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Virginia cultural festival says it won’t hold a menorah lighting due to Israel-Hamas war

(JTA) – When the director of the Chabad-Lubavitch center in Williamsburg, Virginia, pitched a local arts and culture festival last month on the idea of holding a public menorah lighting to celebrate Hanukkah, he thought it made sense.

“We look to bring people together with Jewish pride and unity,” Rabbi Mendy Heber, of Chabad of Williamsburg, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Likewise, Second Sundays, a monthly cultural festival held in historic Colonial Williamsburg that features artisans and musical performances, also has a mission to bring about “peace for all humans everywhere”

So it seemed to Heber a natural fit to hold the menorah lighting as part of the next Second Sunday, which falls on Dec. 10, the fourth night of Hanukkah. In fact, Chabad of Williamsburg already had a months-long relationship with the festival, having sold challah as a vendor at prior installments.

And like the thousands of other Chabad outposts around the world, public menorah lightings are a big part of Heber’s mission; the Chabad Hasidic movement claimed to have staged 15,000 such events worldwide in 2021. When Heber proposed the lighting, he said, he and Second Sundays founder Susan Vermillion had a series of “positive communications” about the event.

Instead, the planned celebration turned into a debacle when Second Sundays leadership decided, on Nov. 16, not to hold the menorah lighting because they feared it would be seen as an endorsement of Israel during its war with Hamas in Gaza. Organizers then suggested that the lighting could go forward only if they could get an Islamic group to participate, or if they could hold it under a banner calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. 

“This hurt,” Heber said. “It was a kick in the gut, not just for the Jewish community here, not just for Jews throughout the United States, but for all decent people who believe in the American dream.”

Since the war began nearly two months ago, a range of American institutions have seen cancellations, protest and heightened rhetoric related to the debate over Israel and Hamas, from college campuses to cultural centers to local governments. But the Williamsburg incident is an example of how expressions of Judaism that are unrelated to Israel — from synagogues to kosher restaurants and, now, Hanukkah celebrations — are being implicated in the debate over the war.

Last week a Maine town removed a Star of David from its holiday lights display after a local resident had complained it was taking sides in the war, though officials insisted to JTA that the complaint was unrelated to the removal.

And officials in the Canadian city of Moncton, behind closed doors, initially decided not to display a menorah outside of City Hall this year; they cited a separation of church and state, though the local Jewish communal group called it “an indicator of discrimination” given that the town will still display a Christmas tree and other Christmas lights. The decision was reversed Monday at a city council meeting following outcry, and the mayor issued an apology “if our actions showed a lack of support toward any members of our community.”

Unlike in those two incidents, it is clear that Israel was a direct factor in organizers’ decision not to hold the menorah lighting in Williamsburg. Vermillion, a dental hygienist who founded and oversees Second Sundays through her nonprofit LoveLight Placemaking, told Heber directly that she and her board did not want to be perceived as taking sides in the conflict.

The “National Menorah,” erected by Chabad-Lubavitch in front of the White House in Washington, Dec. 2, 2021. (Kerem Yucel/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In a series of messages, portions of which were read to JTA and whose exact wording was confirmed by Heber and another local rabbi who received them, Vermillion wrote that the event wouldn’t happen “unless we can get an Islamic group to participate at essentially the same time,” adding, “We don’t want to make it seem we’re choosing a side.”

Vermillion went on to state that she wanted to avoid “letting a specific church or religion seeming to be supported” by her organization, and that “timing isn’t good or appropriate at this time.” 

Heber insisted the event would have nothing to do with Israel or Zionism (Chabad is not an explicitly Zionist movement, though many of its adherents are Zionist and many of its chapters host pro-Israel programming) and would consist only of a few prayers. Vermillion wrote back, “Our board members said they’d be OK with proceeding if you do it under a ceasefire banner. Bombing and killing thousands of people isn’t spreading love and light, and we aren’t going to openly support any religious/cultural holidays/celebrations.” 

“I’m really not sure why you guys are making it such a big deal,” Vermillion continued. “This is my event. My nonprofit. You guys are more than welcome to do whatever you want to do on your own.”

After Vermillion informed Heber that the menorah lighting would not move forward, the rabbi looped in the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula, a local communal organization that provides services to around 2,000 Jews between the communities of Williamsburg, Newport News and Hampton. (Williamsburg itself has only one Jewish congregation, apart from the Chabad and a Hillel that serves a few hundred students at the College of William & Mary.)

Vermillion did not respond to subsequent attempts by UJCVP to arrange a sit-down, leading the organization to make good on a threat that it would go public with the exchange on Sunday. In a statement, UJCVP asserted that it “is shocked and alarmed” by LoveLight Placemaking’s decision.

“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 read.

A Chabad menorah, distinguished by the diagonal—rather than curved—arms. (Mindy Schauer/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

In text messages with JTA, Vermillion said, “It’s sad that the most inclusive organization and event in Williamsburg is being targeted for trying to stay neutral.”

In Vermillion’s telling, the menorah lighting “was proposed but was not consistent with the purpose of this non-religious, community art and music festival, and the proposal was denied.”

She continued, “It feels very wrong to label anyone associated with this as an antisemite when the rejection of this religious programming was entirely consistent with our decision to keep our gathering focused on music and art, rather than religious ceremonies.” She added that she has received “some threats” over the matter and would be reporting them to the local police.

Speaking to other media outlets, Vermillion seemed to reaffirm that she and the board viewed a menorah lighting as akin to making a political statement on Israel. In an interview with a local newspaper, Vermillion said that the event “seemed very inappropriate” given the situation in Gaza, and added, “The concern is of folks feeling like we are siding with a group over the other.”

As of Monday, a posted online schedule for the Dec. 10 Second Sundays made no mention of a menorah lighting. Videos for the event, posted to the Second Sundays Facebook page, include montages of Christmas tree ornaments, wreaths and other Christmas-related paraphernalia, and are set to the songs “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “Deck the Halls.”

UJCVP’s executive director, Eric Maurer, did not return JTA requests for comment. But another UJCVP member said he was troubled by the incident. 

“It came across to me as ignorant, in the most literal sense of the word: just not understanding what this was about,” Rabbi David Katz, who leads Temple Beth El in Williamsburg, told JTA. 

Katz, whose unaffiliated congregation uses a Reconstructionist prayer book, was not involved in Heber’s efforts to hold the menorah lighting — and was out of town for a bar mitzvah as the weekend’s controversy was unfolding. He told JTA that he lives close enough to the Second Sundays festivities that “there’s a decent chance I might have walked over there this Sunday.” 

But as a member of UJCVP, he read and relayed the text and email exchanges to JTA and says that, in a small community with few Jews, an incident like this can travel and is most likely born out of “a lack of knowing, of being connected to Jews.” 

“This form of underlying antisemitism is in so many places where a lot of us wouldn’t expect,” Katz said. “If you want to protest the IDF, that’s not the same thing as protesting Jews lighting the menorah.” 

Heber, who has been in Williamsburg for two years, agrees. “Giving American Jews a political litmus test is just discriminatory, ugly and un-American,” he said. “And doing it with Hanukkah, which symbolizes liberty, is just ironic, especially during these times when Jews are facing tremendous amounts of antisemitism.”

The controversy seemed poised to continue to snowball Monday, as Heber said he has been in communication with the Virginia attorney general’s office and its antisemitism task force. This summer the state commissioned the task force, unique among state attorneys general offices, which includes representatives  of groups including the Anti-Defamation League, regional Federations, and Hillel International. The task force’s establishment followed a lengthy report on antisemitism in the state commissioned by Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin last year. The attorney general’s office did not return requests for comment.

Jewish Council for Public Affairs CEO Amy Spitalnick, who is working with UJCVP on its response to the incident, said it was “such a clear cut example of antisemitism.”

“We were horrified by the festival’s decision to cancel the menorah lighting — so clearly seeking to collectively blame the Jewish people for Israel’s actions and create poltical litmus tests for events that have nothing to do with Israel,” she told JTA in a text message.

Another public menorah lighting is still on the table in Williamsburg, as the Chabad will also be holding one Thursday on the William & Mary campus. Scheduled before the Second Sundays controversy and primarily intended for Jewish students, Heber said Thursday’s lighting would now become a much larger communal event. He has also received words of sympathy from some non-Jews who have said they will now light menorahs in their own windows in solidarity. 

“We’re going to make this Hanukkah bigger and brighter than ever,” he said. “That is how we respond to darkness.”

The post Virginia cultural festival says it won’t hold a menorah lighting due to Israel-Hamas war appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Triggered by houndstooth: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on keffiyehs and the reactions they inspire

I have read (and doubtless written) a lot of nonsense in my day, but nothing has ever quite reached the level of Dave Zirin’s hot take at The Nation about singer Kiana Ledé’s keffiyeh-style garment. Ledé performed the U.S. national anthem at the 2024 National Hockey League All-Star Game in Toronto in the garment, and […]

The post Triggered by houndstooth: Phoebe Maltz Bovy on keffiyehs and the reactions they inspire appeared first on The Canadian Jewish News.

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PA Daily: Hamas Shouldn’t Release 130+ Israeli Hostages Without Release of All 9,000 Terrorist Prisoners

A dinner table is set with empty chairs that symbolically represent hostages and missing people with families that are waiting for them to come home, following a deadly infiltration by Hamas gunmen from the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Oct. 20, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Janis Laizans

The official Palestinian Authority (PA) daily is calling on Hamas not to release the more than 130 kidnapped Israeli hostages unless Israel releases all the 9,000 imprisoned Palestinian terrorists.

The PA daily editorial is demanding Hamas insist on the release of all the mass murderers, which includes terrorists like Abdallah Barghouti, the Hamas bomb builder responsible for the murder of 67 people, and Abbas Al-Sayid, who is serving 35 life sentences for planning the suicide bombing at the Passover Seder in Netanya in 2002, and others who together have killed thousands of Israelis.

According to the PA daily, to release the more than 130 Israeli hostages without the release of all these terrorist murderers, whom the PA calls “prisoners of freedom,” would be a crime.

All members of the Israeli government and all Israeli negotiators have ruled this option out. Many of the 1,027 terrorists released by Israel in exchange for Israeli soldier hostage Gilad Shalit in 2011 went on to murder again, and others became the leaders of Hamas who planned and executed years of terror including the October 7 atrocities. The Israeli army is fighting to destroy the Hamas leadership in Gaza. It will all have been for nothing if Israel releases the imprisoned Hamas terrorist murderers who will become the new leaders and will rebuild the terror organization.

Unfortunately, the greater the public pressure from Palestinians on Hamas to insist on the release of 9,000 terrorists from prison, the harder it will be for Hamas to compromise and release the Israeli hostages for a smaller number of terrorists.

The PA daily may be pressuring Hamas to demand what Israel cannot agree to, in order to undermine negotiations. Any successful exchange that releases a significant number of Palestinian prisoners will raise Hamas’ popularity. It is possible that the PA daily is warning Hamas that it will be a “crime” not to have 9,000 terrorist prisoners released for the hostages, because it knows that this demand is not achievable.

The following is from the editorial in the official PA daily.

This [prisoners’] front … necessitates raising our voices for the immediate release of all the prisoners [i.e., imprisoned Palestinian terrorists]. Those who are conducting negotiations for prisoner exchanges [i.e., Israel’s kidnapped hostages in exchange for Palestinian terrorists] must not compromise on the release of all the prisoners of freedom without any exception. And if it should happen that someone from among the resistance wings, and especially the Hamas Movement, who claims that he wants to release all [the prisoners] for all [the hostages], should concede, he will commit a crime against the prisoners of freedom.

[Omar Hilmi Al-Ghoul, Official PA daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadida, Feb. 8, 2024]

The article’s author, Omar Hilmi Al-Ghoul, is also a former PLO Central Council member.

The author is the founder and executive director of Palestinian Media Watch, where a version of this article first appeared.

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UNC Professors Are Indoctrinating Students with Anti-Israel Rhetoric and Coursework

Students sit on the steps of Wilson Library on the campus of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, US, Sept. 20, 2018. Photo: REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Nadia Yaqub, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC), emailed campus leadership and colleagues on Oct. 14 to inform them that the Oct. 7 atrocities Hamas committed were “provoked” by Israel, in her view.

Yaqub also chastised then-UNC Chancellor Kevin M. Guskiewicz for issuing a campus statement the day before in which he wrote, “The senseless acts of terror in Israel by Hamas are horrifying. I condemn this terrible violence.”

Yaqub told the Chancellor that she was “disappointed and discouraged by what you wrote.” Yaqub continued, saying she had “warned” the Chancellor a week before about issuing such a statement.

On Nov. 28, I attended an event at UNC titled “No Peace Without Justice: A Round-Table Talk about Social Justice in Palestine.” A speaker — Rania Masri — boasted that Oct. 7 was a “beautiful day.” In January, Yaqub spoke at a UNC Faculty Council meeting to oppose a resolution, titled “Condemning Antisemitism on Campus,” that sought to rebuke Masri’s remarks. To the dismay of the Jewish community and many UNC faculty, the resolution did not pass.

Yaqub told Inside Higher Ed that she did not believe that Masri’s comments were “objectively antisemitic,” and that “what actually happened on that day [Oct. 7], and who actually committed what, is still very unclear.”

A source sent me the first page of what appears to be Yaqub’s current syllabus for ARAB 151 — Arabic Literature Through the Ages. The syllabus states, “In light of the extraordinary violence being brought to bear against Palestinians living under Israeli occupation since October 7 and the shockingly callous position the United States government has taken vis-à-vis that violence, it is incumbent on us to educate ourselves about all aspects of the Palestinian condition.”

It seems Yaqub intends to use an Arabic literature class at a public university to focus on condemning Israel and the United States.

I requested a copy of the full syllabus from UNC using a public records request. My request was declined, saying the syllabus is Yaqub’s “intellectual property.”

Reviews posted at Rate My Professors state that Yaqub “presents Israel as this cartoon-ish villain … and basically says ‘Israel bad, Palestine good,’” and that she “has a notable bias towards Palestine.”

In other UNC news, a campus panel titled “News Media Frameworks for Israel/Palestine” is scheduled for Feb. 16. All five speakers are well known anti-Israel activists.

Four speakers — Amahl Bishara, Dina Matar, Rebecca Stein, and Helga Tawil-Souri — signed a 2021 statement pledging to promote the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel “in the classroom and on campus.”

The fifth scheduled speaker — Michael Palm — signed a 2021 statement saying, “We acknowledge our complicity in Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians,” and “express our solidarity with the Palestinian people.”

Five UNC departments and institutes are sponsoring the event: the Institute for the Arts and Humanities, Departments of Asian & Middle Eastern Studies and Communication, and the Curriculums in Global Studies and Peace, War, & Defense.

In the Asian & Middle Eastern Studies Department, three top administrators signed the 2021 statement condemning Israel’s “oppression” of the Palestinian people: Chair Morgan Pitelka, Associate Chair Robin Visser, and Director of Graduate Studies Yaron Shemer. Two administrators in the Curriculum in Global Studies also signed the statement: Chair Banu Gökariksel and Director of Internships & Diversity Liaison, Michal Osterweil.

This planned event raises a simple question: Are multiple UNC departments planning to defy North Carolina law that requires the university to be institutionally neutral “on the political controversies of the day”?

In November, UNC’s chancellor and provost issued a statement reminding the campus community of the university’s supposed commitment to “institutional neutrality.” Yet it seems that multiple campus departments and institutes are ignoring or spurning this reminder.

In October, UNC’s Department of Women’s and Gender Studies published a “Solidarity Statement” with Palestinians, which was condemned and eventually removed from their website for lacking institutional neutrality. The notorious Nov. 28 event featured a panel of anti-Israel activists without a single pro-Israel or even neutral voice. The upcoming Feb. 16 event appears to promise more of the same.

It seems that university department heads and professors have forgotten or are unaware that UNC also signed a Resolution Agreement with the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights that it will “take all steps reasonably designed to ensure that students enrolled in the University are not subjected to a hostile environment.”

The UNC Charlotte website explains, “The goal of institutional neutrality is to promote the open exchange of ideas on campus by ensuring that schools don’t inhibit dissenting opinions.”

At the Nov. 28 event, not only were all the speakers anti-Israel activists, but the audience was not permitted to ask questions. Dissenting opinions were not invited, included, or allowed.

Why are so many UNC departments afraid to offer students and the community institutionally neutral events where speakers respectfully discuss and debate complex issues from different perspectives?

Instead, UNC is training and indoctrinating generations of students that Israel is evil. When will the legislature and the university demand that UNC departments adhere to institutional neutrality and obey both the law and the agreements for which they are legally liable?

Peter Reitzes writes about issues related to antisemitism and Israel.

The post UNC Professors Are Indoctrinating Students with Anti-Israel Rhetoric and Coursework first appeared on

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