Christmas is never quite over -- in the courts. In March, for instance, Ellen Burns, a federal district judge in Connecticut, will decide whether to make permanent an injunction she issued on Dec. 10 barring the volunteer firemen of Cos Cob (part of Greenwich) from decorating their firehouse with a 5-foot-high white cross.
The cross has appeared over the front doors of the firehouse every Christmas season for the past 30 years to honor, says the fire chief, the season and firefighters who have died. The current suit was brought by three residents of Greenwich. They claim it is unconstitutional for a cross to be placed on public property. (The firehouse is owned by the town of Greenwich.) There were no reindeer, Santa Clauses, teddy bears or other nonreligious sgns of the season in the firehouse display. Only the cross, which symbolizes to Christians the death of Christ and his redemption of the world. Accordingly, the plaintiffs said, the government was preferring a particular religion in a public place.
Many citizens of Greenwich were infuriated when the cross came down. Some placed crosses in their yards and on flagpoles. Others appeared on the streets wearing in their lapels crosses made of palms as on Palm Sunday. One unemployed house painter, holding a large white plywood cross, carried it back and forth in front of the firehouse from twilight to the first light of morning. He continued this witness until Christmas Day.
Two of the three plaintiffs are Jews. One of them, Renee Libin, an attorney, told the Connecticut Weekly, Fairpress, that by Christmas week she had received more than 700 phone calls. Among the season's greetings were: "You should have died at Auschwitz."
In addition to a couple of bomb scares, there were many letters, unsigned. "Things like this," said one correspondent, "are reasons why you people are hated so much." Another tried to be helpful, explaining that "We are a Christian country, and you are our invited guests. Guests don't tell his host how to run his home." Also making this a memorable holiday season for Renee Libin were such epiphanies as: "If you don't like how we Christians live, move to Jewland" and "I'd be a stoker if we would open up an Auschwitz here." Meanwhile, a number of her neighbors stopped talking to her.
The Connecticut Civil Liberties Union is representing the plaintiffs, and its executive director, William Olds, was interviewed on a number of radio programs concerning the removal of the white cross. "The reaction was fierce," Olds told me. "On one program, every single caller was furious at us, and most of them were anti-Semitic. Olds was told by one passionate citizen that he was going to "get" Olds' family. "That was scary," said the usually imperturbable civil libertarian. Greenwich, the blazing scene of these devotions, is one of the wealthiest communities in America, having seemingly come a long way from the place where, 50 years ago, the Ku Klux Klan held meetings in the very same building that now houses the Cos Cob volunteer firemen.
Well, says James Lamuscio, the Fairpress reporter who has been covering this story, "Bigotry doesn't know any class lines."
Christmas in Greenwich calls into question the confident assertion of Charles Silberman last year in his book, "A Certain People," that anti-Semitism, while it has not disappeared, is no longer a signficant force in the United States. By contrast, Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, among others, is convinced that hatred of Jews is deeply rooted among sizable numbers of Americans and that every once in a while, when Jews make news as disrespectful guests in a Christian country, the depth of home-grown anti-Semitism is revealed in an explosion like the one in Greenwich. Or, last year, in the verbal pogrom in Randolph, Mass., when high school senior Susan Shapiro refused to stand for the "Star Spangled Banner" and the salute to the flag.
The weight of evidence bears out Dershowitz. And that is why some of the Jews in Greenwich oppose the lawsuit. They feared it would bring the anti-Semites out from under the civilized gloss of the town. But the plaintiffs persisted, refusing to act like guests in their own country. So far they have been upheld by Judge Ellen Burns, who is Catholic and whose daughter is a nun.