Emhoff battles antisemitism as historic ‘first’ on White House team
When Doug Emhoff made history as the first second gentleman, he knew another title — first Jewish spouse of a U.S. president or vice president — was just as significant.
Emhoff has been at the epicenter of the White House response to the recent rise in antisemitism around the country.
During a Hanukkah party at the vice president’s residence this week — where a Holocaust survivor and rabbis recited the blessing as Emhoff and Vice President Harris lit the candles on the Menorah — the second gentleman used the opportunity to remind those in attendance about the growing threat against the Jewish community.
“We can’t normalize this. We need to speak up and speak out and call it out as well,” Emhoff said at the party. “And anyone who’s not speaking up and speaking out and not taking action will be called out.”
Emhoff, 58, a longtime entertainment lawyer, earlier this month hosted a roundtable with Jewish leaders on combating the “rapid rise” in antisemitism. Last month, he visited a kosher deli in Des Moines, Iowa, where he talked to a rabbi about how much it means to them to live proudly and openly as Jewish Americans.
He wrote an op-Ed in USA Today on Rosh Hashanah about battling antisemitism and posed a question: “What kind of world do we want to live in?”
At the roundtable — which came on the heels of a news reports revealing that former President Trump had dined at Mar-a-Lago with white nationalist Nick Fuentes and rapper Ye, who has made antisemitic comments — Emhoff acknowledged feeling “pain” because of the uptick in hateful acts and rhetoric against the Jewish community.
“There is an epidemic of hate facing our country. We’re seeing a rapid rise in antisemitic rhetoric and acts,” said Emhoff. “Let me be clear: Words matter. People are no longer saying the quiet parts out loud. They are literally screaming them.”
Those close to Emhoff say he has been an advocate for the Jewish community since assuming the role of second gentleman.
When he moved into the vice president’s residence last year, he and Harris hung a Mezuzah at the door. In September, he met with the National Council of Jewish Women Board at the White House.
Emhoff also hosted a virtual seder and made matzah with a group of fourth graders in Washington and then talked about the importance of Passover traditions with another class of students.
“He could have legitimately said, ‘I’m Jewish, I acknowledge I’m Jewish … but don’t expect me to take this up as my issue.’ But instead, he did the exact opposite,” said Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism at the Department of State. “He’s leaning into it. And he’s leaning into the challenging portions of it. I give him great, great credit for doing this.”
“I’m very gratified to have him involved so openly and clearly and unequivocally and unashamedly,” Lipstadt added.
Emhoff’s role also sends the signal that the White House is taking antisemitism seriously, said Katherine Jellison, a professor of U.S. women’s and gender history at Ohio University.
“The timing of having a Doug Emhoff in the position he’s in is pretty amazing because whoever is in the White House at this time, regardless of their party, would need someone to be the point person on this, and to have someone who is a member of the community who’s facing this heightened discrimination play that role, I think it’s very, very appropriate,” she said.
Emhoff, during the roundtable, said that he will use his platform to continue the conversation.
“As long as I have this microphone, I am going to speak out against hate, bigotry and lies,” he said.
Katherine Sibley, director of the American Studies Program at St. Joseph’s University, said that people are drawn to his comments because of the personal aspect he brings to them.
“The position of first lady or second gentleman, these kinds of roles have agency. We might call it soft power, but to use this role is so significant,” she said. “He’s talking about, ‘I’m in pain right now.’ So many of these people have spoken out on behalf of others and he’s speaking in his own voice on behalf of others.”
Apart from his work on combating antisemitism, the second gentleman’s role in general has been coming into view more frequently.
Emhoff last week visited a crisis services center to highlight the 988 mental health hotline ahead of the holidays. During the appearance, he acknowledged that holidays are “tough” and mentioned the death of Stephen Boss, also known as tWitch, who recently died by suicide at the age of 40.
Emhoff earlier this month also met with a bipartisan group of 13 newly-elected mayors, along with Labor Secretary Marty Walsh and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg.
As the first second gentleman, he has sought to frame his role as above the political fray.
“This is not a red state or blue state or a political issue. This issue of mental health and suicide affects everyone,” Emhoff said earlier this month during a visit to the Community Crisis Services Center in Maryland.
Like antisemitism, Emhoff’s work on mental health helps elevate the significance of the issue for the White House.
“Since Emhoff has become a pretty high-profile second spouse, if this is an issue he wants to champion it will bring automatic attention in ways that some lower wattage second spouses wouldn’t have been able to do,” Jellison said.
Emhoff’s high profile began when he made history as the first second gentleman but has risen due to several factors that have made the public interested in him, political observers say.
“Many people have not been used to, perhaps, a man who boosts his wife so much, who holds her up, who supports her. He’s become very much a draw on the campaign trail, he’s a fundraiser. It’s his manner, his appeal,” Sibley said.
At the Hanukkah party at the vice president’s residence this month, Emhoff reflected on the time when Harris bought him a menorah during their first Hanukkah together in Los Angeles, a symbolic gesture acknowledging his faith.
“She knows it’s important to me,” Emhoff said. “It’s important to me as a Jew and all of us as part of our religion and culture.
“As the first Jewish person married to a president or a vice president, I understand the weight of that responsibility, the obligation that that brings.”
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