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Calgary mayor says she didn't attend Hanukkah ceremony because it was too political

MLA Matt Jones, centre left, Rabbi Menachem Matusof, centre, and Nelson Halpern, participate in a menorah lighting ceremony in Calgary, on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2023. Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek did not attend the ceremony, saying she believes it was too political. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

CALGARY — The mayor of Alberta's largest city did not attend the annual menorah lighting ceremony to mark the beginning of Hanukkah because she says it had become too political, but her decision led to a backlash from many in the Jewish community and Conservative politicians.

Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek posted a statement on the social media site X, formerly known as Twitter, saying Thursday's ceremony at city hall had been repositioned as an event to support Israel.

"When I was asked to speak weeks ago, it was to bring traditional greetings celebrating Hanukkah and the spirit of Calgary's Jewish community," she said in the statement posted late Wednesday. 

"This last-minute change goes against the original intention, and has me feeling let down by leadership. I am saddened that this change makes it impossible 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 federation added on social media that the mayor's decision is also harmful to the community.

"In more than 35 years, a mayor has never chosen to miss this annual celebration during which we welcome in the light from the darkness," it said in a post on X. 

Earlier this week, councillors in Moncton, N.B., reversed a decision that would have ended a 20-year tradition of lighting a Hanukkah menorah in front of city hall. They voted unanimously Monday to immediately display the menorah — and a Christian nativity scene — after a decision last week to scrap the religious symbols prompted an outcry.

The Calgary mayor's decision also led to criticism from Alberta Premier Danielle Smith and nine federal Conservative politicians from the city.

"I disagree with the mayor," Smith told reporters during an unrelated news conference.

The United Conservative government had a representative — Jobs Minister Matt Jones, who's a Calgary member of the legislative assembly — in attendance.

"We stand by the Jewish community at this time and we want to make sure that they know they are valued by us, so we will take part in their cultural event," Smith said.

Pat Kelly, chairman of the federal Conservative caucus, said Calgary MPs are also troubled by the decision and some were to attend the ceremony.

"Her decision to withdraw could dangerously normalize antisemitism at a time when, across campuses and communities, Jewish Canadians are already feeling threatened," he said in a statement.

Calgary MP Greg McLean said he and some of his colleagues regularly go to events at synagogues and mosques to make sure they are hearing everyone's voices.

"We're all public leaders. This is a public event where you should show leadership and continue to be there. We don't get to choose times to govern," he said in an interview in Ottawa.

"This is a difficult time, but we face up to this all of the time to make sure we don't divide ourselves and our constituents and their communities, and make sure we participate in their cultural and community events."

Gondek was asked about her decision Thursday morning after attending a housing conference in Calgary.

"I feel gutted by this," she told reporters. "I am here in this role to bring communities together and we're at a time when communities are fracturing among themselves. This is some of the most devastating stuff I have seen in our city.

"I'm not sure how we're going to get through this without a little bit of compassion for each other."

She added in her letter that the changed nature of the event created a divide and forced people to choose sides.

"There are no sides to choose when terrorists incite violence by murdering innocent Israelis, knowing retaliation will follow and lead to the murder of innocent Palestinians," wrote Gondek.

"It is absolutely possible to condemn acts of violence and war without choosing one community over another. We have a moral imperative to do so."

This week marks the second month of a brutal conflict that has killed thousands of civilians, including the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas militants and Israel's swift and sustained retaliatory war in the Gaza Strip.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 7, 2023.

— With files from Bob Weber in Edmonton and Stephanie Taylor in Ottawa.

Colette Derworiz, The Canadian Press

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