WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden hosted a Hanukkah reception at the White House on Monday night, vowing to continue to stand with Israel in its war with Hamas while saying that a “surge of antisemitism" around the globe "is sickening.”
Nearly 800 guests filled the East Room to almost overflowing. The crowd included Holocaust survivors, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and around two dozen members of Congress. Also present were Jewish community leaders and second gentleman Doug Emhoff, who was among those who lit a menorah partially made from the original timbers of the White House.
The husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, Emhoff is the first Jewish person to be the spouse of one of the country’s nationally elected leaders. Last week he presided over the lighting ceremony of a massive menorah in front of the White House.
A menorah is lit nightly during the eight-day Jewish festival, which this year is being celebrated from Dec. 7 until Friday. Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York City led Monday's ceremony, telling the president: “You've been a steadfast supporter of Israel's right to defend itself. A trusted and true friend to the Jewish people.”
Buchdahl talked about the darkness of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which triggered war with Israel. But she said that since, “Its only gotten darker, with many around the world justifying terrorism, normalizing antisemitism, with the pain of so many lives lost — Israeli and Palestinian — in this just but tragic war.”
She also drew sustained applause when she called Biden “a beacon of strength.”
The president told the crowd, “You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist.” He said that while he doesn't always agree with Israel's leaders and governmental policies, “Were there no Israel, there would not be a Jew in the world who is safe.”
“We continue to provide military assistance until they get rid of Hamas but we have to be careful," Biden said of U.S. support for the war. He added: "The whole world, public opinion can shift overnight. We can't let that happen."
The Biden administration in May announced what it called the first-ever national strategy to counter antisemitism. Still, antisemitism has only intensified in some quarters as criticism rises over the mounting Palestinian death toll. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza.
Biden said of hostages being held by Hamas, which U.S. authorities have been working for months to help free, “We’re not going to stop until we get every one of them home.” The crowd also cheered when he talked of his administration’s efforts to increase humanitarian aid flowing to civilians in Gaza caught in the fighting.
Others, though, have decried Biden's stance on the war. Earlier Monday, protesters gathered outside the White House as nearly 20 women describing themselves as “Jewish elders” chained themselves to the fence around the grounds. Wearing black T-shirts reading “Not In Our Name,” they chanted: “Biden, Biden, pick a side! Cease-fire not genocide!” while reading the names of those killed in Gaza.
Authorities took the women away after using a bolt cutter to cut the chains that had encircled the protesters' waists. Organizers said they deliberately picked the day of the White House's Hanukkah celebration to protest.
“We, as elder Jews, we know what genocide looks like. We know what genocide feels like. It’s in our bodies, in our bones,” said Esther Farmer of Jewish Voice for Peace, which organized the demonstration. “It's horrifying, it's devastating. Sometimes, it's hard to get up in the morning to see this, and it's being done in the name of Jews. So we are here — as elderly Jews — to say, not in our name.”
The U.S. Park Police said they issued 18 citations to the protesters and released them from custody.
Biden at the reception said he recognized American Jews “hurt” and “fear for your safety” because “the surge of antisemitism in the United States and around the world is sickening.”
“We see it in our communities and in schools and colleges and social media,” the president said, adding that such instances “surface painful scars.”
On Saturday, Liz Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, resigned following pressure from donors and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say under repeated questioning that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy. Universities across the U.S. have been accused of failing to protect Jewish students amid the fallout from the war in Gaza.
White House spokesman Andrew Bates declined to comment Monday on Magill’s decision to resign. Presidents Claudine Gay of Harvard and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who appeared alongside Magill, have also faced criticism. Gay has apologized for her remarks.
Bates noted that Magill issued a statement withdrawing her remarks.
“That was the right thing to do,” he said.