ITHACA, NY – On Saturday, while the Commons was bustling with chili-tasters and sculpture-admirers, another group gathered with a more solemn purpose: to protest religious and racial hatred.

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Between 50 and 70 people joined the Ithaca chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) as they chanted and sang their way across the Commons and on to Dewitt Park.

The event was one of many such events across the country scheduled to coincide with the eight days of Hanukkah (Saturday’s event took place during an early marking of the seventh day of the holiday).

Most of the events were held in bigger cities like New York, Chicago and Seattle, but Ithaca JVP wanted to bring the event to Ithaca as well.

Ithaca JVP and friends gather near the Commons to protest intolerance and Islamophobia. (Photo: Ithaca JVP Facebook)

A rededication to justice

“We have been particularly inspired by JVP activities that involve adapted Jewish rituals to address immediate issues related to human rights and justice,” explained Beth Harris, one of the organizers of the event.

The event was a perfect fit because Hanukkah, she says, is a “celebration of religious freedom and a rededication to the principles of justice. In this case, principles of justice that are inclusive of people of all religions, races and ethnicities in our communities.”

The group drew on the familiar tradition of lighting the menorah, with several members holding signs shaped as candles. On each was a message against discrimination in its various forms or a calling to action in support of oppressed groups.

Why Jews are taking a stand

Harris explained that the event is in part a reaction to recent political demagoguery which has created a climate of intolerance – sometimes using Jewish suffering as an excuse.

“Unfortunately our politicians often call on the tragic Jewish history to justify discrimination, dehumanization and violence towards Muslims and Arabs. We adamantly oppose the politicians’ mobilization of hatred and violence towards Muslims and Arabs as being good for Jewish people anywhere,” she said.

Harris says that these issues are important to Jews on both a religious and a secular level. “From a religious perspective … we are commanded to stand up for those who are facing unjust domination… We are called to love the ‘stranger,’ including immigrants and refugees.”

From the secular perspective, members are driven to stand against racial and religious intolerance by principles of the Constitution and human rights, as well as personal ethics.

“Our collective Jewish history of oppression and discrimination also inspire many of us to take a public stand against Islamophobia and racism,” she noted.

Beth Harris, leading the demonstration on Dec 12. (Photo: Ithaca JVP Facebook)

Heartfelt, meaningful conversations

While the event was hosted by a Jewish group, it was open to all, and the group invited members of local Islamic groups to join the demonstration. People of all backgrounds came away with a positive feeling, according to Harris.

“Several Jewish friends shared with me heartfelt and meaningful conversations that they had with our Muslim brothers and sisters at the rally,” she said.

“One Muslim Ithacan shared that he was impressed by how Jewish people open their communities during the holiday… explaining that a Jewish man had also come to their organization to make a contribution because Hanukkah is a time to celebrate religious freedom,” Harris added.

Harris says that Ithaca JVP will continue to organize events as appropriate. “We still have much to learn from our partners in Ithaca, New York State and nationally who include Palestinians, Muslims and people of color. We also look forward to creating and supporting opportunities for community building and collective resistance to oppression.”

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.