Jen Gerson: Just do your job, Jyoti
A mayor is required to show up for people she doesn't agree with.
By: Jen Gerson
I would invite my fine readers at The Line to stop and imagine what the world would be like today if Calgary mayor Jyoti Gondek had decided to simply do her fucking job on Thursday night.
Let me paint this picture for you: close your eyes and allow this scene to play out in the theatre of the mind. Gondek is invited to attend the annual menorah lighting ceremony in the atrium of City Hall. And like every mayor for the past 30-odd years, she does that; she respectfully listens to the story of the revolt of the Maccabees, watches as the ritual candles are lit, and nods her head as religious leaders explain the meaning of the holiday, the miracle of the oil, the desire to resist oppression and spread light through the world.
Imagine Gondek then ascends a podia and offers a little speech, notes how moved she is, how much she honours and respects the local Jewish community. Such resilience in the face of such historic horror. Maybe she even offers a few remarks about the rise of antisemitism.
Then Gondek grabs a latke and a coffee, and chats with some local Jewish community members. Children laugh. A good time is had by all.
But let's not stop there. Because this is the god-forsaken year of 2023, let's take this scenario a little further. Let's imagine some morally deranged journalist seeking the career-defining tweet that wins a thousand likes confronts Gondek about her decision to attend a ceremony whose stated theme is "supporting Israel." Would this not imply her moral compliance with the punishing and brutal attack currently happening in the Gaza Strip?
And, here, Gondek — presuming she possessed even half a wit about her — might reply with something like:
"Calgary mayors have been attending this event, through war and peace, annually for more than 30 years. As mayor, I attend menorah lighting ceremonies, just as I attend Ramadan ceremonies and Diwali ceremonies; my duty is to my constituents who are all, first and foremost, fellow Calgarians."
What would happen in this imaginary world I've just painted?
Well, might I suggest, not much?
Most people who are not total moral lunatics would not condemn the mayor of Calgary for showing up to a local menorah lighting ceremony; nor imagine that doing so lent any kind of political cover to Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu. Because most people are capable of understanding that showing up to local community events is literally Jyoti Gondek's fucking job.
But this beautiful scene, this idyllic image of a city that puts its neighbours first, this is not the world we live in now, apparently.
Because this week, Gondek decided that the addition of the term "supporting Israel" or "Am Ysrael Chai" to a benign poster advertising the menorah lighting ceremony — a poster that included promises of soup, latkes, an exciting children's program, and Chanukah crafts and prizes — was enough to tarnish the event with irredeemable "political intentions."
Her decision, of course, warranted full court press, including a lengthy press release, so that everyone could be properly informed of the result of the mayor of Calgary’s deliberations. Important as they were.
While the community organizer of the lighting, Chabad Lubavitch, did issue a press release noting this year's ceremony's themes as "unity, supporting Israel," and "Jewish pride," there doesn't seem to be much evidence that this was a last-minute bait-and-switch, as Gondek implied in the statement defending her decision.
Chabad, for example, noted that its poster was put online last week.
Further, a term like "supporting Israel" is a relatively anodyne theme for a Jewish community association to adopt two months after the most significant terrorist attack in Israel's history — one carried out by a group that explicitly targets Jews for genocidal destruction. "Supporting Israel" can mean "condoling with Israel." Someone can support Israel while being opposed to the war in Gaza, though I have no doubt that most of the people in that atrium on Thursday did not. One can support Israel while being opposed to the state's current government. And "Am Ysrael Chai" is a phrase with a long and complicated history as an affirmation and continuation of the Jewish people. It's not a sly stand-in for: "Flood the Tunnels, Baby."
The only idea that these sentiments are incompatible with is the denial of the right of Israel to exist at all. And on this point, I have to wonder: if Chabad decided to recast its menorah lighting ceremony as a pro-ceasefire event, would Gondek have similarly abstained, insisting she could not attend an event with such "political intentions"?
Somehow, I doubt it.
Point being, "supporting Israel" is a bog-standard position for a Jewish community association to hold, and the inclusion of this term is hardly evidence that a city hall menorah lighting ceremony had been dubiously and cunningly re-cast as a bloodthirsty and divisive pro-war rally.
But just to be sure, I attended the event on Thursday night, eagle-eyed for signs of covert pro-violence Zionist propaganda. To that end, I can report that the Rabbi who kicked off the affair was eager to point out that this was not intended as a political demonstration. Hanukkah is a celebration of light and peace, he insisted.
To that end, the promised latkes and soup were, indeed, provided. We were regaled by the musical stylings of two charmingly off-key children's choirs, one kitted out in homemade dreidel T-Shirts. There was quite a lot of fiddle music, and then some dude showed up to make balloon animals. There was a raffle for two Government of Israel bonds worth $100 each. (These were not "war bonds" as a few particularly unhinged tweeters had earlier in the day suggested. Chabad offered the same prize last year as well.)
I admit I was not able to attend all of the speeches as I was dragged into a particular hell — trying to keep track of two temperamentally distinct children during the exciting children's programming, which included a magic show by a man wearing a sequined gold-and-black star shirt. I can report the kids also got lollipops, dreidel shortbread cookies, and two quarters — one of which they were encouraged to donate to charity.
I can confirm, however, that the ceremony had, indeed, been politicized by the plethora of councilors, MLAs, and MPs; mostly Conservative politicians who decided to show up, specifically because Gondek chose not to. Calgary MP Michelle Rempel took an early flight out of Ottawa; both she and the recently elected Shuvaloy Majumdar gave speeches showing their support for the Jewish people in their communities.
In other words, these were the people who knew how to do their fucking jobs. And I can't really begrudge any of these grandees the opportunity to make a point at Gondek's expense. Because if the ceremony had been made political, the fault lies with Gondek herself.
As I spelled out above, if Gondek had done her job, this would have been a seamless and uncontroversial community event; one among dozens in any big-city mayor's cultural calendar.
If Gondek truly found her conscience bothered by the mere thought of attending something in — gasp — support of Israel, she could have gracefully bowed out and found a replacement speaker without further comment.
She could have attempted a degree of discretion or diplomacy. She could have claimed she was ill, or suffered a sudden family emergency. She could have managed this decision without centring her own half-baked personal virtue, blowing the event into a national news story, and without empowering the worst antisemites among us, who are always eager to show their revulsion to the violence in Gaza to the broader Jewish diaspora.
But, no. Gondek had a point to make, didn't she?
She didn't have to issue a press release about her decision. She didn't have to offer interviews on this subject. She didn't have to blame her decision on those conniving Jews, trying to trick her into supporting Israel.
Those were choices she made. They were, dare I say, choices with political intentions.
In the off chance you are among my readers, may I offer you a suggestion? Hold whatever geopolitical opinions you please; dislike whichever people offend you. Your personal opinion on matters that are beyond your ken are your own business. Your role as mayor of Calgary does not make you an expert in Middle Eastern politics, it grants you no special insight into the philosophy and ethics of asymmetric warfare, and it certainly hasn't entitled you to operate as a deep thinker in religious studies. But your role doesn't require your expertise in any of these subjects, either. It just requires you to show up for your people.
You're a mayor of a medium-sized city in Canada.
And when you are serving Calgarians as our mayor, you serve all of us.
So, sweetheart, do your fucking job.
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