that don’t fit into the politics/sports/entertainment boesx of the Major media. If you want business news look to the WSJ or the Financial Times. If you want religious news, look to L’Oservatorre Romano, Christianity Today, Jewish World Review, Tikkun, Sedmitza, Commonweal, or HundredMountain

    The idea of a Christmas tree being non-religius is hilarious to me. As I write this I am looking at 15th century Byzantine Icon of the Mother of God. In addition to holding Christ in her arms she is holding a Christmas tree.

  • Dan

    Last Christmas Pope Benedict encouraged Christians to use Christmas lights, saying that the lights remind us of the light that Christ brought into the world. But if the Pope is wrong and Christians are unknowningly engaging in pagan celebration when they put up a Christmas tree, then the airport should put up a manger scene to clear up the confusion.

  • tony

    The use of trees and logs to celebrate winter holidays pre-date christianity. Is this surprising? They are obvious symbols for a winter celebration.

    Many jews oppose the menorah on public land for the same reason many chirstians are against government displays of crosses and creches: Our nation’s history is based on religious liberty and keeping the government out of the religion business. We’d do well to remember our heritage and what it was in response to…

  • Declan

    Christmas trees have no more to do with Christ’s birth than Easter egg’s have to do with His death. A menorah, on the other hand, has plenty to do with Chanukkah.

    When displayed in public, both the Christmas tree and the Menorah are symbols of their respective holidays. There is no difference between them in this context and you’re drawing a distinction where none exists.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Folks, I am starting to spike comments that have nothing to do with the media issues involved in this post or, at the very least, the church-state issues behind the news story itself. No need to start teeing off on Christians and Jews because of their beliefs….

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    I mean, the point is the the Seattle Times failed to ask a crucial question at the roots of the very story the newspaper was trying to cover. That’s strange enough as it is.

    Let’s talk about the news story. Please.

  • JC

    Isn’t it obvious, it’s the Seattle Port Authority who restricted the Menorah. At the end of day, they decide if it goes up.

    Second, why does this shock you, they (Seattle Port Auth.) would rather remove the Xmas trees than let a Menorah be raised.

  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    I mean, the point is the the Seattle Times failed to ask a crucial question at the roots of the very story the newspaper was trying to cover. That’s strange enough as it is.

    Clearly, you don’t get the SeaTimes thrown at your door every morning (like I do). Not asking crucial questions is par for the course from them.

    It’s clear the Port Authority has been less than forthright about what the problem is, but the hard questions rarely get asked of them by the local media, so they get away with it. I still have not heard a straight answer about what the problem was and what they were going to do to solve it.

    Seattle media is insular. The daily print media is OK with multi-part Pulitzer magnets, but their spot reporting is often slipshod, and it’s pretty clear the Times is in bed with business, the P-I with labor. The TV media is spotty. The weekly print media is mostly Dan Savage poking people in the eye. And that leaves the blogs… which mostly report what was written in the print media, though the bloggers did a pretty good job with Mark Driscoll and the Mars Hill protest last month (at least until their lack of religious knowledge had them unable to get their heads around what this “forgiveness” thing was.)

    tmatt, you think it’s strange. I think it’s what arrives at my door every day. Both papers are terrible at spot news. The blogs out here are better.

    I don’t even know why I take the Times, other than to read the comics. That LuAnn, always acting like a teenager!

  • Bob Logan

    Just another reason to prove that religion does not UNITE us — it further DIVIDES us.

    Bob

  • Jeffrey Weiss

    Here is part of the Journalism Challenge: Explaining Chabad, the Lubavitchers, and Hassidism and their contentious history with the rest of Judaism. It is not true, for instance, that Hassidics are merely one branch of the Orthodox, separated only by some style points. The distinctives help explain what is going in with this tale. But how do you get all that into a newspaper story? Not easily done.

  • Eric Weiss

    Jeffrey Weiss (no relation) wrote:

    Here is part of the Journalism Challenge: Explaining Chabad, the Lubavitchers, and Hassidism and their contentious history with the rest of Judaism. It is not true, for instance, that Hassidics are merely one branch of the Orthodox, separated only by some style points. The distinctives help explain what is going in with this tale. But how do you get all that into a newspaper story? Not easily done.

    You could start by referring interested readers to What Shall I Do with This People? Jews and the Fractious Politics of Judaism by Milton Viorst. Reading it left me with the feeling that if Jews’ outside enemies went away, Jews would still be in danger of destroying themselves by turning on each other. Another good book is The Israelis: Ordinary People in an Extraordinary Land by Donna Rosenthal. I was able to see/hear/meet the author when she was in Dallas a year or so ago; perhaps you also heard her. It’s a great read.

  • evagrius

    I wish people would remember that Hannukah is a very minor, minor feast in Judaism. It was not really a big deal until recently.

    As for Christmas, anyone with common sense knows the connections between “paganism” and Christianity go back to its origins. After all, Platonic philosophy is “pagan” yet its language, Greek, became the basic theological language of the early Church and Greek is the language of the New Testament. Where do you think the term Logos, ( the Word), comes from? Practically all the basic theological terminology used had its origin in Greek being translated later into Latin.

    Sheesh. A little education in Church history would really help here.

  • Eric Weiss

    Not only is Hanukkah a minor holiday, but the story of the light burning for eight days was a miracle the rabbis invented or attached to the festival in order to give it religious significance. See Abraham P. Bloch The Biblical and Historical Background of the Jewish Holy Days. The reason the festival lasted eight days is because the Maccabees were still fighting the Assyrians during the eight-day period of Succoth (The Feast of Booths), so when they recaptured the Temple, they made up for it by celebrating for eight days. You can read this in the non-canonical but historical/religious book of 2 Maccabees 10:6 “And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the feast of booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals.” The more historical 1 Maccabees states in Chapter 4:

    36 Then Judas and his brothers said, “See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.” 37 So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. 38 There they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins. 39 Then they tore their clothes and mourned with great lamentation; they sprinkled themselves with ashes 40 and fell face down on the ground. And when the signal was given with the trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.
    41 Then Judas detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary. 42 He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, 43 and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. 44 They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt offering, which had been profaned. 45 And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, 46 and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them. 47 Then they took unhewnd stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. 48 They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. 49 They made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. 50 Then they offered incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the temple. 51 They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.
    52 Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, 53 they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. 54 At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. 55 All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. 56 So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. 57 They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and fitted them with doors. 58 There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.
    59 Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.

  • dmh

    I for one heartily support the public display of the solstice fertility holidays.

    I for one, am a non-christian and I am /not/ for a wholly a-religious public sphere. However, my problem does occur when christians think that expression of religion means expression of christian religion only. With a cosmopolitan airport and city like Seattle, we should have displays of the Pagan Fertility Tree (or christmas trees to the christians), Diwali candles, and discordian apples.

    The airport doesn’t have to go out of it’s way to embrace religions it doesn’t know about, but the diverse people of Seattle can give input about it by itself.

    A public sphere is a public sphere. Not an atheist sanitized “secular” sphere. Not a Christian sphere. Not a jewish sphere. Freedom of religion means just that, freedom of ALL religious beliefs.

    Dimwitted lawyers, on the other hand, seem to screw things up no matter which side they are on. Perhaps we need a national holiday from stupidity.

  • MattK

    “You could start by referring interested readers to…” Chiam Potok’s Asher Lev books. They have an interesting portrayal of a Reb Menachem Mendal Schneerson (Sp? on all three words. Sorry.) type of rabbi.

  • Larry Rasczak

    “To the American Jewish Congress, the menorah on public lands clears the path for the creche and the Cross,” Stern wrote….”

    And that would be a bad thing HOW?

    What is so blooming bad about a creche or a cross or a menorah? It is simply assumed by Stern, without any supporting evidence, that this would somehow be bad, horrible, or evil.

    I mean, menorah, cross, creche… they don’t actually DO anything. They just sort of sit there and look pretty…them sitting there will cause democracy to crumble and the world to vanish in a screaming ball of flaming fire and pain HOW exactly?

    Have any of these people heard the phrase “Get a life!”?

  • Eric Weiss

    Have any of these people heard the phrase “Get a life!”?

    L’chaim!

  • http://www.chanukah.org hanukkah

    There is a great article from Chabad regarding this at http://www.chabad.org/455712

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    OK, why should a “winter holiday” display include “Diwali candles”, when those odd Hindus (and NYC Unitarians) insist on celebrating Diwali (or Deepavali) in October? And thank you for not throwing in “Eid” or “Ramadan”. Hail Eris.

    I have already posted on the double bind about evergreen trees.

  • Peter

    Can’t we get past the absurd idea that something’s origin permanently defines its meaning?

    A modern American putting up a Christmas tree may be doing many things, but chances are extremely good that they are NOT “participating in a pagan ritual,” and it is utterly ridiculous to claim that they are.

    That isn’t to say that it isn’t valid to point out a custom or a symbol’s origins. But the current meaning has to focus on what current people mean it as.

    It is as ridiculous as claiming that since Muslim Arabs invented the zero that anyone who balances their checkbook is engaging in the worship of Allah.

    A Christmas Tree, Santa, the reindeer, mistletoe, etc should be able to be seen as secular symbols of the holiday, while the Nativity Scene is clearly religious.

    Asking for a menorah to “balance” holiday trees is out of line, but it would have been different if the display had included a Nativity scene.

    Of course, that doesn’t prevent people who consider all things Christmas to be inherently religious from getting fuzzy theological feelings about their trees.

    But honestly, did the things have signs on them SAYING that they were “holiday” trees rather than “Christmas” trees?

  • str1977

    It is always strange to have people advise other people about getting history right and then blundering themselves.

    Christmas has no pagan (or even pagen, if you can’t spell) origins (unless anything not Puritan is pagan) or elements with one exception: the date is (rather was) the winter solistice, which neatly fits into the symbolism of Christ coming into the world when it was darkest. No wonder that other, non-Christians festivals used the same symbolism of natural events.

    To say “Christmas … was celebrated in Europe long before anyone there even heard of Christianity.” is just plain nonsense.

    The Christmas tree was only added in the 16th century in some regions and became popular only in the 1870s. And that the tree can be “secularized” is no wonder.

    In a world, where pagen Christmas existed before Christianity, the Maccabees (started 167) must fight against Assyrians (ended 609)

    Bob,

    who ever said that religion had the duty to UNITE?

  • James

    Considering we see Jesus attend the Hannukah celebration in John 10, I’ve not only no problem with public expressions of Hannukah, I’d like to see more. There’s certainly no conflict with Christianity there.

  • JC

    Can’t we get past the absurd idea that something’s origin permanently defines its meaning?
    so true, let’ all hang swaistka’s from our christmas trees.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Sorry to be late on this.

    Come on Jeff, we’re talking about a basic question at the root of this story. I know that news features cannot cover EVERYTHING. But this is basic info.

    Who didn’t want the menorah put up in the first place.

    Basic. How do you write the story without covering that?

  • str1977

    Someone wrote “Can’t we get past the absurd idea that something’s origin permanently defines its meaning?”

    To which someone, who unfortunately calls himself JC, replied “so true, let’ all hang swaistka’s from our christmas trees”

    The swastikas are indeed a good example. Would you approve of them becaue their origin in Indian culture where it represents the sun? No, the meaning was changed and is no longer the same.

    In any case, a swastika would make no sense hanging on a Christmas tree being taken from two non-Christian contexts.

  • LeeAnn

    I’m a Washingtonian who gets the Seattle Times daily.

    My prediction: next year there’ll be only snowmen and snowflakes and big signs up declaring “Happy Winter.” Seattleites will bend over backwards, and then forwards, and then backwards again in an attempt to not be offensive by being religious (whatever the religion). I think the Port knew allowing menorahs likely means allowing creches, and well, Seattleites certainly don’t want to go there! Neither would we want to look ridiculous by putting up equal displays of every winter holiday on earth no matter how un-local or potentially offensive. (That would be a holiday display at the UW probably.)

    Why didn’t the Times ask the pertinent question? Because they didn’t really want to know (or let the public know) the answer, in essence, because they sympathized with the decision (of the Port, to remove the trees). The Times wouldn’t want anyone to get publicly humiliated and possibly lose their job (At Christmas! I mean, during the “winter holidays!”) over an issue like this–trying to be culturally sensitive and all that. Really, it makes perfect sense around here.

  • Rachel

    Evagrius,
    The man’s name was JUDAH. NOT Judas, as in Judas Iscariot.
    JUDAH Maccabbee.
    Not the first time I’ve read this obvious mistake, but just as annoying.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X