2009 White House Hanukkah party expected to be smaller

By Michelle Boorstein
Saturday, December 5, 2009

Hanukkah is nearly here, which means one thing in elite Jewish Washington: Watch your inbox.

With news leaking out that the prestigious White House Hanukkah party will have a guest list half the size of last year's, people around town are lobbying even more than usual for an invitation prized by Jewish politicians, diplomats, community leaders, donors and celebrities.

"Is there jockeying? Oh my God, jockeying is a polite word," said Steve Rabinowitz, a veteran political consultant for Democratic and Jewish groups who worked for President Bill Clinton. Rabinowitz, who hasn't been to a White House party since the start of the Bush years, knows how much people covet invitations to social events at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., regardless of the occasion.

The White House is sending out save-the-date e-mails this week for the Dec. 16 party, but the Jerusalem Post reported late last month that the 800-person affair President George W. Bush hosted would be more like 400 people. The reasons, the newspaper reported, were a desire to be modest in a recession, the high cost of kosher food and a wish to let the party grow over time.

While the White House wouldn't confirm any details about the party, the Jewish press is already debating the significance of the reportedly condensed guest list.

Some argue that the decrease in invitations reflects a diminished status of Jews -- and Israel -- in the Obama administration, while others call such analysis embarrassing kvetching. Even the fact that the party is scheduled to begin at 4:30 p.m. instead of later in the evening is prompting some grumbling, though dusk has more religious significance as the traditional time to light candles.

"One wonders if there is more to this reduction than the reasons given by the administration," Tevi Troy, who handled Hanukkah parties for Bush in the mid-2000s, wrote last week in an op-ed published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency wire service titled "Obama Must Beware the Chanukah Snub." Troy then went on to mention tension between the Obama administration and Israel over Israeli settlements and the White House's honoring of several Israel critics. "While the size of the party may not be a big deal in the grand scheme of things, even some of Obama's supporters may see it in the context of this longer train of politically tone-deaf decisions."

But Ira Forman, CEO of the National Jewish Democratic Council, dismissed any larger meaning to the size of the party and said it was unseemly to be griping about the number of people invited to a gala in the midst of a recession.

Even if the White House doesn't cut the guest list, there are bound to be disappointed Democrats who don't make the cut to eat latkes with the commander in chief. For a community that votes about 80 percent Democratic, the first Hanukkah party of the Obama era represents the social reemergence of a people who have wandered for eight long years in the political wilderness.

Forman, who is getting an invitation, said he's been warned by multiple GOP operatives that "the most important thing I do all year" will be trying to secure holiday party tickets for prominent Jewish Democrats.

The guest selection is undoubtedly more difficult for Obama than Bush, with so many more Democrats who are Jewish. And there's plenty of speculation among Jewish activists about who's in and who's out: White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel's rabbi? The head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington -- or of Chicago, the president's home town? The head of a major Jewish organization who cuddled up with Sarah Palin? Any chance comic and Obama supporter Sarah Silverman will be there?

While previous presidents hosted menorah lightings or small get-togethers, it was Bush who established the Hanukkah party as a political and social phenomenon. During the eight years of his presidency, the party grew progressively larger, with the Marine Corps band playing Hanukkah music, photos with the president and kosher food.

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