FA reaffirms apology to community at historic Wembley Chanukah lighting

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FA reaffirms apology to community at historic Wembley Chanukah lighting

Debbie Hewitt, chair of the Football Association, tells guests that after 7 October 'we recognise this is a truly traumatic time for you and we are truly sorry for the hurt our response to those atrocities caused'

Lee Harpin is the Jewish News's political editor

Chief Rabbi Mirvis speaks at Wembley
Chief Rabbi Mirvis speaks at Wembley

A Jewish News-backed event celebrating Chanukah inside Wembley Stadium drew a capacity crowd into one of the venue’s entertainment suites, along with an honest acceptance from Debbie Hewitt, chair of the Football Association, that her organisation had misjudged its response to the 7 October Hamas atrocities.

About 200 Jewish football fans, young and old enjoyed food, drink, speeches and a fascinating football panel discussion at the first ever Chanukah event to be staged at the venue on Wednesday evening.

Plans for the event, which saw Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis deliver a fine speech in which recalled making a debut for an under-11 side wearing his “lucky” tzitzit while living in South Africa, had been drawn up six months before the terror attack in southern Israel, with initial inspiration coming from Dal Singh, head of diversity at the FA along with Rabbi Alex Goldberg.

Panel discussion at Wembley Chanukah event

At this time, and with Jewish News publisher Justin Cohen also enlisted to help, nobody could predict that the run-up to Chanukah 2023 would be dominated by the devastating impact of 7 October on the community in Israel and across the globe.

The decision of the FA not to fly the Israeli flag at Wembley in response to the attack and in solidarity with those impacted bitterly disappointed the community, with Rabbi Goldberg, who worked with the FA for over a decade, resigning in protest of the body’s refusal to light up the Wembley Arch in the colours of the Israeli flag.

But the event was a chance for the authorities to make amends, and for the community to both celebrate Chanukah, and show also that they were ready to forgive.

In an opening speech Hewitt was quick and wholesome in her apology to the community confirming, as she had in an earlier Jewish News op-ed, that the FA had “reflected deeply” on its response to October 7th, and its wider attitude towards tackling antisemitism.

“We recognise this is a truly traumatic time for you and we are truly sorry for the hurt our response to those atrocities caused,” added Hewitt.

The FA chief said the impact of October 7th had “meant a period of intense reflection” for the FA. She revealed Jewish leaders had spent time with her and colleagues and had “unselfishly not criticised but explained so much about the positive nature of your faith.”

Rabbi Mirvis lights the chanukiah at Wembley

She said the FA had created an antisemitism task force to tackle the issues, which included several people attending the event.

Rabbi Mirvis spoke about his own introduction to the game of football, growing up in South Africa, where he became a Spurs fan after watching the north London team play a friendly match in 1962, just one year after winning the double.

But he also revealed he was a decent player himself, getting selected for Benoni West under 11s. But he admitted a fear of being seen wearing his tzitzit in the changing room would leave him being ridiculed.

In words he recalled from his father, he was told “you have nothing to worry about, they’ll be proud of you for being proud of your religion.”

Mirvis said he remained nervous ahead of the match, but when his tzitzit were actually spotted, his young teammates agreed he was wearing “lucky strings.”

But Mirvis revealed: “We went out to play, we won two-nil and I scored both the goals. Before every single match after that my friends always came to check I was wearing my lucky strongs.”

On a more serious note, the Chief Rabbi thanked Wembley and the FA “a chance this evening for us to celebrate our religion” as part of their Faith and Football series.

“Football can tear people apart but it also has the potential to draw us together as one,” he added, prior to kindling the Chanukah lights.

In his speech, Cohen paid special thanks to the work of Rabbi Goldberg who he said had been “working behind the scenes to build bridges again between the community and the FA in the interests of both.”

The Jewish News news editor also the world was now “very different for our community from the one we lived in when we started planning this.”

He added:”But we have to find light where it is and the fact this year again there have been lightings by the Mayor London, and not once, but twice in Downing Street is a reminder that British Jews retain incredible support from our leaders.”

Cohen said it was “wonder this iconic setting of Wembley has been added to this list, hopefully for many years to come.”

Around 200 people, including youngsters, Rabbi Josh Levy, Rabbi Charley Baginsky and peers including Lord (David) Woolfson and UJS chair Edward Isaacs, were also treated to food, including, of course, doughnuts, drinks, and a panel discussion on the game of football itself which featured Jewish players Dean Furman, Joe Jacobson and Catherine Charles, along with an appearance by Lord John Mann.

The lively discussion was hosted by Sky Sports presenter Nicole Holliday, and included accounts from Furman and Jacobson of how they proudly discussed their Jewish identity with fellow players.

Lord Mann, the government’s independent antisemitism adviser, urged the FA to continue reaching out to the community.

The FA’s Dal Darroch said: “It was a privilege to host our first ever Chanukah event at Wembley as part of our Faith and Football series. We know football has the power to unite communities and break down barriers and it was brilliant to see over 200 people gather at our national stadium to celebrate this important date in the Jewish calendar. We’s particularly like to thank Justin Cohen who has worked tirelessly this year to help us prepare and deliver this event. We took forward to continuing to work closely together in the future.”

Rabbi Alex added:”The FA’s apology, commitment to rooting out antisemitism including formation of an antisemitism task force mark a significant step towards healing with the Jewish community. Their recent engagement with Jewish leaders, including myself and the Chief Rabbi who was here at the Chanukah celebration, shows a real commitment to learning from past mistakes and promoting inclusivity.

“This event, highlighted by Debbie Hewitt’s words, symbolizes not just Chanukah’s message of light overcoming darkness, but also the power of dialogue and shared values in uniting communities. It reflects a new era of understanding and respect, where forgiveness and proactive change light the way forward. For me, this reengagement with the FA’s leadership at Wembley signifies hope and the beginning of a healing process.”

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