The opinions I express here are my own in response to your story, editorial and letters from the Dec. 15 issue.
There are, in reality, two issues. First, that of whether or not Jews should display their Judaism publicly. Some come down on this, as did one of your letter writers, describing Hanukkah (read: Judaism) as being celebrated at home.
After all, if one thinks about it, we pray in synagogues which are private locations, we have Shabbos dinners at home, and the majority of our activities are celebrated with one another. But along comes Hanukah and we have the obligation to make a public display of the menorah. It is to be displayed in the window or in an alcove by the front door unless, for reasons of practicality or oppression, that cannot be done.
My clients understand their mission to see the menorah displayed publicly and they have succeeded, in an admirable way, to bring the Jewish spirit out in families such as the crowd I saw at University Village on fourth night of Hanukkah.
The second issue is whether or not my clients had the right to ask that a governmental entity display a menorah if it was going to display holiday (read: Christmas) trees on public property. The highest law of the land, the decision of the United States Supreme Court in 1989, is that they have that right. Citing from the County of Allegheny (Pa.) v. American Civil Liberties Union Greater Pittsburgh Chapter, the Court could not be more clear: “In the shadow of the tree, the menorah is readily understood as simply a recognition that Christmas is not the only traditional way of observing the winter-holiday season ... [and that] ... Hanukkah is a contemporaneous alternative tradition.”
Simply put, it would be a form of discrimination against Jews to allow Pittsburgh to celebrate Christmas as cultural tradition while simultaneously disallowing the city’s acknowledgment of Hanukkah as a contemporaneous cultural tradition.
When my clients first contacted the airport in mid-October, they had every right to believe that the airport (which touts diversity on its Web site) would be gracious and honor the request to include a menorah with the trees. At one point a “yes” was given, followed by an advisement that the speaker had been premature and the Port would not allow the menorah display. Discussions continued, and Josh Feit of The Stranger reported that there were “internal discussions” at the Port over this in mid-November.
I was ready, willing and able to assert a right in federal court when, on December 4, I contacted the Port’s chief counsel. I took the position, however, that counsel for the Port would understand the issues and the matter would best be resolved by discussion rather than suit. Any person or entity that believes their rights have not been respected may petition a court for the resolution of that grievance; however, in every communication with the Port’s attorneys we emphasized that we wanted the Port to recognize and honor its obligation without the need for a court order.
One does not achieve in life one’s goals by awaiting the largesse of others. Indeed, when we pass the challah on Friday night, one custom is to pass the plate with the slices so that each person takes his own, representing the hope that we remain free of dependency on others. In the grace after meals, we ask God to “Please make us not needful — of the gifts of human hands…” Ultimately, we could not wait endlessly for a reasonable response from the Port.
In this instance, and buttressed with a significant decision from a federal court of appeals in Ohio, that an injunction would be granted to compel the menorah display on public property with Christmas trees, it seemed that insistence in the face of preparedness could resolve the prior impasse. I believe that those who wrote to deplore the “threat of suit” would not have done so had they been aware of the great efforts of diplomacy we made to avoid a controversy, rather than start one.
In a number of reports, all too little and too late, the Port acknowledged that: “This has been an unfortunate situation for all of us in Seattle,” said Port of Seattle Commission President Pat Davis. “The rabbi never asked us to remove the trees; it was the Port’s decision based on what we knew at the time.” ( “Port to put ‘holiday trees’ back in place at airport,” NewsTribune.com, Dec. 12, and picked up by AP, Reuters, International Herald Tribune, The Seattle Times, New York Times, New York Sun.
The distinction to be drawn here is that the Port is a municipal corporation, as it says on its Web site. The port is not a private business with no obligation to the public. It is required, as a public entity, to follow the law of the land for use of public property.
It has been my observation that we, as humans, do best when we can assign something personal to others, so they are not the faceless “they,” “them,” or “the other.” The menorah is a reminder, as so aptly put by the Supreme Court, that Hanukkah is but one additional tradition to be recognized during the December holiday season.
While we were disappointed with the Port’s decisions for 2006 I am hoping we can look forward to a positive resolution for 2007.