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‘I Have Your Back’: Doug Emhoff Draws on His Faith After Hamas Attack

Doug Emhoff has spent the weeks after the Hamas attack on Israel acting as a touchstone for some of the anguish, fear and anger felt by Jewish Americans.

Mr. Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris the first Jewish spouse of a president or vice president, stood beside President Biden and condemned the attacks as terrorism. He met with Natalie Sanandaji, an American survivor of the assault. He visited Jewish schoolchildren, some of whom recently arrived from Israel, and told them they should not be afraid.

“Just know that I have your back,” he told a group of first and second graders last week. “And we’re always going to be there for you. I promise.”

From his second-floor office in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, Mr. Emhoff has used his faith to bring focus to a role that he is the first in American history to hold. He has largely left the politics to others, instead focusing on providing comfort, reassurance and solidarity to people in pain.

Recent federal data has showed that antisemitism is rising in the United States, as well as hate crime overall. Black Americans and Muslims are also disproportionately represented among victims. In an interview on Thursday, Mr. Emhoff was asked whether he could use his role — one that is powerful but a world away from the presidency — to help change those numbers.

“We have to try,” said Mr. Emhoff, who keeps an action figure of the woman he calls “my wife, the vice president” in his office.

“There’s an epidemic of hate, and it’s not just against Jewish people, and it’s really corrosive, and it impacts our democracy and our way of life and our safety. I’m going to do everything I can, and I know the administration will,” he said.

Just after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, Mr. Emhoff stood beside the president and addressed a group of Jewish leaders who had assembled in the Indian Treaty Room.

“I know you are hurting,” Mr. Emhoff, who is 59, told the crowd, some of whom were wiping their eyes. “The entire Jewish community is hurting. I’m hurting.”

Speaking next, the president promised the group that his administration was working to return American hostages, and told them that he had urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to “operate by the rules of war.”

“I know you are hurting,” Mr. Emhoff said at the White House at a round table this month. “The entire Jewish community is hurting. I’m hurting.” Credit…Kent Nishimura for The New York Times

Mr. Biden has faced questions about his support for Israel as it retaliates against Hamas with barrages of airstrikes. The administration’s backing for Israel has alarmed liberal Democrats and some liberal American Jews, who have attended demonstrations in Washington protesting American support for the war.

Hundreds of people were arrested in the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. In recent days, the Biden administration has advised Israel to delay a ground invasion of Gaza so that people living there could leave and humanitarian aid could be taken to the enclave, according to several U.S. officials.

Mr. Emhoff said he disagreed with the premise of a question about divisions within the Jewish community about Israel’s response. Instead, he leaned into the pain of the stories of people like Ms. Sanandaji.

“I think the Jewish community is very unified on this issue, this issue of a brutal terrorist, barbaric attack that killed babies, people at a music festival, grandmas, Holocaust survivors,” Mr. Emhoff said. “So there’s no division in the Jewish community about barbarism and terrorism. Make no mistake: Hamas is a terrorist organization that committed these atrocities, so I disagree with the question.”

Becoming one of the federal government’s loudest voices against antisemitism was not something Mr. Emhoff thought he would be doing — at least, not so formally — when he first moved to Washington with Ms. Harris in 2021.

Much of his early work as second gentleman involved trying to figure out where he might be useful. He had left his job at a corporate law firm and, after moving to Washington, had taken a job teaching law at Georgetown. (“I became a lawyer in part because I hated bullies,” said Mr. Emhoff, who worked in entertainment law for much of his career. “I want to stick up for other people.”)

Mr. Emhoff said he felt drawn to discussing the importance of combating antisemitism early in his tenure, particularly after what he had seen and heard from people on the campaign trail during the pandemic. “People are feeling down, beat up,” he remembers thinking. Even Ms. Harris could see it: “‘Dougie, this issue has really found you,’” he recalled her saying. “‘This issue found you, now lean into it.’”

Supporters of both Palestinians and Israelis protesting in front of the White House earlier this month.Credit…Haiyun Jiang for The New York Times

Over the past year, Mr. Emhoff has led round tables and events focused on ending the scourge of antisemitism. In May, the Biden administration released the country’s first national plan for combating hate against Jewish people. The strategy includes workshops to counteract bias in hiring and the workplace, enhanced Holocaust education programs and an effort to eliminate barriers to reporting potential hate crimes.

The administration had released a plan to combat extremism within months of Mr. Biden taking office, but recent figures from the F.B.I. have shown that antisemitic hate crimes rose 25 percent from 2021 to 2022, and antisemitism accounted for over half of all reported religion-based hate crimes in the United States.

Mr. Emhoff will continue to use his role to raise awareness of the violent consequences of hate. On Tuesday, he will travel to Pittsburgh to meet with survivors of the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation because, according to Liza Acevedo, his communications director, he has kept in touch with the families over the years. The anniversary of that shooting is Friday.

“We all need to be against antisemitism and hate, in addition to being against Islamophobia,” and all other forms of hate, Mr. Emhoff said. “We have to be in this together.”

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