Biden Does Rosh Hashanah

Jewish politics and power

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1. Biden’s Rosh Hashanah Bash

It was a White House first.

Last Friday, President Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff hosted their first Rosh Hashanah reception for Jewish communal leaders.

Sure, almost every president for the past few decades has hosted some kind of a Jewish event—from fancy Hanukkah receptions to parties marking Jewish heritage month in May. At times there was also a traditional conference call in which the president spoke to rabbis days before the holiday, possibly supplying them with a quote or two for their High Holiday sermons. But this was the first time the White House actually marked the Jewish new year. 

The event, though the first of its kind, was, in fact, very similar to other White House Jewish community receptions. There was the usual mix of Jewish organizational and political figures gathered in the East Room (mostly Democrats, mostly Reform-Conservative, mostly Ashkenazi), brief greetings from the president, tons of communal schmoozing before, during and after the reception (this time to the tunes of Itzhak Perlman playing Avinu Malkeinu) and, of course, the obligatory tweets and Facebook posts to make sure everyone knows who’s on the White House’s Jewish A-list.

Emhoff, fully embracing his role as the top Jewish member of the Biden administration, entertained the crowd with some classic Jewish one-liners such as: “In my family, Rosh Hashanah meant a trip to my grandmother’s apartment in Brooklyn, and I can still smell that brisket cooking—and burning—in the kitchen,” and, “My grandmother begged all of us kids not to jump on the couch because ‘I took the plastic coverings off!’”

But the best line belonged to President Biden. After acknowledging Rabbi Michael Beals of Congregation Beth Shalom in Wilmington, Delaware, who is sometimes referred to as “Biden’s rabbi,” the president quipped: “I probably went to shul more than many of you did. You all think I’m kidding. He can tell you, I’m not.”

2. So, does Biden go to synagogue more than you?

Jokes aside, Biden may be on to something.

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center report on customs and practices of Jewish Americans, only 20 percent go to shul at least once a month and 27 percent attend synagogue for High Holiday services.

All in all, going to shul is one of the least common Jewish practices for members of the community. It falls far behind other activities, such as holding or attending a Passover seder (62 percent),) observing life-cycle events (61 percent) or fasting on Yom Kippur (46 percent).) Jews are much more likely to cook traditional Jewish food, read Jewish literature, watch Jewish-themed TV shows, or engage in political activity as an expression of their Jewishness than actually visit a Jewish house of worship.

Compared to other religions practiced in America, Jewish synagogue attendance ranks pretty low, far below church attendance for all Christian denominations and below the number of Muslims attending mosques.

But did Biden go to shul more than the American Jewish audience he was addressing?

Of course he didn’t. (Especially since he was talking to a crowd of communal leaders who are deeply involved in Jewish life in all its aspects, including public prayer at synagogues.) Biden, with his nearly five decades of political experience, has spent plenty of time in shuls, listening to his constituents, campaigning or socializing. He might very well be the non-Jewish politician who has visited synagogues more than anyone else.

But by making this little joke, the president proved that he knows the community extremely well, including its struggle with getting members through  the synagogue’s door.

3. Friendly advice or election interference?

Over the weekend, an Axios scoop produced transatlantic shockwaves.

According to the report, Senator Robert Menendez, the powerful Democrat who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, warned former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanayhu “that if he forms a government after the November 1 elections that includes right-wing extremists, it could harm U.S.-Israel bilateral relations.” Menendez, according to the report, was referring specifically to Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right nationalist who is likely to be given a cabinet position, perhaps even a senior one, if Netanyahu forms the next coalition.

The article comes on the heels of another report in the Israeli media, this one in Israel Hayom, which quoted unnamed sources in the U.S. administration and in the American Jewish community expressing their concern over the possibility that Ben-Gvir will be part of a future Israeli cabinet.

Ben-Gvir shot back, accusing Prime Minister Yair Lapid of “providing false briefings to diplomats in order to drag the U.S. administration into interfering in Israeli elections.”

Where’s the line between genuinely trying to prevent an ally from taking steps that will endanger its relations with the U.S. and unfairly intervening in that country’s democratic process?

It’s a bit tricky.

While Menendez was clearly speaking from a position of real concern for the future of the relations between the two countries (he is, after all, a leading hawkish voice among pro-Israel Democrats), it is difficult to view his comments outside the context of the upcoming elections. Israelis still see their nation’s relationship with America as its most important strategic asset, and hinting that Netanyahu might put this relationship in question by adding Ben-Gvir to his government could cause Israeli voters to think twice.

4. More on interventions

On Sunday, Israel announced it had agreed to a U.S.-brokered compromise dividing Israel’s maritime border with Lebanon and the offshore natural gas fields that have been in dispute between the two countries for years.

The deal, still pending legal review and approval of Israel’s cabinet, is a product of intense shuttle diplomacy by Amos Hochstein, the State Department’s top adviser on energy issues.

But wait, was that another case of American intervention in Israeli pre-election politics?

Critics say Hochstein and the U.S. should have waited until after November, so that the gas deal doesn’t go down as a political win for Lapid, who is locked in a neck-and-neck race with Netanyahu.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz decried what he referred to as “pressuring” Israel into the deal. “I am deeply troubled that Biden officials pressured our Israeli allies to hand over their territory to the Iran-controlled terrorist group Hezbollah. Another topic for the next Republican Congress to investigate,” Cruz tweeted, in what could also possibly be seen as yet another level of intervention in Israel’s internal debate.

5. High Holiday Politics

For politicians: Missed the chance to greet your constituents for the Jewish New Year? Fear not, the next couple of weeks will provide ample opportunities for reaching out to the people of the book.

Coming up this week: Yom Kippur, which is, especially in an election year, a good enough reason to put out a statement, make a call to Jewish communal leaders, or, even better, pay a visit to your local synagogue. Biden, apparently, does it all the time.

And then Sukkot, only weeks before the midterm, can be a great opportunity to hop into your Jewish voters’ sukkah just to say hi and wave the lulav. Feeling really desperate? Build your own sukkah and invite Jewish guests!

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