Legal Blackout

Copyright Rabbi Eli Hecht
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Scott Harris, Los Angeles Times Staff reporter, wrote a story called, "Religious Symbols: 'Tis the Season for Contention."

In Downey's Civic Center, Mary, Joseph and the Three Wise Men are huddled around the manger. They always show up this time of year, whether the American Civil Liberties Union likes it or not. . ."

Now that the holidays are behind us it would be appropriate to review some disturbing events. As we are gearing up for a great bright Chanukah, someone came stealthily in the night and pulled the plug, trying to cause a great spiritual blackout for all religions in our great country. Again it seems that the First Amendment is being threatened! And, by none other than the American Civil Liberties Union!

My great, great grandpa, Zaydie Perez, who came from the Old Country in the late 1880s, would not have understood all the legal ramifications. After escaping pogroms and religious persecution and arriving on the shores of America, he would surely have said, "Are the religious oppressors here, too?"

My local city hall received, as did many others, a signed letter warning them to be aware of the silent wave moving in to destroy religious tolerance and harmony. An excerpt from that letter read as follows:

"Experience has shown that the placement of statues or symbols on public property divides the community along religious lines and brings about both interreligious and interreligious disharmony. Therefore, we strongly urge you to refrain from allowing the placement of such symbols on public property; and request that you, as a public official, limit your participation in religious ceremonies to those held on private land and funded only with private monies."

The letter, signed by the American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, Community Relations Committee, and Jewish Labor Committee, intrigued my Gentile neighbors and Councilmen.

In the past, South Bay Jewish children, their teachers and rabbis have visited city hall and toured the council chambers, and have seen a menorah standing next to an X-Mas tree, witnessing fair play in government and enriching them with feelings of pride and citizenship.

Our Gentile friends remarked, "So, some Jewish groups won't allow a menorah to be displayed!" When informed that they, too, are not permitted to display an X-Mas tree or Nativity Scene, their reaction was, "So, they're after us, too! Those guys mean everybody! Sounds un-American to me!"

Citizens in our country don't take kindly to being told how their government should be run, and the mayor, city councilmen and clerks, as well as others involved with the city, were especially angry. Americans get really peppered when they are told, "Religious symbols are not to be displayed in public parks&" Anger, resentment and disharmony creep in.

I overheard people saying, "There must be some mistake&" Someone innocently said, "Call the ACLU and speak to ADL. Or how about our own Jewish Federation Council; they know how to deal with inter-relationships ensuring harmonious coexistence." The response, unfortunately, was, "That can't be done either; they, too, signed the letter!"

Well, well! What does X-Mas look like without lights, stars and trees? Something like Chanukah without a menorah, I think.

Out here, in the small city of Lomita, my elected council doesn't like it at all. The City Attorney calls a town meeting and asks the rabbi to come by. At this meeting, questions are asked, "What are the consequences!" The City Administrator states, "We havent had a problem until this letter came." So after a brief discussion, and a call for a vote, and vote  bang goes the gavel, 6 to 0, the menorah is in! The Mayor smiles, the Council is happy, the citizens are gladdened - the little town of Lomita is going to keep the tradition of a menorah in City Hall!

The All-American city, Torrance, seems as displeased with the letter. How can they help the Jewish children and their families usher in this festive holiday? After a long talk with the City Attorney, and some research, it is found that it is not really against the law. The Assistant City Attorney says, "This is America, you can get a license!"

On the first night of Chanukah, the Mayor of Torrance, Council Members and Torrance citizens gathered for a menorah lighting ceremony. In front of City Hall, the past president of the South Bay legal community, Mr. Seymour Cohen, introduced the ceremony. The children sang, the rabbi lit the menorah, and the Mayor said a few words.

Unexplainedly, as by a miracle in itself, the Mayor asked, "Would you be so kind as to have the little children come into the Council Chamber and sing a Chanukah song for our citizens and councilmen!" And so it was. Right after the flag raising and the Pledge of Allegiance, the children sang for the citizens of Torrance. (The Los Angeles Times sent a photographer and reporter to prepare an article which later ran in the paper).

No bigotry! No inter-religious disharmony! Just Americans expressing their G‑d given rights in a country that maintains "In G‑d we trust."

Yet, down in San Diego, all kinds of problems emerged. The mayor's temper was felt. As quoted in the San Diego Union, "May Defends Nativity Exhibit Despite Rulings" "I want the scene to stay in the park," she said. "It's been there for 25 years and has every right, in my opinion, to stay there."

Once again, the ugly head of anti-Semitism starts to rise from the dead. Overnight, talk of swastikas on synagogues began to surface. Guards were hired to protect the synagogues and things turned ugly. As a result, City Hall received bad publicity and people called.

The Los Angeles Times reported, "In San Diego, hundreds of callers recently deluged City officials and Jewish leaders, including dozens of blatantly anti-Semitic messages, after the City Attorney issued a ruling that would have forced the cancellation of a traditional display of a live Nativity Scene at Balboa Park after this year."

The San Diego paper ran an editorial stating the following, "Although Mr. Witt's ruling was prompted by a complaint lodged by the Jewish Community Relations Council, it is hard to imagine how Jews benefit from an action that limits religious freedom and generates gratuitous strains between Christians and Jews, risking an unjustified backlash of sectarian ill will."

Now we had a real problem. There was a sudden reevaluation by the Jewish Community Relations Committee. According to the Los Angeles Times, "The Jewish Community Relations Committee's stand was recently modified to allow the creche to be displayed if other cultural symbols would be displayed along with it, including a menorah."

A situation, which never should have arisen was now resolved. Problems being solved by people who created the problems in the first place. Yes, the park is big enough to hold all religions.

How be it that the secular movement is preaching the First Amendment, which guarantees religious rights, and is using the Amendment against the people? Remarkable to say the least!

I, for one, cannot help but wonder what possesses these groups to inform Jews and non-Jews that religious displays should be taken away from public areas. When Jewish people oppose religious displays, they proliferate hatred, disunity and inter-religious disharmony. They truly divide the community along religious lines, something that must be avoided at all costs.

            To publicly argue that a menorah is such a religious object and that it should not be on public property is wrong. Ironically, the very Jewish group - the Chabad Movement - declares that the menorah is a symbol of religious freedom for all. This issue was clearly defined by Judge Robert H. O'Brien of the Superior court, who states in a summary judgment:

"The Court grants Summary Judgment of defendant against plaintiff on the complaint herein filed. The complaint seeks injunction against the display of the menorah at all as being unconstitutional. The display of the menorah is not unconstitutional."

Could it be that the secular groups are feeling guilty and are trying to confuse us? A famous story is told of a psychiatrist berating his patients. "If you still feel guilty after all these years - you should be ashamed of yourself!"

In a recent book by Jackie Mason, entitled, The World According to Me!, you'll find the following:

"You know what happened every night when my show was over? all the gentiles said, 'I liked him. Hes a hit. You know what the Jews said? 'Too Jewish. You don't have to talk like that.

"Every single day a yenta came over, 'You dont have to talk like that. Can't you talk like me? Talk like a regular person.'

"Jews talk about their pride and their identity. All minorities talk about their identity, pride, but subconsciously theyre somehow embarrassed by it. They're embarrassed by their Jewish identity. Why is it only Jews say Im too Jewish? No gentile ever said it. No Jew ever said somebody is too Spanish. Did you ever hear them say that someone is too Italian, or French? Why is somebody only too Jewish, and why is it that only a Jew is the one to say it?

"Why does every Jew move into a condominium in Miami Beach&his name is Goldberg, but his condominium is name La Traque de la Mere? Why is every building de la Vie? Because they're embarrassed by anything Jewish."

I'm sure that this little observation wont win me any brownie points with some in the establishment, but then again, it's my duty to speak up. We can't, as Jews, just let these incidents pass without comment.

In summation, over protection leads to no protection. The five organizations who signed ought to be more prudent about issuing letter to others.

Religious symbols are here to stay, the light of the menorah is to burn brightly and dispel darkness - not to blind those who look at it. G‑d bless America!