Second gentleman Doug Emhoff stood in front of a giant menorah outside the White House during Hanukkah last month and assured a crowd of Jewish Americans that he understood their pain.
He knew that many felt unmoored amid a wave of antisemitic incidents following Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack in Israel. He mentioned a Jewish restaurant owner who had been tarred with accusations of “genocide” because of Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Gaza. He denounced the presidents of three top universities for their sometimes bloodless or circular comments during a congressional hearing on anti-Jewish prejudice.
“When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or identity, and when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism and it must be condemned — and condemned unequivocally and without context,” Emhoff said at the Dec. 7 menorah lighting.
Emhoff’s push against antisemitism, which he launched in earnest in 2022, has taken on new resonance in recent months, since Hamas militants crossed the border and killed some 1,200 Israelis, igniting an Israel-Gaza war that has in turn led to more than 26,000 Palestinian deaths. Instances of anti-Jewish hatred, including harassment, assault and threats, have surged in the United States since Hamas’s attacks. Anti-Muslim hate crimes have also risen.
Even before the attacks and the war in Gaza, the confluence of global events and Emhoff’s status as the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president had him facing an unusually strong spotlight. While recent former second spouses Karen Pence and Jill Biden also had signature issues — art therapy for Pence and military families for Biden — their work did not receive comparable attention.
Emhoff, by contrast, appeared alongside President Biden at a roundtable with Jewish leaders in the fall and has attracted extensive news coverage of his efforts.
Not all the attention has been positive. Some progressive Jewish groups critical of Israel, such as Jewish Voice for Peace Action and IfNotNow, say they worry that Emhoff’s assessment of the dynamic on some college campuses risks conflating all criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
“What we’d like to see from the second gentleman is a much stronger separation between what are actually attacks on Jewish communities for being Jewish and what is free speech,” said JVPA political director Beth Miller.
Emhoff declined to comment through his representatives. But Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said the Biden administration’s position is clear — that antisemitism includes efforts to delegitimize Israel or single it out “because of anti-Jewish hatred.”
“There’s no need at this point to wade into the debate regarding definitions,” Soifer said of Emhoff. “What is most important is that he has made clear that this administration will take every step to combat antisemitism in all its forms.”
Some Muslim groups, meanwhile, say that while Emhoff’s work may be laudable, they are frustrated at what they see as a lack of similar concern on the administration’s part over Islamophobia.
Vice President Harris took office in 2021 amid rising concern about antisemitism. The Anti-Defamation League recorded 2,717 antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2021, a 34 percent increase over 2020 and the highest number since the group started keeping track in 1979. Feelings were still raw after the Tree of Life killings in 2018, when a gunman massacred 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue.
Against that backdrop, Emhoff participated in public celebrations of Jewish holidays before starting to speak more frequently about antisemitism in late 2022. Since then, he has attended a Passover event at a Jewish day school, addressed the United Nations, and traveled to Poland and Germany to commemorate the Holocaust and participate in meetings about Jewish heritage.
Along the way, he has described a current moment, when anti-Jewish sentiments, considered unspeakable for years, are becoming more accepted in some quarters.
“People used to be afraid to say the ugly epithets and lies out loud,” Emhoff said in Krakow in January 2023, when he visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. “Now they are literally screaming them.”
His message has fit well with Biden’s self-proclaimed role as a president fighting a resurgence of hate. In May, the White House unveiled a strategy to combat antisemitism that included dozens of initiatives to protect Jewish Americans. The plan also called on Congress, local governments and community leaders to help raise awareness of anti-Jewish sentiment and actions.
Emhoff helped create that blueprint and delivered remarks at its unveiling. Without him, “there might well not have been a national strategy,” said Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt, the White House’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism.
As the first Jew in his position, Lipstadt said, Emhoff might have been expected to do little more than publicly celebrate Jewish holidays. Instead, she said, he chose to learn more about antisemitism and become a prominent voice on the topic.
“He’s not presenting himself as he’s a scholar of 30 years on this issue,” Lipstadt said. “But what he’s saying is, ‘Take this seriously.’”
Some experts say it is no coincidence that Emhoff, the first man in his position, has been able to take on such a high-profile topic. Second ladies have typically adopted “compassion issues” related to family or education, and antisemitism from the outset was a more urgent subject, said Tammy Vigil, a Boston University professor who has researched political spouses.
She warned against an attitude that says men are somehow better able to handle more volatile or sensitive topics. “The question will be: When a woman comes back into the role in the future, would she be able to do that kind of thing?” Vigil said.
For now, the effort takes up much of Emhoff’s time.
Days after Hamas killed more than 1,200 people in Israel, Emhoff met with Natalie Sanandaji, an American survivor of the attack at a music festival. She recalled telling Emhoff that Jews were “living in fear” and that some of her friends had removed mezuzas — rolls of parchment traditionally attached to the doorposts of Jewish homes — to avoid being targeted.
In response, she said, Emhoff told her that he loved Israel when he visited and that he supports that country’s right to defend itself. “He really just listened to me,” said Sanandaji, 28. “He sat down with me and asked me to share my story with him and what had happened there, and he really made me feel heard.”
That encapsulates the core of Emhoff’s work: visiting, calling, consoling. In recent months, he has expressed sympathy with victims of antisemitic violence or harassment, met with the families of Americans taken hostage by Hamas, and visited communities such as Jewish students at Cornell University to offer emotional support.
This month, Emhoff spoke on a panel about antisemitism at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“It is tough right now for us,” he said at a Union for Reform Judaism event in December. “The words keep coming up, ‘I feel so alone and hated.’ … This thing we’re all experiencing as American Jews is something that we cannot let take our love of being Jewish away from us.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, director of the Anti-Defamation League, described Emhoff’s message as distinct from day-to-day politics. “It is a personal position, in that it is deeply embedded in his principles as a Jewish man, as a human being, as a kid from Brooklyn,” he said.
Amid the churning debate over when criticism of Israel crosses the line into antisemitism, Emhoff generally seeks to avoid the fray. He mostly speaks in broad terms, castigating anti-Jewish sentiment as a scourge that is bad not just for Jews, but also for America.
Some Muslim leaders are unhappy that, in their view, the Biden administration has conspicuously lacked a comparable empathy for the thousands of Palestinians killed in Gaza.
Emhoff met with Muslim leaders in May to discuss Islamophobia, but he has not met with Muslim or Arab American community leaders since the Israel-Gaza war began. He did, however, meet in October with Muslim, Arab and Palestinian American political appointees. Separately, Emhoff met with a Muslim and Arab American Stanford University student who was the victim of a hit-and-run that officials are investigating as a hate crime.
The White House said in November that it planned to release a strategy to counter Islamophobia, but it has not announced a timeline.
Arsalan Suleman, co-founder of America Indivisible, said that while he appreciates Emhoff’s work, he wishes a prominent member of the administration were similarly focused on advocating against Islamophobia. Suleman, whose organization seeks to fight bigotry against Muslim Americans, said that such advocacy would be particularly important as former president Donald Trump campaigns by promising to expand his travel ban on people from Muslim-majority countries.
“We do feel that there is a void there in terms of someone who is actively speaking on it and focused on it,” Suleman said.
Both major political parties have expressed concern about antisemitism in recent months, with the Republican presidential candidates largely aiming their criticism at pro-Palestinian college activism.
At a debate in November, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis — who suspended his campaign last week — highlighted his demand that Students for Justice in Palestine be banned from some of his state’s campuses. Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley said antisemitism should be treated “exactly the same” as actions by the KKK.
Trump’s role is more ambiguous. He has likened political adversaries to “vermin” and said undocumented immigrants are “poisoning the blood of our country,” comments that historians say echo the rhetoric of Adolf Hitler and other dictators. Biden has repeatedly cited Trump’s tepid response to a 2017 march by White supremacists and antisemites as a reason Biden sought the presidency.
The president has also sought to reassure Jewish Americans that he, in contrast, is attuned to their concerns. In October, the administration said it was increasing its outreach to student leaders and inviting campus police to communicate with law enforcement agencies about antisemitism. The Education Department has opened civil rights investigations into several colleges and school districts over reports of both antisemitism and Islamophobia.
Emhoff is well-positioned to help the Biden administration show concern for both Jewish and Muslim Americans at a fraught moment for their communities, said Lila Corwin Berman, director of the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University.
“He can sort of speak to one face of that whole complicated political constellation,” Berman said.