(JTA) — Democrats chose Florida to roll out their newest Jewish star, Kamala Harris’ Jewish husband, Douglas Emhoff.
The vice presidential nominee’s partner opened up on Friday about growing up Jewish and his Jewish involvement today in a webinar organized by Joe Biden’s presidential campaign, offering revelations about the Jewish components of his first date with Harris and his own current Jewish involvements.
The two-hour webinar, which drew at least 1,000 people, played up the themes Democrats will use in their campaign to woo Jewish voters, contrasting Trump as less empathetic to Jewish concerns and countering Trump’s pro-Israel policies with claims he makes the country less safe because of his isolationism.
The webinar also made clear that Florida remains critical for Jewish Democrats and Republicans. It’s widely held that President Donald Trump, who won the state in 2016, can’t secure reelection without its electoral college votes. The Jewish population in the swing state is an estimated 700,000 out of 20 million people.
“I can tell you that our so-called colleagues on the other side are going to attempt to make Israel a political football in this election; they’re going to continue to try to come after Jewish voters in the state of Florida,” Eric Lynn, a defense consultant who was a Pentagon official in the Obama-Biden administration, said during the webinar.
The night before, in a Republican Jewish Coalition call, a top adviser to the Trump campaign, Jason Miller, repeatedly said Florida was critical. “Got to make sure we win Florida,” he said. “If you noticed that I probably mentioned I like the state of Florida, we got to win Florida.”
There were plenty of speakers on the Florida Democrats call, including the state’s entire Jewish congressional representation, but the star was Emhoff. He sat on a stool against a Biden-Harris background and occasionally grinned when the voice and laughter of his wife, who apparently was on her own call, came drifting into his.
There was a lot of Jewish trivia: He went to Cedar Lake, a Jewish camp in New Jersey, and excelled in tennis and soccer before soccer was popular in the United States, he said. As he did in another call he and Harris had earlier this week with Jewish donors, he described the three-piece brown velour suit he wore for his bar mitzvah.
On their first date, Emhoff said, Harris “reeled off her Jewish bonafides,” including trips to Israel, fundraising for the Jewish National Fund as a teenager and the fact that her mother worked for the Jewish General Hospital in Montreal, where Harris spent her teenage years.
Emhoff, a prominent entertainment lawyer in California, where Harris is currently the Democratic U.S. senator, also spoke of his own Jewish commitment, including his pro bono work with Bet Tzedek, which provides free legal services for the poor.
Emhoff embraced a central theme of the Biden Jewish campaign, and the campaign overall: Trump is unfit to be president in part, he said, because he coddles right-wing extremists.
“We have a president, right now, who has repeatedly used anti-Semitic dog whistles,” Emhoff said. “But worst of all, when marchers in Charlottesville came out of the woods, carrying torches and spewing the same anti-Semitic vile that we heard in the 1930s in Germany, before the Holocaust, this president called some of them ‘very fine people.’”
He was referring to Trump’s remarks in 2017 after a deadly neo-Nazi march in the Virginia town. Trump called the marchers “very fine people” but also condemned neo-Nazis and white supremacists in the same remarks.
Personal disgust with Trump was a recurring theme throughout the call. Antony Blinken, a former top national security official in the Obama-Biden administration and a senior foreign policy adviser to the campaign, said Biden took his children to the Dachau concentration camp when they were old enough to understand the horrors of the Holocaust.
In contrast, Blinken said, “President Trump signed the guestbook at Yad Vashem like he was signing a yearbook, writing, ‘how amazing it was to be here with all my friends.'”
Lauren Alperstein, a lawyer who serves on the board of a number of Jewish groups in south Florida, said it was hard for her to explain Trump to her children.
“It’s been very hard — more so for our son — trying to explain to him what a president should look like, and what a president should be and how a president should act because this president does not embody those values he does not embody the values of tikkun olam,” the Mishnaic precept of repairing the world, “he does not embody the values of ve’ahavta le’raecha kemocha, you love your neighbor as yourself,” she said.
Rep. Lois Frankel, whose congressional district includes Trump’s residence, Mar-a-Lago, joked that she hoped to see Trump again, soon.
“I want you to know that I represent the president of the United States in Congress,” said. “I guess to his chagrin. I hope this time next year that he’s back as my constituent.” (Trump has backed the Jewish anti-Muslim extremist, Laura Loomer, who is the Republican nominee in the district and has said he is annoyed that Frankel is his congresswoman.)
The call also offered a strategy to push back against Republican attempts to tie Biden and Harris to a cadre of Democratic progressives who are questioning the U.S. Israel relationship, including two — and likely three in the next Congress — who support the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.
That strategy had three parts, according to people on the call: reject BDS; argue that Trump poses a greater danger to Jews than the left; and make the case that while Trump made radical changes to U.S. policy in line with Israel’s right-wing government, including moving the embassy to Jerusalem, his overarching foreign policy weakens the United States.
Harris, Emhoff said, would appropriately balance defending Israel while making clear the differences she has with the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has pledged to annex parts of the West Bank.
“She’ll continue to reject BDS at every turn, denounce efforts to delegitimize Israel and condemn incitement, and she will not hesitate to call out leaders who deny Palestinian rights or threaten unilateral annexation that would effectively cut off the hope of a two-state solution,” he said.
Alperstein said her fears for her children outweighed Israel-related concerns in the present moment. “It shouldn’t have to be that my husband and I are nervous about sending our children to Jewish day school because they’re Jewish with anti-Semitism on the rise,” she said. “Israel is extremely important, OK, and the right of a secure Israel is extremely important, but we also need to vote on all of the other issues that affect us here at home.”
Trump, Blinken said, was diminishing American influence. “The strength of our own democracy at home is directly tied to our ability to be a force for progress around the world,” he said. “President Trump’s daily assault on our democracy on its institutions on its people on its values has deeply tarnished our ability to lead.”
Blinken said Biden would restore the funding that for the Palestinians that Trump has cut, but would also hew to laws that ban U.S. money from reaching Palestinians who have killed and injured Israelis and Americans.
The tensions inherent in being a pro-Israel Jewish progressive were evident in the opening prayer by Rabbi Mark Winer, a religion scholar who lives in Florida.
“Strengthen us oh God to combat BDS, the anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic virus which infects too many of our erstwhile allies in our battle for the soul of America, without weakening our defense of our own secure Jewish place in this society,” Winer said. “May we reach out in fellowship to join with all Americans in fighting the pandemic of racism, misogyny, homophobia, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism which plagues our nation … kneel with us, oh God, and with the African American athletes who take to their knees in patriotic devotion.”