Washington — President Bush had a day full of Jews last Monday.
The Jewish festivities began at a discussion that Bush held with 15 Jewish communal leaders who escaped religious persecution in their countries of origin. After that, he moved on to a Hanukkah candle lighting, where a menorah that belonged to the great-grandfather of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was lit. Then it was on to the party — the evening event was the largest Hanukkah gathering the White House has seen, with more than 500 Jewish guests standing in the receiving line for a handshake and a holiday photo with Bush and the first lady.
Bush’s Hanukkah tradition exceeds any other Jewish celebration offered by his predecessors. While former presidents held one “holiday celebration” for all religions, it was Bush who started the tradition of having a Hanukkah event for the Jewish community, as well as an Iftar dinner for Muslims during the month of Ramadan.
In what became a trademark of his relations with the Jewish community, Bush dedicated his annual meeting with Jewish leaders to community figures who are not part of the formal Jewish establishment. This year, it was a group composed of Jews who were born outside the United States and fled their countries because of religious persecution. Rabbi Gershom Sizomu, who came from the 500-member Abayudaya community in Eastern Uganda and lives in Los Angeles, sat on Bush’s left.
In the initial planning stages, the theme of the White House event was supposed to be a commemoration of the Soviet Jewry movement. But as preparations advanced, a source in the organized Jewish community said, the theme was broadened and finally reflected the larger issue of human rights and the struggle of Jews for freedom all around the world.
The president did invite two former Soviet refuseniks: Yuli Edelstein, who is now deputy speaker of Israel’s Knesset, and Vladimir Kvint from New York. Edelstein later said that he told Bush he is hoping to see him soon in Israel; in response, he received the first formal confirmation from the president regarding his plan to visit Israel in early January 2008.
Bush focused his discussion with the Jewish leaders on issues relating to freedom and human rights, avoiding mention of the current negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.
“America must stay engaged in helping people realize the great blessings of religious freedom,” Bush said after the meeting.
The bigger event was the evening Hanukkah celebration. For the past three years, the party has offered a chance for the White House to make its entire kitchen kosher for a day. The operation was overseen by Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Chabad’s Washington representative. Shemtov said it was first lady Laura Bush who insisted the whole kitchen be koshered instead of bringing in only a limited amount of kosher food.
“They had everything, from lamb chops to latkes,” one of the guests said.
The big-ticket guests at the reception were the Jewish officials in Bush’s administration, including Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Bush’s chief of staff, Joshua Bolten.
The guest list also included representatives from most Jewish groups, religious streams and political parties. Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a key supporter of the Republican Party and of Israel’s Likud party, was among the guests spotted.
Though the holiday celebration steered clear of politics, some in the crowd managed to find hidden references in the president’s speech.
Nathan Diament, the Washington representative of the Orthodox Union — which is at the forefront of a campaign to avoid any future division of Jerusalem — wrote on his blog that he was “especially pleased” to hear the president’s remarks about the Maccabees, who, Bush said, “liberated the capital city of Jerusalem. As they set about rededicating the holy temple, they witnessed a great miracle.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman