Washington Fuss Over White House Hanukkah Party

Monday, December 14, 2009 - 1:19pm

WASHINGTON — At the first Hanukkah party in the Obama White House, a Jewish student choir will sing in sweet harmony, the two young children of a soldier deployed in Iraq will light a 19th-century silver menorah from Prague and President Obama and his wife, Michelle, will greet more than 500 guests in a celebration that is expected to spill from the State Room to the East Room.

But to the dismay of some administration officials, the plans for next week’s party — one of the hottest holiday events for the nation’s Jewish elite — have been overtaken by feverish debate over the size of the guest list, the language on the invitations and what this says (or does not say) about Mr. Obama’s relationship with Jews.

President George W. Bush, who began the tradition of White House Hanukkah parties, invited 600 people to his last party, administration officials say. But rumors spread wildly, first in the Israeli press and then locally, that President Bush had invited 800 people and that the Obamas were planning to invite only 400. (Administration officials say they have invited 550 people.)

The invitations have also caused some consternation because they make no mention of Hanukkah, inviting guests to “a holiday reception” on Dec. 16.

In an opinion article published by JTA, the Jewish news agency, Tevi Troy, a former Bush administration liaison to Jewish groups, warned that the Obama White House had given Jewish Americans “a number of reasons to fear that it takes its votes for granted.” Mr. Troy cited as examples the administration’s call for a freeze on Jewish settlements in the West Bank and the decision to honor Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland, who has been accused by some Democratic lawmakers of anti-Israel bias.

Mr. Troy said the reduced guest list created “a nagging sense that there may be a studied callousness at work here.”

His commentary, published on Nov. 23, and an article a week earlier in The Jerusalem Post, touched off a flurry of news articles, blog postings and kitchen table discussions. This week, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Achronot published photographs of President Bush lighting a menorah and Mr. Obama standing with Santa Claus alongside an article headlined, “Obama Downsizes Hanukkah in the White House.”

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who is overseeing the process of making the White House kitchen kosher for the party, said he was besieged with questions about the issue on a recent trip to Israel.

“I usually get asked when I came and how long I’m staying; this time, all anyone wanted to know was whether I was getting invited to the White House Hanukkah party,” said Rabbi Shemtov, who heads the Washington office of the American Friends of Lubavitch, which lobbies for the Lubavitch movement.

Rabbi Shemtov, who has attended Hanukkah parties at the White House, said he raised an eyebrow when he received his invitation, but noted that the Bush administration once sent invitations out with Christmas trees on them.

“This is all one big overblown latke,” the rabbi said.

“I feel that we need to save our communal kvetching in reserve for when it’s more called for and really matters,” he continued.

Jewish Democrats accused Republicans of using the party for political ammunition. Advisers to Mr. Obama described the focus on the guest list as disappointing.

“Hanukkah is a wonderful holiday to celebrate, but that’s not the whole ballgame, by any means, in terms of outreach to the Jewish community,” said Susan Sher, one of the president’s two liaisons to Jewish groups.

Ms. Sher noted that Mr. Obama held the first White House seder, invited the leaders of more than a dozen Jewish organizations for a wide-ranging discussion at the White House in July, held a conference call with 900 rabbis in August and videotaped a message to Jews for the High Holy Days in the fall.

Administration officials also noted that White House records showed that Mr. Bush never had more than 584 guests at his Hanukkah parties. Most years there were fewer than 500, they said.

Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, which has disagreed with aspects of Mr. Obama’s policy toward Israel, praised his outreach and said what mattered was that he would continue to hold the party.

Mr. Troy, who said he was astonished by the reaction to his article, agreed. He said the Obamas were “doing what they need to do in terms of outreach.”

As for the party, he is not expecting an invitation.

“The people who are invited will have a great time,” he said. “And a lot of people who didn’t get in will grumble. But you won’t hear any grumbling from me.”

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