US festival sparks anger after axing menorah lighting to mark Chanukah due to Israel-Hamas war

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A US arts and culture festival has sparked controversy after cancelling a menorah lighting display to mark Chanukah.

The display, organised by a local community rabbi, was set to take place during the Second Sundays Art and Music Festival in Williamsburg, Virginia on December 10. The festival takes place each month from March to December and hosts artisans, street performers and food vendors.

According to the Virginia Gazette, Jewish community leaders were told that the festival board was not comfortable allowing the lighting at the festival amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Organisers LoveLight Placemaking said they didn’t want to take sides in the current war and claimed that hosting a Chanukah celebration would indicate that. 

The United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula expressed disappointment at the decision and said in a statement: “The Chanukah celebration was a symbol of our cultural heritage and had no political agenda.

“We should be very clear: it is antisemitic to hold Jews collectively responsible for Israel’s policies and actions, and to require a political litmus test for Jews’ participation in community events that have nothing to do with Israel.

“Those standards would never be applied to another community.”

The statement added: “Since October 7th, we have repeatedly seen cases of Jewish people and institutions – including synagogues, Jewish homes and businesses – being targeted, sometimes violently, by those opposed to Israel or its actions. At a time of well-documented, rising antisemitism, the singling out and targeting of Jews is dangerous and harmful, serving to further exclude and alienate our community.

“The Second Sundays Art and Music Festival has been a meaningful and important community event that brings people together under a powerful message of unity, love and light.

“Excluding Jewish participation from a festival that should welcome everyone undermines its very message. We call on LoveLight Placemaking to reconsider our request to engage in dialogue, educate themselves on the harmfulness of their decision, and reinstate the apolitical Menorah ceremony at the event.”

Shirley Vermillion, the festival’s founder, said they were very inclusive to different religions or cultures but stressed the menorah lighting “seemed very inappropriate” given current events in Israel and Gaza. Vermillion added that all religious services that were expected to take place have also been cancelled.

She went on to say: “The concern is of folks feeling like we are siding with a group over the other… not a direction we ever decide to head.”

Meanwhile, a Canadian city council refused to display a menorah outside its city hall for the first time in 20 years.

Moncton in New Brunswick cited a 2015 Supreme Court of Canada ruling that banned religious prayers at municipal council meetings in their decision to not set up the menorah in front of city hall.

Francis Weil, president of the Moncton Jewish Community, said the city’s decision not to allow the menorah was a profound “hurt” to the people he represents.

Michael Levitt, President and CEO Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Centre (FSWC) wrote on X/Twitter: “The decision to ban the menorah from Chanukah celebrations at Moncton City Hall, for first time in 20 years, while the Christmas tree and angels remain, reeks of discrimination.

“This inexplicable decision, made under the guise of separation of church and state, is being bemoaned by the local Jewish community and must not stand.”

FSWC has also written a letter writing campaign to Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold, urging her to reverse the decision. “It is more important than ever that the glowing light of the menorah shine at Moncton City Hall, an opportunity to bring Jews and non-Jews together to celebrate the Jewish Festival of Lights,” said Levitt.

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