Yesterday saw the White House celebrating the upcoming Chanukkah holiday, a rather typical state affair with President Barack Obama paying tribute to Shimon Peres, but across town, there was another Chanukkah party, a decidedly controversial one, drawing more than 150 protesters. In other words, it was typical only in the context of Donald Trump.
The event was held by the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, a body that includes 50 Jewish groups, and although Trump did not attend, it was held at the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC.
The Trump connection, no matter how tenuous, was the target of much of the night’s anger.
“Trump does not speak for me,” protester Samantha Waxman told the Forward. “He has aligned himself with anti-Semites and White Supremacists and here we have the Conference of Presidents saying ‘yay Trump, yay White Supremacists, screw all the Jews who don’t agree with us.'”
Organizers responded that the event’s location was not meant to be an endorsement of Trump. Malcolm Hoenlein, from the Conference of Presidents, told the Washington Post that the location had “nothing to do with the Trump name.” Instead, he said that the hotel was chosen since it was one of the few available options near enough to the White House that attendees could go to both parties in the same night.
But there was another reason for protest as well: the party’s co-host, Azerbaijan, which is a nominal democracy considered by the Economist to be an authoritarian regime. With recent controversies over Trump’s favoring of strongmen like Vladimir Putin, debate on the ethics of dealing with anti-democratic forces is also au courant.
Karl Horberg of Freedom Now protested the event. “There are over 150 political prisoners in the country, and we need to let the world know that we can’t let Azerbaijan continue to spin this narrative.”
Jared Gesner elaborated on the irony of the occasion. “This is a Chanukkah celebration of religious liberty when half of the political prisoners in Azerbaijan are imprisoned because of their religious practice, particularly Shia Muslims,” Gesner said. “I find that disheartening and very sad.”
Yet Azerbaijan and Israel are close tied by economic and geopolitical self-interest, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently visited the capital and met with the autocrat-in-chief, Ilham Aliyev, who has ruled the country since 2003. (Before him, Azerbaijan was controlled by his father, Heydar Aliyev.) During the visit, it was revealed that Israel has sold $4.85 billion in weapons to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan has also given Israel access to four abandoned Soviet bases near Iran, bases that will be of great strategic importance in the event of a security threat from one of Israel’s most vocal enemies.
“I understand, of course, that Azerbaijan is a close ally of both the United States and Israel,” Gesner said. “That’s fine. All the more reason, though, why we should be able to speak to our friends truthfully, frankly and honestly about our deep concerns about Aliyev’s record…not only on religious liberty questions but on imprisoning 150 prisoners.”
Eight groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, pulled out of the party, though some, like the more conservative Zionist Organization of America, stayed.
“Azerbaijan got in touch with the Jewish community world,” Morton Klein, president of ZOA, said to Haaretz. “They wanted to celebrate Hanukkah with us, and of course we said yes. This is a friendly Muslim country, friendly to Israel. What could be better than bringing a friendly Muslim country even closer to Israel.”
The event also gave Klein another opportunity to take a potshot at the ADL. The groups’ sparing has been yet another part of the party that seemed like the new status quo.
Klein told Haaretz that the ADL and other groups that pulled out “seem to care more about displaying their partisan anti-Trump animus than about the serious mistake of offending the next president of the United States, which would negatively impact our joint duty to promote strong U.S.-Israel relations.”