When I was working for my hometown newspaper right after college, my editor assigned me to write eight Hanukkah stories, one for each day of the festival. One article explained, with help from local rabbis, why it was inappropriate for the paper to make such a fuss over Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday whose importance has been inflated in the popular imagination by its accidental proximity to Christmas.
So even if Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky's request to erect an 8-foot electric menorah at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport had not prompted the removal of the airport's 14 Christmas trees, releasing a torrent of international press coverage, negative commentary and hate e-mail, I would not have been keen on the idea. To my mind, such displays, whether on public or private property, reinforce the false equivalence between Hanukkah and Christmas.
That's leaving aside the constitutional questions posed by government-sponsored religious displays. The U.S. Supreme Court has answered those questions in decisions so confusing that Sea-Tac officials can almost be forgiven for panicking when Bogomilsky, who is affiliated with the Lubavitcher religious outreach organization Chabad, threatened to sue if they did not let him put up his menorah.
Still, it should have been clear that a menorah alongside a Christmas tree was OK, since the Court approved exactly that configuration in front of Pittsburgh's City-County Building in 1989. The menorah in that case, an 18-foot model, also was provided by Chabad, which brags of placing thousands of such candelabra in public locations around the world.
The airport commissioners say they worried that if they let in Chabad's menorah, they would be flooded with requests from various other religious groups, each demanding a place for its symbol. That may sound plausible, but in practice how many displays are we talking about? Maybe a Kwanzaa bush.
After Bogomilsky, who never asked for the trees to be removed and was mortified when it happened, promised not to sue, the airport put them back. But it's not clear he had any grounds for a suit to begin with.
Bogomilsky would have had a hard time showing that the airport was discriminating against Jews simply by putting up Christmas trees but not allowing a menorah. The Supreme Court repeatedly has ruled that Christmas trees are not religious displays but "secular symbols" of "the winter holiday season."