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Santa Sacking Stirs Controversy in Sag Harbor

Fri, 12/15/2023 - 14:42
Ken Dorph in 2022
Durell Godfrey

When Santa Claus visited Long Wharf on Dec. 9 as part of the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce’s tree-lighting festivities, what families may not have known was that the man originally slated to play the role, Ken Dorph, had been asked to return his red suit to the chamber three days earlier. 

Two weeks later, after a front-page article in The New York Times on Friday, the Sag Harbor Santa story is anything but secret. 

Mr. Dorph has been vocal over the past two months about the war in Gaza, and told The New York Times last week that he believed his political views played a role in his being sacked as Santa. He spoke with The Star at length on Dec. 11, but declined to comment on the record until after the story came out in The Times on Friday. 

In the lead-up to the Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce’s Santa event, Ellen Dioguardi, president of the Sag Harbor Chamber, had emailed Mr. Dorph to say that because he had been “an outspoken member of [the] community” and because he had announced in a Facebook post that he would be the man in the Santa suit, the organization was no longer interested in having him on board. 

“I didn’t understand what they were afraid of when they said I was outspoken. That I would quote Malcolm X, wear a keffiyeh, put lipstick on, and make them gay? It was just so ridiculous,” Mr. Dorph said. “Santa’s agenda is candy canes and gingerbread. The firing of Santa is censorship. It’s happening all over the country. It’s the new McCarthyism. . . . This is not Israel versus Palestine, this is left versus right, peace versus war. It’s DeSantis on steroids and it’s come to New York.” 

The chamber sees it differently. “After Ken Dorph fabricated an official-looking chamber social media post, placing his own portrait as Santa and self-publishing it without chamber approval, calls came in asking why we would choose him as Santa,” its president said in a statement this week. “Initially it was assumed that the concern derived from his stance against the local public school’s attempts to acquire land, but later it was learned that he had even more recently acted belligerently in another public forum. Ken also had discussions on how he would play the role differently than traditional Santas — injecting his own take reflecting current world events.” 

“The Sag Harbor Chamber of Commerce is apolitical, and our Santa is anonymous,” Ms. Dioguardi said in a statement last week. “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.” 

Mr. Dorph has had a long financialconsulting career in the Middle East and he speaks Arabic. He drew on his expertise to give two talks recently about the Israeli conflict, one at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor and another at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton. 

The issue with his Santa gig appears to stem, in part, from his attendance at a Nov. 30 discussion titled “Answering Tough Questions on Israel” at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor. Twice he spoke up from the audience, suggesting that the women leading the discussion, both representing the American Jewish Committee, were parroting pro-war talking points of the Israeli government. 

“I’ll tell you honestly, you could have been propaganda for the Netanyahu government,” he said at the Nov. 30 discussion. “I am really appalled because you didn’t talk about what matters. . . . You did not talk about the settlements in the West Bank.” 

“This conversation is not about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Belle Yoeli, a chief advocacy officer for the A.J.C., said in reply. “Putting aside the offensive comment about being propaganda . . . what you’re basically saying is that what happened on Oct. 7 is a result of Israeli oppression, and what I’m telling you is that there are equal mistakes on both sides. . . . To jump there is deeply problematic.” 

The audience pushed back, and after the event, “The chamber received 11 emails asking us to find a different Santa,” Ms. Dioguardi wrote. “To give perspective, never before for any chambersponsored event or chamber business have we received more than three emails of complaint or concern, let alone for our Santa event. The concerns/objections ranged from those saying they’d feel uncomfortable and that he was not a good fit, to parents who said they would not be able to have their children attend the Santa visit event.” 

Rabbi Dan Geffen of Temple Adas Israel suggested in a written statement that Mr. Dorph had chosen the wrong venue for his comments. “As a Rabbi, I am keenly aware that every word I say (or don’t say) matters and so I am very careful with not just what I say, but also how I say it and where I say it,” he wrote. “Mr. Dorph felt compelled to speak and act as he did on Nov 30th and that choice clearly resulted in many people feeling very upset by what took place. They, in turn, chose to exercise their right to express those feelings to the chamber and to question whether Mr. Dorph is an appropriate choice for the role of Santa, who . . . has also come to represent a spirit of unity during the holiday season. Whether that position, the decision of the chamber, or Mr. Dorph’s actions on Nov. 30 were right or wrong I do not know. What I do know is that there is clearly a lot of hurt in many directions and that, of course, breaks my heart.” 

“Any reason given for dismissing Santa other than the emails from Temple Adas is a post facto fabrication to justify the chambers incorrect decision,” Mr. Dorph wrote yesterday, while also acknowledging that “I might have made the same decision if I was in their shoes.” 

“I think they thought I would say, ‘Here’s the suit back. Have a nice day.’ . . . What I want to come from this is more conversation. I think of myself as a holy troublemaker. I can’t stand injustice. I think they made a mistake, but people do.” 

Note: This article has been updated since it originally appeared online.

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