Each evening since Tuesday another electric candle has been lit on a 30-foot high Hanukah menorah in Lafayette Square near the White House. But instead of celebrating such a conspicuous symbol of the Jewish holiday, some major Jewish organizations have urged that it be removed.
"We have a commitment to the separation of church and state," said Rabbi Sidney H. Schwartz, executive director of the Jewish Community Council of Greater Washington, which includes more than 220 Jewish organizations. "We objected to having a creche on the Ellipse, and we object to having the menorah on public property too . . . . It happens to be our symbol, but we feel it is equally wrong."
The metal menorah, which is sprayed-painted gold, has been erected in the square annually by the Lubavitch movement of Orthodox Jews since 1979, when President Carter came to light the first candle.
Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, director of the American Friends of Lubavitch, which put up the menorah, called it a symbol of the "victory of right over might, of the survival of the spiritual message over efforts to secularize the world."
But yesterday, leaders of several Jewish groups said they believed that displaying a Jewish symbol in a park was just as "divisive" as displaying a Christian symbol. They said they had urged its sponsors to move the menorah to private land for several years, but to no avail.
After the Interior Department permitted a privately donated nativity scene to be part of this year's federally sponsored Christmas pageant on the Ellipse, the Jewish groups sent letters of protest, objecting to both the Christmas scene and the menorah.
The most pointed, from two major Reform Jewish groups, urged Interior Secretary William P. Clark "to insist that the menorah and the creche be moved to private property this year and to prohibit their display in the years to come."
Rabbi David Saperstein, codirector of the Religious Action Center of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, declared, "Our fundamental constitutional prohibition against government establishment of religion mandates that government-maintained public lands not be used to display religious symbols . . . . There is ample opportunity for all Americans to display their particular religious symbols in their homes, churches and synagogues."
A National Park Service spokesman said Clark had not responded to the letter. Earlier, in a brief statement, Clark said he believed that permitting the nativity scene was "both historically and legally appropriate," but he did not comment on the menorah.
The creche, which includes painted plastic figures of Mary, Joseph and Jesus in a straw-filled manger, was removed from the Christmas Pageant of Peace 11 years ago after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District held that it violated the constitutional doctrine separating church and state.
Later the park service permitted a different private group to erect a nativity scene in the President's Park on the 15th Street side of the Ellipse.
But this year it allowed the creche to be included in the official pageant after the Supreme Court ruled in March that a nativity scene could be erected on public property in Pawtucket, R.I., as part of a larger Christmas display.
Another case, arising from Scarsdale, N.Y., is awaiting Supreme Court action on the issue of whether a local government may refuse to permit a nativity scene in a public park.
Meanwhile, Rabbi Shemtov said the Lubavitch Jews have erected large menorahs on public land in about 80 cities, including one on New York's Fifth Avenue and one near the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia.
"The lighting of candles at Hanukah is the one observance in the Jewish religion where public display is not just an ingredient of the observance but its very essence," Shemtov said. The rabbi, who lives in Philadelphia, said his movement includes about 600,000 of the nation's 5.8 million Jews. He said the major Jewish bodies opposed to the public menorahs "fail to believe fully in what Hanukah is all about."
Gary Bonnett, chairman of the Washington area chapter of the American Jewish Congress, said his group was not against public display of the menorah in home windows, outside synagogues, or outdoors on private property, but it is opposed to displaying it on "taxpayers' land."
"This country was founded on the separation of church and state," Bonnett said, "and that blurs it . . . . America has been a refuge for people who were persecuted. There is a great fear that when public property is used for religious purposes there is an opportunity for abuse."