candid conversation

Biden, Emhoff comfort Jewish leaders at White House gathering

In a long-planned meeting on antisemitism policy, the anticipated agenda was scrapped for a conversation about ongoing events in Israel

Drew Angerer/Getty Images

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 11: (L-R) U.S. President Joe Biden listens as second gentleman Douglas Emhoff speaks during a roundtable with Jewish community leaders in the Indian Treaty Room of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building October 11, 2023 in Washington, DC.

A long-planned White House meeting meant to provide Jewish leaders with an update on the Biden administration’s antisemitism policy turned into a two-hour communal grieving session, attended by some of the most important figures in American policymaking.

More than 20 organizational leaders from a diverse cross-section of the American Jewish community heard from President Joe Biden and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff on Wednesday before meeting privately with senior officials including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden. 

While delivering a 10-minute speech at the start of the gathering, Biden paused and turned to Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, who was crying. 

“You okay, kiddo?” Biden asked her. It set the tone for a gathering described by attendees as equal parts informative, somber and healing.

“Initially, the focus of the meeting was supposed to be an update on the implementation status of the national strategy to counter antisemitism,” said Dan Granot, director of government relations at the Anti-Defamation League. “It rapidly evolved as a way to hold solidarity with the American Jewish community.” 

Emhoff, the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president, kicked off the event with his first public comments since Hamas terrorists began their attack on Israel on Saturday, in which at least 1,300 people were killed.

“As a Jew, like all Jews, I feel a deep visceral connection to Israel,” Emhoff said, growing visibly angry. “We witnessed a mass murder of innocent civilians. It was a terrorist assault. There is never any justification for terrorism. There are no two sides to this issue.”

Biden, in his remarks, thanked the group for “breaking your necks the last couple years to deal with this overall issue of antisemitism.” He also touted the leaders for “showing us what thousands of years of Jewish history has shown us — the enduring strength, and I main this sincerely, the enduring sense of spirit of the Jewish community.”  

Katz called the meeting “a combination of humanity and action.”

“There was a realness about how this was sitting with us and what we have all just been through and witnessed and experienced,” she said.

At least one attendee brought a folder with information on an American believed to have been captured by Hamas and gave it to the White House officials. 

Stephanie Hausner, chief operating officer of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told White House officials “that every single one of us is one to two degrees of separation from someone serving on the front lines, or missing, or who has been murdered,” she recounted to Jewish Insider. “For us this is incredibly personal and it means a lot to us, but also to the people of Israel, that the Biden administration has Israel’s back.” 

Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, told Biden, “Eighty years ago this week, a group of 400 rabbis came to Washington hoping to meet with Franklin D. Roosevelt and appeal to him to act to rescue the Jews being persecuted in Europe. They were refused a meeting with President Roosevelt. They were refused entry into the White House.”

“The fact we are here today and you have spoken as the president of the United States so clearly in support of the Jewish people and Israel … shows what a dramatic distance we have traveled in the U.S,” Diament said, thanking Biden for his “leadership and moral clarity.”

The White House officials also acknowledged Jewish community members’ fears about antisemitic violence here in the United States in the wake of the war in Israel.

“We also acknowledge and address how these events will impact us as Jews. Many of us feel deep fear this will give rise to hate and antisemitism,” Emhoff said. 

The White House is not aware of specific threats in the U.S. that are related to the events in Israel, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Wednesday.

But officials at the roundtable with Jewish leaders shared that the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security “are working directly with state and local law enforcement to identify domestic threats that could emerge in connection with the terrorist attacks in Israel,” said Granot. 

The FBI on Tuesday released a PSA alerting the public to be aware of possible threats but also noted that they had no “specific intelligence” of any planned attacks.

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.