USA Today reports on a controversy arising from the public perception of Barack Obama’s coolness to Israel and the resources Obama has put into this year’s Hanukkah party at the White House. Bush aide Tevi Troy criticized the downscaling of the party from 800 to 500 guests as a sign that Obama has less of a commitment to Israel and Jewish politicians. The White House says that they’re trying to be conscious of the scaled-down celebrations of all Americans this year:
When is a Hanukkah party more than just a Hanukkah party? When it is hosted by the White House, and viewed as emblematic of the Obama administration’s relationship with American Jews.
The White House cut the size of the Dec. 16 party to about 500 people, a sharp decline from the 800 or so guests who reportedly came during the last years of the Bush administration. Observers have cited the high cost of kosher catering — which the Bush family implemented in 2005 — as well as the desire to tone down all holiday festivities because of the country’s economic troubles.
But the downsized party has been taken by some as a further sign of the Obama administration’s inability to connect with American Jews. While Obama garnered 78% of the American Jewish vote last year, he has faced scrutiny from some Jewish leaders who say he is placing too much pressure on Israel, and not doing enough to court the traditionally active Democratic constituency.
Tevi Troy, Bush’s Jewish liaison, who helped plan the White House Hanukkah party, connected those dots last month in a column for JTA, the wire service for Jewish newspapers. Shrinking the Hanukkah party was akin to pressuring the Israeli government over settlements or giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, who led the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, which was boycotted by the United States because of anti-Israel bias, Troy argued.
“For these reasons, while the size of the party may not be a big deal in the grand scheme of things, even some of Obama’s supporters may see it in the context of this longer train of politically tone-deaf decisions,” Troy wrote.
Of course, I’m not Jewish, and so this doesn’t resonate as much with me, but this looks like a tempest in a teapot. Had someone informed me of a 40% reduction in the number of guests to the White House Christmas party, I would have shrugged — especially since the party still had 500 invited guests. That’s two-and-a-half times as many people that attended my wedding, and as I recall, that was a pretty good party.
Had the White House canceled the party outright, that might have been a different story, but even then it seems like a silly issue to debate. The test of Barack Obama’s policies on Israel comes from the actual policies he puts in place (and for which this year he gets a lot less than a “good, solid B-plus”). I’d be laughing if Obama and his allies attempted to defend his record by pointing out the existence of the Hanukkah party, or the relative growth or decline in the guest list. We should similarly scoff at any attempt to base criticism of his diplomacy based on the same data.
And while we’re discussing it, please accept my belated wishes to our Jewish readers of a happy Hanukkah.