World

He Was Set to Play Santa. His Views on the Middle East Got in the Way.

In the months since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war, disputes over the boundaries of political expression have cost prominent people their jobs in fields like show business, publishing and academia.

Last week, these clashes left another famous figure suddenly out of work: Santa Claus.

This very 2023 Christmas tale took place in Sag Harbor, a village on Long Island, where a longtime resident named Ken Dorph had been hired as a volunteer to wear the iconic red costume at an event hosted by the local chamber of commerce.

The plan was for Santa to ride majestically atop a fire truck to the village’s picturesque windmill, where the spreading of joy would commence. Mr. Dorph, 70, had previously played Santa at a gathering last year at the town’s cinema, and even given an interview in character to a local paper. In other words, he took the Santa stuff very seriously.

“I normally have a professionally trimmed beard, but I was growing it out,” he said. “I looked like Santa.”

But on Dec. 6, three days before the jamboree, Mr. Dorph received an email from the president of the chamber of commerce, telling him he had been relieved of his duties. She offered no explanation, he said, beyond saying he was too outspoken for the gig.

The truth was, when word got out that he would be Santa this year, a group of people from a local synagogue, Temple Adas Israel, sent a flurry of emails to the event organizers objecting to his selection.

Mr. Dorph, they said, had made people uncomfortable during a Nov. 30 talk at the synagogue about the Israel-Hamas crisis, sharply criticizing a pair of speakers from the American Jewish Committee, a nonprofit advocacy group that supports Jewish people and Israel, from his seat in the audience.

“He was very antagonistic, belittling them,” said Rona Klopman, 85, a member of the temple who attended the event virtually but was not involved in the email campaign. “I could see why people would not be comfortable with him as Santa, who is supposed to be this jolly fellow trying to keep peace in the world.”

Fluent in Arabic, Mr. Dorph fostered an interest in the Middle East over more than four decades working frequently in the region as a consultant in the financial sector. Beyond his day job, he regularly gives talks as an expert on the subject, believing Arab cultures and the Middle East are gravely misunderstood.

“I love Israel, and I love Palestine, and I do not think those are contradictory thoughts and emotions,” he said in October at a local speaking engagement.

Mr. Dorph attended the talk at the synagogue — titled “Answering Tough Questions on Israel” — as a guest of a member.

A video of the event viewed by The New York Times confirmed that Mr. Dorph on multiple occasions voiced frustration with the content of the A.J.C.’s hourlong presentation. The atmosphere remained mostly civil, but the room at times grew tense.

Mr. Dorph, who emphasized that he was heartbroken by the war and “desperately” wanted it to end, objected during the event to the speakers’ characterizations of several topics — the exact language of the Hamas charter, the relevance of the West Bank settlements to the current conflict. When called on during a question-and-answer session, he implied they were feeding the audience political talking points.

“Honestly, you two could have been propaganda for the Netanyahu government,” he said, referring to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli leader. “I am appalled.”

Certain audience members were visibly taken aback by Mr. Dorph’s comments. The guest speakers engaged politely, but sternly, with Mr. Dorph each time he spoke up, and the session ended without other issues.

Mr. Dorph acknowledged later that he should have just left. Given the title of the talk, he said he had expected a forum for debate. Instead, he said, it felt more like a workshop designed to equip pro-Israel attendees with responses to touchy questions about the conflict.

“I never said a curse word or stood up or threatened anyone, but it was hot under the collar, and I regret that,” Mr. Dorph said.

But the damage was done.

Ellen Dioguardi, the president of the chamber of commerce, said in a statement that she had received 11 emails from synagogue members requesting they “find a different Santa.” Some parents said they would not come to the Christmas event if Mr. Dorph were there. It was by far the most complaints the organization had ever received about any issue, she said.

“We were able to find an anonymous Santa Claus free of distraction, and had a great event focused on the simple joy and wonder that is the holiday season,” her statement read.

The Dec. 9 gathering otherwise proceeded as planned, even though the alternate Santa had unfortunately shaved his beard, thinking his services were not needed this year. Mr. Dorph stayed home and made a gingerbread house. But restlessness in the community has lingered.

“If we’re going to have a democracy, even if it’s angry exchanges, we need to be able to have these conversations without being punished,” Mr. Dorph said.

Rabbi Daniel Geffen of Temple Adas Israel said the temple’s leadership had not been involved in the email campaign. He rued the turn of events, but, conceding he was “not an expert on Santa,” offered a slightly different lesson: Acknowledging that free speech was indeed part of the “beauty of democracy,” he suggested it also required “taking responsibility for not just what we say, but how we say it and when we say it.”

Mr. Dorph has no ill feelings toward the chamber of commerce or the rabbi. The episode, while disheartening, has inspired him to keep educating people about Arab cultures, perhaps through a website or podcast. He said he was proud to stand out in his close-knit community — among other things as a gay, white father of two Black adopted children — and that he would keep sharing his views on anything, with anyone.

And despite feeling down, he appreciates the absurdity of the situation, too. This was not the first time, he pointed out, that Saint Nick had lost his job.

“In ‘Miracle on 34th Street,’ Santa was canceled because he was drunk,” he said, referring to the classic holiday film. But Mr. Dorph was not on Santa duty that night at the synagogue: “I was canceled because I said something in a completely independent setting.”

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