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WASHINGTON (RNS) When is a Hanukkah party more than just a Hanukkah party? When it is hosted by the White House, and viewed as emblematic of the Obama administration’s relationship with American Jews.
The White House cut the size of the Dec. 16 party to about 500 people, a sharp decline from the 800 or so guests who reportedly came during the last years of the Bush administration. Observers have cited the high cost of kosher catering — which the Bush family implemented in 2005 — as well as the desire to tone down all holiday festivities because of the country’s economic troubles.
But the downsized party has been taken by some as a further sign of the Obama administration’s inability to connect with American Jews.
While Obama garnered 78 percent of the American Jewish vote last year, he has faced scrutiny from some Jewish leaders who say he is placing too much pressure on Israel, and not doing enough to court the traditionally active Democratic constituency.
Tevi Troy, Bush’s Jewish liaison, who helped plan the White House Hanukkah party, connected those dots last month in a column for JTA, the wire service for Jewish newspapers. Shrinking the Hanukkah party was akin to pressuring the Israeli government over settlements or giving the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, who led the 2001 World Conference Against Racism, which was boycotted by the United States because of anti-Israel bias, Troy argued.
“For these reasons, 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,” Troy wrote.
The column has drawn sharp rebukes from Jewish Democrats, who say Troy, now a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, is using the Hanukkah party to take a cheap shot at Obama.
“The one person who seems to be publicly grousing is a very partisan guy who was Bush’s Jewish liaison,” said Ira Forman, executive director of the National Jewish Democratic Council. “I think they look a little silly, tawdry and foolish for making a big deal of this.”
Bush started the tradition of the White House Hanukkah party in 2001, to build ties with Jewish conservatives, including the Orthodox.
Before that, Jewish leaders were invited to one of the many White House holiday parties.
The headcount for previous Hanukkah parties is a point of contention. Veterans of the Bush White House say the numbers swelled to as many as 800 people last year, as the outgoing president tried to thank donors and people who had been invited to previous parties. But an Obama administration spokesman said this year’s guest list — at about 500 people — is in keeping with the number of those invited to most of Bush’s soirees.
Troy said in an interview that if the numbers of invitees to the Hanukkah party are cut this year, there is a potential for many people to feel left out or jilted by the new administration. Indeed, Troy and other Bush White House veterans have said Jewish leaders have gone to great lengths to try to snag an invitation each year.
“While this is not a substantive issue, this could be seen in the context of some of the larger complaints that the Jewish community has,” he said. While Bush and many Jewish leaders differed on policy, he said some Jewish leaders feel disrespected by the Obama administration.
Other Jewish leaders have said privately that because Obama’s White House has so many prominent Jews — including chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and senior advisor David Axelrod — it may be less interested in courting the community.
Forman, who is going to the party and consulting with the White House on the guest list, believes the Hanukkah party invite list is not as significant as Troy makes it seem.
“More than one Republican operative has come to me and said the most important thing I will do all year is give out tickets to the Hanukkah party,” he said. “I think that’s ridiculous.”
Jewish leaders said they were disappointed at the hubbub over the invitation list, saying it makes the community look like beggars trying to garner favor from the new White House.
“I suppose the convenient thing to do would be to invite a million people,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a Democratic consultant who advises American Jewish groups. “But I think they’re trying to do the honest thing and people need to stop reading the tea leaves.”

Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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