Dec. 14 (Bloomberg) — The Christmas trees are back.
That's the big news at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport this week. A local rabbi didn't like the fact that managers there had put up 14 plastic trees, but failed to add a menorah, the symbol of Chanukah. Especially irksome, perhaps, was the tallest tree, at more than 15 feet, at the international baggage claim.
The rabbi, Elazar Bogomilsky, threatened to sue unless the menorah went on display. The Port of Seattle, which runs the airport, removed the trees, telling the press it didn't want to appear to be "exclusive" — shutting out other faiths.
There were several protests. Delta Air Lines Inc. employees put up their own tree. Frontier Airlines Holdings Inc. staffers pooled their money for Christmas decorations. The Anti-Defamation League said the trees should be restored. The rabbi in the end said he wouldn't sue.
Most of the country is probably with the Christmas-tree team on this one. There's something about a Christmas tree at the center of a public place, be it an airport lounge or a Massachusetts town green, that makes us feel merry, many non-Christians included. We welcome the trees, wreaths and songs as a comforting national celebration.
This is true not merely because Christians founded this country. It is also because Protestant Christians, with some notable exceptions, have been good hosts over the years to those of who don't believe precisely the same things they do. In the U.S., the Christmas tree has earned a right to be a symbol of general tolerance.
If you want to be bookish about it you can note that this hospitality began at the beginning, when George Washington, an Episcopalian who talked like a Deist and belonged to the Freemasons, prohibited his troops from burning the pope in effigy on Guy Fawkes night. He wrote to the head of the congregation of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, that the U.S. gave "to bigotry no sanction."
That attitude has only strengthened in the past half century, as most non-Christian adults in this country know from personal experience. I am Jewish, but most of my education came by way of Christian, or formerly Christian, institutions and people. First, was a childhood running the sidewalks of a Chicago campus funded by a Northern Baptist, John D. Rockefeller — and singing both a Christian and a Jewish version of "Rock of Ages" in the chapel that he built.
There were play dates with the children of the students at the Lutheran School of Theology. Next came university time among the institutions of the Congregationalists of New England. At the same age my Muslim and Jewish friends were in the care of colleges founded by Methodists or Quakers.
Tenet of Tolerance
Some of those Christian influences were far sterner and less friendly to Jews than George Washington. The literary magazine I worked on at Yale was called "The Spider's Web," after a ferocious sermon by the preacher Jonathan Edwards.
Still, the experience of my generation at the hands of the successors of Edwards was entirely benign. What I and others took out of it all was that tolerance is, as Walter Russell Mead, a scholar of foreign policy and theology, put it, "not grudging but rather a central tenet."
Both now and formerly, many people have attacked such arguments as naive, self-denying, disingenuous or worse — candy-cane philosophy. Edwards himself preached the need for the destruction of Jerusalem, hardly a concept that would please Jews.
There is something terribly important about knowing such history — and about knowing the importance of sustaining one's identity. One reason Rabbi Bogomilsky's orthodox movement, Chabad, has thrived is that American Jews are panicked about their own survival, and so flock to it. Chabad permits no waffling and Rabbi Bogomilsky's followers do not carol. Respecting America's Christian traditions doesn't preclude Muslim, Hindu or Jew learning his own liturgy and practices.
An equally valid response is to defend the Christmas tree as "inclusive," not "exclusive." Other symbols of faith are welcome too, but the tree doesn't trump the rest.
The damage comes when you remove the tree and leave nothing, as Seattle-Tacoma airport did for a brief period. In economics, experts talk about a concept called the tragedy of the commons — when no one owns the grazing field, everyone abuses it.
At Sea-Tac, the removal of the Christmas tree created a spiritual tragedy of the commons. Litigious parties — Rabbi Bogomilsky, at least before he reflected on the matter — trashed that commons with the threat of suits. Instead of a meeting place, such empty public sites become venues for legal, cultural or religious conflict. Though the Christmas tree might be removed in the name of tolerance, the space that results makes the country less tolerant than before.
The international context is important here too. Tolerance is under attack in the Middle East, to put it mildly. American Christmas provides an increasingly rare model of how peoples can live together.
"Citizens of the United States," Washington wrote to the Jewish congregation in Rhode Island, "have a right to applaud themselves for giving to mankind examples of enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation."
A good line, probably worth posting at the international baggage claim, right beside the Christmas tree.
(Amity Shlaes, a visiting senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, is a Bloomberg News columnist. The views expressed here are her own.)
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