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Calgary mayor won't attend annual menorah lighting ceremony

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Calgary Mayor Jyoti Gondek won't be attending Thursday's annual menorah lighting, a ceremony that marks the beginning of Hanukkah.

In a statement released Wednesday, Gondek said she originally accepted the invitation to speak at the event weeks ago and was looking forward to it, but says it has since "been repositioned as an event to support Israel."

"This last minute change goes against the original intention and has left me feeling let down by leadership," she wrote in a letter posted on social media.

"I am saddened that this change makes it impossible for me to attend (Thursday's) event. And I am incredibly concerned that people wishing to celebrate Hanukkah will have their good intentions compromised."

Gondek added that while her responsibility as mayor includes supporting organizers of diverse and inclusive events, when celebrations are transformed into something "political," it puts her into a difficult situation.

"The changed nature of (Thursday's) event creates a divide and forces people to choose a side," Gondek said.

"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.

"The killing must stop in Gaza, because it is spreading division and hatred, far and wide."

In an updated response to the media on Thursday, Gondek says her decision to not appear at the lighting came from a flyer that was being distributed by one of the organizers that stated the event would also be used as a way to support Israel.

"Unfortunately, after all of the meetings that I have had with community leaders, where the agreement has been to keep the politics away from our city, and to try to bring everyone together in a secure faith type of setting. I'm incredibly concerned that that type of language sends a message that this is an event supporting Israel," she told reporters on Thursday.

"If that's the case, if that's something that the organizers wish to do, it could be in the form of a demonstration or a protest like we see regularly in public places.

"It cannot be done inside city hall."

Gondek said the decision to not attend was "incredibly difficult" and "absolutely crushing."

"I feel gutted by this. I am here in this role to bring communities together and where at a time when communities are fracturing amongst themselves. This is some of the most devastating stuff I've seen in our city and I am not sure how we're gonna get through this without a little bit of compassion for each other and without understanding that the words we use right now are incredibly important."

Ward 6 Coun. Richard Pootmans responded to Gondek's announcement on X, saying he agrees with her decision on the matter.

"It is unfortunate that such a meaningful event has turned into a political one. I am not choosing sides but choosing to condemn divisiveness and war," he wrote. "Wishing you a Happy Hanukkah."

Raj Dhaliwal, Ward 5 councillor, said Thursday that attending or not attending the event is the mayor's decision, but his stance on the war in Gaza was made clear last month.

"As a representative of many diverse communities in Ward 5, I cannot remain silent in the face of such unprecedented violence and suffering. I implore the Canadian government to lead with conviction on the international stage and demand an immediate ceasefire, ensuring the safety and dignity of all civilians in Gaza, the West Bank and Israel," he said in a statement on Nov. 21.

Ward 6 Coun. Courtney Walcott, in his statement on Thursday, highlighted the issue of Israel bonds being sold at the event, something he says "has mostly gone unnoticed" during past events.

"Since Oct. 7, the Israeli government had drawn on the bond market to fund their military operations in the occupied territory of Palestine, which has killed thousands of civilians."

Walcott says the best way to help with the situation is for the organizers of the event to join in the call for a ceasefire.

"This is the only way to demonstrate our commitment to valuing all human life."

(Supplied/@JyotiGondek)

'DISAGREE WITH THE MAYOR'

Meanwhile, other Calgary politicians weren't so supportive of Gondek's stance about the menorah lighting.

Calgary MP Michelle Rempel Garner shared a joint statement from the Conservative caucus, saying the situation leaves them "deeply troubled."

"Her decision to withdraw could dangerously normalize anti-Semitism at a time when across campuses and communities, Jewish-Canadians are already feeling threatened," said the statement, written by Calgary federal Conservative caucus chair Pat Kelly.

"Further, her absence and the statement she issued last night will not bring our city's communities together.

"As public servants, we need to show up, provide leadership and bring people together for our common good."

Rempel Garner, who said she would be taking steps to attend Calgary's menorah lighting personally, said she and all other members of the federal Conservatives are standing with Israel to reaffirm its right to exist and defend itself against Hamas.

"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," Kelly's statement continued.

Rempel Garner's fellow MP Shuv Majumdar echoed the statements, suggesting that Gondek's comments show she doesn't understand anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith also shared a statement over the issue while taking questions from the media from the COP28 summit in Dubai.

"I disagree with the mayor. I think this is a very important event for the Jewish community especially in light of the terrorist attack by Hamas," she said.

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

'COMMUNITY DOES NOT WAVER'

In a statement sent Wednesday evening, the Calgary Jewish Foundation says Gondek's decision to cancel her appearance comes with "tremendous hurt and disappointment."

"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 organization wrote.

"Our yearning for peace in Israel and Gaza do not run counter to our support of Eretz Israel, but rather are inextricably linked."

The foundation is expected to release a further statement on the issue on Thursday.

Gondek said she is open to discuss the matter with anyone who is interested in speaking with her and says the decision doesn't suggest that anyone in the Jewish community has any ill intent.

"However, the language that's being used is something that I have to be sensitive to. And I have to say, again, that is not my intent to try to separate communities or divide them.

"I'm very worried that painting something as being political will create a divide that we don't want. I really want us to come together and have some pretty open conversations like the ones I've had so we can sit and understand each other's pain."

In the most recent developments in Gaza, Israeli forces struck the town of Rafah twice overnight.

Meanwhile, heavy fighting in and around Khan Younis, in the southern part of Gaza, has forced tens of thousands of people out of their homes.

The United Nations says some 1.87 million people – over 80 per cent of the population of 2.3 million – have already fled their homes, many of them displaced multiple times.

(With files from the Associated Press)

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