How is this WH Hanukkah party different from all others?
Photo: Ted Eytan/Wikimedia Commons
At one of the first White House Hanukkah parties during George W. Bush’s presidency, senior strategist Karl Rove quipped to Jeff Ballabon, a Bush campaign advisor, “If ten percent of the people in this room would have worked ten percent as hard to get the president elected as they did to get invited to this party, we would have had 90 percent of the Jewish vote.”
He wasn’t joking.
“When I worked in the White House, there were people who wanted to get there because they needed to show that they were the first level of importance and they were in the in-crowd,” said Tevi Troy, who served as White House Liaison to the Jewish community under Bush.
Motivations vary. For GOP mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, the taste of latkes from the White House kitchen were enough to convince him to donate millions to support GOP nominee Mitt Romney in 2012. For others, simply being seen in the room with leading political figures and donors can be interpreted as a measure of one’s standing in the Jewish community.
Agendas notwithstanding, once a year on a cold December day, members of the Jewish community queue up outside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to get into the White House and celebrate the miracle of Hanukkah with the most powerful leader in the world.
Invitees feel a “sense of validation of their role and prominence in the community,” Obama Jewish liaison Matt Nosanchuk told Jewish Insider. “It’s both the feeling they get being in the White House, and the feeling that they’re there, that they’re in, and not on the outside. So it became a very highly sought-after ticket.”
But what happens when the President himself is a self-described outsider? Under President Trump, a proudly anti-establishment leader who relishes breaking DC norms and conventions, and who is equally unloved by the political establishment, some say the buzz surrounding White House Hanukkah party is different.
Ever since Bush began the tradition of hosting an annual menorah-lighting ceremony in the White House, the event has served as a rare convergence of disparate Jewish leaders representing groups from across the wider political and religious spectrums.
While it might require the leader of the free world to bring the segmented Jewish community together, the party has also come to symbolize that the Jewish people have truly made it in America. They can press the flesh of the president and whisper in his ear, if only for a mere few seconds. The White House kitchen is made kosher and the U.S. military band plays “I Have a Little Dreidel.”
Many interviewed for this article emphasized the largely apolitical tradition of the party. “The vast majority of people like to go to the White House Hanukkah party, not the Republicans’ Hanukkah party, or the Democrats’ Hanukkah party,” Troy explained. “In our very divided society, this is one of the few things that unites everybody.”
However, in President Trump’s first year, the White House did not invite any Democratic members of Congress to the Hanukkah party last year, nor Jewish leaders who voiced their differences with the Trump administration on policy issues. This year, all Jewish members of Congress, which includes 28 Democrats, were invited, according to the White House and confirmed by Congressional aides.
At least one member, Rep. Jerry Nadler, has told Jewish Insider that he will not attend the East Room event, citing a scheduling conflict.
Observers note that Trump’s rhetoric and style has affected many of the usual White House Hanukkah attendees. “Some policies have certainly seemed much more radical and running contrary to traditional, progressive Jewish values,” said a leader of a Jewish American organization who asked not to be identified. “I think a combination of those has made it so that there are certain members of the Jewish communal establishment who would have gone to George W. Bush’s Hanukkah party but will not come to Trump’s because he’s so much more radioactive.”
“I think that with this president, everybody needs to make their own decision about how much they want to be complicit in him and his agenda,” Jarrod Bernstein, another White House Jewish liaison in the Obama administration, told Jewish Insider. “I think that there are a lot of people who just might not feel comfortable about attending because everything this president touches is controversial.”
While acknowledging the tension, Noam Neusner, a Bush Jewish liaison and speechwriter, countered, “Every administration is controversial in its time. I think that if people are invited to the Trump Hanukkah party they should go, and if they don’t want to go because they disagree with his policies then they should decline. That’s it. It’s not a terribly complex formula. It’s exciting to be invited to the White House. Even in an administration with which you disagree, it’s an honor and it’s quite a scene.”
Fred Zeidman, a Houston-based Republican donor and board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition, who attended all of Bush’s Hanukkah events and the first under Obama, told Jewish Insider that the leadership of the Jewish American community should go to the event. “If you look at what this president has done, whether you like the way he delivers the message or whether you believe in some of his policies, one thing you absolutely have to know is that there is no president that has been better to the state of Israel than this President,” Zeidman stressed. “Assuming that Jewish leadership is respectful of what he’s accomplished, I think they would want to express some show of support for what he’s done for the state of Israel and the Jewish people.”
Of course, before considering whether or not to attend, you have to get an invite. Naturally, each administration tends to invite friends and supporters to its Hanukkah parties. “The White House Hanukkah party is going to be a greater draw for people who agree with the president,” Neusner explained. “Seventy-five percent or so of the community supported Obama and I suspect that the many liberal Jewish organizations desperately wanted to be at his Hanukkah parties, while they certainly have no desire whatsoever to be at Trump’s Hanukkah parties.”
“For sure the administration plays favorites, as did its predecessors in inviting their friends to come to the reception,” said another organizational leader. “My guess is that this year the Orthodox Union probably got a disproportionate number of invitations, the ADL probably got none. In the Obama administration, I’m sure J Street got lots of invitations and ZOA had none. My guess is that ZOA president Mort Klein will be at the party this year, and J Street president Jeremy Ben-Ami will not be, but two years ago I’m sure Jeremy was there and Mort was not.”
In a phone interview with Jewish Insider, Ben-Ami said he was not upset that he didn’t get an invitation, but said that if did, he’d think about attending. “I do believe that the best interest of the Jewish community and the best interest of the state of Israel is for these kinds of things not to become partisan and political,” he stated.
“I think Democrats should be invited to such events during GOP administration, and Republicans to Democratic White Houses. Holding bipartisan, inclusive events is good for the Jewish community,” said Ann Lewis, formerly the White House Communications Director under Bill Clinton and currently President of the Joint Action Committee Education Foundation. “Would I go? Maybe.” If the president had just said something morally offensive, she added, “I might not. But my goal would be to honor the Jewish community and my country, not one individual.”
Halie Soifer, Executive Director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA), criticized Trump for not reaching out to Jewish Democrats. “I thought last year’s decision to not invite Democratic members of Congress, especially when the overwhelming majority of Jews in Congress are Democrats, was extremely short-sighted,” Soifer told Jewish Insider, noting, “This year, members of Congress were invited but I don’t think members of the Jewish community at large who are Democrats were invited.”
Jeff Ballabon, who now serves as an advisor to the Donald Trump reelection campaign, called it a “chutzpah” for Jewish leaders who have repudiated the president in the past to expect an invitation from the White House. “I find the hypocrisy truly hysterical. This administration started and the so-called mainstream establishment announced that they were going to boycott the president,” Ballabon recalled, referring to the decision made by rabbinical groups representing the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements to not participate in a pre-High Holidays conference call with President Trump in 2017.
“At the time, it was a demonstration of the fact that they were not reasonable representatives of the Jewish community, because good representatives should try to make sure that avenues are open to the White House,” Ballabon stressed. “Now they are pretending to be aggrieved by not being invited to events. They have been maligning the president since the campaign, using the worst kind of libel and lies, and I would be appalled to see any one of these individuals in the room.”
Matt Brooks, Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, believes all Jewish leaders who are invited should accept on behalf of the community. “If you’re given the honor of an invitation by our nation’s president then I think it’s important as Jewish leader to go there and represent the community. You may not supportive of the president, but you should be supportive of the institution and the office.”
It seems clear that in a Trump White House, the event is no longer the unifying gathering it once was. Despite his pro-Israel agenda, the president’s rhetoric and political stances have made it difficult for some Jewish leaders to embrace him, even for the sake of bipartisanship or supporting the community. Much of the American Jewish community remains split on whether to work with or oppose the president, and the Hanukkah party is just the latest manifestation of this tension.
But the prestige of the White House Hanukkah party may ultimately be bigger than this president. Regardless of who is in office, Jewish leaders say the event remains a symbol of Jewish success in America. “To look at where we were as a people, as far as our integration into the mosaic that is America today, where this citadel representing America becomes a citadel representing Jewish survival, is amazing,” William Daroff, Director of the Washington Office of the Jewish Federations of North America, marveled. “That’s what really impacts me during these Hanukkah celebrations.”