MTPR

'Celebration Of Lights' Takes On New Meaning As Montana Town Fights Anti-Semitism

Dec 30, 2016

The Jewish community in Whitefish, Mont., has become the target of online harassment by neo-Nazis after Sherry Spencer, the mother of emerging white nationalist leader Richard Spencer, wrote online about being asked to sell her downtown properties and donate the profits to the Montana Human Rights Network.

During this Hanukkah, the people of Whitefish are banding together to fight this anti-Semitism with displays of paper menorahs. They borrowed the strategy from another Montana city, Billings, which pushed back against anti-Semitism more than two decades ago by encouraging the entire town to put menorahs in windows.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Our next story is about Hanukkah in Whitefish, Mont. It's been rough. Neo-Nazi websites have harassed the resort town's Jewish population. And yet, Nicky Ouellet of Montana Public Radio reports, the festival of lights there has become bigger than ever.

NICKY OUELLET, BYLINE: On a snowy street corner in downtown Whitefish, a small group of people huddle together around a stack of paper menorahs.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Can I take a few just to go pass out? And tell me where I should go.

OUELLET: These volunteers are handing them out to anyone who wants one.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Do you want it to your neighborhood?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: So maybe that many?

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: OK.

OUELLET: The reason for these menorahs? Online harassment of Whitefish families and businesses that erupted earlier this month. That's when the mother of emerging white nationalist leader Richard Spencer wrote online about being asked to sell her downtown properties and donate the profits to the Montana Human Rights Network. Sherry Spencer declined to be interviewed for this story.

(SOUNDBITE OF FOOTSTEPS)

OUELLET: Handing out paper menorahs in downtown Whitefish is Dianne Grove.

DIANNE GROVE: It's such a travesty that anybody would have a hateful message against our friends. That's not Whitefish.

OUELLET: She walks up to each house and slides the menorah with a letter of explanation into the doorframe.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPER BEING SLID INTO DOORFRAME)

OUELLET: Now, paper menorahs peek from many of the windows in Whitefish neighborhoods. The town is taking its cue from another Montana City, Billings, that pushed back against anti-Semitism more than two decades ago by encouraging the entire town to put menorahs in its windows.

HILARY SHAW: (Singing in Hebrew).

OUELLET: It's a small thing, but for people who celebrate Hanukkah every year as part of their Jewish faith, seeing menorahs in their neighbors' windows means a lot.

SHAW: (Singing in Hebrew).

OUELLET: Hilary Shaw is a member of one of the hundred or so Jewish families living in Whitefish.

SHAW: My favorite part of Hanukkah is lighting the candles together as a family, standing around the light and singing.

OUELLET: She says this year, she's especially excited to celebrate Hanukkah and talk about the history of the celebration of lights.

SHAW: It's like resistance, really, and I don't mean in the protest sort. I mean literally resisting forces of hatred and sadness and responding with compassion.

OUELLET: Shaw says she's been thinking about part of the Hanukkah story that's sometimes forgotten amid the lights and presents. Behind the miracle of the lamp oil lasting for eight nights is a bloody war. She says it's a lost opportunity to talk about fighting for something you believe in.

SHAW: These are all conversations that are now missing, which are very relevant to us now as we figure out how we want to oppose and speak out against voices of white supremacy and anti-Semitism and bigotry and hatred.

OUELLET: Shaw's grandfather was a Holocaust survivor. He used to warn her to lie low, but Shaw says that's the opposite of what's happening this Hanukkah.

SHAW: This story could serve as a reminder that we need to hold on to the light.

OUELLET: Shaw says she's grateful she lives in a community that stands up for her. She can see it in her neighbors' windows. For NPR News, I'm Nicky Ouellet in Whitefish.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE SIX PARTS SEVEN SONG, "CONVERSATION HEART") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.