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Billings says - again - 'Not In Our Town'

Posted at 11:00 AM, Dec 22, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-23 10:02:57-05

BILLINGS — We’re turning back a page in Billings's history to 1993.

Racist vandalism and hate crimes against minority groups that year and during the Jewish holy week of Hanukkah transformed a tragedy into a movement.

Billings is now forever on the map for being the city that came together to say "Not In Our Town."

Twenty-nine years ago, attacks on minority groups included vandalism to Jewish homes and headstones knocked down, hateful fliers from the Ku Klux Klan placed on the cars of churchgoers celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. day, and Nazi symbols spray painted on the home of an Indigenous family.

Uri Barnea was the Billings Symphony director at the time. His family is Jewish and was not spared attacks.

“First of all it was sudden, it was persistent, and it was quite vicious in its nature. Both in terms of phone calls, the fliers, the newspapers, ya know the flier they tucked into the newspaper, and eventually breaking the door and the windows,” Barnea said.

Barnea knows intimately the power of hate. Generations of his family were killed during the Holocaust.

“So words are not nothing. Free speech, I respect, but we have to remember that words can lead, and often do lead, to violence, and that is absolutely abhorrent and unacceptable,” Barnea said.

The Billings community put itself on the map with an act of defiance in the face of hate.

A hate crime to a Jewish home decorated for Hanukkah spurred action by the Billings Gazette.

“We first reported this Dec. 4, 1993," said Chris Jorgensen, the newspaper's current managing editor. "What’s interesting about this story is that when authorities investigate this, a part of their advice is well-meaning but misguided. She was told that to keep her family safe she might just remove these Jewish symbols, and she just thought, that’s crazy advice. So did just about everyone in the community, including Gazette editors who thought, 'No, you shouldn’t have to hide the symbols of your faith just to stay safe.' That’s when this idea started churning about the Gazette publishing its own Menorah.”

Fifty thousand copies of a full-page Menorah, illustrated by a Gazette artist, were sent out.

“The idea being, if you want to express hate, if you want to break out windows with Menorahs, here’s fifty-thousand of them,” Jorgensen said.

Symbols of light spread all over town and pushed back the darkness.

“I think this was the Gazette’s finest hour. I think we did the right thing. It was a great idea, and we did the right thing, and I think it was our communities’ finest hour too,” Jorgensen said.

Billings is again turning to the decision made years ago to say "no" to hate.

Antisemitic incidents are at an all-time high, up 34 percent nationwide in 2021 compared to 2020, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

The Gazette ran another full-page Menorah on Sunday for people to hang up. It was the first time it's done so in 29 years.

Billings synagogues were joined by the community on Wednesday night in lighting a huge Menorah at the Yellowstone County Courthouse. Another first – for the first time ever on public property.

A timeless lesson emerges as history repeats itself, and so does the voice of Billings saying, once again, "Not In Our Town."