President Biden tells crowd ‘I am a Zionist’ at Hanukkah ceremony, condemns silence on antisemitism

President Biden hosted a Hanukkah celebration on Monday at the White House, where he condemned the rise of antisemitism during the Israel-Hamas war as “sickening.” 

In remarks in front of Jewish lawmakers and other attendees, Biden harshly criticized those who remain silent in the face of antisemitism and reiterated his longstanding support for Israel.

“I got in trouble, got criticized very badly by the southern part of my state and some of the southern parts of the country, when 35 years ago I said, ‘You don’t have to be a Jew to be a Zionist. And I am a Zionist,'” Biden said. 

The president described Hanukkah as a “timeless story of miracles,” a celebration of survival and hope. “But we know this year’s Hanukkah is different,” he said, acknowledging the ongoing war in Gaza.

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President Biden speaks at a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House on Dec. 11, 2023 in Washington, D.C. President Biden and first lady Jill Biden hosted a reception to mark the Jewish holiday. (Elizabeth Frantz – Pool/Getty Images)

The White House event, which was held on the fifth night of Hanukkah, welcomed Holocaust survivors and members of the Jewish community to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and other prominent Jewish lawmakers attended, as did second gentleman Doug Emhoff, Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

This year’s holiday comes two months after Hamas launched a savage terrorist attack on Israel, infiltrating the country on Oct. 7 and killing more than 1,200 Israelis, mostly civilians. It was the largest mass slaughter of Jews in a single day since the Holocaust. Israel declared war on Hamas, and thousands of Palestinians have since been killed in the crossfire in Gaza. 

Israel has come under fierce international condemnation for the high numbers of civilian casualties, although the Biden administration has firmly supported the Jewish state’s right to self-defense. Groups that track antisemitism have reported a widespread increase in anti-Israel and anti-Jewish incidents globally since the start of the war.

Antisemitic incidents in the U.S. reached an all-time high record in the two-month period since the start of the war, according to data released by the Anti-Defamation League on Monday. The group recorded 2,031 antisemitic incidents between Oct. 7 and Dec. 7, up from 465 incidents during the same period in 2022 — a 337% increase, the ADL said. 

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President Biden Hosts A Hanukkah Holiday Reception At The White House

President Biden, right, second gentleman Doug Emhoff, center, and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Central Synagogue in New York City host a Hanukkah reception in the East Room of the White House on Dec. 11, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Bonnie Cash-Pool/Getty Images)

Those include 40 incidents of physical assault, 337 incidents of vandalism, 749 incidents of verbal or written harassment and 905 rallies including antisemitic rhetoric, expressions of support for terrorism against the state of Israel and/or anti-Zionism. 

Since Oct. 7, American Jews have experienced an average of 34 antisemitic incidents per day, according to the ADL. 

“This terrifying pattern of antisemitic attacks has been relentless since the Israel-Hamas war began on Oct. 7, with no signs of diminishing,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, ADL CEO. “The lid to the sewers is off, and Jewish communities all across the country are being inundated with hate. Public officials and college leaders must turn down the temperature and take clear action to show this behavior is unacceptable to prevent more violence.”

Biden said that “silence is complicity” in the face of such hate and reaffirmed his “unshakable” commitment to safety and security of Israel.

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President Biden stands in front of menorah

President Biden condemned the global rise in antisemitism as “sickening” and reiterated his “unshakable” support for Israel. (Andrew Caballero-Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

At the same time, the president said the United States “will continue to lead the world on humanitarian assistance to innocent Palestinians” and emphasized to Israel the importance of protecting civilian lives. 

“Let me be clear: Hamas using rape, sexual violence and terrorism and torture of Israeli women and girls is appalling and unforgivable. And I was there, saw some of the photographs, and it’s beyond comprehension,” the president continued. “We all have to condemn such brutality without equivocation and without exception.”

Addressing Jewish members of the audience, Biden said, “I also recognize your hurt from the silence and the fear for your safety, because the scourge of antisemitism in the United States of America and around the world is sickening. You know, we see it across communities in schools and colleges and social media.”

Last week, the presidents of Harvard University, University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came under fire for their congressional testimony on antisemitism. Confronted by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., during a House hearing, the presidents declined to outright condemn calls for Jewish genocide by pro-Palestinian protesters as hateful conduct in violation of their university policies.

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The subsequent backlash to their testimony led to the resignation of Penn President Liz Magill, although the governing boards of Harvard and MIT stood behind Presidents Claudia Gay and Sally Kornbluth, respectively. 

Biden said antisemitic incidents visible on college campuses and on social media “surface painful scars for millennia.” 

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