The London council that almost cancelled Hanukkah
Havering council seemed more concerned with appeasing bigots than with supporting Jews.
With a wave of anti-Semitism sweeping Britain – and London in particular – you might expect local authorities to jump at the chance to show some solidarity with their Jewish communities.
If so, you’d be wrong. Havering Borough Council is a case in point. On Thursday, it announced it was to cancel this year’s Hanukkah celebrations. The council claimed that erecting and lighting the large menorah outside Havering Town Hall could ‘inflame community tensions’ and lead to vandalism and disruption. (It had already paid for the specially designed menorah.)
On Friday, in the face of a considerable backlash, Havering announced a u-turn. It has been reported that the council had an ‘urgent meeting’ with Jewish community leaders and has since decided that the menorah-lighting event could indeed go ahead later this month.
But this volte-face will do little to erase the damage done by the original, spectacularly ill-judged decision. Indeed, Havering’s initial move to cancel the event has been roundly condemned by those of all faiths and none.
Nazir Afzal, the first Muslim chancellor of Manchester University, pointed out that the celebration of the Jewish festival has nothing at all to do with the war in Gaza. Dr Krish Kandiah, the director of the pro-refugee Sanctuary Foundation, pledged to stand ‘with the Jewish community in Havering’. Hope Not Hate founder Nick Lowles also intervened, saying that the council’s original decision was wrong ‘on every level’.
Muhammad Manwar Ali, an experienced figure in the counter-extremism field, was blunter still. He described the plan to cancel the event as ‘absolutely awful’ and a form of ‘shameless appeasement’. He’s not wrong. Havering seemed more concerned with appeasing anti-Semites than with supporting the local Jewish community.
Havering seemed to think that by cancelling Hanukkah celebrations community tensions would be eased. This is absurd. It would have made them worse. Not only was Havering threatening to cancel a religious celebration that has long brought joy and happiness to the capital; it was also pandering to nasty extremist factions.
Failing to stand in solidarity with British Jews sends a dangerous message. Regardless of your opinion on the conflict in Gaza, Jewish people are not agents of the Israeli government – they simply want to celebrate their religious holiday in peace. Havering was effectively threatening to suppress one religious minority at the presumed behest of another. All because it assumed that the visible display of Jewishness would upset – and potentially anger – the local Muslim community. Which is also incredibly insulting to Muslims.
Havering has not only failed its Jewish residents – it has also undermined religious freedom more generally. This kind of decision, although it has been reversed, still sets a sinister precedent. It suggests that the feelings of some minority groups should take priority over the rights of others.
If we want to build a truly harmonious and diverse society, we cannot capitulate to bigots who may take offence to harmless religious rituals. Now more than ever, we must rise above tribal identity politics in Britain. We need to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with British Jews and send the clear message that anti-Semitism and hatred will not win.
Rakib Ehsan is the author of Beyond Grievance: What the Left Gets Wrong about Ethnic Minorities, which is available to order on Amazon.
Picture by: Getty.
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