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Jewish Hanukkah celebration at Virginia Williamsburg (US) festival canceled due to Israel-Hamas conflict



A Hanukkah celebration in Williamsburg has been canceled after concerns about the Israel-Hamas war.

A menorah lighting was scheduled for the 2nd Sundays Art and Music Festival on Dec. 10. Each month from March to December, the community event hosts artisans, street performers and food vendors, and Jewish leaders were told that the board was not comfortable allowing the lighting at the festival.

Shirley Vermillion, the festival’s founder, said 2nd Sundays are inclusive to different religions or cultures, and the menorah lighting “seemed very inappropriate” given current events in Israel and Gaza. She said the board would prefer to steer clear of religious affiliations. In the past, she said, Christian and other religious groups ask to perform at 2nd Sundays, and all of those requests were denied.

“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 said.

Vermillion also said logistically, the menorah lighting was not going to work with the space the festival had. The performance line up had been set for months in advanced, so fitting in another 30-minute celebration would not have worked, she said.

Dec. 7 marks the first night of Hanukkah. According to a statement from the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula, the lighting was going to be held by a local rabbi and had nothing to do with the Israel-Hamas war. The statement says Jewish leaders were told the event would appear to choose sides in the conflict, and organizers would reschedule the celebration if it were held under a “ceasefire” banner.

“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 reads, in part. “Those standards would never be applied to another community.”

Hamas stormed the Gaza Strip into nearby Israeli towns on Oct. 7, which coincided with another major Jewish holiday, the holy Shabbat at the end of the Sukkot festival. Israel immediately launched airstrikes on Gaza, destroying neighborhoods and killing thousands of Palestinians in the days that followed, and has since sent troops into Gaza.

Next week’s menorah lighting would not have been political in any way, the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula continued.

“The Second Sundays Art & Music Festival has been a meaningful and important community event that brings people together under a powerful message of unity, love and light,” the statement reads. “Excluding Jewish participation from a festival that should welcome everyone undermines its very message.”