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KIRBY'S KIBBITZ

Kirby discusses ‘productive’ hostage talks and his own ties to the Jewish community

The National Security Council spokesman traced his affinity for the Jewish community back to a little league coach fittingly named Dick Mensch

ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images

National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby speaks during the daily briefing in the Brady Briefing Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on November 2, 2023.

White House National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby spoke on Wednesday morning to a gathering of activists from the Jewish Federations of North America, providing an update on the status of hostage release negotiations, as well as elaborating on his own long-standing ties to the Jewish community.

The National Security Council spokesman said that hostage negotiations “have been productive.”

“They’ve been moving in the right direction, and we have some basic understandings of what this could look like, the parameters of it,” even if all parties have not signed off, Kirby said.

He said that the U.S. is “closely” watching the United Nations’ investigation of UNRWA employees’ involvement in the Oct. 7 attack and that the administration supports “making appropriate changes” to the organization based on those findings.

“Now what that looks like — we’re not in a position to dictate terms to them, but we do believe this is probably a propitious moment for UNRWA to take a hard look at itself and make appropriate changes going forward,” Kirby says. “We’re going to stay focused on this.”

At the same time, Kirby emphasized that UNRWA is doing “important work” in Gaza to address the humanitarian crisis.

Kirby acknowledged the rising antisemitism and accompanying feelings of insecurity the Jewish community in the U.S. have faced since Oct. 7, and said that both the administration and the Jewish community need to “keep the pressure on,” even after the war in the Middle East is over.

He urged Jewish community members to keep sharing their experiences with antisemitism, referencing a conversation he’d had with Jewish students who had felt unsafe on their college campuses.

“Every single person in this room has a story,” he said, “and I guarantee you that some of the stories, if not most, are pretty compelling. So I would encourage you to also make sure you’re finding a way to tell your story out there, certainly to people well beyond the Jewish community, so that people understand these are real lives that we’re talking about.”

As scrutiny from congressional Democrats of Israel’s conduct in Gaza continues to grow, Kirby said that there have “just been too many…innocent lives taken” in Gaza, adding that the “right number of civilian casualties is zero.” But, he continued, Israel has “been receptive” to U.S. advice on avoiding such casualties and is implementing it.

Kirby has emerged as a popular figure in the Jewish community and in Israel since Oct. 7 for his strong defenses of Israel and its right to wage war on Hamas from the White House briefing room lectern.

“I have great respect for the contributions of the Jewish community to this country, to the world,” Kirby said. “And I have, and always will have, an abiding deep respect for the state of Israel… I will always feel that way, always be passionate about the importance, the rightness of the State of Israel.”

He traced his affinity back to a little league coach named — fittingly — Dick Mensch, whom he described as a “terrific” mentor.

“He was constantly checking on me, even after little league was over and I went off to high school, even college, I would hear from him from time to time,” Kirby said. “He meant a lot to our family, and through him, I began to see what the Jewish community was like.”

Kirby first visited Israel while serving in the Navy, and described the experience — as a Catholic — of visiting Jerusalem as deeply meaningful.

“The story of humanity all began there, and it’s just incredible,” he said. “So that shaped a lot of my thinking too.”

In more senior roles, he said he had the opportunity to meet with Israeli leaders and learn more about the precarious security situation Israel faces.

“When you go to Israel, you feel it, you see it, you see how important security is and why they have to take it so seriously,” he explained.

He said that seeing the images from Oct. 7 impacted him on a deeply personal level.

“I’m a grandfather, I’ve got a little six-year-old granddaughter, four-year-old grandson… and all I could think about was the moms and dads and grandparents and those children,” he explained.

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