Reported cancellation of Virginia menorah lighting draws rebuke from governor

Art festival founder says Hanukkah ceremony could be seen as choosing sides in Israel-Hamas war; organizers say lighting also rejected to keep art festival event religion-free

Illustrative: Rabbanit Dasi Fruchter, of the South Philadelphia Shtiebel, lights a menorah during a public Hanukkah celebration and menorah lighting ceremony in South Philadelphia on Sunday, Dec. 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Ryan Collerd)
Illustrative: Lighting a menorah during a public Hanukkah celebration and menorah lighting ceremony in South Philadelphia on December 5, 2021. (AP Photo/Ryan Collerd)

WILLIAMSBURG, Virginia — Virginia political leaders, including Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, on Monday condemned the reported cancellation of a menorah lighting at a community event in Williamsburg over apparent concerns related to the Israel-Hamas war.

The criticism from Youngkin and members of the General Assembly from both parties came after the Virginia Gazette reported over the weekend that the ceremony, which had been scheduled for a monthly art and musical festival happening December 10, had been canceled.

Shirley Vermillion, the festival’s founder, told the newspaper that the menorah lighting “seemed very inappropriate” in light of the conflict.

“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 told the newspaper for Sunday’s story.

Youngkin — who has been outspoken in his support of Israel since Hamas’s bloody October 7 rampage that killed over a thousand people in Israel — said on X, formerly known as Twitter: “Singling out the Jewish community by canceling this Hanukkah celebration is absurd and antisemitic. The event organizers should immediately reconsider their actions and move forward with the menorah lighting.”

Other leaders echoed those concerns, including former Virginia House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, a Democrat, who called on the group to reverse course.

“Canceling the menorah lighting ceremony and holding Jewish people responsible for the ongoing conflict in the Middle East is shocking and outrageous. This type of hate has no place in Virginia,” she wrote on X.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin talks with reporters after greeting voters at a polling station during Election Day, in Glenn Allen, Virginia, November 7, 2023. (Steve Helber/AP)

By Monday, the Virginia Gazette reported that a Williamsburg rabbi had found a new location for the ceremony.

The newspaper and other outlets also reported Monday that event organizers said in a statement that the event was never canceled because it was never scheduled in the first place.

“It was proposed but was not consistent with the purpose of this non-religious, community art and music festival, and the proposal was denied. In 14 years this street festival has never had a religious program as one of its events. This is not a discriminatory act but one based on the objectives of the organization and the sincere desire to make this monthly event a place where all people can come together to enjoy MUSIC and ART,” the statement said, according to TV station WTKR.

Associated Press inquiries to the organization sent by email were not immediately returned.

Chabad Williamsburg Rabbi Mendy Heber told the newspaper he’d wanted to have the menorah lighting at the festival in an effort to “bring people together with Jewish pride and unity.”

It will now be held on William & Mary’s campus on Thursday, the first night of Hanukkah, according to the newspaper.

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

On October 7, Hamas led over 3,000 terrorists to burst through the border with the Gaza Strip and then rampage murderously through southern regions of Israel. They killed over 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducted another 240 — including children and infants — who were taken hostage in Gaza. Some of the hostages have since been released in a week-long truce that ended on Friday.

Israel has responded with a military campaign aimed at destroying Hamas and removing it from control in Gaza.

The war has prompted rallies around the world supporting both sides in the conflict but has been accompanied by a spike in antisemitism in many locations.

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