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Fight or Light?

Fight or Light?

Controversy and Irony at SeaTac Airport

Public menorah lighting in downtown Seattle, circa 1985
Public menorah lighting in downtown Seattle, circa 1985

One thing I've come to realize is that many of us have an innate, enduring loyalty to our preconceptions. We'll stick with them through thick and thin, no matter what reality sends our way.

I first realized this some twenty years ago when a friend and I, as two young Chabad-Lubavitch rabbinical students, spent our summers canvassing the state of Montana looking for Jews. We'd drive from town to town--some of which only had one or two Jewish families--and try to do our bit to encourage Jewish identity and observance.

We were quite a curiosity, and were often featured in the local newspaper. The publicity proved useful in both drawing local Jews out of the woodwork and gaining us a welcome response when we called on people.

One thing irked me though about these newspaper stories. After spending an hour lecturing the reporter on Jewish identity and explaining about Shabbat, kosher, tefillin and mezuzah--what did s/he write about? About the "Two Hasidic Men Wearing Traditional Hasidic Black Hat and Long Black Coat" who've rolled into town.

The black hat part was true. Below the neck, however, we wore ordinary business suits. In all fairness to the reporters, these do tend toward the darker end of the color spectrum. Still, we weren't in town to promote traditional hasidic garb, and we'd have much preferred that the article focus on the more substantive parts of our message.

So one day we left our hats in the car. My partner wore a light grey suit to the interview, and I put on the most light-colored garment I owned--a light-tan plaid sports jacket.

Sure enough, the next day's paper ran a full-sized photograph of two hatless, light-jacketed young men posed in front of the newspaper building. One held a pair of tefillin, and the other a Shabbat candlestick. The caption under the photograph read: "Tauber, 21, and Begun, 22, two hasidic rabbis sporting the traditional black hat and long black coat, visit Montana on mission."

I was reminded again of how attached people can be to their preconceptions when seeing the news reports on the menorah controversy at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

The irony is that Rabbi Bogomilsky and his colleagues are squarely on the very opposite side of the debate... First the facts: Seattle Port Authority consultant Mitchell Stein, along with Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, a Seattle-based Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi, wanted to erect a Chanukah menorah at SeaTac Airport. The airport already had 14 large Christmas trees set up in various places throughout their terminals.

SeaTac is a major international gateway; why not share the menorah's message with the tens of thousands who pass through it? There's a public menorah in Red Square. At the Eiffel Tower. Inside the Brandenburg Gate. And in thousands of places throughout the United States and across the globe. Washington State's own governor is proudly hosting a menorah lighting ceremony in the capitol during Chanukah.

But the folks in charge at SeaTac didn't want a menorah. After weeks of stonewalling, bureaucratic double-speak and suddenly canceled meetings by Port brass, Rabbi Bogomilsky's lawyer warned of possible legal action. The airport's now infamous response was to.... remove the Christmas trees, claiming that they wouldn't be able to handle the onslaught of religiously diverse requests.

"Rabbi Forces Removal of Christmas Trees" screamed the headlines. For the first 24 hours after the story broke, the news outlets, reflecting statements being made by airport officials, actually reported that the rabbi was "offended" by the trees and had threatened to sue to have them removed. Eventually the stories themselves became more factually correct, but the original slant remained, and most viewers and readers were left with the impression that all this was part of what's lately being called the "War Against Christmas," spawning reams of hate mail to Jewish organizations and websites across the country.

Some of the news stories had an almost surreal quality to them: the rabbi would be quoted insisting that he has nothing against the trees, that he never in any way implied that he would sue to have the trees be removed, and that he is simply fighting for the right to put up a menorah; yet as he speaks, we see the news banner on the screen behind him: "Rabbi Threatens Lawsuit; Christmas Trees Removed." The reporter interviews the rabbi, asking his prepared question and then delivering his prepared sign-off, as if completely oblivious to what his interviewee has actually said.

It seems that there isn't much you can do to separate a person from his beloved preconceptions: apparently, some reporters and news editors already "knew" that the rabbi is against the trees, and once they knew that, nothing--not even their own reportage--was going to change the way they present the story.

Even now, when the trees are back up, the rabbi promised not to sue (at least not this year), and the airport has (sort of) intimated that they may respond positively to his request.... next year (maybe), the media continues to spin the "War Against Christmas" story and the hate mail continues to pour in.

The irony is that, for the last 25 years, there has been an ongoing debate within the Jewish community on the very issue of religious displays in public places during the winter holiday season--with Rabbi Bogomilsky and his colleagues squarely on the very opposite side of the debate than the side that's being attributed to him.

The sight of one menorah burning proudly through the night will do more for Jewish continuity than the removal of 1000 Christmas trees... There are 300 million people living in America, a large majority of whom are proud Christians; among them live about 5 million Jews. Come December, trees and other holiday paraphernalia blossom forth throughout the length and breadth of the land. Many Jews feel challenged by this phenomenon. "How can I raise my child to feel secure in and proud of his Jewishness," they wonder, "when he's confronted by these displays in every store window, hotel lobby and village square? How can I myself avoid feeling resentful, left out, discriminated against?"

Not long ago, the answer for many was: We'll fight the trees! We'll take them to court, we'll cite the Establishment Clause, and get all religious symbols removed from the public domain.

Chabad-Lubavitch took a different tack. Don't fight to remove the trees--put up menorahs! Don't direct your efforts to make America "less Christian"--work to celebrate America's freedom to encourage Jews in their Jewishness. Would not a single positive message be so much more effective than a thousand un-messages? Would not the sight of a single menorah burning proudly through the night do more for Jewish pride and Jewish continuity than the removal of a thousand trees?

Today, most of the Jewish community has been won over to this view. But it wasn't so long ago that Chabad-Lubavitch encountered vehement opposition for spearheading the "shower them with light" approach. I remember one particular year in the mid 1980's when I was involved in helping organize the activities surrounding the public menorah lightings during Chanukah in Seattle (yes, the very same Seattle). A national Jewish organization took the city to court to try and force them to revoke their permission for Chabad-Lubavitch to put up the menorah. They were actually quite apologetic to us: "Please understand, we have nothing against your menorah, but we're suing the city to make them take down the Christmas trees and crèches, so in all fairness, we need to fight the menorah too..."

So, irony of ironies, a Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi trying to put up a menorah is portrayed in hundreds of newspapers and television broadcasts from coast to coast as... the man who made SeaTac Airport remove the trees.

Shamefully, the airport is still obfuscating about why it is one of the only places in the United States to deny a menorah request. Hopefully in the short time left between now and Chanukah they will "see the light."

But if there's a lesson here for the rest of us, it may simply be: don't presume. Don't think that you already know what your fellow human being is all about, what he or she stands for, what s/he wants to achieve. If we'd listen to each other more, we might actually like what we hear.

Happy Chanukah!

Please be sure to visit to learn all about the meaning and practice of the Chanukah holiday, as well as to find local Chanukah celebrations.

Yanki Tauber served as editor of
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Discussion (120)
December 1, 2010
CP may be correct, but that's not the point. Even IF the menorah should not be displayed in the airport, the question pertains to discrimination. It is not over what we SHOULD do but whether or not Jews are allowed to do the same thing that others are allowed to do under the laws of the land in which we live. The issue is whether all are are FREE to do what the laws of the land allow, even though a particular religious belief may prohibit it. When we are not allowed but others are, that is discrimination and I would hope that no Jew would forget where that has lead when the nation in which Jews are citizens allows discrimination. It's not what Jews SHOULD do but whether they are ALLOWED to do what others are allowed to do.
Spokane, WA
November 30, 2010
Yirmiyahu 10 2 (Jeremiah 10:2)
Yirmiyahu 10 2
"So says the Lord: of the way of the nations you shall not learn, ..."

Lighting the menorah in the mall the way that Christians light their tree, side by side with their tree and their decorations reminds me of the prophet's words above.

In my opinion, the answer to the issue posted in this article has already been answered by the prophet Yirmiyahu.
Hville, USA
December 14, 2009
Good Will response
Standing or fighting for one's right under the Constitution, that we all cherish, is no threat to another. The point is that all of us have certain rights regardless of our numbers. I am certain that if Jews or Muslims or any other group were the majority & spent Federal/State funds to promote their religious beliefs you might understand our concerns & frustrations. It is not our intent to threaten another group or replace one injustice w/another. But to stay true to the concept of a separation between church & State. And that is not a concept that threatens the concept of G-d for those who believe. It is a concept thar allow us all to live together in peace. May G-d bless us all & see our way to finally respecting each other regardless of religious beliefs, race, or sexual preference.
Rebecca Linton
Las Vegas, NV
December 14, 2009
Re: The Memorah
As a Jew, I am sick and tired of Christians shoving their Easter and Christmas garbage in my face. Tolerance, I guess, onlhy applies to the Jews to accept the Christian religion not the other way around.
My husband and I will boycott all stores, if we can, that displays anything that has to do with any Christian holiday.
To all the Jews on this list that intermarry or who thinks Hanukkah is a less important holiday than Christmas stop being Jewish. Hanukkah is a beautiful holiday for those of us Jews that take pride in being Jewish.
Des Plaines, Illinois
December 14, 2009
Good Will
As a Christian I stand behind Israel in its fight against those who wish to destroy the jewish nation.
I do have less affection for the Jewish people today than I did a few years ago.
I realized with this Seattle airport conflict and learning that you had sued to remove Christian symbols from towns across America that given the chance the Jewish people will attack my faith and bring it down. You are not to be completely trusted and it is your own fault.
Channahon, Illinois
December 13, 2009
"holiday" trees
the rabbi doesn't acknowledge "cause and effect". his threat of a lawsuit let to the removal of the trees. whether that was what he wanted or not, it is his actions that caused it. he needs to find more iimportant work to do. whining about trees is divisive, not unifying. and he won't let it die - bringing up the tree incident again!
campbell, ca
December 11, 2009
Reporters & Trees
As a former reporter I know too well how the media can so easily slant stories to their view. As someone who used to celebrate Christmas before finding G-d's way in the Torah, I am amused how more and He uses incidents like SeaTac to mock man's traditions.
S. Modling
Bellville, Tx
December 12, 2008
Join forces with Hindus to get Diwali lights, Muslims to get a caligraphic greeting for Eid and Ramadan, etc... join forces with other marginalized religious groups to get their space and prove how easy, and exciting, it is welcome "all the other religious groups' requests". Personally, I am totally against the removal of all public religious expression (where would that end? a ban on kippot and hijab?) and agree real pluralism is the way to go.
Blue Ash, OH
January 8, 2008
I hope this doesn't make people prejudiced against Seattle! It's an amazing city, and I'm proud to be a resident. Yes, there is rife with the airport- and as a wife of a traveling buisnessman, I do see lots of airports, and as a Jew, I do appreciate the Hannukkah lights. But I don't think Hanukkah was made for causngsuch a controversry- don't you think? I liked how "Dad of...." posted his daughter liked the Hanukkah lights...but if you can't get 'em, don't fight them. My daughters Elizabeth Christina and Madison Mary, enjoy the Christmas lights; one day in Seattle, I'll point her out the Hanukkah ones at SeaTac.
Juneau, Alaska
January 7, 2008
I'm from Seattle, yet have been to numerous airports. When I fly with my kids, Devyn, 3, and Jayden, 21 months, my wife and I always make a point to stop and show the kids the Hanukkah decorations. My 3-year-old aptly appreciated it- "Daddy I like Jewish tree lights!" My 24-year-old wife Giselle is Italian, and she was shocked a country like America would block menorah lighting in our beloved city. Even my 3-year-old daughter appreciated the Chanukah lights! My 3rd child, Madison Joy, was born on Kof Hei Kitlev- first day of Chanukah. Aptly, I named her Joy. Maybe SeaTac should see THAT! I feel embarrassed that my non Jewish
wife questions me why SeaTac would do that and I could only say I don't know. Maybe the Rabbi shouldn't have bothered? Hopefully the next time I bring Devyn Maii, Jaydens, little Madison Joy, and our newborn Sean Preston through SeaTac, my kids can proudly point out their Chanukah Menorah. Hopefully!
Dad of Devyn, Jayden, Madison and Sean
Seattle, WA