People in the center of Enschede, Netherlands
People in the center of Enschede, NetherlandsiStock

A Hanukkah celebration in the Dutch town of Enschede took a bitter turn after its mayor refused to be seen near the Israeli ambassador to the Netherlands.

Jaap Hartog, chairman of the Enschede synagogue, invited Mayor Roelof Bleker to a celebration of Hanukkah and the synagogue’s 95th anniversary on Monday night. He reserved a seat for Bleker next to Israeli Ambassador Modi Ephraim, who was visiting Enschede for the occasion.

But hours before the event, Hartog received a call with preconditions from Bleker.

“The mayor didn’t want to sit next to the ambassador, didn’t want to shake hands with him and especially didn’t want to shake hands with a photographer present, so he wouldn’t have trouble with photos in the media,” Hartog told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Hartog responded by telling the mayor not to come at all. However, when Bleker insisted on joining, he was received and seated on the synagogue’s balcony between other guests.

Bleker said his intention was to keep a distance from the war in Israel and Gaza and avoid images that might stir controversy. But that effort backfired, as his stipulations prompted a media frenzy in the Netherlands this week.

Enschede’s small community of Jews — about 45 in total — were already frustrated with Bleker, according to Hartog. He said that Bleker rejected their requests for increased security and surveillance after Oct. 7, despite a surge of antisemitic attacks across the country.

The Central Jewish Board of the Netherlands also criticized Bleker. Chairman Chanan Hertzberger chided him not only for conditioning his appearance at the synagogue, but also for sitting in the back instead of the front seat originally reserved for him.

“The mayor should sit at the front of such a celebration,” said Hertzberger in translated remarks. “We can only conclude that this mayor projects his criticism of Israel onto the Jewish residents of his city.”

Bleker said he regretted the controversy in a public statement on Tuesday, noting that he had called both Ephraim and Hartog to apologize. He is meeting with Hartog on Friday.

But Bleker appeared to stand by his desire for separation from the Israel-Hamas war: “I am there for all Enschede residents and therefore want to stay away from international conflicts,” he said.

Ephraim acknowledged the spat but emphasized his own appearance at the synagogue in posts on X, formerly known as Twitter.

“Anyway it was an emotional Hanukkah celebration in Enschede, with hundreds of Christians and Jewish friends of Israel,” Ephraim wrote. “In my words I called to stand together against hatred and antisemitism.”