The antisemitism campaign that Joe Biden has been leading has a new public face: Doug Emhoff.
Wednesday, the second gentleman will host a roundtable discussion. It's the most recent of his many notable acts as a Jew in this country.
A few months ago, Doug Emhoff, the second gentleman, surveyed his staff and asked what more might be done to combat the alarming spike in antisemitic occurrences around the country.
The problem bothered him for a very long time. He had also expressed a willingness to take more decisive action in private meetings with other prominent Jews. His staff came to the conclusion that a meeting with high-ranking government officials was necessary. They kicked off preparations for it a few weeks ago.
But things turned around the Thanksgiving holiday when it was revealed that former President Donald Trump had lunch with white nationalist Nick Fuentes and Ye, the rapper better known as Kanye West. Emhoff's planned roundtable became the administration's most explicit response to a growing national scandal overnight. On Wednesday, he will further solidify a reputation he never sought: that of one of America's foremost Jewish political figures, when he hosts a gathering of top White House officials and Jewish leaders.
"I've had enough talks with him and see him often enough to know the severity suddenly hit him like a ton of bricks," said Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. 'You know, I'm in this position,' he continued. I have to take action now. In his heart of hearts, he knew he had to do something to shift the needle and make progress.
Emhoff freely confesses that he is not particularly devout. He was raised in Old Bridge, New Jersey, where there is a sizable Jewish population. He was bar mitzvahed and a regular at the local synagogue. The style of faith he displayed was typical of his generation: he felt spiritually connected yet observed religion mostly around the High Holidays.
When his wife, Kamala Harris, became vice president, that all changed. Emhoff was the first male to hold his position and the first Jew to serve as one of the four leaders in the White House (the president, vice president, and their respective spouses). Last year, he told POLITICO that he was infected by a feeling of duty and purpose.
That experience has left a deep impression on him. "He has always been out and proud to be Jewish," said Liza Acevedo, Emhoff's head of communications. "Everything he's saying publicly on this issue is the same thing he's saying behind the scenes. He is channeling his anguish into positive change by speaking out against antisemitism.
As a reaction to his position as second gentleman, Emhoff has become more openly Jewish. He led a virtual Seder at a local Jewish school, complete with candle lighting and matzah baking. While in Paris for business, he stopped by the Holocaust museum and now, back in Old Bridge, he regularly attends the temple he attended as a child. According to Rabbi Peter Berg, who co-led the ritual with Emhoff, the vice president was visibly moved as he affixed a mezuzah to the vice president's front door.
In a short amount of time, he came to represent the ideal Jewish son of every mother.
Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, remarked, "There's really a lot of love between the Jewish community and the second gentleman." She continued, "I don't think going in he thought or really the Jewish community expected for it to feel as momentous for him being Jew in that job as well," referring to the fact that Emhoff is the first Jewish husband of a vice president.
In recent years, though, Emhoff has seen himself gravitating less toward the ceremonial and more toward the political aspects of his position. To aid in solving the problems facing the Jewish community, he established a "Jewish kitchen cabinet" within his administration.
This past January, he met with then-Rep. Ted Deutch on White House grounds to discuss how to best respond to rising antisemitism.
With Deutch, "the importance of doing something in a very, very public way" was discussed, and "he committed to finding a means to get that done," as Deutch.
In September, Emhoff convened a board meeting for the National Council of Jewish Women at the White House. And in honor of the Jewish New Year, he wrote an editorial for USA Today in which he vowed to fight antisemitism. His office issued three tweets addressing antisemitism during the last week of October and the first week of November. The third entry detailed his trip to a kosher deli in Des Moines, Iowa, where he met with the rabbi owner and talked about the importance of being out and proud as a Jew.
I take the duty very seriously, and I've actually spoken up and leaned into this more than I imagined I would going into this post," Emhoff told last year.
Jewish American leaders, in general, have been very positive about the Biden administration's record on antisemitism, despite the fact that the president's 2020 campaign has been couched in terms of preventing the rise of white nationalism. But when incidences multiply and more high-profile politicians are linked to antisemites, they feel pressure to take more action.
There is a strong desire to establish a domestic counterpart to Lipstadt's role as Biden's special envoy to combat the development of antisemitism around the world. One hundred and twenty-five legislators from both parties have asked Vice President Biden to form an antisemitic task team. Some in the Jewish advocacy sector worry that the Biden administration's July establishment of the Department of Homeland Security's Faith-Based Security Advisory Council is too general.
As officials have stated, the administration is under increasing pressure to take action. According to Lipstadt, the increase in antisemitism has resulted in a "need for a coordinated awareness of who was doing what" across the various agencies. She went on to say that "there was increasingly a sentiment in the administration and in the broader Jewish community asking, 'Is one hand talking to the other, how are we treating this in a holistic way?'"
Emhoff will not be involved in developing policy for future initiatives, but will instead support the words of the administration and continue to voice their opinions.
The Jewish community's ambassador and the administration's public face, as his methods have been described by those in the know. He maintains relationships, fosters conversation, and leads by example on new endeavors all by using back channels.
He just had a private conversation with survivors of the 2018 tragedy at Tree of Life synagogue to discuss the administration's efforts to address anti-Semitism and gun violence. Even more so, he recently had a conversation with local progressive elected authorities in which he brought up similar subjects, having been inspired to do so by Ye's words.
The Jewish community as a whole considers that to be sufficient.
When he does, American Jews will listen because he can frame it in terms of his own experiences. This guy is just like the rest of us. And he can represent us in public. Jewish Democratic Council of America Chairwoman Halie Soifer, who was formerly Sen. Harris's national security adviser, praised Harris's ability to speak not only for himself, but also for the administration, on what they are doing to support the Jewish community at this time. As a Jew, "he has expressed not just the policies of the administration regarding antisemitism," we are told.