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Oh, You Better Not Pout: Beware of Chanukah-Party Snub

December 3, 2009 By:
Tevi Troy
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Officials in the Obama administration have decided that they will be cutting the guest list in half for this year's Chanukah party at the White House. The Jerusalem Post, which first reported this development, suggested that this will be politically harder for Obama the Democrat than it would have been for Bush the Republican. As one of President Bush's advisers for many of his Chanukah parties, I can assure you that it wouldn't have been easy in the previous White House, either.

During the Bush years, Jewish staffers were inundated by people who wanted to be invited to Bush's Chanukah soirées. Karl Rove once proclaimed at a West Wing meeting about the upcoming holiday parties that invites to the White House Chanukah party were officially the toughest ticket in town.

Bush's first Chanukah party, in 2001, gained national attention as the first one ever thrown in the White House residence. Each year, the tradition continued, with various refinements along the way.

The first year, the children of a White House staffer lit the menorah in a ceremony kicking off the party. In subsequent years, Bush selected as candle-lighters children of Jewish men and women in uniform, the father of slain Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and -- in a joint ceremony to acknowledge Israel's 60th birthday -- the grandsons of Harry Truman, the president who first recognized the new nation of Israel, and of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister.

Another refinement was the introduction of kosher food. The party was not kosher at first, as such items are significantly more expensive -- 33 percent more, according to an estimate in The Jerusalem Post. Initially, the White House did have a table with kosher food for guests who kept dietary laws, but this led to confusion over which offerings were kosher and which were not.

One year, due to a labeling mishap, some observant Jews accidentally ate from the nonkosher tables, leading to high-decibel complaints directed at the prim-and-proper White House ushers. From then on, Mrs. Bush decreed that the parties would be completely kosher.

The scrutiny given to a White House Chanukah party -- and particularly, to the guest list -- will certainly be more intense in a Democratic administration than in the Bush years. One reason is the attachment of Jews to the Democratic Party, as voters and, of course, donors.

Fully 78 percent of Jewish voters supported the Obama-Biden ticket in 2008, and Jewish fundraisers figured prominently in the campaign. Reducing the size of the guest list, as Obama officials want to do, will therefore be an extremely difficult task. Just inviting the more than 40 Jewish Democratic members of Congress and their spouses will take a significant portion of the allotted spots -- let alone the expected invites to Jewish senior staffers and large-dollar donors.

Yet one wonders if there is more to this reduction.

Over the past year, the Obama administration has given the Jewish community some reasons to fear that it takes its votes for granted, such as the administration's pressure on the Israeli government over settlements.

And many are concerned with the selection of Mary Robinson -- a leader of the Durban conference boycotted by both Israel and the United States for its anti-Israel bias -- to win a Medal of Freedom. In addition, the administration attempted to put -- but eventually, backed away from -- Israel critic Charles Freeman at the head of the National Intelligence Council.

Even some of Obama's supporters may see the holiday shindig in the context of this larger issues. Also, Obama should be warned that Jewish visitors often live up to the old maxim: "Gentiles leave without saying goodbye, while Jews say goodbye and never leave."

After one event, then-Chief of Staff Josh Bolten joked to Bush's senior staff that White House military aides almost had to unsheathe their swords to get Chanukah celebrants to exit by the party's 8 p.m. close.

A smaller group may make this particular problem easier to handle, but neither it -- nor a nagging sense that there may be a studied callousness at work here -- are going away anytime soon.

Tevi Troy is a visiting senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. He held multiple jobs in the Bush White House, and served as the White House Jewish liaison from 2003-04.

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