The Town That Fought Hatred

A true story about an American town has become a play that teaches children about goodness and courage.

BY: Janice I. Cohn

 
"On December 2, 1993, someone twisted by hate threw a brick through the window of the home of one of our neighbors: a Jewish family who chose to celebrate the holiday season by displaying a symbol of faith-a menorah-for all to see. Today, members of religious faiths throughout Billings are joining together to ask residents to display the menorah as a symbol of something else: our determination to live together in harmony, and our dedication to the principle of religious liberty embodied in the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. We urge all citizens to share in this message by displaying this menorah on a door or a window from now until Christmas. Let all the world know that the national hatred of a few cannot destroy what all of us in Billings, and in America, have worked together so long to build."
--Editorial, Billings Gazette, Dec. 1993

In a world filled with fear, how can young people learn courage? In a world filled with violence, how can young people learn peaceful solutions? In a world filled with religious and racial division, how can young people learn unity and cooperation?

Children learn in many ways: sometimes by example, sometimes by the power of a compelling story, and sometimes by the realization that human beings can be capable of extraordinary acts of courage and goodness.

All three elements came together in Billings, Montana, during the holiday season of 1993.

No one knew why it started, but 12 years ago the town of Billings began to be infiltrated by skinheads and members of racist groups. The tiny minority of Jews, African Americans, and mixed-race families who lived there were immediately targeted for acts of hate. Though the vast majority of residents were white and Christian, they chose to take a principled stand based upon their conviction that an act of hate toward one citizen was an act of hate toward all. Many individuals and groups rose up to respond. For example, the Billings Painters Union offered to repaint for free any houses or businesses that had been spray painted with racial or religious epithets. And members of churches with predominantly white congregations came to the African Methodist Episcopal Church to pray with black neighbors when menacing skinheads began to show up at church services.

But then, as the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah approached, Jews became a special target. Windows in Jewish homes displaying Hanukkah menorahs began to be smashed. Jewish families were advised to remove their menorahs until the perpetrators were caught, but they resisted. And so menorahs continued to be displayed and windows continued to be smashed. Ultimately, in a show of solidarity and support, tens of thousands of Billings residents displayed paper menorahs in their windows.

What gives people the courage to fight against hatred and the wisdom to understand just how important that fight is? What causes some communities to come together when faced with acts of bigotry and violence, while other communities split apart? In Billings, it was a combination of factors including:

  • A family, victimized by bigots, who spoke out eloquently and refused to be intimidated.
  • A police chief who understood the seriousness of hate crimes and was determined that they would not be tolerated under any circumstances.
  • A lay church leader who remembered a story she had heard as a child, about how Christians in Denmark led had stood against the Nazis to help Jews in 1943, and used that event to help inspire her community.
  • Clergy of all faiths who were committed to genuinely practicing what they preached.
  • A newspaper that investigated and published the truth about local hate crimes and then used its editorial pages to urge the community to take a stand on principle.
  • Town residents who were willing to learn from history and be guided by their own conscience and religious faith.

    Along with many other people, I was deeply moved by these events 12 years ago. As a practicing psychotherapist specializing in loss and life transitions, I'd witnessed the power of courage and goodness firsthand. I'd seen how those traits could enable individuals to surmount life's greatest challenges. But here was an entire community acting together on the highest principle of loving your neighbor as yourself. How did this happen, and what could we all learn from the events in Billings?

    Continued on page 2: »

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