‘A flame of faith that endures’: Biden’s Hanukkah party centers on the Oct. 7 massacre
President Joe Biden, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York City host a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House, Dec. 11, 2023.
(Photo: Bonnie Cash/Pool/Getty Images)

By Ron Kampeas
December 12, 2023

WASHINGTON (JTA) — President Joe Biden had a menorah custom-made from a White House beam, but it was another menorah from thousands of miles away that elicited the most powerful reaction at the annual White House Hanukkah party Monday night.

Partygoers making their way up to the mansion’s residence, where the celebration took place, passed a landing where a smaller menorah was on display, one recovered from the rubble of a home in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, one of the villages targeted in Hamas’ terror attack on Israel two months ago.

“This menorah miraculously survived the October 7th massacre against the people of Israel,” said a framed plaque with the White House insignia. 

Read more: Menorah from Gaza border kibbutz sent to President Biden

The grief of the Oct. 7 massacre, and the determination to prevent its recurrence, permeated the festivities Monday night, where Biden welcomed more than 800 guests — the White House’s largest party of the season.

“From the Maccabees defeating one of history’s most powerful empires, and oil lasting eight days – it’s as a miracle all by itself, a flame of faith that endures from tragedy to persecution, to survival and to hope,” Biden said. “Most of you know someone directly or indirectly, a family friend who was stolen from you or wounded or traumatized, called up for reserve duty after this last attack in Israel.”

Biden stood in the East Room before the main menorah, which was introduced last year by first lady Jill Biden as the first permanent White House menorah. It was fashioned by resident carpenters from wood left over from a previous renovation to symbolize the permanence of the U.S. Jewish community.

But the focus at this event was Israel and its meaning to Jews as a bulwark against persecution. 

“As I said after the attack, my commitment to the safety of Jewish people, the security of Israel, its right to exist as an independent Jewish state is unshakeable,” Biden said. “Folks, were there no Israel there wouldn’t be a Jew in the world who was safe.”

The crowd applauded and cheered. A minute later, Biden committed to backing one of Israel’s goals in the war, the eradication of Hamas, implicitly rejecting growing calls from the left, including from some in his party, for a ceasefire.

“We will continue to provide military assistance to Israel until they get rid of Hamas,” he said to more cheers.

Biden alluded to the failure of human rights groups to immediately condemn sexual violence that took place in the Oct. 7 attack.

“Let me be clear, Hamas using rape, sexual violence and terrorism and torture of Israeli women and girls was appalling and unforgivable,” Biden said. “When I was there, I saw some of the photographs, it was beyond” — Biden paused — “just beyond comprehension.”

Biden addressed the shock of many Jews after the attack, compounded by the isolation many felt when they did not hear condemnations from the left. He thanked Sen. Chuck Schumer, the Jewish Democratic Senate majority leader from New York, for his recent speech in the Senate excoriating many in his own party for playing down the significance of the massacre.

“I also recognize your hurt from the silence and the fear for your safety,” he said. “There’s a surge of antisemitism in the United States of America and around the world. It’s sickening. I know we see it across our communities in schools and colleges on social media. They surface painful scars from millennia.”

CNN reported that families of U.S. citizens still held hostage by Hamas in Gaza asked to be invited to the event but were turned down. The White House declined to comment.

Lighting the menorah on the fifth night of Hanukkah was Doug Emhoff, the Jewish second gentleman, and four White House staffers who were descended from Holocaust survivors. Biden met before the ceremony with five Holocaust survivors. He told the crowd that when his children and grandchildren come of age, he flies them to Germany to tour the Dachau concentration camp.

“I want them to see, I want them to spend the day there and see, you can’t pretend you don’t know: silence is complicity,” he said.

The plaque in front of the Kfar Aza menorah echoed Biden’s speech. “It is a reminder of the flame of faith that endures from tragedy and persecution, and is a symbol of the Jewish people’s eternal spirit of resilience and hope that continues to shine its light on the world,” it read.

Across from the Kfar Aza menorah, a military band played Jewish music throughout the evening. In another corner of the entrance hall, the U.S. Air Force Jewish Cadet Choir performed.

“This song is dedicated to the hostages,” the choirmaster said as people made their way upstairs.

The chorus launched into “Acheinu,” a Jewish prayer for those in harm’s way, to a melody by the Canadian songwriter Abie Rotenberg.

“Our brethren, all of Israel, subject to sorrow and to captivity, caught between the land and the sea,” they sang in Hebrew.

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