Standing on a cold December night in what seemed to be a never ending queue outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, visitors waiting to enter the embassy’s annual Hanukkah reception had plenty of time to commiserate: Is it worse than the wait to get into the White House Hanukkah party? Will the latkes be better than those served at the Polish embassy earlier this week? Does anyone want to split an Uber afterward to catch the Congressional Menorah lighting event on Capitol Hill? After all, many of these people not only know each other well from the daily intersection of Jews and politics in Washington, but from spending the past week Hanukkah-hopping from one party to another, in a city that has turned the commemoration of the Maccabees short-lived victory into a series of must-attend celebrations.
Hanukkah is the ideal holiday for demonstrating one’s friendship to the Jewish people. It’s close enough to Christmas to count as part of the Holiday season and get on the calendar as yet another holiday reception; Hanukkah does not include any difficult-to-follow religious requirements (try catering a party for the Jewish community on Passover, or finding time on Rosh Hashanah). And the message of Hanukkah—a story of the few defeating a much stronger occupying power while fighting for their religious freedom, plus miraculous oil—is a story that almost everyone can celebrate, with little concern of anyone being offended.
And yet, there are still ways to offend members of the Jewish community during Hanukkah, and they were on display at this year’s White House candle lighting reception hosted, in two separate rounds, by President Donald Trump on Thursday. The White House Hanukkah celebration, a tradition launched by George W. Bush, is, by far, the most lucrative and sought-after event for Jewish power players. If November rolls around and there is still no invite in your inbox, your status as a Jewish DC macher may be in decline. Or, it could just be a sign that you’re from the wrong party.
Politics has always been part of the White House Hanukkah events, which are seen as an opportunity to reward donors and supporters, providing them with bragging rights and a social-media ready photo opportunities. But while previous presidents have tried to make sure the guest list maintains a semblance of balance between political favorites and Jewish communal leaders, Trump, in his first Hanukkah reception last year, broke with tradition and did not invite any Jewish lawmakers from the rival party. Many communal figures known for their liberal views also found themselves denied access to a beautifully decorated White House, its endless flow of fresh latkes, and to the most famous kosher lamb chops in Washington.
This year, Trump corrected course. He returned to the tradition of hosting two receptions, in order to allow more participants, and invited all Congressional Democrats. Some of them even showed up, including Reps. Ted Deutch of Florida and Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey. But it was hard to avoid the political shade. When Trump spoke of his decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the crowd broke into repeated chants: “Four more years, four more years.” When he repeated this reference at the second Hanukkah reception, the audience responded with calls of “Trump, Trump, Trump,” similar to those heard at the massive Trump campaign rallies across the country. (The president also made a reference to “your country” when speaking to the Jewish audience about Israel, inadvertently touching on the hyper-sensitive issue of claiming Jewish-Americans’ first allegiance is to Israel.)
Some of those participating at the White House Hanukkah receptions this year found managing the busy Jewish celebrations schedule even more daunting this year. The White House event was postponed due to the passing of former president George H. W. Bush, forcing some participants to rush from the White House to the Israeli embassy, which held its own reception in the limited time window between the two parties hosted by Trump. Others chose to skip the Israeli embassy event and head to nearby Trump International Hotel for the Republican Jewish Coalition’s Hanukkah reception, attended, one could imagine, by some of those chanting “four more years” at the White House.
Using Hanukkah to play nice with Jewish constituents isn’t limited to the White House. In Congress, a reception hosted by Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Republican Lee Zeldin took place at the Library of Congress with a bipartisan theme. For some foreign embassies in Washington, Hanukkah receptions have long been part of their holiday event calendar. The embassy of India is known for its elaborate Hanukkah reception, praised by many as offering the best food a Jewish Washingtonian can hope for, and the Austrian embassy also has a long tradition of hosting a Hanukkah reception.
Joining this year was the Polish embassy, which hosted a joint event with the embassy of Israel. It was a year of tense relations between Poland and the world Jewish community, after the government in Warsaw passed legislation criminalizing in certain cases the use of expressions accusing Poland for Holocaust-era atrocities. The Netanyahu government in Israel played a key role in soothing the tensions by making statements supportive of the Polish position, statements that were harshly criticized by Holocaust scholars and survivors in Israel and across the world. Now, with Hanukkah as a backdrop, the Israelis have once again stepped in to help Poland rebuild its standing with the Jewish community. At the well-attended event at the residence of the Polish ambassador there was hardly any mention of the dispute, and ambassadors of both countries simply noted Poland’s commitment to fight anti-Semitism and the understandings reached between the two countries following the legislation. And it seemed to work—the talk around the buffet table was less about the controversial Polish move regarding Holocaust history and more about the stale jelly doughnuts.