Monday, December 11, 2006

Treeless in Seattle

For those who missed the newsbyte, it seems that all Christmas trees have been removed from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport following the protest of a local Chabad figure, Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky.

SEATAC, Washington (AP) -- All nine Christmas trees have been removed from the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport instead of adding a giant Jewish menorah to the holiday display as a rabbi had requested.
"We decided to take the trees down because we didn't want to be exclusive," said airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Betancourt. "We're trying to be thoughtful and respectful, and will review policies after the first of the year."
Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky, who made his request weeks ago, said he was appalled by the decision. He had hired a lawyer and threatened to sue if the Port of Seattle didn't add the menorah next to the trees, which had been festooned with red ribbons and bows.

There are two issues that seem important here. The first is the question of the demand that Channukah menorahs be placed in the airport. Perhaps Rabbi Bogomilsky really made his demand in the spirit of inclusiveness. But I can’t shake the feeling that some have, consciously or otherwise, forgotten that the Jewish people are a nation in exile. Yes, we all know that the United States is a benevolent country. Yes, we know that the constitution protects the freedoms of every religion. But the munificence of a nation does not excuse willful provocation that will almost certainly arouse feelings of hatred toward Jews.

You see it all the time – the way Jewish organizations attack “offenders” with impunity, as if our position among the gentiles is so secure that we no longer face hatred or antisemitism. Yes, Mel Gibson is an antisemite – anyone with eyes in his head noticed it years ago. But one wonders how prudent it is for Jewish figures to drag Gibson over the coals, repeatedly and publicly, for his sins. Some may see this as a form of defense. But as far as I’m concerned, if Western Society is really as tolerant as everyone thinks, it is capable of policing itself against racism and bigotry. The Jewish voices in the choir add nothing but the potential for backlash.

The Christmas tree is a symbol of the Christian holidays, and like it or not, Western Society is essentially Christian society. And that means that as long as the Jews live among Christians, it is us who must go out of the way to be tolerant, not them. It seems that even the Seattle Rabbi realizes that he went too far. As the Rabbi’s lawyer put it,

"They've darkened the hall instead of turning the lights up," said Bogomilsky's lawyer, Harvey Grad. "There is a concern here that the Jewish community will be portrayed as the Grinch."

Well, maybe he should have thought of that before he threatened the airport with a lawsuit! And concern? Forget it – it’s happened already. (Current headline at CNN – “Rabbi threats bring down Christmas Tree”)

The second question is one of the airport’s reaction. Faced with the threat of a lawsuit, they caved in and decided to remove the Christmas trees rather than capitulate to Rabbi Bogomilsky’s demands. On the surface, their decision was a pragmatic one – if they must hang the holiday decorations of the Jewish people, shouldn’t they honor Kwanzaa too? And if Kwanzaa, established just a few decades ago, what happens should the Devil Worshippers demand a ghastly pentagram? And what of the atheists, who are offended by any hint of religion? The only way to deal with the problem then, is to completely secularize the holiday – let’s call them Holiday Trees – or perhaps as a more extreme (or pusillanimous) option, to rid our halls of any symbols altogether.

In truth, some view the removal of Christian symbols with a satisfied smirk. America is a pluralistic society, and if we aren’t going to cater to the whims of every religion, then we must accommodate none. And some, of course, have a passionate hatred for every hint of religion. Just look at the recent controversy over Keith Ellison. Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, wishes to take his oath of office over the Koran rather than the Bible, traditionally used for such ceremonies. Although some, led by Dennis Prager, have criticized this move, many support Ellison’s desire. As Ibraim Hooper, a spokesman for the Center for American-Islamic Relations put it,

This is a tempest in an Internet teapot...In reality, they should see the empowerment of such an individual as strengthening the Constitution.

There’s a line that I’ve heard in the name of several gedolim, including the Chafetz Chaim. The gist of it is, “G-d spare me from secular Jews and religious gentiles.”

I think that regardless of whether this line was actually uttered by a Torah sage, there’s no question that the idea lives on in the mythos of Torah Judaism – there’s nothing more dangerous to the Jewish people than religious gentiles. And there is some truth to this idea. Just look where fundamentalism has gotten the Muslims; doesn’t everyone sort of wish they would all settle down to Reform Islam? So yes, it’s definitely true that in certain times and places, zealous gentiles have posed a legitimate threat to the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, I think that one who has even the most cursory understanding of America today will realize that rampant secularism is a much greater threat to the Jewish people than a modicum of religion. And this goes beyond the direct influence such secularism and materialism has on the Jews. The core strength of Western Society, as is true for any society, is the religion that animates it, in this case Christianity. But in recent history, Western Society has become decadent. It has “lost the object” – lost a sense of ultimate purpose and consequently lost its will to survive. And it is no coincidence that this loss has come paralell to the rise of rationality and the decline of religion.

Contrary to popular notion, the rise and fall of societies is rarely dependant on military strength alone. Time and time again, societies brimming with mettle and purpose – of whatever sort – have supplanted mighty yet decadent nations. We saw the same thing during the Cold War (until Reagan turned the tide) and we see the same thing happening today: the retreat of the objectively stronger West before Muslim zeal. If Western society is to survive, it must return to its roots, the religious source of its strength.

I assume I do not have to elaborate on the notion that (barring Divine intervention) if Western Society fails – and most especially the United States – things will not go well for the Jews.

I want to make quite explicit that this post is not in any manner an endorsement of Christianity, despite the fact that at least some aspects of Christianity are derived from Judaism. My point is that if the West is going to stand, it had better find something to stand for. It is doubtful that any American will be stirred to sacrifice his very life for the rally cry of “PS3! Self-parking Lexus! Plasma TV!”

So yes, I deplore the wilful provocation against a beneficient gentile nation. Nevertheless, the supine willingness of America to jettison its honored traditions is more worrying still. At this point, I just don’t know if America can arrest its decline. But I certain hope this great nation will find the moral strength to give it a try.

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