Calgary’s mayor has announced she has decided not to participate in the annual menorah lighting at city hall, claiming organizers have repositioned the event as pro-Israel.
In a letter posted to social media Wednesday night, Mayor Jyoti Gondek said her decision to not attend Thursday’s event was heartbreaking and her absence leaves her with feelings of great regret and sadness.
“It is my responsibility as mayor to attend diverse and inclusive events with and for Calgarians from many faith-based and ethnic communities,” said Gondek within her letter. “My goal is to celebrate the strength of our common bonds and the power of pluralism in our city. However, when a celebration of community is turned into something with political intentions, it goes against the mission to uphold diversity and inclusion.”
Gondek concluded the letter with a sentiment recognizing the victims of the ongoing conflict in Gaza.
“My heart remains with Jewish and Palestinian Calgarians who continue to mourn the loss of loved ones.”
Rabbi Menachem Matusof of Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta said nothing in the evening’s program changed to politicize the event.
“This is not meant to be a demonstration for Israel. This is a Hanukkah celebration, as was and will be and will continue to be so,” Matusof said.
“Of course, we are supporting Israel proudly, and we are praying for Israel and we are praying for the captives. And our hearts and minds are with them in pain and sorrow, and in celebration of the miracles that have taken place 2000 years ago during the holiday of Hanukkah.”
City officials did meet with Matusof and other organizers prior to the evening’s festivities to review items like security and the program, which the rabbi said he appreciated.
The Calgary Jewish Federation took to social media Thursday morning to express its disappointment with Gondek’s decision.
“Our mayor’s decision to withdraw from tonight’s Chanukah event is extremely disappointing, harmful, and offensive to our Jewish 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… and recognize the historic events of the Chanukah story. To turn her back on our community, most notably on the eve of the two-month anniversary of the Oct. 7 massacre, is a slap in the face to our community and to anyone who condemns the barbaric actions of Hamas.”
A statement from the Independent Jewish Voices Calgary expressed their support for the mayor’s decision and called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas conflict.
“Independent Jewish Voices Calgary strongly condemns this exploitation of our religious tradition and calls on all city officials to withdraw their attendance and for Chabad to remove this pro-war messaging from their program immediately,” the statement reads.
“We appreciate that this annual event may be intended to represent the city’s investment in and commitment to Jewish community, but the inclusion of war bonds and ‘Support Israel’ messaging makes a dangerous conflation between Judaism and the government of Israel.”
Adam Silver of the Calgary Jewish Foundation said the bonds that were part of the event is an initiative from one Jewish family.
“There is a family that supports Israel bonds through purchase as an investment. They donate a bond or two that then are raffled off to children,” Silver told Global News. “There’s no official sale of anything at the event.”
Following a Thursday morning housing announcement, the mayor provided additional insight into her decision, stating that the menorah lighting in the municipal building was not the place for division.
“It could be in the form of a demonstration or protest like we see regularly in public places, (but) it cannot be done inside city hall,” said Gondek. “And that was an incredibly difficult decision for me to make, to step away from attending, but if the politics could be removed from the faith-based celebration, this would be a different situation.”
Gondek wasn’t the lone member of council to announce they wouldn’t be attending the menorah lighting in city hall’s atrium. Ward 6 Coun. Richard Pootmans, Ward 8 Coun. Courtney Walcott and Ward 9 Coun. Gian-Carlo Carra expressed their concerns with the event on their social media accounts.
One councillor, Ward 13’s Dan McLean, said he would be at the menorah lighting on Thursday night and said it was “very unfortunate” the event was being politicized.
“I think (the mayor’s) original decision was ill-advised,” McLean said. “This celebration has been going on here at city hall for over 35 years. Every mayor has attended and it’s always been exactly the same. Nothing’s different this year than last year.”
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.
She said the United Conservative government will have a representative 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.
“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.”
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.
— With files from The Canadian Press