Todd L. Pittinsky

Doug Emhoff’s Instructive Ignorance

Doug Emhoff, husband of US Vice President Kamala Harris—and one of the administration’s leads for combatting antisemitism—recently made a strange error in a social media post about Hanukkah. In a short post, Emhoff botched the Hanukkah story both historically and symbolically. Yet his misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the holiday are instructive and reveal important lessons about understanding Jewish history and identity.

Emhoff described Hanukkah as a story of Jewish people “forced into hiding.” It is not. And in the Emhoff edition of the Books of the Maccabees, the Jews of the day have hope, but no one seems to be particularly confident they will survive let alone thrive. The Hanukkah story is the opposite. The story is about Jewish warriors, the Maccabees, who boldly—and bloodily—fought against the Seleucid Empire to reclaim their religious freedom and rededicate the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. There is no hiding. The Maccabees were ferocious, fueled by righteous indignation and anger. They fight as warriors and win a war against a superior force. In short, some 2,000 years ago (and some 900 years before the birth of Mohammed let alone the beginning of Islam) Jews took it into their own hands to defend their homeland.

Emhoff took his post down from Facebook, Instagram, and X when he quickly understood, from the feedback the post was getting, that he was largely ignorant about the holiday. (To wit, accompanying his post he shared a picture of himself and Vice President Harris lighting a menorah with one candle on a night there should have been five).

Emhoff’s assumption that the Jews of the day must have been “hiding and hoping”—and not waging war and winning—reflects a broader societal tendency to view Jews primarily as victims. This victim narrative acknowledges the suffering Jews have endured throughout history but ignores our agency. It erases the vibrant and complex history of the Jewish people, reducing us to a singular image of passive sufferers.

A proper understanding of Hanukkah recognizes the Jewish community’s commitment to sovereignty and safety—then and now. Hanukkah reminds us that  for thousands of years, Jews have fought for survival, dignity, and homeland. Doug Emhoff’s ignorance and assumptions highlight, then, a crucial disconnect between how the world views Jews versus how we see ourselves. Today, Jews reject the passive victim narrative. We are builders, defenders, and warriors. Hanukkah has come to both reflect–and reinforce–an unwavering commitment to fighting for freedom, faith, and homeland.

Emhoff, like others, needs to understand Jewish agency. No longer content with mere survival, Jews are actively shaping their future. Israel embodies our pursuit of sovereignty and security. Diaspora communities combat antisemitism around the world. In this current chapter in the Jewish story, Jews are prepared to fight intellectually, socially, and yes, physically. We will not hide and hope. To understand Jews and Israel, the world must understand the Jews will not allow themselves to be victims again.

About the Author
Todd L. Pittinsky is a professor at Stony Brook University (SUNY). Prior, he was an Associate Professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, where he also served as Research Director for the Harvard Center for Public Leadership. Todd was a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Holocaust Memorial & Tolerance Center (2020-2022) and a Faculty Fellow of Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College (2018–2020). He has published in leading academic journals and has authored or co-authored general audience pieces in outlets including The Atlantic, the Boston Herald, the Christian Science Monitor, The Jerusalem Post, New York Daily News, New York Post, New York Times, Phi Delta Kappan, Science and The Wall Street Journal. Todd’s most recent book is “Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy” (with B. Kellerman, Cambridge University Press).
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