By JENNIFER RUBIN
The White House
Until recently, second gentleman Douglas Emhoff was a trailblazer merely by virtue of his gender. The first male spouse of a president or vice president, a role model for gender equality, he has dutifully fulfilled his role as supportive helpmate. But of late and culminating this week in his visit to Poland and Germany, he’s become something much more: the most visible public figure in the battle against rising antisemitism.
Certainly, President Biden and Vice President Harris have spoken out forcefully against hate crimes, the fearful normalization of hate speech on social media and the alarming rise in antisemitism. But no one can miss the power and emotion generated by a grandson of European Jews returning to Poland, and specifically to Auschwitz, where more than 1 million of the 6 million Jews were murdered.
Before departing, Emhoff wrote an op-ed with Deborah Lipstadt, the U.S. special envoy on antisemitism. “As we reflect on history, we know that the bigotry that fueled the Holocaust did not end when the camps were liberated,” they wrote. “Antisemitism may be considered one of the oldest forms of hatred, but its insidious impact and its deep dangers are not relegated to the past.” And because antisemitism is not something of the past or something over “there” [Europe], they stressed the need not only to remember but also to act.
“We all have a responsibility to speak out and make clear that antisemitism is wrong, just like every other prejudice,” he and Lipstadt wrote. “We must all condemn antisemites as dangerous and also call out those who don’t. In the face of evil, there is no neutrality. Standing silent is not an option. Indeed, silence is what allows vile oppressors to thrive and this malicious virus of hate to grow.”
In his visits to Auschwitz, to the Polish town from which his family fled and to the Holocaust museum in Berlin, Emhoff was an emissary of the White House. But he also displayed a level of personal mourning and understanding, at times lost in thought or brushing away tears. He personified the link between the unimaginable horrors of the past and their present echoes.
At a White House roundtable before his departure and at an interfaith meeting in Germany on Tuesday, Emhoff emphasized that remembering is not enough. “I’ve met with leaders, community members to discuss the bold actions that we need to take collectively to combat antisemitism and hate in all its forms,” he told the audience in Germany. “I’m very encouraged by the discussions.”
Emhoff has highlighted two critical dilemmas for those determined to stamp out a resurgence of antisemitism. To begin with, it’s essential not only to understand the enormity of the Holocaust but also to bring it down to a comprehensible level – his family, his town, his relatives. Making what is abstract for many today into something concrete is a great challenge for activists, educators and artists.
But the far greater challenge is to sustain a level of active opposition commensurate with the ongoing threat. As Emhoff said, it requires us to challenge antisemites and those who look the other way. It demands we confront social media platforms to take responsibility for what their algorithms amplify and magnify. And it should spur us to include the Holocaust in high school history curriculum.
Emhoff has talked about a whole-of-government response – and a whole-of-society response. In his position, he has the opportunity to demonstrate that the response to antisemitism starts, but does not end, with remembering. If he can do that and energize a national reckoning with all forms of hate, his importance will come not from his gender but his legacy.
Jennifer Rubin is a columnist for The Washington Post.