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Originally published December 11, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 11, 2006 at 7:33 PM

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Airport's trees stoking "war on Christmas"

The departure of Christmas tree displays at main passageways at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — the Port of Seattle's response to a local rabbi's...

Seattle Times staff reporter

The departure of Christmas tree displays at main passageways at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport — the Port of Seattle's response to a local rabbi's insistence that an electric menorah also be put up — is accelerating into an international spectacle in the so-called "war on Christmas."

And that is not what Rabbi Elazar Bogomilsky wanted.

"I am devastated, shocked and appalled at the decision that the Port of Seattle came to," he said Sunday. As news coverage about the airport's trees spread from CNN to ABC to the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, Bogomilsky on Sunday began to receive hateful messages from people holding him responsible for the removal of the trees.

Harvey Grad, the rabbi's attorney, said the vitriol against Bogomilsky is misplaced, emphasizing that the rabbi neither objected to the trees nor said he found them offensive.

"The last thing we need is anyone thinking that Jews want to end the celebration of Christmas on public property," Grad said.

Bogomilsky is spending today on the TV talk-show circuit, continuing a media frenzy that began Saturday.

Around 4 a.m. Sunday, Port Commissioner Patricia Davis was on the phone with CNN for a live interview, joined by Bogomilsky, who works at Chabad Lubavitch, an education foundation in the University District.

This morning at 5, Davis was to be interviewed on Fox News. The controversy likely will add fuel to what Fox talk-show host Bill O'Reilly and some Christian groups have deemed a "war on Christmas," — a secularization of the traditions and name of Christmas.

By 9 p.m. Sunday, www.seattletimes.com had received about 800 comments to a story that, in print editions, topped the front page.

The displays were removed from the airport's main arrival hall and various entries overnight Friday.

Port staff members were first contacted in October by Mitchell Stein, a consultant to the Port for the past five years, who wanted to install a menorah this year. Stein is also affiliated with Chabad.

"We thought the Port was going to make the right decision to support diversity and Hanukkah," Stein said. "The lawsuit was only a way to get their attention."

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Davis said Port commissioners, however, first heard of the issue on Thursday — a day before Grad's deadline for filing a lawsuit.

Airport spokeswoman Terri-Ann Betancourt said the Port's decision was not as simple as whether to put up a menorah.

"Our thought was if we remove the trees and stave off this decision until after the holidays, which is our busiest season of the year, then we can give more careful thought and discussion to this," she said.

The airport has no policy governing the longtime holiday display because no one has ever challenged it before, Betancourt said.

"What we have are holiday trees," she said. "If we are going to display symbols representing other cultures, we have to think what that means and what's respectful and what would make a good display. Maybe it would be 'Holidays of the World.'

"Or maybe it's snowmen."

Grad was set to file a lawsuit Friday morning on behalf of Bogomilsky if the Port did not agree to let him put up the menorah. Grad said he believes that the law is clear regarding Christmas displays in public places — anyone wanting to put up an alternative display must be accommodated.

"There is no debate on this anymore," Grad said. "The menorah is something the Port is legally obligated to put up. But the Port was either unwilling or incapable to do so and instead folded its tent."

Betancourt said that while Port attorneys believed the rabbi has some sound legal points, Port officials did not believe they had the time or budget to put up a culturally sensitive and inclusive holiday display.

Betancourt said the Port "didn't want to be in litigation with the Jewish community."

Grad said he cautioned officials that they were about to make a mistake by removing the trees.

"I told them that this story would have legs, that it would go national," Grad said. The publicity fallout is regrettable, Davis said.

"I'm sorry this has happened, but I hope people will take time to understand the dilemma we were in," she said. "Unfortunately, I don't think most people understand. That's why I think we're getting such an emotional reaction from across the spectrum."

Bogomilsky said he wants the Port to apologize for statements on Saturday that he says passed blame to him.

"I would hate to think it was just a way for them to cover up their poor call," the rabbi said. "This was totally a Port of Seattle decision. The Port should step up and say that."

Stuart Eskenazi: 206-464-2293 or seskenazi@seattletimes.com

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