When Anti-Semitism Showed Up, This Whole Town Responded
"Silence is acceptance," said the Billings police chief. "Billings should stand up and say, 'Harass one of us and you harass us all.'"
Editor’s Note: Reader’s Digest is partnering with WeThePurple.org to republish articles from our archives that dramatize and revive patriotic enthusiasm about democracy and its core values. This piece from November 1994 tells the famous story of how the small city of Billings, Montana reacted to a spate of anti-semitic vandalism, igniting the Not in Our Town movement that continues to inspire community action across the country today.
Tammie Schnitzer came to a stop at the intersection near the synagogue in Billings, Mont., she noticed something on the stop sign. She got out of her car to take a closer look, and a shiver shot down her spine. A sticker showed a swastika over a Star of David and the words “Want more oil? Nuke Israel.”
Suddenly Tammie recalled a conversation with her husband, Brian, when they began dating years earlier. “There’s something I have to tell you,” he had said gravely. “I’m Jewish.” Tammie was amused that he would make such a fuss over a difference that could never impede their relationship. Before marrying Brian, a physician who had come to Montana to work with the Indian Health Service, Tammie, a Billings native, converted to Judaism. Now on that morning in May 1992 she saw how life as a Jew could be very unpleasant.
The display of raw hate unnerved Tammie. She felt vulnerable and worried about their three-year-old son, Isaac, and eight-month-old daughter, Rachel. Then the 33-year-old homemaker came up with an idea. She called Wayne Schile, publisher of the Billings Gazette, to talk about the problem of hate groups in their community. “What problem?” Schile replied.
A few days later Tammie visited Schile. “This problem,” she said, handing over hate literature which had been circulated in Billings.
Schile was stunned.
In the months that followed, Tammie returned often to Schile’s office with the latest hate literature. Finally, in October, the Gazette ran a front-page story on local skinheads, detailing their attitudes toward minorities and their links to the Ku Klux Klan.
For most of the 85,000 residents of Billings, the story was a revelation of organized hate in their midst. But Wayne Inman, chief of the Billings Police Department, knew through informants that a group of angry young men and their hangers-on, most of them poorly educated and underemployed, were followers of the KKK, and he worried about what might come next.
On January 18, 1993, leaflets were placed on cars during an interfaith Martin Luther King Day observance at the First United Methodist Church. The fliers insulted a number of minorities, including the town’s small community of about 120 Jews.
Inman called a press conference. “I can’t do anything about this filth,” he said, “because no crime has been committed. But the community can, and should, before it’s too late.”
Then Inman told a story. Before coming to Billings, he had been the assistant police chief in Portland, Ore., where seemingly harmless leafleting had escalated to vicious crimes: minorities were assaulted, their property was vandalized. Finally, in the fall of 1988, three skinheads beat an Ethiopian man to death with baseball bats. “Only then,” Inman said, “did the people of Portland acknowledge the problem.”
“Silence is acceptance,” Inman continued. “These people are testing us. And if we do nothing, there’s going to be more trouble. Billings should stand up and say, ‘Harass one of us and you harass us all.'”
In response, leafleting increased. Then one September morning, Brian Schnitzer drove to the Jewish cemetery to help pick up litter. Unlocking the gate, Brian discovered that most of the headstones were tilted or lay face down. Someone had vandalized the small burial ground.
“This is not a teenage prank,” Inman later told reporters. “This is a hate crime, pure and simple, directed at Jews.”
Meanwhile the leafleting attacks became personal. Uri Barnea, the music director of the Billings Symphony, who had emigrated from Israel, 97 was singled out by name in fliers. On November 27, a bottle was hurled through his glass-paneled front door.
On the evening of December 2, a stranger stole into the Schnitzers’ yard after Brian and Tammie had each driven away to attend meetings. Looking in a window of a well-lit room, the stranger could not have failed to notice Isaac’s toys and the child-size bed. Nor could there have been doubt about the Schnitzers’ religion. Resting on the chest of drawers was a menorah, the candelabrum Jews display during Hanukkah, the eight-day Festival of Lights. The banner on the window proclaimed “Happy Hanukkah.”
The intruder heaved a cinder block through the window. Glass exploded as the concrete bounced across the bed and landed on the floor. Luckily, Isaac was in the rec room playing with Rachel and their sitter.
When Tammie returned, Brian led her into Isaac’s room. Her legs went weak and she began to cry. Recalling the vandalism of storefronts that preceded the roundup of Jews in Germany in 1938, Tammie wondered, Is this another Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass? “I’m scared, Brian,” Tammie said. “Whoever did this waited until we left. They were watching us.”
They discussed restricting the children’s activities. But gradually Tammie’s worry turned to anger. Why should my children have to live in fear? Only one force could protect Isaac and Rachel, she realized—the community. Would anyone care enough to help them?
The next day Tammie called Schile. “You’re setting yourself up for more trouble,” Schile warned.
“I don’t care,” Tammie said. “This is a quality of life issue, not a Jewish issue.” That evening, the Schnitzers observed the beginning of the Sabbath. They huddled in a corner of the kitchen, far from windows, and lit the ceremonial candles.
The following morning, Margie MacDonald sat reading about the Schnitzers in the Gazette. As executive director of the Montana Association of Churches, she worked to educate religious leaders about the dangers of allowing bigotry to go unchallenged.
One passage caught MacDonald’s eye. The night of the attack, a police officer had suggested that Brian and Tammie take down their Hanukkah decorations. “How do I explain that to my children?” Tammie had asked. “I shouldn’t have to do that.”
MacDonald envisioned the people of Billings shielding the Schnitzers and every other victim of religious intolerance. Then she remembered the story of King Christian of Denmark. When the Nazis informed him that all Jews would be forced to display the yellow Star of David on their coats, the king responded that he would be first to wear it, and all Danes would follow his lead. The Nazis withdrew the order.
Now MacDonald reasoned, What if, instead of the Jews removing menorahs from their windows, Christians placed menorahs in theirs? She contacted the Rev. Keith Torney, pastor of the First Congregational Church. “Margie, that’s a great idea,” he said.
That Saturday afternoon, Torney called the pastors of several other churches, asking if they would distribute paper menorahs. The response was enthusiastic. Pastors reproduced the candelabrum and encouraged congregants to display it in their homes.
Torney gave out 300 paper menorahs at his church. And in his sermon that Sunday he said: “We dare not remain silent as our Jewish sisters and brothers are threatened. I will put a menorah in my window and in my heart, for what happens to Jews also happens to me. You must decide what your response will be.”
On Wednesday, December 8, the Billings Gazette ran an editorial under the headline “Show the Vandals That Hatred Has No Place in This Season of Love and Light,” urging readers to place menorahs in their windows.
A 68-year-old member of Torney’s congregation decided to place a menorah on a window where it would be seen clearly from the street. As she taped it to the glass, a neighbor begged her to take it down. “Don’t you know what’s going on?” the neighbor said. “Yes,” the woman replied. “That’s exactly why I’m putting it up.”
“Leave our babies alone”
Rick Smith, manager of Universal Athletics, placed a message on the reader board outside his store: “Not in our town! No hate, no violence. Peace on earth.” Ron Nistler, principal of Billings Central Catholic High School, proclaimed on the school’s electronic sign: “Happy Hanukkah to our Jewish friends.”
Reaction among Jews to the sudden outpouring of support was mixed. Many feared the Schnitzers’ efforts to draw attention to antiSemitism in Billings would only further incite bigots. Thus, it was a divided congregation that greeted Samuel Cohon, Beth Aaron Synagogue’s new student rabbi. The rift dividing his community preoccupied Cohon as he planned a vigil to precede Sabbath services on December 10, the third night of Hanukkah.
At 6:30 p.m. on that chilly Friday, about 200 people, mostly Christians, gathered across the street from the synagogue. As candles were distributed and lit, a small constellation of flames took shape around a pickup truck on which Rabbi Cohon and the Schnitzers stood. Cohon lit a menorah and blessed it, saying that it symbolized the human spirit. “You cannot stifle it.”
Then Tammie stepped forward to speak. She said that the block that smashed her son’s window was aimed at everyone who is a victim of prejudice. Just then a few skinheads arrived, glowering at the crowd. Staring at one of the young men, Tammie declared, “Leave our babies alone!”
Rabbi Cohon quoted British statesman Edmund Burke’s observation on apathy: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Then he led his congregants into the synagogue. The skinheads wandered off. But just in case, a few good people stayed to keep watch during the service.
The next morning’s Gazette featured a frontpage story about the vigil, a fullpage color reproduction of a menorah and a statement urging readers to display it.
But the following day the paper carried unsetding news: smallcaliber bullets had shattered windows at Central Catholic High School, near the sign that extended holiday greetings to Jews. The incident was a first in a weeklong spree of hate crimes.
Late Sunday night, two families received anonymous phone calls: “Go look at your car, Jew lover.” The homeowners found their cars’ roofs stomped on and windshields shattered. Four other residents discovered their cars similarly damaged. None of the victims was Jewish but all had exhibited paper menorahs.
Two nights later, vandals broke three windows that displayed menorahs at First United Methodist. The same evening, the glass doors at the Evangelical United Methodist Church were shattered.
“The hate groups are trying to silence us through scare tactics,” Chief Inman declared. “We can’t allow it. For every act of vandalism, I hope 100 people will put menorahs in their windows. It’s impossible for a small group of bigots to intimidate thousands of citizens who stand together.”
Tammie Schnitzer reinforced his remarks: “This is not a Jewish issue. It’s a human issue.” Then two local businesses announced they would distribute menorahs at all of their outlets in the area.
This time the entire town was aroused. Soon the nine-candle symbol could be seen everywhere—on office windows, in homes and apartments, on cars and trucks, in restaurants and stores, schools and other public buildings—thousands in all.
One night just before Christmas, Tammie Schnitzer took Isaac and Rachel for a drive around Billings. She wanted them to see that they lived in a community that stood by its children. Tammie pointed out the menorahs that hung in windows ringed by bright colored lights.
“Gosh,” Isaac said, “are all these people Jewish?” “No, Isaac,” Tammie replied, “they’re your friends.”