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Calgary mayor will not attend annual menorah lighting, says event has pivoted to become political

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek lights the Menorah at the annual community gathering in December, 2022.  (CBC - image credit)
Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek lights the Menorah at the annual community gathering in December, 2022. (CBC - image credit)

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek will not attend tonight's annual community menorah lighting at City Hall after saying the event had shifted toward a more political nature.

"It has come to my attention late in the day that tomorrow's community menorah lighting event — something I have looked forward to attending over the years — has been repositioned as an event to support Israel," read a statement from Gondek posted to X.

Gondek said that when she asked to speak at the event weeks ago, it was to bring traditional Hannukah greetings to Calgary's Jewish community.

"This last minute change goes against the original intention, and has left me feeling let down by leadership," reads the statement.

As mayor, Gondek added her goal is to celebrate common bonds in the city, and engage in an interfaith manner.

"The changed nature of tomorrow's event creates a divide and forces people to choose a side."

The community Menorah lighting has been organized by Chabad Lubavitch Alberta for 35 years.

A release sent by the organization on Dec. 5 outlines that the theme for this year's festivities is "unity, supporting Israel, and demonstrating Jewish pride."

Chabad Lubavitch Alberta's senior Rabbi Menachem Matusof told CBC News the event would function as both a celebration and a demonstration in support for Israel amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza.

"Unfortunately due to what's going on today, we had to put a program together that speaks to the current events," said Matusof.

"This is celebrating Hanukkah, obviously. At the same time, this is a peaceful demonstration for celebrating light over darkness … demonstrating Jewish pride and demonstrating support for Israel."

Matusof said that while the event will include elements of fun for children and adults alike, such as music and dancing, that there will also be solemn moments for prayer and songs of encouragement for both the local community and people in Israel.

"It's impossible to win a war, so to speak, by having our heads down and we're not [going] to let evil and negativity take over the world."

Matusof said that his organization worked with city officials and the Calgary police to enhance security measures for the event. He added that all Calgarians are welcome to attend.

The Calgary Jewish Federation said in an email to its community members that it's hurt and disappointed by the decision.

"As always, and particularly at this time, our community does not waver in our support of Israel, nor will our community forget that 140 Israeli hostages still remain in captivity," the statement said.

"Our yearning for peace in Israel and Gaza does not run counter to our support of (the land of) Israel, but rather are inextricably linked."

The nine Conservative MPs for Calgary issued a joint statement saying they are "deeply troubled" by Gondek's decision not to attend the menorah lighting.

"Her decision to withdraw could dangerously normalize antisemitism at a time when, across campuses and communities, Jewish Canadians are already feeling threatened," said the statement, which was posted on X.

"We strongly urge the mayor to stand with Calgary's Jewish community and reconsider her message regarding the City Hall menorah lighting and decision to withdraw out of deep concern for our shared constituents."

Lori Williams, an associate professor of policy studies at Mount Royal University, said it's unfortunate the mayor's decision not to attend the event has become politicized, particularly since that's what she was trying to avoid.

"Unfortunately, rather than it simply being a celebration of the Jewish community in Calgary, some have said that this is going to be an event that expresses support for Israel and forces people essentially to choose a side," Williams told CBC News.

"I think what the mayor is trying to do, and I think what many Calgarians and people around the world are trying to do, is to stand in support of the people that are being unjustly harmed.… I think what's happening here is that many people want to be able to speak in support of Jewish and Palestinian folks without taking a side with respect to what the Israeli government is doing or what Hamas is doing and has done."

During Hamas's attack on Israel more than eight weeks ago, about 1,200 people, including several Canadians, were killed and 240 were taken hostage, Israel says.

In Gaza, which has been ruled by Hamas since 2007, Palestinian health authorities deemed reliable by the United Nations estimate that more than 15,900 people have been killed, and thousands more are feared buried under rubble as a result of Israel's response.

Israel's total siege on Gaza has resulted in food, water, electricity, medicine and fuel being cut off to the enclave. A limited number of aid trucks have been allowed to enter Gaza through the Rafah border crossing with Egypt since Oct. 21.