Jews Strive to Restore Sea-Tac Airport’s Christmas Trees
By Rabbi Daniel Lapin
Well here we go again. It is so utterly predictable. Like clockwork. It’s December and time for another skirmish in the annual battle against Christmas. What compels me to comment is that this time it’s not the usual secular fanatic who’s responsible for doing things that evict Christianity from the culture. No, on this sad and alarming occasion it’s a deeply religious, well-intentioned rabbi who has unwittingly stumbled into a situation that will place his denomination (and mine)—Orthodox Judaism—in a terrible, negative light.
For at least ten years, Sea-Tac Airport near Seattle has displayed several large, beautifully decorated Christmas trees each December. With lawyer in tow, a local rabbi recently threatened to sue the Port of Seattle if the airport didn’t add a Chanukah menorah to the holiday display.
Yielding to the ultimatum was not an option for airport management, skittish at the best of times since 9-11. Understandably, they interpreted the rabbi’s threat as only the first. It would not be hard to imagine Seattle’s Islamic community stepping forward with their own lawyer to demand a Moslem symbol be included as well.
With deft turn of phrase, Sea-Tac public affairs manager Terri-Ann Betancourt explained that at the busiest travel time of the year, while Sea-Tac was focused on getting passengers through the airport, she and her staff didn’t have time “to play cultural anthropologists.”
Threatening a lawsuit, I feel, violates the Jewish principle known in Hebrew as Kiddush HaShem, interpreted in the Talmud, part of ancient Jewish wisdom, as an action that encourages people to admire Jews. One need only read the comments on the Internet following the news accounts of the tree removal, to know that most people are feeling indignant and hurt. They certainly are not feeling more warmly toward Jews as a result of this mess.
Here I disclose that I know the rabbi involved, am friendly with him, and am sure that he didn’t intend this outcome. I like him, which makes it painful for me to point out that when one throws a punch (which is what bringing a lawyer and threatening to sue is equivalent to) and one gets decked in return, one cannot plead that one didn’t intend that outcome.
The outcome, whether intended or not, is that now vast numbers of passengers, most of whom are probably Christian, will be deprived of the cheerful holiday sight of pretty Christmas trees. What is more, they will know that their deprivation was caused by a Jewish rabbi. The rabbi’s lawyer told a television reporter, “There is a concern here that the Jewish community will be portrayed as the Grinch.”
No, Mr. Lawyer, it is not that Jews will be “portrayed” as the grinch. Sadly, now we are the grinch. You made us the grinch.
Now what is to be done? I have three requests:
I am asking every reader of this column to sign a petition on the Toward Tradition website beseeching Sea-Tac management to restore the Christmas trees.
I am asking every reader of this column to forward it to others who might be willing to sign this petition.
I am asking Jews in the Puget Sound region to join national radio host, Michael Medved, and me in offering our volunteer labor to Sea-Tac. We hope they will allow us to provide the labor necessary for replacing the trees so that airport staff need not be deflected from their important duties.
Why am I, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, so concerned about a few Christmas trees? Not for a moment do I believe that American Christians will react to this insult with a flurry of anti-Semitic activity. But I do feel certain that perhaps in some small way, expelling Christmas symbolism from the airport makes it just a little harder to protect America’s Christian nature.
For centuries, we Jews suffered in a Europe governed by ecclesiastical authority. We suffered no less under the secular tyrannies of communism. Now, in post-Christian Europe, where both government and population are increasingly secular, anti-Semitism is dramatically on the rise. In short, we have never thrived under religious government or within secular cultures.
During the past two thousand years of Jewish history Jews have never enjoyed a more hospitable home than we enjoy here in the United States of America.
This is because we have a religiously neutral government and a largely religious Christian population. Most American Christians love Jews and support Israel unconditionally because of their commitment to the Bible and the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Evidence from across the Atlantic persuades me that our lot will deteriorate if America’s population gradually becomes secularized and removing the Christmas trees makes that disturbing likelihood, over time, more probable. Yes, public symbols are very important.
Years ago we Jews advocated for full equality. Today, with thirteen Jewish United States senators, over thirty Jewish congressmen, two Jews on the Supreme Court, and disproportionate Jewish representation in media and entertainment, one could reasonably say we have achieved it. But back then, the only culture in America was Christian. Today, however, America is home to many faiths, not all of them friendly towards Judaism.
Today, agitating for Jewish religious representation in the culture inevitably results not in equating Judaism with Christianity but the removal of both Judaism and Christianity. In other words, pushing for the menorah means removal of the Christmas tree and the triumph of secularism. Europe, both past and present, teaches us that if America becomes secularized, Jews suffer.
For fifteen years I have insisted that for Jews to oppose Christianity in America is a mistake. The world today is populated by millions who harbor festering hatred for Jews. There remains one group of people who love and support us and they are America’s Evangelical Christians. What possible sense does it make to fight your friends by stripping their symbols from sight?
When the Moslems invaded Spain, one of their first actions was the removal of all Christian symbols from public view. Secularism’s invasion of America is attempting exactly the same strategy. I implore American Jews not to ally themselves with this ill-fated campaign.
We are less than a week from the Jewish holiday of Chanukah during which our most important religious observance revolves around the blessings we say over the Menorah. In doing so, we oppose the still prevalent and ever more dangerous force of secularism.
When times change, unlike dinosaurs, wise organisms adapt. We should recognize that we all have a stake in protecting Christian symbolism in the village square (or the airport). The only alternative will be no religious symbolism at all and make no mistake, secularism’s rise is Judaism’s decline.
I spoke to the rabbi involved today and he is genuinely unhappy with the decision of Sea-Tac airport. I invited him to join the Toward Tradition petition and I hope he will do so. I urge you also to do whatever you can to help bring back Sea-Tac Airport’s Christmas trees. Let us all show that we care.
Exactly thirteen years ago, a brick was thrown through a Jewish home’s window in Billings, Montana because inside that window was displayed a menorah. Within days, over six thousand Christian homes in Billings protested that anti-religious bigotry by displaying menorahs in their windows.
I am not suggesting that Jews express their support by displaying Christmas trees in their windows but I am suggesting that Jews fulfill the spirit of Chanukah by supporting public expressions of the other Biblical faith. I don’t think that the airport was guilty of anti-religious bigotry but a weakening o
f Christianity in America could become a huge threat. For a start, let us try to restore Sea-Tac Airport’s Christmas trees.
Sign Petition: www.towardtradition.org/restorechristmas