Decrying “an epidemic of hate facing our country,” second gentleman Doug Emhoff convened a roundtable with Jewish leaders on Wednesday, an attempt by one of the most prominent Jewish Americans to address a rise in antisemitism and a rare step into the spotlight by Vice President Harris’s husband.
“Let me be clear: Words matter. People are no longer saying the quiet parts out loud, they are screaming them,” Emhoff said at the event, which included groups such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Congress and Jewish on Campus. “We cannot normalize this. We all have an obligation to condemn these vile acts. We must not stay silent. There is no either/or. There are no two sides. Everyone must be against this.”
That Emhoff would take a leading role in denouncing recent antisemitic events might be expected in many ways, since he is the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president. But navigating a subject that relates to a controversy surrounding a former president — and other Republicans’ response to it — also puts Emhoff in the middle of an uproar in a way that is unusual for the second gentleman.
The White House has emphasized that the entire administration, not just Emhoff, is actively fighting antisemitism. And though Emhoff has pushed in recent weeks to take a higher-profile role in speaking out about a matter of personal import, he has spent two years deferring to the administration’s needs and portraying himself as a selfless member of his wife’s supporting cast.
In his remarks at Wednesday’s meeting, he sought to emphasize the administration’s broader efforts.
“President Biden [and] Vice President Harris have met Holocaust survivors. I’ve kept in touch with the survivors. I’ve shared messages of hope and strength,” the second gentleman said. “For me today, this is not the end of the conversation, it’s just the beginning of the conversation.”
Other White House officials have said that Biden has led his administration’s efforts against antisemitism and other forms of hate. Biden has long said that he was inspired to run for president by the 2017 Unite the Right rally of white supremacists and Ku Klux Klan members in Charlottesville, especially Trump’s remark afterward referencing “very fine people on both sides.”
At Wednesday’s White House news briefing, press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden “has been consistent on calling [antisemitism] out.”
On Friday, in a tweet seemingly directed at Trump, who has not disavowed his recent dinner guests, Biden said, “I just want to make a few things clear: The Holocaust happened. Hitler was a demonic figure. And instead of giving it a platform, our political leaders should be calling out and rejecting antisemitism wherever it hides. Silence is complicity.”
The message is part of a broader Democratic argument that Republicans have become a party that too readily accepts extremist and racist views, or at least those who espouse them. Trump’s decision to break bread with Ye, formerly known as Kanye West, and Fuentes came a week after he launched his bid for the GOP nomination, and while some Republicans have condemned the dinner, others have avoided directly criticizing the former president.
Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) recently made a statement on the Senate floor condemning “former president Donald Trump’s and the MAGA Republican Party’s embrace of antisemitism.” And Biden has referenced his closeness to the Jewish community, good-naturedly telling a group of Jewish leaders at a White House reception that “I probably went to shul more than many of you did,” using a Yiddish word for synagogue.
The back-and-forth has unfolded against the backdrop of a spate of antisemitic incidents, both high-profile and obscure. Basketball star Kyrie Irving apologized recently after sharing an antisemitic video on social media. And the Anti-Defamation League reported that antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high of 2,717 in 2021, an average of more than seven events per day and a 34 percent increase over last year.
First and second spouses generally try to steer clear of issues that are incendiary or political. While condemning antisemitism is hardly controversial, Emhoff on Wednesday was also indirectly jumping into the debate over behavior by Trump, a former president and potential future opponent of Biden.
White House officials familiar with the second gentleman’s thinking, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe his private sentiments, say he has felt inclined to speak out on antisemitism and bigotry since his wife’s election as vice president made him a national figure as well. But he has spoken out with additional fervor in recent weeks.
For most of his tenure, Emhoff has portrayed himself as a dutiful surrogate focused on advancing his wife’s goals and the Biden administration’s aims. He crisscrossed the country to promote vaccinations and other coronavirus pandemic priorities in his first year as second gentleman, making dozens of trips.
Leaning into that supporting role has been particularly important for Emhoff, the first male spouse of a president or vice president. He is married to a woman of Black and Asian descent with major political aspirations and has cultivated an image as his wife’s biggest supporter, seeking to present himself as a model for equity across the globe.
But Emhoff has also sought to advance issues that mean something to him personally. And Jewish pride has been top among those.
Emhoff has never described himself as particularly devout. He attended temple in his hometown of Old Bridge, N.J., and had a bar-mitzvah, but he has portrayed himself as mostly secular, though active on the high holidays — a description that fits many American Jews.
But when his wife was elected vice president, he embraced the role as one of the nation’s most prominent Jewish Americans. He affixed a mezuza — a small parchment that reminds Jews of God’s presence and commandments — at the entrance to the U.S. Naval Observatory, the vice president’s official residence. He also hosted the first Passover Seder there.
Emhoff visited the Holocaust museum in Paris during Harris’s first official trip to France. Earlier this year, he stopped by Maccabee’s Kosher Deli in Des Moines and met with a local rabbi. Last year, he visited his boyhood synagogue in New Jersey, surprising the rabbi there.
In general, Emhoff appears to revel in suddenly finding himself in such a prominent role. One of the few analogous figures in U.S. history may be Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who was chosen by Al Gore to be his running mate in 2000, making him the first — and so far, only — Jewish person on a major-party ticket.
Lieberman was more religiously observant than Emhoff, though his ticket lost. Referring to Lieberman’s Sabbath observance, candidate Gore sometimes joked that if elected, his White House would work for the American people “24/6.”
In October, Emhoff tweeted on the first anniversary of the mass killing at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, when 11 congregants were slain as they awaited the beginning of services, “We must end the scourge of gun violence and fight antisemitism and hatred wherever it exists.” He penned an op-ed on the lessons Americans can take from Rosh Hashanah, titled, “On Rosh Hashanah, I’m recommitting to fight hate.”
On Wednesday, his words took on a similar timbre. “I will not remain silent,” he said. “I am proud to be Jewish. I’m proud to live openly as a Jew. I am not afraid. I refuse to be afraid.”
Emhoff also infused his remarks with details from his personal background.
“On days like today, I think back to Ellis Island,” he said. “I think about my family members, and I think of the promise of America. That a young boy from Brooklyn — whose family fled persecution — could be sitting here today as the first second gentleman of the United States in the White House.”