Not in Our Town
December 23, 2005 12:49 PM   Subscribe

In 1993, a series of racist incidents plagued Billings, Montana. When a brick was thrown through 5 year old Issac Schnitzer's menorah-decorated window, the predominantly non-Jewish city responded in a remarkable way: the local paper printed thousands of menorahs, and people displayed them in their windows as a gesture of solidarity. Since then, the story has inspired a book, a play, a song and a movement.
posted by Biblio (26 comments total)
I lived in this area over the summer, though I never went to Billings, and I was not aware of this story. It certainly represents both the worst and the best of what the climate in Montana is like, and maybe everywhere else too. Thanks for this.
posted by ScottMorris at 1:10 PM on December 23, 2005

Im a little vaklempt... talk amongst yaselves...
posted by phaedon at 1:12 PM on December 23, 2005

you know I read all this really scary crap today, on Mefi and in the news, then I read this and it warms my heart again.

Thanks Biblio...
posted by Elim at 1:15 PM on December 23, 2005

it really is a great story, and we need that kind of solidarity more than ever.
posted by amberglow at 1:17 PM on December 23, 2005

Thanks for posting this, biblio.
posted by scody at 2:01 PM on December 23, 2005

It's why I have been wearing a Christmas tree on my head -- to show my Jewish solidarity for all the Christians who are currently enduring a war on Christmas.

It's also why I am drinking nothing but egg nog and rum. Yum!
posted by maxsparber at 2:24 PM on December 23, 2005

Well, Judaism isn't racial (although antisemites define it as such, so they're hatred can be defined as racism), it's quite a lot more than a religion. It's really a sort of ethnic culture, or unique "civilization," as Rabbi Kaplan famously defined it. That's why you can have oddities like Jewish atheists, which is pretty much inconceivable in Christianity.
posted by maxsparber at 2:40 PM on December 23, 2005

There's a word for it: antisemitism, which sums it up better than 'racism', IMO.

Although this gets us back where we started, since the term "antisemitism" was originally intended to separate a so-called "scientific" attack on Judaism (as, among other things, a race) from a specifically theological one. Jacob Katz is useful here. IIRC, "philosemite" was coined well before "antisemite."
posted by thomas j wise at 3:01 PM on December 23, 2005

On the one hand, Jewishness isn't racial, but on the other, the skinheads and Klansmen who perpetrated these incidents would claim it was racially based. Still, I don't want to give those assholes any credit by putting things into their terms.

But the point is taken about the terminology. Sorry.
posted by Biblio at 3:05 PM on December 23, 2005

How come such genuinely uplifting events, such as Billings's response to hate crimes, inspire such dreadful works of art such as the lyrics of the song linked above? (I'm withholding judgment on the book and play, having not seen either, but you know what I mean.) Not to belittle this story - the NIOT movement is a great idea, and necessary. But, man, those lyrics - ugh.

"The next night, out of the darkness, a cinder block was hurled.
It shattered Isaac's window, and the boundaries of his world."

posted by Dr. Wu at 4:05 PM on December 23, 2005

In the face of rocks through windows, callling anti-Semitism (a misnomer itself) a form of racism seems a particularly small offense.

I would say that racism, anti-Semitism, and homophobia are all clearly forms of bigotry, which may overlap. For some reason, the term racist has a power to offend in American idiom that the others don't.

It's amazing to me that this was twelve years ago -- it seems so much more recent, and yet so markedly before 9/11. We've had an increase in pro-Zionism, but this whole War on Christmas -- as much as it's a political distraction, and as much as it's intended to drive a wedge between mainstream Americans and Muslims -- has a decidedly uncomfortable subtext.
posted by dhartung at 4:12 PM on December 23, 2005

I don't like how Bill O'Reilly uses the phrase "Judeo Christian" to describe principles that Jews don't subscribe to. I never liked the phrase much anyway -- it always seemed to me a ploy to behave as though Christianity were a logical extension to Judaism, rather than a massive shift away from it, but O'Reilly, who I think would like to remove the "Judeo" in every other context, particularly irks me when he uses the phrase.
posted by maxsparber at 4:27 PM on December 23, 2005

I've been corrected by Jewish friends in the past for defining Jews as a race

tend to disagree. That which is generally passed from parent to child and cannot be completely discarded by the child is racial in nature.

though the possible confusion between cultural and racial here is admittedly debatable. This can be a fuzzy-logic (continuous variable, gray-area, not a binary yes-no) thing.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 4:40 PM on December 23, 2005

(to amplify, that which you inherited from your parents and will necessarily pass onto your children is racial in character)
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 4:43 PM on December 23, 2005

what's a "local paper"? i vaguely remember having one of those as a kid.
posted by wakko at 5:10 PM on December 23, 2005

Nice reminder of a pleasant story. I was needing an antidote... Here in Raleigh there was a letter to the editor on Thursday that stated that Christmas was the only holiday / holy day in December. The letter seemed to be gleefully ignorant in tone rather than intentionally evil, but it really put a shiver down my spine.
posted by loafingcactus at 5:13 PM on December 23, 2005

I can't quite find the words really: but this was a great reaction from the town and it's people, my heart has been warmed.
posted by selton at 5:19 PM on December 23, 2005

really put a shiver down my spine

at the risk of dredging up firestorms, this is the subtext I got from our 'authoritarian-libertarian' "majority rules, dudes!" poster from yesterday -- with such government forms, a 50% + 1 majority (absent judicial review of rational basis / substantive due process) can in fact legislate their societal preferences into rules all members of society are bound to obey... and the only societal group with the will, political muscle, and message coherence, to get this Authoritarian majority, it appears to me, is the Bible Belt Evangelical Christian Right.

Also, I got this EXACT same vibe from a regular Sunday church service I attended with my sister down in Riverside Cty two weeks ago. The modern-style service (featuring a Christian rock band for entertainment) was devoted to a 30+ minute presentation by a guy, where he basically laid out the Christian Reconstructionist historical case for Judeo-Christian governance in this country, ie that church-state separation is a harmful myth perpetrated by the secular humanists and a Christian government is both what our proto-Evangelical founding fathers intended and what is necessary to maintain our most-favored-nation status with God.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 5:45 PM on December 23, 2005

who I think would like to remove the "Judeo" in every other context, particularly irks me when he uses the phrase.

nah, the Judeo part gives the Christianists ammo to persecute people, plus there's no defense against secular humanist deceptions like geography, evolution and modern cosmology in the N.T.
posted by Heywood Mogroot at 9:50 PM on December 23, 2005

You disagree that my friends told me that?

Don't be obtuse. He's disagreeing with your friends statement that jewishness is not a racial characteristic.

If he'd been rigid about it, and said it is inevitably and always that, I could see why you might disagree. However, his point about the heritability of the state of jewishness seems to me to be a thoroughly valid point.

Though maxsparber's formulation of jewishness as an ethnic culture seems to be a good one, it's hard to see how you can have an ethnic culture without having a specific ethnicity.

And of course, there's all that work on racial genetics that calls into the question the very notion of race as a valid concept anyway, given the lack of any genetic basis to any of the so-called races, and the fact that most of the genetic diversity is within, rather than between races.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:03 PM on December 23, 2005

How come such genuinely uplifting events, such as Billings's response to hate crimes, inspire such dreadful works of art such as the lyrics of the song linked above?

The movie is piss-poor as well. I was wracking my brain, trying to think where I'd heard this story before, initially assuming that I'd seen it here on Metafilter, and then all of a sudden, a terrible American TV movie-of-the-week came dashing into focus. I sat through most of it, because I was interested in the story, but the execution was appalling. Terrible acting, lousy script, complete lack of any subtlety of nuance.

And of course, it wasn't just the good racist people of Billings who were to blame. Outside agitators came into the town, to whip them up into a racist frenzy -- until eventually good triumphed over evil, and the world was safe for Mom, the flag and apple pie again.

No thumbs up.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:10 PM on December 23, 2005

Inspiring. Did it work to clear that particular plague of racist activity?
posted by symphonik at 11:32 PM on December 23, 2005

a year ago i started avoiding the word "race" (except when talking about dogs or guinea pigs or car races), i often say "ancestry" but also other things, and when asked about this choice of words a short explanation always suffices (something like "i believe in the multi-regional origin of mankind" or weirder things)
posted by suni at 3:05 PM on December 24, 2005

Buddy of mine got hit by a car while on a run in Billings bunch of years back. He needed a LOT of blood. A few motorcycle clubs came in and rolled up their sleeves for him. Changed my idea of the town.
posted by Smedleyman at 8:54 AM on December 26, 2005

I remember the NY Times Magazine printed a very moving photo of Billings residents of all kinds holding menorahs (maybe they were the printed pictures of menorahs ?).
posted by AuntLisa at 12:30 PM on December 28, 2005

it's hard to see how you can have an ethnic culture without having a specific ethnicity.

Well, it's easy--we were stateless and didn't have a nation for centuries and centuries, and repressive laws kept us segregated for most of that time, and kept us non-citizens. It's a little like how Italian-Americans have an ethnic culture that is wholly and utterly distinct from Italians in Italy, and only developed since they left Italy and came here. Should those Italian-Americans leave here and go north or south or east, etc, they'd take the things they developed here with them, adding and tweaking them along the way.
posted by amberglow at 2:40 PM on December 28, 2005

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