in the room

White House officials meet with Jewish groups after Rafah rift

The meeting focused on dealing with antisemitism, but took place amid strained U.S.-Israel relations

Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff arrives for a ceremony to celebrate the WNBA Champion Las Vegas Aces in the East Room of the White House on May 9, 2024 in Washington, DC.

A week after President Joe Biden gave a speech about the Holocaust and modern-day antisemitism, senior members of his administration met with Jewish community leaders to discuss ways to further combat antisemitism on college campuses and elsewhere.

Key White House stakeholders at the meeting included Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, White House Domestic Policy Advisor Neera Tanden, White House Homeland Security Advisor Liz Sherwood-Randall and Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer. The meeting focused on implementing the Biden administration’s national strategy to counter antisemitism and working to strengthen it as challenges have evolved since the Oct. 7 terror attacks in Israel.

“I think everyone agrees that while a lot has been done, there is also so much more to do given the scope of the challenge,” said Amy Spitalnick, CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who was at the Monday meeting. “That requires continuing to build on and adapt the strategy to meet evolving needs, such as the post-10/7 reality on campus.” 

But while the meeting ostensibly focused on antisemitism, it took place against a backdrop of tensions between many prominent Jewish advocacy groups and the Biden administration, after Biden’s decision to condition military aid to Israel dependent upon Israel’s actions in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. 

Attendees did not shy away from raising the issue, and Finer’s presence in the meeting suggested the White House knew the topic would come up. (A White House spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.) 

Nathan Diament, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, urged the Biden administration to be “much more careful” in its language around Israel, because recent statements made by the administration “provide fuel to the fire of the antisemites,” according to another person who was in the room. Finer said that was “an important point,” the attendee said.

At the same time, in the White House Briefing Room, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan addressed key issues concerning the Biden administration’s approach to the current state of the Israel-Hamas war.

On the subject of the arms sale pause, Sullivan stressed that the U.S. has “sent a massive amount of military assistance to Israel to defend itself against all threats, including Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran and its other proxies. We are continuing to send military assistance, and we will ensure that Israel receives the full amount provided in the supplemental. We have paused a shipment of 2,000-pound bombs, because we do not believe they should be dropped in densely populated cities. We are talking to the Israeli government about this.”  

He reiterated that the administration views “a major military operation into the heart of Rafah” as a “mistake that would put huge numbers of civilians at risk without a clear strategic gain. The president was clear he would not supply certain offensive weapons for such an operation, were it to occur. It has not yet occurred. And we are still working with Israel on a better way to ensure the defeat of Hamas everywhere in Gaza, including in Rafah.”

Sullivan also highlighted that the U.S. does “not believe that what is happening in Gaza is a genocide,” but said that “Israel can and must do more to ensure the protection and well-being of innocent civilians.”

The national security advisor additionally emphasized the U.S.’ desire to see a long-term plan by Israel for post-war Gaza. “Military pressure is necessary but not sufficient to fully defeat Hamas. If Israel’s military effort is not accompanied by a political plan for the future of Gaza and the Palestinian people, the terrorists will keep coming back and Israel will remain under threat. We are seeing this happen in Gaza City,” Sullivan said. “So we are talking to Israel about how to connect their military operations to a clear strategic endgame — about a holistic, integrated strategy to ensure the lasting defeat of Hamas and a better alternative future for Gaza.” 

Biden’s commitment to Israel, Sullivan maintained, is ironclad. ‘Ironclad doesn’t mean you never disagree; it means you work through your disagreements – as only a true friend can do. That’s exactly what we have done for the past seven months – and that’s what we will keep doing.”

Tamara Zieve contributed to this report.

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