White House Hanukkah party focuses on freedom, liberty and tradition

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U.S. President Joe Biden speaks in the East Room at the White House Hanukkah celebration on Wednesday. Photo by Dmitriy Shapiro

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, applauded the opportunity U.S. President Biden took “to speak about the scourge of anti-Semitism facing our nation and to shine a light on anti-Semitism is a message that all of America must hear.”

BY DMITRIY SHAPIRO

 The annual lighting of the Hanukkah menorah in the White House continued on Wednesday night, although with a smaller than usual crowd, as Jewish leaders and supporters of the Biden administration gathered in the East Room for the White House’s official holiday celebration.

Pointing out the rising incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden called for a nation to return to its heritage of acceptance and kindness.

“You know, we’re the most unique nation in the world. We’re the only nation that’s not based on ethnicity or religion or race. We’re based on an idea,” he told the approximately 150 attendees, not including media, in the backdrop of a room decked out in Christmas decorations.

Early in his speech, he praised some of the prominent Jewish members of his administration at the event, including Attorney General Merrick Garland; Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas; director of the office of science and technology policy and science adviser to the president Eric Lander; and his nominee for Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, Emory Professor and Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt. He also praised Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Biden spoke about his frequent visits to Israel and personal acquaintance with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir—retelling his interactions with Meir as he did during a meeting current Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in August.

He quoted his longtime friend and staff member, the late California congressman and Hungarian Holocaust survivor Tom Lantos, who said, “The veneer of civilization is paper thin. We are its guardians, and we can never rest.”

“Well, it’s paper thin. And we are its guardians. All it takes is an opening, a sliver, a crack, the briefest nod of acceptance or legitimacy for ancient evils that have long plagued our society to come rushing in. And you all know it,” said Biden. “We just saw an incident so horribly anti-Semitic—fliers being left at people’s homes in Los Angeles—we have to stand against the resurgence of this tide of anti-Semitism, and other forms of intolerance and hate here at home and around the world.”

Dr. Rabbi Aaron Glatt, third from left, lights a candle on the White House Hanukkah menorah as, from left, Rabbi Lauren Holzblatt, senior rabbi at Adas Israel Congregation in Washington D.C., Jewish community leader Susan Stern, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff observe during the White House Hanukkah ceremony on Wednesday. Credit: Dmitriy Shapiro.

The president then tied this to his administration’s campaign slogan of “Build Back Better.”

“You know, when we light this menorah in the White House, when Jewish families place menorahs in their windows, we are proclaiming liberty,” said Biden. “We’re exercising the freedom that the Maccabees sought to simply practice their faith. And we’re showing that there is still light—that even the most fragile flame can be sustained in a tradition and nourish the soul of a people.”

‘Celebrating the ‘miracle of life’

Biden spent part of his speech describing the White House menorah, called the Liberty Bell menorah, on loan from the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia. It was designed by Holocaust survivor Manfred Anson using parts of souvenirs he collected and featured the phrase from Leviticus found on the Liberty Bell, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.”

He was joined on stage by his wife, First Lady Jill Biden, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff—the first Jewish spouse of a president of vice president. All three also spoke at the ceremony before Biden.

Jill Biden reminded the attendees of the immense sacrifices Americans had to face in the past 24 months because of ongoing coronoavirus pandemic, celebrating the “miracle of life” and praising the nurses, educators and military families who persevered through one of the most difficult periods in American history. Emhoff talked about his Jewish heritage.

Harris said that Hanukkah is one of her family’s favorite celebrations and spoke about how the Hanukkah tradition has provided hope throughout generation.

“We all know for 2,000 years, these important lessons have been a beacon for people around our world. As Jews have gathered to light the menorah, a tradition that has endured—yes, during moments of darkness. A tradition that has endured in moments also a celebration,” she said. “We have known and always know that we will not be deterred—that we will not be distracted from what we know is good, and our commitment and an enduring commitment to good.”

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff speaks at the Hanukkah celebration in the East Room of the White House on Wednesday. Credit: Dmitriy Shapiro

 

 

William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said later in an interview, “I thought it was wonderful. To be able to celebrate the Jewish people, the Jewish holiday, Jewish continuity in this building—the White House, the citadel of freedom and democracy, a place that for many, many years we were not welcome—is just a delight. To have the menorah lit here, to have the seat of government pause and focus on our people is important,”

He added that “President Biden choosing to speak about the scourge of anti-Semitism facing our nation and to shine a light on anti-Semitism is a message that all of America must hear, and he is an amazing vehicle to spread that message and we are very encouraged by that.”

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