The Seattle Times (one of my local papers) today reports that what started out as a local tempest in a teacup now threatens to tear up the national newswire. The Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (known as Seatac) until recently had a display of plastic “Holiday” trees in its public concourse. That’s when all Hell seemed to break loose:
Sea-Tac Airport officials were hoping to avoid controversy when they had maintenance crews working Friday’s graveyard shift dismantle nine holiday trees festooned with red ribbons and bows.
The airport managers ordered the plastic trees removed and boxed up after a rabbi asked to have an 8-foot-tall menorah displayed next to the largest tree in the international arrival hall.
Port of Seattle staff felt adding the menorah would have required adding symbols for other religions and cultures in the Northwest, said Terri-Ann Betancourt, the airport’s spokeswoman. The holidays are the busiest season at the airport, she said, and staff didn’t have time to play cultural anthropologists.
“We decided to take the trees down because we didn’t want to be exclusive,” she said. “We’re trying to be thoughtful and respectful, and will review policies after the first of the year.”
That Chabad rabbi took one look at those trees and said, “Nothing doing.” When he approached the Port of Seattle (which operates the air and seaport) with his menorah offer, he doubtless brought along a lawyer to ensure that the Port understood the “sincerity” of his religious convictions–and his willingness to sue their asses if they didn’t accede.
The Port naturally got a little panicky. And when public entities get panicky they almost always do some bonehead thing or other. They hired a First Amendment attorney to advise them. He must’ve told them: “Well, if you display trees as a symbol of a religious season, you’ve got to allow the menorah. And for that matter, you might also have to honor Id al Fitr, Kwanza and a host of other holidays if their adherents demand it. That was just too much religious expression for the Port Commissioners to contemplate.
So just like Mr. ‘Bah Humbug’ Scrooge in Dickens’ Christmas Carol, the Port told Rabbi Bogomilsky, “nein, a dank” and put the trees back in storage. Now, there will be no holiday celebration at Seatac. Which puts Seattle in the foolish position of essentially denying what everyone knows–that there IS a holiday season going on around us whether Seatac acknowledges it or not.
Furthermore, if Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly haven’t already jumped on this story, they will shortly. It’s tailor made for their 30-second sound byte attention span. It’s all too easy to make Seatac look like bungling “politically correct” petty bureaucrats who’re trying to steal Christmas from the good people of our fair city. No doubt, tomorrow the Christian evangelical community from the city’s east side will be demonstrating in force at Seatac.
Here are some suggestions on what they could’ve/should’ve done. If the Port felt it didn’t have enough time to organize a holiday display, they should’ve announced to the public that while there would be no display THIS year, but that they planned to have such a display next year after consulting with the city’s major religious groups. But my main point is that there SHOULD be displays by major religious groups represented within Seattle’s local population. Why not show respect for Id al Fadr, Kwanza, and Hanukah–in addition to Christmas? What are they afraid of? Too much religious expression?
The Port’s official reaction to the affair has been entirely unpersuasive. These are people clearly who are either unused to public controversy or else completely incompetent at managing it when it comes to them, as it has in this case:
Craig Watson, the port’s chief lawyer, said [Rabbi] Bogomilsky’s menorah likely fits the Supreme Court’s definition of secular [and hence would be a constitutional display]. But the Port did not want to set the precedent of allowing an outside group [Chabad] to erect a holiday display at the airport, he said, and staff was too busy with holiday traffic to deal with the complexities of doing it themselves.
While I’m not wild about the idea of Chabad, which I consider to be a theological-political right-wing expression of Judaism, setting up shop on the public concourse, what would be so bad about allowing them to do it if the Airport didn’t want to maintain the menorah display itself? And what would’ve been so complicated about the Airport staff putting it up and maintaining it?? Do these people have any idea of how easily this thing could’ve been resolved with an ounce of seychel (“common sense”)? You buy a large menorah. You stand it in the Concourse, turn on the light. How complicated is that?
Another Commissioner perfectly exhibited the Henny Penny affect in his comments:
“I felt we’d also have to put up Islamic, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish symbols. Where does it stop?” said Commissioner John Creighton.
Omigod, if we let one do it they’ll all want to. Pretty soon we’ll have Wiccans and Fire-Worshippers and God knows what. We just can’t have that.
The Port Commissioners will meet Tuesday and might reconsider their decision. If they do, let’s hope they use a little common sense and honor Christmas AND Hanukah, at least.
The Seattle PI’s story is here.
It’s important to add that the ABC national news story got it completely wrong when the reporter intoned: “The Port decided to take down the Christmas trees after a Jewish religious leader complained that they were offensive.” And I’m afraid that ABC and affiliate websites also have it wrong. KXLY, Spokane’s ABC affiliate says: “The Port allowed “holiday” decorations to remain but decided to take down all the Christmas trees after a Seattle rabbi complained they were offensive.” Looks like it’s blame-the-Jews time. For the record, this isn’t what Bogomilsky said. He has absolutely no objection to holiday trees unless they are the ONLY religious symbols displayed. For anyone who claims the media lie–well in this case ABC was just plain stupid. But stupidity can stir up religious-ethnic tension just as easily as lying. So let’s make sure that the right-wing media mafia at FOX don’t mess up (I was actually thinking of a bit stronger word here) the story as this reporter did.
I’ve complained to ABCNews.com. Let’s see if I even get an answer. By the way, so far FoxNews’ coverage of the story (largely derived from AP and local coverage) is accurate. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that bozos like Hannity, O’Reilly, Limbaugh or Savage will be.
UPDATE: It’s Christmas 1-Hanukah O as the Port decides to put the Christmas trees back up but gives a cold shoulder to Chabad’s offer to provide a menorah for the Airport’s displays. The Port, in its own charmless way, has embraced the old Brooklyn Dodger fans’ perennial slogan: “Wait till next year.”
Silverstein has published Tikun Olam since 2003, It exposes the secrets of the Israeli national security state. He lives in Seattle, but his heart is in the east. He publishes regularly at Middle East Eye, the New Arab, and Jacobin Magazine. His work has also appeared in Al Jazeera English, The Nation, Truthout and other outlets.