Marking Hanukkah, Biden vows to keep military support for Israel until Hamas gone

US president tells White House holiday reception ‘surge’ in antisemitism ‘sickening,’ promises steadfast backing despite differences with Israel’s leaders

US President Joe Biden speaks at a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023, as second gentleman Doug Emhoff and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl listen. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)
US President Joe Biden speaks at a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023, as second gentleman Doug Emhoff and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl listen. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via AP)

WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden vowed to continue arming Israel in its war with Hamas during a Hanukkah reception at the White House on Monday night, but warned that Jerusalem needed to be wary of shifting world opinion as it pursues its goal of toppling the terror group.

Speaking to a packed crowd of some 800 in East Room, including Holocaust survivors, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and around two dozen members of Congress, Biden also called a “surge of antisemitism” around the globe “sickening,” while drawing applause for his administration’s efforts to rush more aid to Gaza.

“We continue to provide military assistance until they get rid of Hamas, but we have to be careful,” Biden said of US support for the war. “The whole world, public opinion can shift overnight. We can’t let that happen.”

Amid US pressure for Israel to do more to protect civilians in Gaza, Biden noted that he does not always agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. He said the Israeli premier has a photo of the two of them from a 1973 meeting on which the president scribbled “Bibi, I love, but I don’t agree with a damn thing you have to say.”

“It’s about the same today,” Biden told the crowd.

“As I said after the [Oct.7] attack, my commitment to the safety of the Jewish people, and the security of Israel, its right to exist as an independent Jewish state, is unshakeable,’ he said.

US President Joe Biden departs after attending a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

“You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist. I am a Zionist,” he said, echoing comments he made in the wake of October 7, when thousands of Hamas terrorists rampaged through southern Israeli communities, killing some 1,200 people, mostly civilians slaughtered amid brutal atrocities, and taking some 240 hostage, in what Biden has previously called the deadliest day for the Jewish people since the Holocaust.

“Were there no Israel, there would not be a Jew in the world who is safe,” he added at Monday’s event.

Also present at the reception were Jewish community leaders and second gentleman Doug Emhoff, who was among those who lit a menorah partially made from the original timbers of the White House.

The husband of Vice President Kamala Harris, Emhoff is the first Jewish person to be the spouse of one of the country’s nationally elected leaders. Last week, he presided over the lighting ceremony of a massive menorah in front of the White House.

Separately, a menorah recovered from Kibbutz Kfar Aza in southern Israel, one of the communities ravaged in the October 7 attack, is currently on display at the White House.

A menorah is lit nightly during the eight-day Jewish festival, which this year is being celebrated from December 7 until Friday.

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York City led Monday’s ceremony at the White House, telling the president: “You’ve been a steadfast supporter of Israel’s right to defend itself. A trusted and true friend to the Jewish people.”

Buchdahl talked about the darkness of the October 7 attack by Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl speaks during a Hanukkah reception with US President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Dec. 11, 2023. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds, Pool via AP)

But she said that since, “It’s only gotten darker, with many around the world justifying terrorism, normalizing antisemitism, with the pain of so many lives lost — Israeli and Palestinian — in this just but tragic war.”

She also drew sustained applause when she called Biden “a beacon of strength.”

The Biden administration in May announced what it called the first-ever national strategy to counter antisemitism.

Still, antisemitism has only intensified in some quarters as criticism rises over the mounting Palestinian death toll.

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff lights the Shamash on the menorah during a Hanukkah reception with President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House in Washington, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023. (Elizabeth Frantz/Pool via AP)

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has warned of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza.

Biden said of hostages being held by Hamas, which US authorities have been working for months to help free, “We’re not going to stop until we get every one of them home.” He said he had spent “countless hours” on the issue himself.

The crowd also cheered when he talked of his administration’s efforts to increase humanitarian aid flowing to civilians in Gaza caught in the fighting.

Others, though, have decried Biden’s stance on the war.

Earlier Monday, protesters gathered outside the White House as nearly 20 women describing themselves as “Jewish elders” chained themselves to the fence around the grounds. Wearing black T-shirts reading “Not In Our Name,” they chanted: “Biden, Biden, pick a side! Cease-fire not genocide!” while reading the names of those killed in Gaza.

Authorities took the women away after using a bolt cutter to cut the chains that had encircled the protesters’ waists. Organizers said they deliberately picked the day of the White House’s Hanukkah celebration to protest.

“We, as elder Jews, we know what genocide looks like. We know what genocide feels like. It’s in our bodies, in our bones,” said Esther Farmer of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group which organized the demonstration. “It’s horrifying, it’s devastating. Sometimes, it’s hard to get up in the morning to see this, and it’s being done in the name of Jews. So we are here — as elderly Jews — to say, not in our name.”

The US Park Police said they issued 18 citations to the protesters and released them from custody.

Activists with Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist group, gather to protest the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza and chain themselves to the fence outside the White House, Monday, Dec. 11, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Biden at the reception said he recognized American Jews “hurt” and “fear for your safety” because “the surge of antisemitism in the United States and around the world is sickening.”

“We see it in our communities and in schools and colleges and social media,” the president said, adding that such instances “surface painful scars.”

On Saturday, Liz Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, resigned following pressure from donors and criticism over testimony at a congressional hearing where she was unable to say under repeated questioning that calls on campus for the genocide of Jews would violate the school’s conduct policy.

Universities across the US have been accused of failing to protect Jewish students amid the fallout from the war in Gaza.

White House spokesman Andrew Bates declined to comment Monday on Magill’s decision to resign.

Presidents Claudine Gay of Harvard and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who appeared alongside Magill, have also faced criticism.

Gay has apologized for her remarks. On Monday, hundreds of Harvard faculty signed a petition calling on the university to keep Gay in her role as president.

Bates noted that Magill issued a statement withdrawing her remarks. “That was the right thing to do,” he said.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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