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‘We still have more to do’: Idaho officials celebrate Hanukkah amid rise in antisemitism

Dec. 28, 2022 Updated Wed., Dec. 28, 2022 at 8:44 p.m.

Sen. Chuck Winder, left, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, center, and Gov. Brad Little, right, listen as Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz of Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho and the Chabad Jewish Center speaks about the menorah on Dec. 20 during the Hanukkah celebration at the Idaho Capitol.  (Sarah A. Miller)
Sen. Chuck Winder, left, Boise Mayor Lauren McLean, center, and Gov. Brad Little, right, listen as Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz of Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho and the Chabad Jewish Center speaks about the menorah on Dec. 20 during the Hanukkah celebration at the Idaho Capitol. (Sarah A. Miller)
By Ryan Suppe Idaho Statesman

Inside the Idaho Capitol dome, Idaho’s top government officials joined a local Jewish congregation to celebrate Hanukkah. Treasure Valley mayors lit the nine candles of the menorah – a symbol of “the triumph of light over darkness,” and of religious freedom, Gov. Brad Little said.

“We are blessed and privileged in America to celebrate a diversity of religion, cultures, and practice traditions passed down from generation to generation,” said Little, a Republican and Christian.

For Jewish leaders, the eighth annual menorah-lighting ceremony held last week was a welcome show of solidarity from political leaders amid a recent spike in antisemitism, in Idaho and elsewhere.

Rabbi Mendel Lifshitz, of Chabad Lubavitch of Idaho, the Jewish congregation that organized the event, saluted the officials for standing “proudly, together” with the Jewish community in “the most revered civic and shared spaces.”

Lifshitz recalled Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, when Nazi militants in 1938 destroyed Jewish homes, businesses and schools.

At that time, antisemitism “wasn’t the domain of fringe bad actors,” Lifshitz said. “It was coming through the halls of government and the most sophisticated and powerful parts of society.”

Antisemitic incidents at all-time high, ADL says

On Dec. 7, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, hosted a roundtable discussion on antisemitism at the White House.

The meeting followed reports that former President Donald Trump had dinner with Nick Fuentes, a white nationalist, and Ye, the musician formerly known as Kanye West, who in recent months has made a flurry of antisemitic comments, including that he admires the genocidal Nazi leader Adolph Hitler.

“Words matter,” said Emhoff, the first Jewish spouse of the U.S. vice presidency or presidency. “People are no longer saying the quiet parts out loud, they are screaming them.”

Earlier this year, a group of faith leaders, representing Jewish, Islamic and Christian denominations, called for Idaho Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin to resign after she appeared remotely at a white nationalist conference organized by Fuentes. McGeachin responded at the time that she does not support “identity politics.”

One-third of Idaho residents are not Christian, according to 2014 data from the Pew Research Center.

In 2020, state Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, drew criticism from Jewish leaders for comparing COVID-19 restrictions to Nazi policies and referring to the governor as “Little Hitler.”

In their March letter to McGeachin, the faith leaders wrote that public service relies on “respect for constituents who hold diverse viewpoints,” and they noted recent examples of antisemitic vandalism in Idaho.

Boise faced a string of antisemitic incidents that began in November 2021. Police twice reported antisemitic graffiti, on a downtown building and sprayed along the Greenbelt near the Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial around Hanukkah. Not long after, flyers containing conspiracy theories about Jews were distributed in the North End. In July, swastikas were found painted in a bike lane.

Antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high nationally last year, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League.

“The continued presence of antisemitic rhetoric and acts of hate serve as a reminder that we still have more to do,” Little said during Tuesday’s ceremony. “We must stand united and strong to denounce such behavior.”

Non-Christian faiths overlooked in Idaho politics

On top of incidents of intolerance, non-Christian beliefs are neglected in Idaho policymaking, faith leaders recently told the Idaho Statesman.

Idaho’s abortion ban, which the Legislature passed and Little signed into law in 2020, codified that human life begins at conception, a view held by many Christian sects.

Judaism, on the other hand, holds that life begins at birth, and, contrary to Idaho law, a pregnancy should be terminated if it endangers a woman’s health, said Rabbi Dan Fink, of the Ahavath Beth Israel congregation in Boise.

“That is a very, very big and potentially life-threatening way that Idaho politics has been shaped in a fashion that completely ignores the voice of our tradition, and essentially, imposes a certain set of Christian values and practices on my community,” Fink said.

Similarly, Islam, while generally “conservative” when it comes to abortion, holds that life begins at four months, said Said Ahmed-Zaid, a retired Boise State University engineering professor, who is Muslim.

In 2015, Idaho lawmakers hosted a luncheon headlined by a Christian activist from Washington, who warned that Islamic immigration in the West sought a cultural shift and should be curbed. Local Muslim leaders, who later denounced the presentation, were not invited to the luncheon.

“Those are the things that Muslims have faced, and it’s not just here in Boise, it’s throughout the United States,” said Ahmed-Zaid, who has lived in Boise for 26 years. “There’s always opposition to having Muslims come in a certain neighborhood and build a mosque, because of fear of ‘the other.’ ”

There was little mention of politics during Tuesday’s menorah-lighting event. Rep. Steve Berch, D-Boise, one of a couple Jewish lawmakers in Idaho, said the religious ceremony was neither the time nor place for political battles.

“Any time where I see elected officials in today’s very contentious political environment come together to show their respect for people with different points of view, different perspectives, different backgrounds, that means a lot,” Berch said.

Lifshitz did, however, offer a suggestion to the politicians present. Follow the city of Meridian’s lead, and include menorahs alongside Christmas decorations in public holiday displays, he said.

“We can all help in the fight against antisemitism by promoting more inclusivity,” he said.

Berch said it’s a reasonable request that could have a positive impact.

“It’s important for people to see that the government respects and honors and recognizes the fact that we are a multireligious society,” Berch told the Statesman by phone following the event. “Show that respect in a reasonable and appropriate manner at the appropriate time. The holiday season seems to be a particularly appropriate time to do that.”

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