Monday, December 11, 2006

The War on Chanukkah

At this time of year, we frequently hear about a supposed "War on Christmas," the odd idea that it is somehow offensive to wish people a "Happy Holiday" or "Seasons Greetings" instead of "Merry Christmas." But I'd like to talk to you about the War on Chanukkah, about an airport that was so strongly opposed to displaying a menorah in the midst of their plethora of Christmas decorations that they chose to take down their 15 Christmas trees rather than allow a menorah.

In October, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport was approached by Chabad Lubavitch, a Chasidic Jewish organization known for its outreach. Chabad wanted to put up a menorah -- at their expense -- in the airport, as they do in many locations around the world. The menorah would stand side-by-side with one of the 15 Christmas trees already displayed at the airport. However, instead of meeting the offer with enthusiasm as many cities and facilities around the country do, airport officials dragged their feet on the request.

With Chanukkah rapidly approaching -- it starts at sunset on Friday December 15 -- and no response from airport officials, Chabad put some pressure on. They told the airport that they would consider a lawsuit if the airport did not allow the to put up their menorah. There is certainly a basis for a claim of discrimination: this public facility (not a private business) puts up the decorations of one religious holiday with their own money, but does not allow a decoration of another religious holiday at the same time.

The airport's response? They took down all 15 of their Christmas trees and blamed the Jews. The President of the Port of Seattle Comission said, "It was either, 'put up the menorah,' or they would go to federal court and sue us 18 hours later. They wouldn't wait."

Wait? Wait for what? For Christmas? Christmas decorations are already up; Chanukkah starts Friday; what were they waiting for? What did they expect Chabad to wait for?

And who do you think is going to get the blame for this mess? The airport officials, who would rather take down Christmas trees than display a menorah, or Chabad, who simply wanted to spread a little Chanukkah cheer at their own expense? I'm seeing a disturbing -- but not surprising -- amount of message board chatter blaming Chabad. Many of the messages seem to think that Chabad demanded that the trees come down, which was never a part of the Chabad agenda.

News links (please note: the linked articles, like any news items, may be removed at any time):


Table Mountains said...

who do you think is going to get the blame for this mess,you ask?

Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky.........he hired a lawyer and threatened to sue if the Port of Seattle didn't add the menorah next to the trees.

JewFAQ said...

The rabbi threatened to sue to be allowed to put the menorah UP, not to take the trees DOWN. So whose fault is it that the trees came down? The rabbi was as shocked by this action as anybody.

Just curious, what do you think about this one: A fundamentalist Christian moves into a predominantly Jewish town. She wants to put up a creche next to the menorah on the causeway entering the town. The town council refuses. She brings suit against the town.

FYI: That's a real story. The fundamentalist Christian took it all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. But you probably think that's different.

Table Mountains said...

she's just as crazy as the rabbi !

Michael said...

As the old saying goes, two wrongs do not make a right.

As an observant Jew, I say a pox on both sides of this dumb argument. No side should put up displays of religion with taxpayer money.

As to Chabad's goal, your posting is mischaracterizes their motives and goals. Hannukah is a minor holiday. Jews account for less than 1% of the American population. Chabad represents what percent of American Jews? 10? 5? 3?

By their reprehensible actions, they are attempting to equalize a minor Jewish holiday with a major Christian holiday. If Chabad were trying to raise awareness of Jewish holidays, then where are the public sedar plate, sukkah, and 49 shafts of wheat?

Chabad is forcing their will on the majority. As an American Jew, I decry, deplore, and denounce Chabad's boorish behavior.

Why as American Jews should we give cover to these thugs and bullies who impose their views not only on the majority of Americans but on the majority of American Jews.

JewFAQ said...

Yes, Chabad represents a tiny fraction of the tiny Jewish minority -- less than 10% of Jews identify as Orthodox, and Chabad is just one of many groups within the Orthodox umbrella. They get a disproportionate amount of attention because of their outreach efforts, which I applaud. More than half of all Jewish parents give their children no Jewish education whatsoever, and I can tell you as a victim of that kind of Judaism (I was raised nominally Reform) and as a purveyor of Jewish education: a lot of Jewish adults regret their lack of education. Chabad provides a vibrant, welcoming, non-judgmental place for uneducated Jews to get an authentic Jewish experience. There aren't many synagogues or organizations, Orthodox or otherwise, that do as good a job at it.

Yes, from a traditional Jewish perspective, Chanukkah is a rather minor holiday. But from the non-observant, unaffiliated perspective of most American Jews, Chanukkah is the most observed holiday. Lighting Chanukkah candles is now the most widely observed practice among American Jews (it recently overtook the seder).

As for public seder plates and sukkahs and such: actually, Chabad makes a lot of efforts in those areas, hosting community seders and sukkah parties in every community where they are found. They don't do that sort of thing in the airport because they wouldn't have a legal leg to stand on -- the airport's willingness to display Christmas symbols at this time of year opens the door to minority holiday displays. But you can be sure that if Sea-Tac put up Easter displays in April, Chabad would be out there with Passover displays.

FYI: Jews are about 2% of Americans (about 5 million Jews in a country of about 300 million), less than 1/2% of people worldwide (12 million Jews in a world of about 6.5 billion people). Jews tend to be clustered in some areas, and in several major cities, Jews make up more than 10% of the population. I have no idea what the Jewish population in Seattle is.

TheRhesus said...

I have seen so many disgustingly anti-Semitic posts about this episode that I can't begin to tell you how refreshing it is to see an intelligent Jew refute them all. Thank you very much, JewFAQ. I think the Rabbi was well within his rights. Even if Jews are only 2 percent of the population, 5 million people is a lot to discriminate against.

Katie Lipka said...

I appreciate your post from a few years back about March Madness as an example of how Jews feel at Christmas. It is something I have been trying to understand for 11 years.

My husband's family is Jewish. My family heritage is Christian, although my immediate family is not Christian. My husband's family believes I am Christian, no matter how I try to explain to them that I am not, because Judaism intertwines religion with ethnicity and culture. (His family identifies as Jewish but the only time they go to temple is for Bar Mitzvahs, if then - they prefer to skip the service and just go to the party).

I grew up as an atheist in Berkeley during Reagan's America. But December was always a really happy time in my family. Today my husband and I celebrate the Winter Solstice on Christmas Day. This is very strange to most people. They think that we are just celebrating Christmas. We are very clear with our 3 children what we are celebrating and why. It's true that we have plenty of Christ mixed in, whether we believe he existed or not, through the traditional music but our pagan tree is decorated with suns and moons and snowflakes. Our holiday cards generally read - Here Comes The Sun! or May Your Days Get Longer and Your Nights Shorter. Winter happens to everyone! And we have embraced this holiday time in our own way.

During Chanukkah, we light the menorah, read Chanukkah stories, play dreidel and eat fried foods (the kids love doughnuts best!). However, we don't open presents. Channukah is a minor holiday, and we choose to emphasize Passover and Rosh Hashannah for the children at other times of the year. We don't want to water down the joy of our Solstice celebration with having presents all month long, if that makes sense.

This makes my husband's family very angry. They want to send presents but they don't want them opened on Christmas Day when we open our other presents. Over the years I have come to understand that they are really offended by Christmas and everything about it. I try to be understanding of this. I know it is not easy to be a minority. But it does hurt my feelings that they are so unwilling to accept our choices at this time of the year.

My son has come home from public school with Channukah arts and crafts and stories every day this week. (I assume next week will be Christmas-themed.) He is the one of 2 students in his class with grandparents who are Jewish. There are only 2 students in his entire grade who are pracaticing Jews. That seems like a huge emphasis on Judaism to me. For a minor holiday!

I think the rabbi's choice to bring anything to do with lawyers to the airport in our litigious society was a mistake. Instead, write a letter to the right people and see if it can happen next year. Of course, I see the holiday trees as a beautiful pagan ritual that was co-opted by Christianity to win over hearts and minds and I love them. But everyone wants to see the world in black and white I guess, and divide themselves into neat little categories. ???

Sorry this is so long and touches on so many things. I hope I haven't offended. This issue has just been eating at me for a long time now.

I don't follow college basketball. I don't really care much. But when my brother gets really excited about it, I feel happy. I feel happy that he's charged up about something.