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At Biden’s White House, a unique Sukkot celebration with Arab diplomats

The event was headlined by senior administration officials

The State Department hosted more than a dozen senior diplomats from the Middle East and Asia last week for the White House’s first-ever Sukkot celebration, in an event that highlighted the Biden administration’s focus on advancing religious tolerance in a region with a long history of dubious reactions to Jews. 

The private event, which included a reception in the first sukkah ever erected at Blair House, the official state guest house for visiting dignitaries and guests of the president, was headlined by Second Gentleman Douglas Emhoff; Ambassador Deborah E. Lipstadt, the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism; and Ambassador Rufus Gifford, who previously served as deputy campaign manager of Biden’s 2020 campaign.

Sukkot roundtable with Second Gentleman Doug EM\mhoff at the State Department on Oct. 12, 2022. Photo by U.S. Department of State

In her remarks, shared with the Forward, Lipstadt pointed to the traditional set of arba minim, or the four species: a lulav, or palm frond, an etrog, or citron fruit, three myrtle branches and two willow branches. Together, Lipstadt said, the four could serve not just as a ritual element of Sukkot celebrations, but as a metaphor for the unique interfaith gathering. “Individually, they are small and flimsy — easily breakable,” she said. “However, when you put the pieces of each branch together, it creates a sturdy, beautiful object.” 

 

“It is much like us gathered around this table today, all of us from various countries and cultures, many from different faiths. Despite all our differences, the unfamiliarity we might have with one another and our customs and practices, when we all come together, we are at our strongest to combat hate.” 

 

Shelley Greenspan, the White Jewish Liaison, described the event as “historic” and “deeply meaningful.”

“It was a chance to form connections across cultures and traditions,” she said. “We discussed the need to encourage interfaith tolerance between Muslims and Jews, the strength of forming coalitions to combat hate, and opportunities to advance positive initiatives in the region.”

Lipstadt took her first international trip as antisemitism envoy in June to Saudi Arabia. Her deputy, Aaron Keyak, is presently on a monthlong trip to the region, with an itinerary including meetings with officials in Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. 

 

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