Town in Maine swaps out Star of David from holiday display

Local Arab organization called for Jewish symbol’s removal, though mayor says move made to not show preference for particular religion

City Hall, Westbrook, Maine, May 28, 2017. (Kenneth C. Zirkel/Creative Commons via JTA)
City Hall, Westbrook, Maine, May 28, 2017. (Kenneth C. Zirkel/Creative Commons via JTA)

JTA – A suburb of Portland, Maine, has removed a Star of David from its annual holiday lights display after a local Arab American citizen complained, reportedly calling it “offensive” in light of Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza.

But the mayor of Westbrook told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that the reason for the star’s removal had more to do with the city’s efforts to follow the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause, which is understood to forbid overtly religious displays on public property. He added that local Jewish groups agreed it should be taken down and that Hanukkah would still be represented for the first time in the city’s holiday display via a series of dreidels.

“I think it was all positive intent to just try and be more inclusive,” Mayor Michael Foley said, adding that, since the story broke in local media, he had been fielding calls from people accusing him of antisemitism. “There’s been no ill intention by it. It was simply an honest mistake and it was never included on our display.”

Foley said the star had been ordered by a city employee without his knowledge. He added, “I still don’t truly understand” why the local Arab group, the New England Arab American Organization, had complained about it.

The Star of David has been widely used by Jewish communities since the 17th century; it has also been used to identify Jews by their adversaries, notably the Nazis. The Star of David is also the centerpiece of the Israeli flag, adopted in October 1948, months after Israel became a country.

“They view it as the city taking a side in the war, we’re supporting one country over another,” Foley said about the group that objected to the symbol. Initial reports that the New England Arab American Organization was behind the complaint itself were mistaken, he said.

In a statement Friday after this article’s initial publication, the group’s board also stated that it was not behind the complaint. “NEAAO stands in solidarity with our Jewish community, Arab community and any other community in recognizing their rights for their religious symbols to be displayed on their private properties and on public properties in accordance to local laws,” the statement read. The board added that the organization is “non-religious and non-political.”

As the debate around Israel and Gaza has remained heated since the October 7 Hamas assault that killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and saw 240 hostages taken to Gaza and Israel’s ensuing war on the terror group in the Strip, even public displays have not been immune to the war.

Earlier this week the University of Texas in Dallas removed “spirit rocks” that had been fixtures on campus for years because, administrators said, students were using them to paint increasingly aggressive messages about Israel, Gaza and the Palestinians.

But the presence (or lack thereof) of Jewish symbols in city holiday displays is a much older issue, one that has been litigated before the US Supreme Court. A 1989 case found that the public display of a Nativity scene in a Pittsburgh courthouse was not permissible because it could be interpreted as the city promoting one religion over another, but that the display of a Chabad-Lubavitch menorah was allowed because the city demonstrated pluralism by pairing it with a Christmas tree.

Foley had been hoping to find a similar pluralistic spirit in Westbrook. For the last few years the city sought to expand its holiday display to include Hanukkah and other celebrations, while avoiding having any explicitly religious symbols on the advice of their legal counsel. “We just tried to stick with colors and snowflakes and snowmen and animals,” he said.

Illustrative: People gather to look at Christmas lights in front of what is described as “the world’s largest Hanukkah menorah,” Thursday, Dec. 10, 2020, in New York, on the first night of the annual eight-day long Jewish festival of lights. (AP/Kathy Willens)

City staff decided on dreidels, he said, because they “seemed like a reasonable compromise with members of the community.” This was to be the first year when the dreidels would join the display (Westbrook, which has a population of around 20,000, does not have any synagogues).

Foley said he didn’t know that a member of the display’s installation team also ordered the Star of David and was unaware that it is seen as a broader religious symbol for Jews beyond Hanukkah.

“As far as I’m concerned, I think the dreidel’s a really appropriate winter holiday symbol in the context of a holiday light display,” Molly Curren Rowles, the director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, told JTA.

Rowles said that her Portland-based group was looped in late on the dispute but now hopes to turn it into an interfaith teaching opportunity. She has reached out to the Arab American group to better understand their objection but hasn’t heard from them yet.

“I think obviously we would be concerned if the Star of David were perceived as an offensive symbol,” she said. While the alliance would “give deference to the Establishment Clause,” she added, “we’re happy to have Stars of David wherever people want to put them up.”

Talks are in the works to add a menorah to the city’s display, while a local church has offered to put the Star of David on its own property — what Foley said is meant as a gesture of solidarity to the Jewish community. But, he said, he will follow local Jewish guidance on whether that would be appropriate.

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