Emhoff Emerges as Face of White House Fight Against Antisemitism
WASHINGTON — Sitting alongside leaders of the Jewish community on Wednesday, Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, described the rising tide of antisemitism in the United States as an “epidemic of hate.”
Mr. Emhoff, the first Jewish spouse of a vice president or president, has in recent weeks become one of the federal government’s more forceful voices against violence and hate speech directed at Jews.
“Words matter,” Mr. Emhoff said at a round table of government officials, rabbis and leaders of advocacy groups to discuss the extremist acts. “People are no longer saying the quiet parts out loud. They are literally screaming them.”
The event took place in an atmosphere of heightened alarm about antisemitism, two weeks after former President Donald J. Trump’s dinner with the white supremacist Nick Fuentes and the rapper formerly known as Kanye West, who has recently heaped praise on Adolf Hitler. Last week, President Biden posted to Twitter, “Instead of giving it a platform, our political leaders should be calling out and rejecting antisemitism wherever it hides.”
At Wednesday’s event, Mr. Emhoff described the recent incidents in personal terms.
“Judaism isn’t defined by how much we go to temple or how often we celebrate traditions; it’s who we are as a people,” he said. “It’s our identity. It’s my identity. And I’m in pain right now.”
Antisemitism in America
Antisemitism is one of the longest-standing forms of prejudice, and those who monitor it say it is now on the rise across the country.
- Perilous Times: With online threats and incidents of harassment and violence rising nationwide, this fall has become increasingly worrisome for American Jews.
- Donald Trump: The former president had dinner with Nick Fuentes, a prominent antisemite, at Mar-a-Lago, causing some of Mr. Trump’s Jewish allies to speak out.
- Kanye West: The rapper and designer, who now goes by Ye, has been widely condemned for recent antisemitic comments. The fallout across industries has been swift.
- Kyrie Irving: The Nets lifted their suspension of the basketball player, who offered “deep apologies” for posting a link to an antisemitic film. His behavior appalled and frightened many of his Jewish fans.
He was joined at the event by Susan Rice, Mr. Biden’s domestic policy adviser; Deborah Lipstadt, a special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism; Shelley Greenspan, the White House Jewish liaison; Keisha Lance Bottoms, the director of public engagement; Josh Geltzer, the deputy homeland security adviser; and members of the Anti-Defamation League.
“There’s nothing more vicious than what we are seeing today out of the mouths of our leaders, of our public figures, of our celebrities, of our elected officials,” Ms. Rice said.
She reminded the gathering that the Biden administration had released a national strategy last year to combat domestic extremism, after decades in which the federal government prioritized foreign terrorists.
The F.B.I. warned last month of a broad threat to synagogues in New Jersey, prompting the agency’s director, Christopher A. Wray, to tell Congress the Jewish community was “getting hit from all sides.” There have been shootings in recent years at synagogues in Pittsburgh; Poway, Calif.; and Jersey City.
And there has been a nationwide surge of antisemitic incidents, including 2,717 such acts across the United States in 2021, a 34 percent increase from the year before, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
Sheila Katz, the chief executive of the National Council of Jewish Women, said Mr. Emhoff’s faith was significant.
“I think a lot of people didn’t realize how significant it was right away that he’s a Jew in that role,” Ms. Katz said. “These spaces have never been our places before, and what Emhoff is doing by who he is and who he’s engaging with in the community is just nothing we’ve seen before.”
Shortly after Mr. Biden came into office, Mr. Emhoff visited Ellis Island to see the written signatures of his great-grandparents who escaped Poland. He hosted a Passover Seder at the vice president’s residence and has occasionally joked about the three-piece velour suit he wore for his bar mitzvah. During a Rosh Hashana celebration at the White House in late September, he described his family’s tradition of cooking brisket for the holiday in his childhood home in Brooklyn.
Ted Deutch, the chief executive of the American Jewish Committee and a former Democratic congressman from Florida, said Mr. Emhoff had expressed concern over the spread of hatred since white nationalists marched into Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 — but also about the more common antisemitic attacks amplified on social media and college campuses throughout the nation.
“He’s in a unique position to help combat it,” Mr. Deutch said.
The event, which did not produce any policy announcements, is just one part of a strategy to challenge extremism.
Federal law enforcement officials have said the rise of antisemitism is part of a broader wave of domestic extremism in the United States, and in response have established a domestic terrorism branch inside the Homeland Security Department to more frequently distribute intelligence warnings. The administration has increased grant funding for nonprofit organizations, as well as houses of worship, focused on preventing extremist acts with a budget of $250 million in 2022, an increase of $70 million from 2021.
Mr. Biden also appointed Ms. Lipstadt, a historian of Jewish history, to enact policies to combat the wave of hatred directed at Jews. Ms. Lipstadt said Mr. Emhoff was one of the first people to reach out to her after she was appointed, asking what he could do to help as they spoke inside the kitchen of Blair House, the official state house for guests of the president, before the first Sukkot celebration in White House history.
Before kicking off the round-table discussion, Mr. Emhoff issued a plea. “We cannot normalize this,” he said.
“As long as I have this microphone I’m going to speak out against hate, bigotry, lies,” he added. “I’m going to speak out against those who praise fascist murderers and idolize extremists.”