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Not In My Town (Pekude – 03/08/19)

Rabbi Neil Schuman

Not In My Town
A poster captures the burning Twin Towers with the words, “’Never forget’ you said.” Superimposed upon it, is a picture of Muslim Minnesota Congresswoman Ilhan Omar with the caption “I am the proof you have forgotten.” Such was the poster placed in front of the West Virginia Legislature by the WV Act for America movement this past Friday.
In protest, on Tuesday the Islamic Center of Long Island in Westbury organized a press conference, to speak up against all forms of bigotry and racism: Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and discrimination against women, the LGBTQ community, African Americans and Latinos. As a member of the POB interfaith Clergy, I attended, along with 100 other sympathizers from all religions and ethnicities.
While many politicians and religious leaders spoke on the theme of “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us”, the Town of North Hempstead Supervisor, Judi Bosworth, came forward with a planned agenda. Posters in her hand, Ms. Bosworth is going to implement a “movement to stop hate, address bullying, and build safe, inclusive communities for all” called “Not in Our Town.” Based upon the 1993/1994 motto of Billings, Montana, Bosworth is aiming to unify North Hempstead.
Inspired by her actions, I decided to look into the history of Billings, Montana, and what I found I thought worthy of sharing. It’s a story of the worst and best of humanity.
  • In the fall of 1992, hate-filled fliers to make Montana and other western states a “white homeland” were slipped into newspapers, stuffed into mailboxes, and tucked under windshields.
  • Members of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan and a band of skin-heads had become visible presences in Billings.
  • Margaret MacDonald, a mother of two and the part-time director of the Montana Association of Churches, started a petition that opposed hatred and bigotry. In the following months, more than 100 organizations and 3,500 people signed the resolution.
  • In September 1993, four days before the start of the Jewish New Year, vandals overturned headstones in the Jewish cemetery. And on the Holiday itself, a bomb threat was made to the temple before the start of the children’s service.
  • In the weeks that followed, several Billings residents – inspired by the Coalition for Human Rights – took action against racism. When skinheads showed up at services of the African Methodist Episcopal Wayman Chapel, small groups of white Christians appeared in response. They sat with the congregation until the skinheads stopped coming.
  • In October an interracial couple awoke one morning to find crude words and a swastika spray-painted on their house. Three days later, volunteers from the local painter’s union repaired the damage.
  • In late November a beer bottle was thrown through the window of a Jewish home.
  • On the night of December 2, Chanukah, a stranger arrived at the home of Tammie and Brian Schnitzer. He stole across the lawn, a cinder block in hand. He stopped at a window decorated with Star of David decals and a menorah, and hurled the stone, sending shards of glass into the bedroom of Isaac, 5. Thankfully, Isaac was not in the room at the time.
  • The next day, Margaret MacDonald read about the attack. She tried to imagine telling her daughter, Siri, then 6, that they could not have a Christmas tree, or explaining to Charlie, then 3, that they had to take a wreath off the door because it wasn’t safe.
  • Margaret phoned her pastor, Keith Torney. “What would you think if we had the children draw menorahs in Sunday school?” she asked. “If we mimeographed as many pictures of the menorah as we could? If we told people to put them up in their windows?”
  • That week, hundreds of menorahs appeared in the windows of Christian homes in Billings. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” says Margaret. “With two young children, I had to think hard about it myself. We put our menorah in a living room window, and made sure nobody sat in front of it.”
  • On December 7, The Billings Gazette published a full-page picture of a menorah to cut out and tape up. Local businesses also distributed photocopies of menorahs, and one put a message on a billboard, proclaiming. “Not in Our Town! No Hate, No Violence. Peace on Earth.”
  • As the Jewish symbol sprouted in Christian windows, the haters lashed out. Glass panes on the doors of the Evangelical United Methodist Church, graced with two menorahs, were smashed. Someone fired shots into a Catholic school that had joined the crusade. Six cars parked in front of homes that displayed menorahs had their windows kicked out; the homeowners received phone calls that told them to “Go look at your car, Jew-lover.”
  • Yet suddenly, for every menorah that was there before, ten new ones appeared. Hundreds of menorahs grew to be thousands. It’s estimated that as many as 6,000 homes in Billings had menorahs on display. “All along, our coalition had been saying an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” says Margaret MacDonald “And God bless them, the people of this town understood.”
  • The people of Billings kept their menorahs up until the New Year. “The haters could attack a couple of Jewish homes. They could make a second wave of attacks on Christian homes and churches, but they could not target thousands of menorahs.”
  • Confronted by a united town, the Ku Klux Klan and skinheads backed off. The acts of vandalism stopped, the hate literature disappeared, and the anonymous calls ended.
It’s a shame that 25 years later, the problem of anti-Semitism in America still exists. Even worse, 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, there’s still a blaring problem between law enforcement and the African American community. In these times, we need to unite against bigotry in all of its ugly faces.
I was proud to be a part of the protest against Islamophobia on Tuesday. We all need to make sure we aren’t part of the complacency affecting much of the country. We all need to embrace the ideals of “Not in Our Town.”

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