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Gov. Hochul Speaks of Light During Hanukkah Service

Post cards with images and information about hostages taken from the Kfar Aza kibbutz in Israel were passed to attendees at the Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope, Brooklyn, on the first night of Hanukkah on Thursday Dec 7. Gov. Kathy Hochul spoke at the service, sharing her account of her visit to the besieged kibbutz, and addressed the wave of antisemitism that has risen since the start of the Israel-Hamas war. 

“I believe that people can, if they choose to, question what is happening in Gaza,” Hochul said. “But don’t ever let there be tolerance for terrorism, or acceptance for Hamas. That’s where you have to draw the line.”

Hochul addressed a shooting that took place earlier that day in the parking lot of a synagogue in Albany, a congregation she had visited during the Sukkot holiday. That suspect fired shots in the synagogue parking lot, and allegedly shouted “Free Palestine,” before he was arrested. No one was harmed in the incident. That man, Mufid Fawaz Alkhader, 28, is being charged with possession of a firearm by a prohibited person.

“We will continue to make an example of individuals who dare, dare raise a hand, or threaten, or try to intimate anyone if you’re in the state of New York,” Hochul said. “Particularly on the eve of Hanukkah for this to happen, I know it just brings more fear and anxiety.”

Hanukkah, a beloved Jewish holiday that emphasizes light over darkness, comes during a deeply troubling time for American Jews. Antisemitism has been on the rise since the Oct. 7 attack that claimed the lives of more than 1,400 people and saw 240 people taken hostage

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there was a 388-percent rise in antisemitic incidents in October following the attack on Israel. And in New York City, the New York Police Department saw a reported 214-percent increase in hate crimes against Jewish people in October 2023 as compared to the same period in 2022. There were also eight reported anti-Muslim hate crimes. 

Pro-Palestinian protestors have objected to Israel’s offensive in Gaza, where according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, more than 18,000 Palestinians have died in the war. International pressure has mounted for another ceasefire. The first ceasefire lasted seven days, and after a two-day extension, collapsed on Dec. 1, after Israel said Hamas fired rockets toward its territory. Hamas reportedly blamed Israel for not releasing other detainees. During the ceasefire, 110 hostages had been released, and 240 Palestinians were released from Israeli jails.  

During the Hanukkah service, Hochul also addressed the volatile climate on college campuses across the country between pro-Palestinian and Jewish students, with many Jewish students across the country stating they do not feel safe on campus. The U.S. Department of Education has launched investigations into several schools after receiving complaints about antisemitism and Islamophobia. 

Cornell University, which was included in the initial government probe, made headlines after students learned of social media posts that called for the slaughter of Jewish students at Cornell’s Center for Jewish Living and kosher dinning hall. Cornell University student Patrick Dai has been federally charged in connection with the social media posts. 

Cornell President Martha E. Pollack condemned the threats, calling them a “series of horrendous, antisemitic messages.” 

Hochul visited the campus and met with students affected by the threats. 

“College is supposed to be a carefree time,” Hochul said at the service. “You shouldn’t sit there worried that you’re gonna be gunned down because you’re Jewish on a college campus in the state of New York.”

Hochul said she believed in student activism, pointing to her time as a college student protesting apartheid in South Africa, and her parents’ Vietnam War protests and Civil Rights support. But she added that social media has helped to change the face of protests on campuses, playing a role in creating a toxic internal environment for students and professors. 

“We were radical social justice Catholics—as radical as we could be,” Hochul said.  “It was never student against student in a hateful way, professor against professor. It wasn’t happening like that. There was a common foe out there.”

Hochul added, “what’s happening now is so deeply distressing. How people are ignorant of the long history of persecution.”

Hochul visited Israel shortly after the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, during which time she learned that her father, 87-year-old John Courtney, had died due to a brain hemorrhage. She shared that her father had a deep connection to Israel, and despite learning of her father’s unexpected passing, stayed on her journey, going to the refugee camp for the residents in Kfar Aza, and then witnessing the unimaginable destruction at the kibbutz. At least 52 people were killed in Kfar Aza, with at least 20 people missing. 

“I was there with the foreign minister,” Hochul said. “I said, ‘I’m here to witness with my own eyes what happens and I’ll go back to America, and anyone who’s in disbelief and refuses to acknowledge the truth — I will be the truth teller.” Eli Cohen is Israel’s current Foreign Minister.

Hochul also spoke of an annual event at the kibbutz, known as the Kites for Freedom, where residents would fly kites into Gaza, with messages of peace and freedom for Palestinians. That tradition was founded by Aviv Kutz, who ran the event for the last 15 years. Kutz was found murdered along with his wife Livnat, and their three children. 

Kites for Freedom was scheduled for Oct. 7, the day of the massacre at the kibbutz. Hochul shared with the congregation that she saw kites, but they “were on the ground, in a puddle of blood.”

Hochul reiterated her commitment to the Jewish people, stating that she was at a loss for the rise in antisemitism. 

“Where is that same sense of loyalty and obligation to help those who have been knocked down and hit so hard—that’s what I’m wrestling with every day,” Hochul said. 

The service, led by Rabbi Rachel Timoner, also had song and mirth, as the menorah was lit for the first day of Hanukkah. A message of Jewish solidarity, and charitable giving to the families affected by the war in Israel, was present throughout the event. A banner that read “K’far Aza is not alone,” was later signed with messages of support by congregants. 

Rep. Dan Goldman also spoke at the event, sharing his terrifying experience in Tel Aviv when the war broke out. Goldman was in Israel with his family, and sheltered in the stairway of their hotel. The congressman also spoke about the importance of Jewish unity. 

“I applaud all of you and I applaud Rabbi Timoner for leaning in and coming here to be together tonight, celebrating Hanukkah, celebrating our perseverance as Jewish people,” Goldman. “We are all in this together, and must lean on each other, and not be afraid.”

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