Rabbi Michael Adam Latz (Shir Tikvah):
My great grandparents fled Eastern Europe, escaping violent pogroms and religious persecution. They came to America and settled in the Twin Cities to build a new life for themselves and their children.
My husband’s parents and grandparents fled Germany as the shards of glass from Krystalnacht—and the world’s conscience about the atrocities unfolding in Europe—were swept away and discarded. They set out for Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and then to Canada to live freely and openly as Jews.
In the first half of the 20th century, Minneapolis was a center of anti-Semitism, and Jews were routinely denied access to social clubs and employment.
When I was born in 1970, the occupant of the White House had less than favorable things to say about Jews.
As recently as 2006, simply being gay was reason to deny someone security clearance to the White House. 2006.
So the fact that Michael and I were invited to attend the 2013 White House Chanukkah Party feels deeply and truly miraculous.
At each security point to enter, I was acutely aware of the significance of this moment: For the guards, for the staff, for the occupants of the White House, it was utterly ordinary. But for us, it was magical.
Inside the White House, the staff and volunteers treated everyone with exquisite graciousness. The President and Mrs. Obama were welcoming, funny, and understanding of the meaning of the Chanukkah—and personally understanding of how important it is to be welcomed into the People’s House. Their ability to truly invite us in—all of us—is the next chapter in our nation’s great story.
The experience was a dream come true. Our hope and our prayer is that we continue striving together to build an America worthy of its promise for diversity, inclusivity, peace, liberty, and equality. For all the generations who’ve wondered and wandered, who sacrificed so much that we could taste the fruits of your labor, this festival of light radiates promise and possibility for us all.
Rabbi Morris Allen (Beth Jacob):
President Obama, clearly in on the joke, opened the Chanukkah party with the line, “This party was to last 1 hour and today it will last 8!” He then spoke of both the enduring meaning of Chanukkah and the death of Nelson Mandela. For the President, each represented the courage of “human conviction and the desire to ensure that human dignity and freedom were of primary importance.”
The Columbia/Barnard/JTS Jewish “a cappella” group PIZMON (featuring a daughter of Minnesota—Maya Zinkow) serenaded all the guests as they walked into the party, and the US military band played Hanukkah melodies. If one stood back and simply listened, the co-mingling of voices filled with glee and laughter could be heard, mixed with serious conversation and a recognition that American Jewry is an important and vital part of the American narrative.
That being said, it was an hour and half earlier in the day during a serious and substantive briefing at the Executive Office Building that might have been the most important part of the day.
The briefing focused almost exclusively on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (with a preliminary poke about Immigration reform and healthcare). Senior administration leaders spoke candidly about the possibilities for success and the implications of failure in the various negotiations now taking place.
We heard from The Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken, the Undersecretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence David Cohen, and Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes. Each of them were articulate in explaining the thinking of the administration in its desire to engage in diplomatic ways with Iran, while not taking any option off the table were it to fail.
They described the differences with Israel as tactical. They did not ignore the existential threat to Israel and argued that their work was intended to lessen such a threat. They also were clear that a nuclear Iran is a threat to America and its interests around the world as well. While not embracing Israel’s condemnations of the agreement, there was recognition that Israel’s strong response had strengthened elements of that very agreement reached with Iran.
They emphasized that for the first time in 10 years, Iran has halted the development of its nuclear capabilities. In the ensuing 6 months, the world powers would thus be testing Iran and its intentions moving forward.
In addition, all three spoke of the importance of having Israel’s military and intelligence team on Iran working cooperatively in framing the final agreement to be presented to Iran. There was a serious recognition that Iran’s nuclear knowledge can no longer be eradicated through military means—that threshold has been crossed—and thus it is in the world’s interest to regulate that knowledge, to have inspectors on the ground regularly at their nuclear sites and to demand that Iran pursue only the development of peaceful nuclear energy. Each of them remained concerned about Iran and stressed that they understood Israel’s ongoing skepticism of the deal.
On the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process:
We heard from two people involved in the negotiations: Ilan Goldenberg and David Makovsky. They framed the negotiations as a nine-month process that is no different than giving birth. “We are now in the early stages of the second trimester, when there is the recognition that this is real,” they said. They were both frank in their assessments of the prospects for peace, and remarked continually that, “No one has ever gone broke by being a pessimist on the Middle East.”
They further remarked that neither the Israeli government nor the Palestinian Authority have any incentive to appear optimistic about the possibilities for the outcome, due to strong internal political pressures. They both stressed that while they are not free to share what they know, “If you knew what we knew, you would be more optimistic about a possible solution to the conflict.” However, they said, for the process to succeed everything must go right; only one negative needs to happen for it to fail.
All five people spoke with clarity and intelligence. They obviously represented the best of the Administration in articulating its positions. While the party at the White House was fun, humbling and filled with a recognition of how far our own families have come in the unfolding narrative of the American story, one has to remember that the work of America is ultimately about its policies and its responsibilities, and not really about its social parties. That being said, I hope each of us is lucky enough to one day be invited to the White House for such a party.