(READ) Emails on anti-Semitic decision to cancel menorah lighting in Williamsburg, Virginia

Judicial Watch has received 91 pages of records detailing a controversy that erupted in Williamsburg, Virginia, over a decision to not include a Jewish menorah lighting at the “Second Sundays Art and Music Festival” because of the conflict in Israel and Gaza.

Islamic extremist terrorists attacked Israel from Gaza in October launching a war. However, there have been racist, anti-Semitic, and hateful movements in the US and around the world to blame Israel and Jews for the conflict.

Judicial Watch received the records from the city of Williamsburg in response to a December 8 Virginia Freedom of Information Act request for: All emails sent to and from members of the Williamsburg City Council related to the lighting, proposed lighting, and/or cancellation of the lighting of a menorah at the 2nd Sundays Art and Music Festival that was to take place on December 10, 2023.

Jewish leaders were reportedly told by city officials that the festival board was not comfortable allowing the lighting at the festival.

Shirley Vermillion, the festival’s founder, reportedly said the menorah lighting “seemed very inappropriate” given current events in Israel and Gaza.

Emails from individuals as far away as Massachusetts and California expressed anger at the decision to cancel the ceremony.

On December 4 festival organizer Vermillion emailed multiple officials with the subject line: “Emergency meeting please re’ Lovelight Placemaking’s decision to not move forward with menorah lighting being labeled antisemitic!”

Contents of emails below are provided by Judicial Watch.

Hi, all, I am getting ready for work… I’m not even sure when my last patient is today, but I will try reaching back to this group with a potential time that I will be coming to the police department right after work today. I was trying not to reach out to any of you all last night and I don’t have all of the proper emails on this email Anyway. I am so sad that misinformation is being given out to the public and the Jewish community are leading up all over the country and probably World. The Daily Press released an article without speaking to me, making it seem like a menorah lighting has been a regular occurrence at Second Sundays… You all know that we have never done that… When we chose to not take sides, religious or culturally and go forward with Rabbi, Mendy Heber’s request to add it to Second Sundays and wanted to include a firetruck doing a geld drop they decided to get really ugly. Clearly, his event needed to be a separate one… He wanted to tagalong to our event because there are thousands of people as a target audience for the menorah, celebration and geld drop Already in place of our 14 yrs of hard work building the festival. Where he was wanting to have the firetruck and the lighting area has to be kept open for cars entering and exiting that parking garage next to the community building… And just in general, the festival is absolutely full of patrons, especially this time of year… we have never chosen sides and truly it was my mistake to even seem open to the discussion in the beginning. I am not a TV or news watcher at all… I knew that there was a conflict going on… I have seen no footage, and when I presented it to my board, family and significant others. They quickly said have you lost your mind we absolutely are not going to two sides in anyway… We are sticking to our mission of only promoting Music &arts that we have done for 14 years. I am very sad that all of the comments are also now involving the city… It’s so blown out of control that nothing I or we say as an organization will make a difference. I need help and we need a plan because I am pretty sure that the Jewish community will show up in Forss on Sunday to protest… and I have received threat which is why I called the nonemergency number last night and said that I would come in today after talking to the police officer and let them see my phone and the messages.

So very sorry to involve you. I’m so sad that my event and nonprofit, that we work so hard at keeping, inclusive and welcoming to all cultures, and people is being targeted in such an evil way.

On December 4, Mark Herrmann writes to Mayor Pons:

It looks like Shirley Vermillion is in over her head with the menorah controversy, and it’s going a little bit viral. Can the City give her some help with crisis communications? From the Daily Press story it sounds like there may be a couple valid explanations for their decision, but those are getting lost in the shuffle because of her other unfortunate comments.

As a Williamsburg native (long ago), I’d hate to see this reflect negatively on the City or on CW. If you have a lifeline you could throw her, I think that might be a good idea.

The records include a draft proclamation by Pons declaring December 7, 2023, Menorah Illumination Day after receiving a suggested proclamation from Rabbi Heber and attending an alternate menorah lighting ceremony at the College of William and Mary.

Williamsburg City officials moved to distance themselves from the decision. On December 4, City Manager Andrew Trivette writes in an email to City Council Group and Executive Team:

Lovelight Placemaking is scheduled to host Second Sundays this weekend. Apparently they received a request to also have the event be host to a local Hanukkah celebration, which they decided not to accept.

The decision has gotten a lot of local and national attention and many are confusing the decisions made by Lovelight Placemaking with the view, opinions, and decisions of the City of Williamsburg. The City was not consulted on the proposed Hanukkah celebration and had no role in the decisions made by Lovelight Placemaking.

In this email, he also suggests that officials refer correspondents to the City Council, using a standard response that includes:

[W]e became aware that a community organization made a decision regarding the content of its planned event. Lovelight Placemaking’s decision was theirs alone. The City of Williamsburg has no role in curating the artists, vendors, or participants of 2nd Sundays.

To several correspondents, however, City Councilman Caleb Rogers on December 4 writes in part:

I am hopeful the decision will be reversed as I recognize the celebration of Jewish holidays should not be seen as a political position, no matter where they happen in the world.

We will be in closer communication with the Lovelight company so that no group feels their beliefs are not welcome. 

On December 7, Vermillion sends an email to city officials with the subject line: “We will be canceling 2nd Sundays for December 10 due to an extremely wet & windy weather forecast but I have not let the Artist know yet. Just wanted to give you all a heads up.”

The email reads:

I will be emailing the artists tonight or in the morning. I know you don’t do a public announcement ­ I am working on a letter with some professionals.

Doug [Mayor Doug Pons] & I spent several hours on Tues (Doug called & Rabbi [Mendy Heber] invited him over – stayed for 3 hours or so then we both went over after I got off work & stayed for another 2-3 hrs- they insisted on feeding us dinner) at Rabbi Mendy & Esther’s house – they love 2nd Sundays & are devastated at how things went down. We’ll see … hoping the love can repopulate where hate ran rampant.

Among those objecting to the decision was the journalist and author David Harsanyi, who writes in part:

Though I’ve spent 20 years writing about anti-Semitism, I was still completely taken aback by Shirley Vermillion’s rejection of menorah lighting. It is utterly disgraceful. My wife and I moved to this community two years ago, and we still believe Williamsburg to be an outstanding place that takes its historical heritage seriously. But this incident is stain on that reputation. I’m no fan of crowds or tourists, to put it mildly, but even I enjoy attending 2nd Sunday. I would never go now. And I will urge everyone I know not to attend.

On December 4, a person named Danny writes to Mayor Doug Pons, copying the city council:

I plan on visiting your city at some point in the next few months, but I read in the NY Post your city is attempting to be judenrein [the Nazi German word for Jew-free] … As I am Jewish, can you assure me that I will be safe that I will not be banned, or worse lynched, as I celebrate Hanukah?

A person from Maryland on December 4 writes to city council members:

My wife and I have been visiting Williamsburg at least annually (sometimes more) for the last 45 years. We always stay in Colonial Williamsburg and make annual donations to Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. We always considered Williamsburg to be our own “special place”. Now, with these actions, I don’t feel welcome there…. This war in Israel is not a “Jewish” war it is an Israeli war.

A person sends a message tweeted by Congressman Rob Wittman:

It is disturbing to see this Hanukkah celebration canceled in my district – everyone deserves to practice their religion freely without facing intolerance. I stand with the Williamsburg Jewish community, and I urge the event organizers to reverse course.

“These documents show more details and reaction to the infamous cancellation of the menorah lighting event in Williamsburg. The cancellation of a public celebration of Hanukkah for political reasons should be concerning to all Americans.”

Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch President

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