It was my honour, together with my spouse Lynne, to represent JRF and the Reconstructionist movement at the White House Hanukah party on December 2. Also in attendance were Rabbi Yael Ridberg and Rabbi Richard Hirsh, President and Executive Director respectively of the RRA.
In a way all too familiar to the history of our people, the brilliant evening was tinged with sadness because of the forest fires and many deaths in Israel. The President said that the United States was gearing up to provide aid to Israel to help fight the fires, and said that was what friends do to help each other.
The event really began with extraordinary briefings in the afternoon of December 2, on foreign and domestic policy issues by an array of senior White House advisors. For a Canadian one of the most interesting briefings was from Dennis Ross, the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for the "Central Region" with overall responsibility for the region. That region includes the Middle East, the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan, Pakistan and South Asia. Ross has a long history of service under four Presidents and was also a co-founder of AIPAC.
His message to the group was that for President Obama, there was no more important policy issue in the world than Iran and its nuclear capability, and that for this President, Israel’s security would never be negotiable. He stressed that the United States not only shared values with Israel but also shared strategic interests in the region. He also stressed the extent to which the OBAMA administration was working to maintain Israel’s qualitative military superiority.
Ross emphasized the extent to which new sanctions imposed by many countries in the world were having a serious impact on the Iranian economy. He mentioned the 20% decrease in the value its currency, its ability to import gasoline, the cancellation of major infrastructure projects by private firms, restrictions on its shipping and its ability to purchase insurance. All of these were having the effect of possibly bringing the Iranians to the table soon and Ross emphasized that the nuclear project was going more slowly in Iran and there was time to make the sanctions work.
It was also interesting to learn the Administration’s view of the health care debate and when changes to the current system would be visible to many Americans. For Canadians who take the availability of health care for granted as a fundamental entitlement, the contrast with Canada was very interesting.
Hearing about Michelle Obama’s extensive efforts to combat obesity in children from the assistant Chef at the White House was enlightening. Other briefings on the broad contours of economic policy and other domestic policy issues rounded out the more than two hours of briefings.
The Hanukah party itself in the evening was extraordinary. Hearing hundreds of guests sing the Brachot in the White House and then Maoz Tsur to the accompaniment of saxophonist Joshua Redman was moving to say the least. And hearing the Marine Band play mostly Jewish composers (seventeen in all - some of the tunes were, of course, Christmas melodies) was special.
The glittering array of Christmas trees and Christmas decorations while latkes and soufganniot were served showed in a very practical way what it means to live simultaneously in two civilizations. Of course, other special Jewish dishes were served: sushi and “champagne” (not to worry, it was vegetarian and the wine was mevushal). The lamb chops were the best lamb chops ever served anywhere, and I was relieved to know that it was Chassidishe Shechitah.
The night ended with a handshake and photograph with the President and the First Lady. One had to admire their stamina in doing this over and over individually with several hundred guests. My guess is that the President was relieved when it ended and he was able to leave immediately thereafter for an unannounced trip to Afghanistan.
At a time of year when the White House observes the holidays of the general Christian population through many events and evenings of entertainment, this party was a wonderful tribute and expression of inclusiveness by the President, government and people of the United States towards its Jewish citizens. It was also a celebration of the presence and participation of Jews in the life of the United States, and a beacon of acceptance and recognition to Jews everywhere.