Can a menorah be displayed on public school property at Cornell University? Not according to its “Holiday Decoration Guidelines.” These curious regulations were flagged by New York Times contributing op-ed writer and Tablet contributor Judith Shulevitz, who expressed amusement at their contents. Most recently revised and approved on November 19, the guidelines appear to be a well-meaning attempt to promote an inclusive holiday atmosphere that went bizarrely awry:
Clearly, the university intended to bar explicitly religious symbols, while permitting more anodyne holiday ones, and decided that the Star of David and menorah—both secular national Jewish symbols as well as religious ones—did not make the cut.
In practice, however, this means that all symbols of Judaism and Hanukkah are discouraged from holiday displays on the Ivy League school’s campus. While large, highly visible Christmas items like trees and wreaths are permitted, the sole Jewish symbol allowed is a dreidel, the spinning Hanukkah top that is smaller than a matchbox. As Hend Amry, a Muslim American activist, put it on Twitter, barring some sort of giant inflatable dreidel, this policy effectively effaces Hanukkah from the public square:
Like how can the dreidel be the ONLY symbol of Hannukah or a Jewish holiday, that you allow? In this case, I’d make it a 20 foot tall top.
— Hend Amry (@LibyaLiberty) December 23, 2015
Ironically, the Supreme Court ruled in 1989 in Allegheny v. the American Civil Liberties Union that public displays of menorahs—specifically, a display which paired a Christmas tree with a menorah—were permissible in public spaces. Cornell, on its private property, has inverted this decision, by discouraging the menorah while permitting the trees.
In the rush before the holiday break, Cornell did not respond to specific inquiries about the guidelines—for instance, whether they are binding or enforced—but its senior director of Media Relations John Carberry did provide the following statement: “Our University guidelines specifically related to religious symbols and holiday inclusivity are currently under review and will be updated in the new year.”
Given that there were public menorah lightings on campus this year, it seems the guidelines are being observed partly in the breach, though why they remain on the books is an open question.