WASHINGTON — US President Donald Trump strode onto the stage at White House Hanukkah Reception with a particular air of confidence on Thursday night. “Well, I know for a fact there are a lot of happy people in this room,” he told the gathered crowd.
He then paused for effect — and applause — before saying what was everyone’s mind: “Jerusalem.”
This year’s annual soiree came one day after Trump delivered on a campaign promise made by several former presidents, but never before followed through on; formally recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and directing the State Department to formulate a plan for moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv.
And yet, he didn’t harp on that as much further as one might expect. Perhaps because he knew he didn’t need to, or perhaps because he didn’t want to risk saying anything that could further inflame the situation, as a wave of protests swept the Middle East in the wake of his proclamation and the Palestinians declared it the end of the peace process, something he has made a top priority of his presidency.
Instead, the president stuck mostly with the script and invoked some rather conventional Hanukkah language: He spoke of the “miracle of the Maccabees” and how “they found only enough oil to light the lamp for a single night. ”
“Soon,” he added, “all were stunned to find that for eight days, the lamp continued to burn brightly — a sign of God’s presence in his dwelling place and a symbol of the faith and resilience of the Jewish people. You do have faith and you do have resilience,” Trump said.
Standing next to Trump was his wife Melania, his daughter Ivanka, his son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, and his grandchildren, who he noted, are Jewish.
“I am also proud that my beautiful grandchildren — Arabella, Joseph, and Theodore — have joined us tonight right here as we celebrate with all of you the sacred traditions that they observe each year at home.”
Also onstage with Trump, in a room where four Christmas trees outnumbered the two menorahs, was Vice President Mike Pence, his wife Karen Pence and the Orthodox Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, who has long been associated with the Republican Party (he gave the invocation at the opening session of the 2012 Republican National Convention).
While the response to Trump’s decision on Jerusalem has elicited a mixed reaction from the American Jewish community — including outrage from its liberal quarters — those in attendance Thursday evening were seemingly overjoyed.
Soloveichik, who led the audience in the Hanukkah prayer, thanked Trump for “recognizing what we’ve all always known to be true.” That came moments after Trump nearly botched the rabbi’s last name when introducing him, but then joked: “He’s so happy about yesterday, he doesn’t care if I say it exactly right.”
Trump also brought onstage a Holocaust survivor, Louise Lawrence-Israels, who spoke about hiding as a young girl in an Amsterdam attic, just a few blocks from where Anne Frank was hiding.
She said she now works at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC to ensure the public remains aware of the horrors and reality of what happened. “People let this happen,” she said. “We cannot let that happen again .. hatred and prejudice should not have a place in the world.”
Several Jewish cabinet members were in also attendance, including Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Secretary of Veteran Affairs David Schulman and Trump’s special Middle East peace envoy Jason Greenblatt.
While there were no Congressional Democrats, or other notable Democrats present, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, who is Jewish, was there, donning a kippah. Breyer was appointed to the high court by former president Bill Clinton.
Trump, for his part, did speak more about Israel, but only in generalities.
“The miracle of Hanukkah is the miracle of Israel,” he said. “The descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob have endured unthinkable persecution and oppression. But no force has ever crushed your spirit, and no evil has ever extinguished your faith.”
He did, however, make one last shout out to his latest big decision.
“That is why the Jewish people shine as a light to all nations,” he said. “And right now I’m thinking about what’s going on and the love that’s all over Israel and all about Jerusalem.”