A tale of two Chanukah parties: Obama’s last and Trump (International’s) first

A tale of two Chanukah parties: Obama’s last and Trump (International’s) first

President Barack Obama, with first lady Michelle, speaks at a Chanukah reception with the son and granddaughter of the late Israeli President Shimon Peres — Chemi Peres and Mika Almog — at the White House last week. 

 Photo by Aude Guerrucci-pool/Getty Images
President Barack Obama, with first lady Michelle, speaks at a Chanukah reception with the son and granddaughter of the late Israeli President Shimon Peres — Chemi Peres and Mika Almog — at the White House last week. Photo by Aude Guerrucci-pool/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Weird paradoxes have been packed into Chanukah observance forever.

It’s the holiday about killing infidels that is now celebrated as a victory of religious pluralism. It’s the unofficial little Jewish holiday that a U.S. congressman once tried to turn into a major American holiday. It’s the Jewish holiday with terrible songs written by Jews competing with the Christian holiday with wonderful songs, also written by Jews.

Add this to the ironies: When eight or so Jewish organizations dropped out of a Chanukah party this year because of its associations with President-elect Donald Trump, ambassadors from Muslim countries replaced them.

For all the laughs packed into Wednesday’s marathon last week of D.C. Chanukah celebrations, there was also earnestness: a loving, if mournful, farewell delivered by President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, to the Jewish community.

A few blocks away, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Azerbaijan Embassy co-hosted a Chanukah party at the Trump International Hotel.

Eight liberal Jewish groups said they would not attend the event because of its associations with Trump, some citing his broadsides against Muslims, Mexicans and other groups, and others questioning the propriety of making payments to a business owned by the incoming president. Some groups also objected to the association with Azerbaijan, an autocracy that scores low on the human rights index even as it becomes more friendly with Israel. Another three or four centrist groups did not attend, they said, because of scheduling conflicts. (The rancor over the venue was item No. 1 on the agenda of a Presidents Conference meeting in New York the previous evening, sources said.)

That didn’t diminish the holiday spirit, according to folks who attended: Every seat was filled, and Malcolm Hoenlein, the Presidents Conference’s executive vice president, presented 13 envoys — including seven from Muslim majority nations — with commemorative menorahs for the assistance by their countries in putting out last month’s devastating forest fires in Israel.

“Not can we only light candles together, we can douse flames together, and the fact that all of you represent countries who in our hour of need were there for us is deeply appreciated, and I want to thank each and every one of you for doing that,” said Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer.

One remarkable presence among the honorees, given the near total breakdown in Israeli-Palestinian Authority relations, was Maen Areikat, the Palestine Liberation Organization envoy. The P.A. assisted in putting out the fires.

The event, participants said (it was closed to the media), had the air of the incoming administration. Among those attending were Elliott Abrams, the former senior national security counselor in both Bush administrations who reportedly is under serious consideration for a deputy secretary spot at the State or Defense departments in the incoming Trump administration.

The groups on hand leaned more hawkish on foreign policy, particularly on Israel: the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Middle East Forum, the Zionist Organization of America and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.

“It had a good turnout, but it was pretty obvious which organizations weren’t there,” said Shai Franklin, a veteran Jewish insider who attended. “There were not a lot of liberal Jews there.”

Edwin Black, an author who in recent years has done political combat with liberal nonprofits critical of Israel, said the Trump hotel event was “historic” and chided those who were not present. The event “strengthened the visible and growing ties between Israel and many Muslim countries,” said Black, who posed for a selfie with Areikat.

Dermer in his remarks tipped his hat to the venue in an allusion to Trump’s campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again”: Chanukah, he explained, commemorates a period that “made Jews proud again.”

Clever slogans abounded as well outside the hotel, where about 200 demonstrators joined a protest of the event by IfNotNow, the mostly millennial group that has railed against Israel’s presence in the West Bank in years past but in recent years has arisen to claim that the establishment Jewish agenda does not reflect the community, and especially its younger members.

“Worst Chanukah Party Ever,” said one placard, and “We want none of Trump’s hate” — with the word “none” represented by the Hebrew letter “nun” on the side of a dreidel.

There was also a small contingent — about a dozen or so folks — from a group calling itself Jews Choose Trump. Both sides, armed with megaphones, sang dueling Chanukah songs.

Two robustly built Armenian gentlemen bearing placards protesting Azerbaijan wandered between the two groups.

The Trump International Hotel is a block or so from the White House — at the corner of 14th and Pennsylvania — and the Conference of Presidents party with the Azerbaijan Embassy was timed in part so guests could attend the festivities at both venues. (The Obamas will be in Hawaii during Christmas break, hence the party predating the actual holiday by 10 days.)

But there wasn’t much crossover — Dermer and the Presidents Conference chiefs, as well as AIPAC officials, were present at both events. So was Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the president of American Friends of Lubavitch, who kashered the White House kitchen ahead of the party.

Six years ago, at the inaugural White House Jewish American Heritage Month reception, Obama celebrated Jewish heroes and celebrities who defied Jewish stereotypes, including athletes, military figures and astronauts.

Now, on his way out, he honored the memories of Elie Wiesel, the Holocaust memoirist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and Shimon Peres, an Israeli founding father.

At the afternoon reception, describing the menorah designed by Wiesel’s young granddaughter, Obama said, “It’s got bolts and tiles and glue, and it looks like some balsa wood.”

Shira Wiesel interrupted: “It’s actually melted wax.”

Obama smiled. “Over the years, your grandfather also corrected me several times,” he said. “And it was always very helpful.”