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Mounting criticism over mayor's boycott of menorah lighting ceremony

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Friday saw more criticism launched toward Mayor Jyoti Gondek after her absence from the annual lighting of the menorah at city hall on Thursday night.

Members of Calgary's Jewish community gathered in the atrium of city hall for the first day of Hanukkah without the city's leader in attendance.

"This is not a demonstration," Rabbi Menachem Matusof of the Chabad Lubavitch of Alberta said at the ceremony, during which the first candle on the menorah was lit.

"This is not violent. This is not darkness. This is light. It's a peaceful celebration."

Matusof's statements came after Gondek, who was supposed to attend to speak at the event, said she would not because it had become "political."

Her former chief of staff and political strategist Stephen Carter says Gondek's decision is an "abdication of leadership."

Carter says Gondek's decision not to attend will have hurtful impacts within the community.

"I think that it was a massive mistake for her to do so," he said.

"How does she move forward? She's going to need to repair her relationship with the Jewish community."

By not attending, Carter argues Gondek chose sides.

"She made this capital-P political by choosing to send the statement that she sent. That was her choice," he said.

"How do you create or choose sides in something this big?"

Carter cited the climate emergency declaration, the event centre-arena deal and most recently, a property tax increase rate of 7.8 per cent in 2024 as issues that have been policy-driven, but controversial.

This isn't expected to draw her more support, according to Carter.

"We've not seen a mayor or an elected official resign because of something like this," he said.

"It's always because of error after error after error. And I think that that's actually the problem that Jyoti is facing right now."

Mountain Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt says the mayor will not resign over this.

"I do think it was a major mistake," Bratt said.

"The fact that she boycotted this event, turned a celebration into a political event, ironically, I think that's going to have a lot of legs."

In statements Thursday morning, Gondek drew attention to a flyer distributed by one of the organizers of the event that suggested it was being held in support of Israel.

The advertisements included a "bond raffle" at the event that took place two months after war broke out between Israel and the militant group Hamas.

Organizers said the distribution of bonds was nothing new for the 35-year-old ceremony, but it's important to understand the present situation.

"We have not changed anything we are, who we are and continuing to be where we are," Matusof said.

"Are we supporting Israel? Yes. Big yes, amen. Let the war end!"

In an update sent Thursday night, Gondek reiterated the fact that the decision she made was a difficult one and her thoughts are with the Jewish community.

Gondek on Friday told CTV News she does not regret her "difficult decision."

"This was not me turning my back on Calgary's Jewish community," she said.

"When you're in a position like this and you have to be a mayor for all Calgarians, you have to understand your responsibility. And when there is a perception that you have taken a side when there should be no sides to take, you have to remove yourself from that situation there."

Beau Shaw, a spokesperson for Independent Jewish Voices, says the mayor made the right call by not attending, adding that not all Jews are upset by her decision.

"I think it was a lose-lose situation for Mayor Jyoti Gondek," Shaw said.

"She's not saying that she will not support the Jewish community. She's saying that she cannot support a partisan political event."

The backlash over her lack of attendance at the ceremony hasn't stopped, with Premier Danielle Smith, Conservative MPs and even former premier Jason Kenney voicing their displeasure with her decision.

In a statement sent Thursday evening, Kenney called her decision "appalling."

"Chanukah isn't some 'interfaith' celebration of 'diversity,' as implied by her embarrassingly parodic word salad," Kenney wrote.

"It celebrates the culmination of a successful Jewish military campaign to retake and rededicate the Second Temple, Judaism's holiest site, at the heart of Jerusalem, the eternal capital of the Jewish people."

He went on to say her boycott was "offensive," especially considering the events of Oct. 7.

"At the very least, the mayor should apologize for dishonouring her office and our city with her divisive boycott and insulting statement," he said.

Advocacy group Common Sense Calgary has started a petition calling for Gondek's immediate resignation.

It has amassed around 7,000 signatures. 

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