One 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?