Well before Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband Doug Emhoff became the first SGOTUS—the second gentleman of the United States—the role of the vice president’s spouse (like that of the first lady) had evolved beyond hosting social events. When Richard Nixon was vice president, for example, First Lady Pat Nixon kept a fairly high profile accompanying her husband on international trips. And Second Lady Tipper Gore, who was also active in combating homelessness, will forever be remembered by Gen-Xers like me for going up against Frank Zappa and Twisted Sister’s Dee Snider in her successful campaign to affix warning labels on music with explicit lyrics.
Enter Doug Emhoff—a Jewish entertainment lawyer from Los Angeles who arrived on the national stage when his wife, then California Senator Kamala Harris, joined Joe Biden’s presidential ticket in 2020. Moment did a long profile on Emhoff two years ago, just after he officially became the second gentleman. Moment contributor Dan Freedman reached back to describe Emhoff’s upbringing in a Reform Jewish household, his courtship with Kamala, and more. “Whether he likes it or not, Emhoff’s Judaism will be under a microscope,” Freedman wrote in pondering what Emhoff would mean to the American Jewish community.
Today it seems the answer to that question may be “Quite a lot.” In his latest Jewish Politics & Power newsletter, Nathan Guttman writes that Emhoff, whom he dubs “Biden’s unofficial antisemitism czar,” has become the most powerful player for Jewish Americans in the White House. Last fall, he helped host the first-ever Rosh Hashanah reception for Jewish communal leaders there. And in December, in the wake of high-profile expressions of antisemitism and a reported rise in antisemitic acts around the country, Emhoff hosted a White House roundtable with Jewish leaders representing various denominations and organizations to listen to their concerns.
Since then, the second gentleman has been part of an effort by the Biden administration to coordinate a national strategy for combatting antisemitism, at home and abroad. Emhoff recently toured Poland and Germany, joined by Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. In Krakow, he met with Holocaust survivors and other members of the Jewish community, as well as Ukrainian refugees. And on Tuesday, when Emhoff attended the State of the Union address in Washington, his invited guest was Ruth Cohen, herself an Auschwitz survivor who volunteers at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC and who spoke at an event in Cairo, Egypt, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Cohen and Emhoff could be seen at the State of the Union seated in First Lady Jill Biden’s viewing box near Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova, rock star/activist Bono and former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s husband, Paul Pelosi.
At the White House on Monday, Emhoff co-hosted the Principals Committee Meeting of the Interagency Group to Counter Antisemitism, Islamophobia, and Related Forms of Discrimination and Bias. The group includes more than two dozen executive offices, departments and federal agencies. And today, Emhoff gave keynote remarks at the U.N. High-Level Side Event on Globalizing Efforts to Combat Antisemitism. Introducing himself as the first Jewish spouse of a U.S. president or vice president, Emhoff declared that it was his first visit to the United Nations, but certainly won’t be his last. Acknowledging a “chilling interconnection between all forms of hate,” Emhoff spoke passionately about the need to “speak out against antisemitism and call out those who don’t,” to truthfully educate Americans about the horrors of the Holocaust and to hold individuals who engage in antisemitic or other hateful violence accountable. Confidently asserting that “in our administration,” he would be committed to actions over simple words, Emhoff touted, for example, increased funding for security at places of worship, including synagogues.
He may have arrived in this position by accident, as a Jewish non-politician whose spouse was elected vice president, but it’s fair to say that Doug Emhoff is meeting his moment. And if American Jews do indeed have him under the microscope, surely they like what they see.