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This menorah, at Niagara Falls, is one of thousands of menorahs around the world (Photo from Chabad.org)

There’s been a huge uproar over the Christmas trees at the Seattle airport being taken down – and then put up again – when a rabbi asked to have a menorah included in the facility’s seasonal display.

But WND has discovered that neither side had any dispute with the Christmas trees themselves, and the whole disagreement stemmed from the fact the airport considers the trees secular ornaments to the season.

That means, airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Betancourt says, they are allowed under airport policy. But the menorah, which is a “religious” display, is not. She told WND when airport officials first got the request for the menorah several weeks ago, they considered, but refused, because of that policy.

But they did agree to review their “no-religion” decoration policy before next year “and that’s exactly what we’re doing,” she said. She told WND a team of advisers now is being put together to make a recommendation on changes.

The Christmas tree is allowable because it is “completely” secular, she told WND. “There is nothing religious in our airport, no crosses, no Nativities, just lights and ribbons on the trees, no angels on the tops.”

The menorah, other the other hand, is religious, she said.

Whatever the airport considers the tree, the history is commonly attributed to a “Christianization” of the pagan customs of using evergreens or their branches to celebrate at a mid-winter holiday.

One report attributes the beginnings of the Christmas tree to 1,000 years ago when St. Boniface found a group of pagans worshipping an oak. He cut it down and a fir sprouted from the roots. The first Christian use is credited to the 16th century when devout believers started bringing decorated trees into their homes.

However, the rabbi and his supporters who sought the menorah note that the menorah actually recalls a battle victory, more than 2,100 years ago, by a “militarily weak but spiritually strong Jewish people over the mighty forces of a ruthless enemy that had overrun the Holy Land.”

The disagreement over what is religious and what is not, however, hit the headlines as an “objection” to Christmas trees when Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement worked with attorney Harvey Grad to notify the airport of what may be determined to be a discriminatory policy, and the airport summarily removed those trees.

The lawyer had suggested the airport culminate weeks of telephone and e-mail exchanges with approval for the menorah, or a court action could be sought for an injunction allowing the display. The airport, Betancourt said, was busy with holiday travelers and had no time for a court battle.

Then when the rabbi contacted the airport later to assure he wouldn’t seek legal action, the trees were restored, both sides agree.

Now Grad notes that the negative publicity created by reports that the rabbi was “offended” by the trees has taken on a life of its own. Jewish organizations in the Pacific Northwest have been advised to tighten their security because of e-mails, some carrying a load of hate.

“It’s time to clear the air,” Grad said in comments provided exclusively to WND. “The Rabbi was NEVER offended by the trees, and he NEVER asked that that the trees be removed.”

Betancourt agreed. “The rabbi never asked and we never said the rabbi asked for the airport to remove the trees.”

“America was founded on freedom of religion and, per United States law and the precedent of hundreds of municipalities country-wide, the rabbi simply wanted to put up a Menorah in the airport. My client NEVER asked or intended that the Christmas trees be removed!” Grad said.

His level of distress comes from the many reports that the rabbi was “offended” by the Christmas trees in the airport’s lobbies and threatened to sue unless officials agreed to add a menorah.

Grad noted the story broke late on Dec. 8, the Sabbath, when the rabbi could not make himself available to talk to reporters. “Thus, it was initially – and subsequently continues – [to be] wrongly reported that the rabbi was offended by the trees,’ Grad said.

One network report included this: “This week we were treated to the spectacle of an easily offended and highly offensive rabbi who walked into an airport, gazed upon Christmas trees all around him and suddenly was overwhelmed with an immense, and apparently irresistible, urge to sue the management of the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport because nowhere among all the Christmas trees was a single menorah.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth! What objection could we possibly have, since we asked to have the Menorah included along with the Christmas trees in the airport?” Grad said.

“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,’” wrote Yanki Tauber, the content editor of Chabad.org.

Grad said members of his faith and the organization of Chabad-Lubavitch, a branch of Hasidism whose members for hundreds of years have followed a philosophy that advocates refinement of actions through wisdom, comprehension and knowledge, had been talking since October to airport officials about the menorah display.

He said U.S. Supreme Court precedents support that display, and among the more than 11,000 public menorah displays around the world is one in the governor’s mansion in Washington state.

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan wrote to the organization: “As my Administration draws to a close, I want you and those of your fellow rabbis who accompanied you to the White House on December 1 to know that I was delighted to greet you and to accept the thoughtful gifts which you kindly brought me. It has been a pleasure each year to welcome you and your colleagues in the American Friends of Lubavitch on the occasion of Chanukah and to receive a beautiful menorah as an expression of your friendship. This symbol of your faith is a treasured keepsake of the valued support which I have enjoyed from the Lubavitchers over the years.”

Grad indicated action had to be taken after the airport did not grant the requested permission.

“Chanukah was approaching, and we still had no word allowing us to place the Menorah in the airport. Thus, we asked that the Port move ahead with a positive decision to allow the display of the Menorah (since a federal court ruling) made it abundantly clear that the denial of a permit to display the Menorah justified an immediate injunction…”

After word of the dispute got out, a report on Seattle television noted that the Anti-Defamation League wrote synagogues, asking them to increase their security.

Robert Jacobs of the ADL’s Pacific Northwest Regional office told the station Jewish groups were flooded with virulent e-mails, including some that officials did forward to police because of the nature of the statements.

Pat Davis, the president of the Port of Seattle commission, reported that the concern was that if the menorah had been added, there would have been requests to display other symbols of other religions and cultures, and airport workers couldn’t do that.

So the port statement concluded that a “key element” in planning for next year will be to work with the rabbi “and other members of the community” on the plans.

The Chabad website said an e-mail has been written to return to those who contacted the group to unload their righteous anger. It says the removal of the trees was a “grave mistake” but then the “media early on jumped to conclusions” that contributed to the problem.

The group’s members weren’t expecting difficulty with the request for the menorah because “this same request has been filled at thousands of locations, beginning with the White House, with little or no controversy.”

The group blamed the airport’s “sorry pattern of double-talk, stonewalling, canceled meetings, and more” for the heightened disagreement.

“Frustrated with the obfuscation and continued foot-dragging, and sensing that something needed to be done to get the airport’s attention to come to the table in time for the looming holiday – but still hopeful that when seated around the table airport authorities will appreciate the validity of the request – the rabbi’s counsel held discussions with the airport’s counsel for almost a full week,” the e-mail says.

It was during that time the lawyer shared a “draft” of papers that could filed if no resolution was reached. Those papers convinced the airport to pull the trees, moving the controversy into the headlines.



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