Friday, December 2, 2011

Not in Our Town

Do you remember this bit of recent history? It happened just eighteen years ago today.

On December 2, 1993, a brick came hurling through 5-year-old Isaac Schnitzer’s bedroom window, landing on his bed in a hailstorm of glass. Isaac was fortunately uninjured. Because his bedroom window displayed a menorah, a symbol of the family’s celebration of Hanukkah, the Schnitzers became a target of religious bigotry and vandalism. Montana’s early settlement history included a large Jewish population. But lack of economic opportunity prompted most second generation Jews to move elsewhere. Butte, Great Falls, Billings, and Helena’s historic Jewish cemeteries recall these pioneers who helped lay Montana’s very cornerstones. But in 1993, the Schnitzers were among the few Jewish families in Billings. Supremacist groups that settled in the Northwest in the 1980s had begun to commit brutal hate crimes against various minorities. Billings suffered desecration of a Jewish cemetery, telephone threats to its Jewish citizens, and swastikas painted on the home of an interracial couple. The Schnitzers were advised to remove the religious symbols from public view. This infringed upon their First Amendment right to religious freedom. News reports left Christians wondering what it would be like if a Christmas tree in the windows of their own homes invited violence. An idea quickly took root. Menorahs began to appear in thousands of homes in Billings, sending a powerful message of community solidarity. Harassment continued, and some non-Jewish citizens suffered vandalism, but gradually the perpetrators withdrew. The next December, 1994, families in Billings again displayed menorahs, reaffirming their commitment to peace and tolerance. This quiet, courageous message spread and came to be known as the “Not in Our Town” movement. It is a message that continues to reverberate.

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