Second gentleman Doug Emhoff – the first Jewish person in his position – convened a roundtable on antisemitism at the White House on Wednesday, where he warned of an “epidemic of hate facing our country.”
“We’re seeing a rapid rise in antisemitic rhetoric and acts,” Emhoff said at the start of the roundtable. “Let me be clear: words matter. People are no longer saying the quiet parts out loud – they are literally screaming them.”
Planning for the event was underway for weeks, but White House aides had said that it would be taking on more significance following a recent spate of antisemitic comments from the rapper Kanye West, who now goes by Ye, as well as the revelation that former President Donald Trump hosted West along with White nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes at a dinner at his Mar-a-Lago estate in late November.
“Antisemitism is dangerous. We cannot normalize this,” Emhoff said at the White House event, adding that there is no “both sides” to the argument. “There is only one side. Everyone, all of us, must be against this,” he remarked.
Emhoff’s event in the Indian Treaty Room hosted more than a dozen Jewish groups, including those from the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox denominations. The roundtable participants also included a wide range of administration officials, including White House Domestic Policy Adviser Susan Rice, Director of Public Engagement Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Antisemitism Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy Homeland Security Advisor Josh Geltzer and Shelley Greenspan, the White House Jewish Liaison.
Aides have worked to not make denouncing antisemitism seem like a political ploy or just another chance to swing at Trump.
And at the roundtable, Lipstadt underscored that “antisemites come in all political persuasions. They can also be Christians, they can be Muslims, they can be atheist and they can Jews. Antisemitism, the oldest and most consistent hatred, is so deeply based in social beliefs, that (there are) people who don’t consider themselves antisemites, and who are not antisemites, but who fall prey to antisemitic ideas.”
There aren’t any direct actions expected out of the event, but participants have said even just having the conversation is important. President Joe Biden did not make an appearance during the portion of the roundtable on view to the press. But he has continued to speak out against antisemitism, including tweeting on Friday, “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.”
During his remarks on Wednesday, Emhoff detailed his own personal and family history with Judaism as he said that he is “in pain” but “proud to live openly as a Jew.” And discussed the deadly White nationalist protests in Charlottesville, Virginia, where demonstrators were heard chanting antisemitic phrases – including “Jews will not replace us.”
Biden has said that confronting the antisemitism displayed during the protests, along with Trump’s lack of immediate condemnation of the white nationalists involved, were what motivated him to run for president in 2020.
“We know that when people refuse to condemn this vile speech and these vile acts, refuse to condemn them, it only serves to ignite violence,” Emhoff said, pointing to administration efforts to combat antisemitism such as funding for physical security of nonprofits and synagogues, the appointment of leaders to focus on hate crimes, and a summit aimed at combating hate-fueled violence.
Emhoff indicated he’d continue to use the bully pulpit to raise awareness to the issue.
“As long as I have this microphone, I’m going to speak out against hate, bigotry, lies. I’m going to speak out against those who praise fascist murderers and idealize extremists. I’m going to speak out against Holocaust deniers. I’m going to call those out who won’t do it,” he said, but did not name anyone specifically.
However, Rice drew a more direct line to recent comments from West – though she did not explicitly name him.
“There’s nothing more vicious than what we are seeing today, out of the mouths of our leaders, our public figures, our celebrities, our elected officials,” she said, adding that the US now has to “do battle here with equal vigor and passion against it.”
As second gentleman, Emhoff has hosted a virtual Seder, lit the menorah and affixed a mezuzah outside the entrance of the vice president’s Naval Observatory residence. He told CNN’s Dana Bash this past fall that he takes his role as the first Jewish person in his role “very seriously.”
“At first, when I came into this role, I thought being a man would be the biggest deal and it is … But just kind of 1A is being Jewish in this role,” Emhoff said to Bash. “And it really hit me early on when we did our virtual Seder and we had no idea what to expect. We just thought we’d do it and put it out there. Tens of thousands of people saw it and immediately thereafter, everywhere I went, Jewish people were coming up to me.”
CNN’s Edward-Isaac Dovere contributed to this report.