Obama's farewell: Jews 'at the forefront of every fight for freedom'

"The story of this community and the work you continue to do to repair the world forever reminds us to have faith that there are brighter days ahead."

December 15, 2016 07:14
3 minute read.
Hanukka at the White House

Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama as they light a Hanukka made by pupils from Jerusalem’s Hand in Hand school, at the White House.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

WASHINGTON – Marking his final holiday season at the White House, US President Barack Obama pulled at the community’s heartstrings at his last Hanukka reception for America’s Jewish leadership on Wednesday by reminding them of their historic fight for liberal democratic ideals.

The president is engaged in a long series of “lasts” just one month from the inauguration of Donald Trump. This reception may have been his last significant engagement with the Jewish community at home, capping eight years of festive parties held throughout the White House mansion.

Yarmulkes capped snowmen in the cross hall, and once again, latkes, sushi and lamb chops were served as the Marine Chamber Orchestra played folk songs. Members of Congress, Supreme Court justices and loyal Democratic operatives were in attendance – some of whom openly waxed nostalgic about their party’s past years in power, wondering if they ever again would get to celebrate in the East Room.

Among this year’s guests were Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, US Treasury Secretary Jack Lew and under secretary Adam Szubin, Justice Stephen Breyer and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, White House chief of staff Denis McDonough and Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.

Representatives from Congress attended the evening event: Jerry Nadler of New York, Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida and Brad Sherman of California. Afterward, Wasserman Schultz – who led the Democratic National Committee until a Russian hack led to the release of her e-mails – held her own Hanukka reception at the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill.

Jewish organizations, including the Conference of Presidents, J Street, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, Jewish Federations and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, were well represented at the White House, as well as many of the nation’s prominent rabbis and community activists.

The children of Israel’s founding father, Shimon Peres, were present to assist Obama in his final lighting of the menorah.

“I would like to thank President Obama from the depths of my heart for this very moving tribute in memory of my father,” Chemi Peres told The Jerusalem Post. “Hanukka is the festival of lights, and this special tribute – acting as an additional link in the important bond between the United States, American Jewry and the State of Israel – brings light to the important vision we all share, and that our father, Shimon Peres, promoted throughout his service for Israel: a future of renewal, prosperity and peace.”

Obama told guests not to forget that the story of Hanukka is, at its core, one of many demonstrating the Jewish people’s epic fight for human freedom.

“Tonight, we come together for the final time to tell a familiar story,” Obama said, recounting the Maccabees’ plight. “That spirit from two millennia ago inspired America’s founders two centuries ago.

“They proclaimed a new nation where citizens could speak and assemble and worship as they wished. George Washington himself was said to have been stirred by the lights of Hanukka after seeing a soldier seek the warmth of a menorah in the snows of Valley Forge,” he continued.

Obama then pointed to a letter on public display in the White House written to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, that assured the community that a new, independent America “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”

“It’s easy, sometimes, to take these fundamental freedoms for granted. But they, too, are miraculous,” he added. “They, too, have to be nurtured and safeguarded. And it’s in defense of these ideals – precisely because the Jewish people have known oppression – that throughout our history, this community has been at the forefront of every fight for freedom.”

In the days before Trump’s surprise election, Obama warned that the GOP nominee was a threat to these ideals – and to the republic itself. In the days since, some Jewish-American organizations have expressed alarm at the president-elect’s entertainment of a Muslim registry, of his immigrant deportation schemes and of his appointment of figures associated with white nationalism to the very top of his White House team.

The outgoing president was intent to underscore those political values that have long made the majority of American Jews Democratic in the first place – a commitment to pluralism, a tolerance for multiculturalism and a devotion to the protection of civil liberties.

“In my last months in office, I want to thank you for all your courage, and your conviction, and your outspokenness,” Obama said. “The story of this community and the work you continue to do to repair the world forever reminds us to have faith that there are brighter days ahead.”

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