Dec 6, 2023 - News

Williamsburg festival faces backlash after menorah lighting denial

Illustration of the candles on a menorah blown out.

Illustration: Lindsey Bailey/Axios

A monthly street fair in Williamsburg is making headlines and drawing bipartisan criticism from state politicians over its organizers' refusal to allow a menorah lighting to take place at the event.

Why it matters: It's the latest local example of how the Israel-Hamas war — an international conflict thousands of miles away — has become a hot-button issue in everyday American life.

What's happening: The organizers of Williamsburg's 2nd Sundays Art and Music Festival denied a request from the rabbi at Chabad Williamsburg to hold a menorah lighting at its December festival, scheduled for Sunday, the Washington Post reported.

  • The organizer told the Post the event has never included a religious event. But in messages shared with the Post, the organizer suggested that allowing a Hanukkah celebration at the fair would be akin to choosing sides in the Israel-Hamas war.
  • The organizer told the rabbi that they would only allow the lighting to happen if an Islamic group participated at the same time — or if the ceremony took place under a ceasefire banner.
  • "We are about Peace, Love & light... don't want to make it seem we're choosing a side — supporting the killing/bombing of thousands of men, women & children," the organizer said in a message to the rabbi, per the Post.

On Sunday, the United Jewish Community of the Virginia Peninsula issued a statement condemning the decision — which news reports initially framed as a cancellation — and requesting a reversal: "It is antisemitic to hold Jews collectively responsible for Israel's policies and actions," the statement read.

State political leaders quickly followed suit.

  • "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," Gov. Youngkin posted on X Monday.
  • "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. The organizers should reverse this decision immediately," Virginia House Speaker and Democrat Eileen Filler-Corn posted.
  • Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares issued a similar statement, and a spokesperson for his office said the AG's antisemitism task force has been involved in the issue.

Meanwhile, the Williamsburg festival and its organizer have been inundated with negative comments on social media and personal threats, per the Post.

  • In some cases the negative comments have extended to other, unrelated arts festivals. The Norfolk-based Virginia Arts Festival posted on Facebook that it was not involved in the Williamsburg event and urged media outlets to correct any mention of them.

State of play: On college campuses, in workplaces, on city streets and inside the Capitol building, opinions around the Israel-Hamas war are starkly divided — and the chasm is growing, Axios' Erica Pandey reported.

That chasm is playing out along generational lines, Axios' Eleanor Hawkins reported.

  • Less than half (48%) of Gen Z and millennials believe the U.S. should publicly voice support of Israel compared with 63% of Gen Xers, 83% of baby boomers and 86% of members of the Silent Generation, according to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Threat level: Reports of antisemitism and Islamophobia in the U.S.increased by 388% and 216% respectively in the weeks after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, per Axios Emma Hurt.

What we're watching: Chabad of Williamsburg has since announced that it has a new location and date for its menorah lighting.

  • It will take place Thursday, the first night of Hanukkah, at the Sunken Garden at William & Mary at 5pm.

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