“We didn’t leave Mitzraim,” Rebecca Dorn’s sign said, using the Hebrew word by which the Bible calls the land of Egypt, where the Jews were enslaved, “for you to kiss up to Pharaoh.”
The Chevy Chase 18-year-old’s sign was meant as a message to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella body of 50 Jewish institutions that hosted a Hanukkah party at President-elect Donald Trump’s Washington hotel Wednesday night despite consternation within its own ranks and in the broader Jewish community.
Dorn was among more than 150 people, mostly young adults, who chanted slogans and sang protest songs outside the hotel while the party was held inside Wednesday night. Several organizations in the Conference of Presidents — including the Union for Reform Judaism, the largest American denomination — expressed their disapproval of the decision to hold the party at Trump’s hotel, with some saying they would not attend the party. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the head of the URJ, called the decision to patronize a business owned by Trump — whom just 24 percent of Jews voted for — “tone-deaf at best, naked sycophancy at worst.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, told The Washington Post last week that the organization would not move the party due to any protests. “It was done purely on a pragmatic basis,” he said. “The reasoning behind it was nothing to do with the Trump name.”
He said the Azerbaijan Embassy, which hosted the party with the Conference of Presidents as a co-host, started planning the party less than a month in advance, when other locations that could accommodate a crowd of up to 200 guests and a kosher caterer were booked. The party also needed to be near the White House, Hoenlein said, because some attendees would be attending the Conference of Presidents event and a White House Hanukkah reception the same night.
A few White House guests were among the protesters outside the Trump hotel, too. The protest was organized by If Not Now, a left-leaning Jewish activist group usually focused on opposing Israel’s policies toward Palestinians but which has devoted its energies since Trump’s election to the American political scene as well.
“To me, the Conference of Presidents claiming to be our Jewish leaders and then going and pulling a move like this shows that they are completely out of touch with the mainstream of American Judaism,” said Lila Weintraub, 23, a member of If Not Now.
Sarah Brammer-Shlay, 25, said that she and many of her fellow protesters were personally pained to see major organizations that represent their religion seeming to patronize Trump’s business after he ran a campaign which she saw as opposed to Jewish values. “It breaks my heart to see,” she said. “That’s not going to keep Jews safe.”
A much smaller group, about 15 people, held an adjacent protest against the protest. Lee Green, a member of the electoral college and the North Carolina chair of an organization called Jews Choose Trump, traveled from Durham to express her opposition to the fact that Jews would demonstrate against the president-elect.
She insisted that Jewish leaders who have decried Trump as bigoted and his adviser Stephen K. Bannon as a protector of anti-Semitic viewpoints are wrong.
“I know not to trust the media,” said Green, 56. “If they could smear Steve Bannon for allegedly being anti-Semitic, they could smear anyone. They could smear the pope. … Actually, Trump has one of the strongest cabinets in terms of people who have fought bigotry.”
The small band of counterprotesters loudly sang patriotic Israeli and American songs and David Goldberg, 22, approached a protester who held a poster identifying herself as a rabbi against Trump.
“What is it that you think we celebrate on the festival of Hanukkah?” the young Trump supporter shouted at Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of New York City’s Congregation Beit Simchat Torah.
As Kleinbaum tried to answer his question, Goldberg shouted over her. “You would have been on the side of Antiochus rather than Judah the Maccabee,” he yelled. When Kleinbaum eventually gave up on having a conversation with the young man who had approached her, several of the protest’s leaders separated the two of them.
“This is obviously not a place for a Jewish organization to have a Hanukkah party,” Kleinbaum said of the Trump hotel. “I’m very proud to be here.”
She was proud of her next stop, too: After protesting, she walked the few blocks from the Trump hotel to the White House, where she was an invited guest at a Hanukkah party she did support.