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Jewish groups push White House to help counter antisemitism. For Doug Emhoff, it's personal.

The second gentleman's involvement is an encouraging sign that the Biden administration wants to make combating antisemitism a high priority, observers say.
Image: Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks during a roundtable discussion with local restaurant owners at the Annapolis Maritime Museum and Park, in Annapolis, Md., on May 18, 2021.
Doug Emhoff, husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, speaks during a roundtable discussion with local restaurant owners at the Annapolis Maritime Museum and Park, in Annapolis, Md., on May 18, 2021.Paul W. Gillespie / The Baltimore Sun via AP

As a coalition of prominent Jewish organizations puts pressure on the White House to act in the wake of increased antisemitic incidents in recent weeks, one prolific surrogate for the Biden administration with a personal stake is stepping up: Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Emhoff, the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president, opened a virtual meeting Wednesday between group leaders and senior White House officials and staff, including with the National Security Council and the departments of Justice and Education. He said the administration stands united with them and was working to counter the reported uptick in violence and hate speech against American Jews this month as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians raged in the Gaza Strip.

"He was very heartfelt in his remarks," said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, a nonpartisan public policy arm of the nation's largest Orthodox Jewish organization.

Attendees of the private meeting said Emhoff's involvement is an encouraging sign that the White House wants to make combating antisemitism a high priority, and that he has the capability to carve out his own platform as second gentleman beyond campaigning and fundraising on behalf of Democratic candidates and being a high-profile booster of the administration's Covid-19 relief plan.

"It was clear that the Biden administration's hearts are in the right place and we have an ally in the White House who rejects the notion that Jews should be subject to violence and intimidation," said Karen Paikin Barall, government relations director for Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America. "However, we are watching closely how the White House responds with specific actions and policies."

That includes the immediate filling of key roles, including a Department of State special envoy focused on monitoring antisemitism, as well as a White House liaison to the Jewish community, a position that was vacant under the Trump administration.

Attendees said President Joe Biden's administration was actively vetting candidates for the envoy role, but had not indicated any potential names for a liaison.

A White House official tamped down the notion that Emhoff could have a related breakout role, telling NBC News he would not serve as liaison and that his involvement in this week's meeting was "not part of a platform or agenda," rather, his relationship with the Jewish community "is a core part of his values, it's a part of who he is and his family's background."

Emhoff tweeted earlier this week that the rise in antisemitic attacks was "reprehensible" after a reported wave of antisemitic incidents and apparent hate crime attacks against synagogues and schools, including in San Francisco, suburban Chicago and Tucson, Arizona.

Jewish people have also been physically assaulted and harassed in the streets of Los Angeles, New York and South Florida, while mosques in New York have reported anti-Muslim vandalism this month — underscoring the tensions that remain even as a bilateral cease-fire agreement took hold May 21. Pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been largely peaceful.

Friends of Emhoff say he's proud of his Jewish heritage and that they're certain he'll use his influence, even if it's not part of any formal capacity, to fight against antisemitism and keep it at the forefront of the Biden-Harris agenda.

"I think he understands the urgency and importance of this issue and recognizes this needs to stay front and center," said Rabbi Beth Jacowitz Chottiner, Emhoff's childhood friend who leads Temple Shalom in Louisville, Kentucky.

Her synagogue has received antisemitic threats in the past and has security inside the building during services as protection.

For Emhoff, "it's not just a political issue," she said, "it's also a personal one."

Using his platform

Before relocating to Washington, D.C., Emhoff worked as an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. Born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised in New Jersey, Emhoff served as liaison to Jewish groups and donors on the 2020 campaign trail, sharing personal stories about playing sports at Jewish summer camps and how he wore a three-piece suit to his bar mitzvah.

"A Biden-Harris administration will stand strong against antisemitism, period," he said in August at the Jewish Floridians Summit hosted by Florida Democrats. "They have a comprehensive plan to tackle both the violence that stems from antisemitism and hateful and dangerous lies that drive it. Joe and Kamala will call hate by its proper name, whatever its source, and condemn it, each and every time."

While Emhoff said his wife's goals as vice president would center around the "pursuit of justice," his priorities remain more vague.

Typically, presidential and vice presidential spouses might take on charitable issues or agendas that complement the administration. When first lady Jill Biden was second lady, she advocated for community colleges and education for women and girls, while Michelle Obama advanced her healthy eating initiative as first lady. Former second lady Karen Pence promoted art therapy and aiding military families.

During a virtual fundraiser last year with the former late-night host David Letterman, Emhoff mentioned helping to provide pro-bono access to legal services. Politico reported this month that he's also interested in the issue of food security.

"All of his friends who are lawyers, including myself, have been told by him that we should be ready to be asked to do something," Aaron Jacoby, a longtime friend and former law partner, said. "Whatever that something is, I'm not sure yet. He can be a strong advocate on whatever he thinks is important."

The right role

People who previously held the position of White House liaison to the Jewish community say the Biden administration should act quickly to designate someone in the face of rising antisemitism, which was propelled in recent years by a growth in far-right and online extremism.

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish civil rights group, said preliminary analysis of Twitter data from May 7 to 14 found more than 17,000 tweets which used variations of the phrase "Hitler was right," coinciding with the latest round of fighting in Gaza and heightened social media attention on the conflict.

"This is a crisis, and should be treated as such," said Noam Neusner, who was a domestic policy speechwriter for President George W. Bush when he was chosen to also serve as the White House's liaison to the Jewish community in 2004 and 2005.

Neusner said the role today will require making sure the president is briefed on the issue regularly, that he and the White House's press office speak forcefully against antisemitism and without qualification, even against members of his own party, and that key agencies such as the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI are coordinating with state and local authorities to protect Jewish religious institutions and buildings and alert their memberships to potential threats.

Biden's team has a number of Jewish people in leadership and advisory roles already, including his chief of staff, Ron Klain, and Attorney General Merrick Garland. The liaison position "should not be treated as a side hustle for the VP's spouse just because he is Jewish," Neusner said in an email, adding that "it should be a staff position who is deeply familiar with the community ... that means the person must be accountable for the work they do, and removable from the staff, if necessary."

Matt Nosanchuk, who served as a White House liaison in the Obama administration, said the role is also consuming and requires navigating international disputes and tapping into what members of the Jewish community, representing an array of political and policy interests, think should be done.

Nosanchuk, who is president of the New York Jewish Agenda, a progressive advocacy group, said the Biden administration has been effective at engaging with the Jewish community so far, but agreed that a liaison role can't be relegated to an inexperienced staffer.

Someone like Emhoff "can be a face of the White House," he said, "but that's different than the day-to-day relationship building that's needed."