Hanukkah Public Displays Removed Amidst “Rising Tensions”

Amidst the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas, some cities in the United States and Canada canceled planned celebrations for Hanukkah and even removed Jewish symbols from holiday light displays, sparking public outrage at a time when religious and political divisions were deepening because of the war.

A menorah lighting supposedly scheduled to take place at the 2nd Sundays Art and Music Festival in Williamsburg, Virginia, on December 10th has been canceled.

The festival’s founder, Shirley Vermillion, told the Daily Press that lighting the menorah "seemed very inappropriate" given the current war between Israel and Hamas that started last October 7th and claimed the lives of around 1,200 Israelis and over 15,500 Gazans.

"The concern is of folks feeling like we are siding with a group over the other... not a direction we ever decide to head," Vermillion told the newspaper.

Vermillion also said that while the festival is inclusive of different religions and cultures, the board was keen to avoid being affiliated with any religion and that Christians and other religious groups who have asked to perform on the 2nd Sundays have been turned down in the past. She was contacted for comment through the festival’s website.

In response to the decision, The United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula published a statement criticizing it. It said festival organizers offered to reinstate the event if it were held under a banner calling for a ceasefire.

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," the statement said. "Those standards would never be applied to another community."

The statement also added that a local community rabbi would lead the event and "had nothing to do with Israel or the conflict.

Meanwhile, a Star of David was removed from a holiday light display in Westbrook, Maine, and was replaced with a dreidel, a spinning top commonly played during Hanukkah.

Westbrook Mayor Michael Foley said that Arab American residents of the city complained about the Star of David, claiming the symbol was "offensive in relation to the conflict currently in the Middle East." The Star of David is a prominent Jewish symbol and is featured on the Israeli flag.

Foley posted a statement on Facebook, saying that the decision to remove the Star of David was based on legal requirements, adding that a city employee had purchased and displayed a Star of David light display in an effort to promote inclusivity.

"This decision aligns with legal requirements including the U.S. Constitution's Establishment Clause and subsequent court rulings which determined certain icons to be non-religious, including Christmas trees, dreidels, and snowflakes," Foley wrote.

We know this is a frustrating decision for some members of our community. However, we take our legal responsibilities very seriously, and this means providing a light show that everyone in our diverse community can equally enjoy," he added.

In Canada, a town decided not to display a menorah outside its city hall for the first time in 20 years, sparking an outcry among the local Jewish community.

City officials mentioned a 2015 ruling from Canada’s Supreme Court that banned religious prayers at municipal council meetings to justify their decision not to set up a menorah.

Francis Weil, the president of the Moncton Jewish Community, said that some members of the local Jewish community have met with Moncton Mayor Dawn Arnold to "explain that this decision is unfair and hurts profoundly the Jewish population of Moncton.

"It is unfair because, while banning the Jewish Menorah, the Christmas tree and the angels that are on City Hall ground will remain. The Jewish Community is happy that the tree and the angels remain, but so should the Menorah,” Weil said.

"It is unfair because the Chanukah Menorah is, for Jews, a symbol of being accepted. In a world where antisemitism has been too often present (and continues to grow), this acceptance is important," he added.

In the UK, the Havering Council in east London initially decided not to light the menorah in this year’s Hanukkah celebrations, saying that doing so would be “unwise” and could “risk further inflaming tensions within our communities.” However, the council reversed its decision after meeting with local Jewish community leaders.

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