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‘Overwhelm it with light’: Speaker Johnson addresses antisemitism at menorah lighting

Leaders present a united front for Hanukkah event, as feuding continues over Israel funding

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, center, joins congressional leaders on Tuesday to light a menorah.
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, center, joins congressional leaders on Tuesday to light a menorah. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

The leaders of both chambers and both parties in Congress gathered Tuesday to light a menorah at the Capitol.

It may not have been the first night of Hanukkah, but it was the first time the top congressional leaders had celebrated the Jewish festival of lights together, according to Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who organized the event. 

“I’ll just say a word of thanks to Sen. Schumer, because this is his menorah,” said Shemtov, executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad). 

“We need the light of Hanukkah more than ever before,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in American history. 

Antisemitic incidents in the U.S. have risen dramatically since Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel, killing 1,200 and kidnapping hundreds more. 

Allegations of antisemitism have similarly exploded across Congress. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, the only Palestinian American in Congress, was censured by her colleagues last month for repeating the slogan “from the river to the sea,” which some saw as tantamount to calling for the destruction of Israel. Tlaib has said she only meant to criticize Israel’s government, which has been accused by the United Nations secretary-general of responding to the Hamas attacks with collective punishment against the Palestinian people. About 18,000 have been killed, according to Gaza’s health ministry.

Democrats have likewise pointed fingers at Republicans who’ve repeated antisemitic tropes, accusing them of hypocrisy. After Rep. Elise Stefanik’s interrogation at a hearing last week led University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill to step down over criticism of her handling of antisemitism on campus, Maryland Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin — a secular Jew — took to X to call Stefanik out for “tolerance for antisemitism among presidential candidates,” pointing to how Donald Trump dined with a Holocaust denier last year and claiming she “dabbled in” the “Great Replacement” conspiracy theory.

There has also been a rise in Islamophobic incidents since the war began, including the fatal stabbing of a 6-year-old in Illinois, which prosecutors have labeled a hate crime.

The event came as Congress appeared to be deadlocked on a defense supplemental appropriations package that would provide billions to Israel and to Ukraine, whose Jewish president met with lawmakers Tuesday morning to plead for their support. Speaker Mike Johnson has conditioned the House’s consideration of the emergency funding on the inclusion of an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws while questioning America’s ongoing commitment to supporting Ukraine financially

But such divisiveness was nowhere to be found at Tuesday’s lighting, even though everyone who spoke acknowledged the cancerous spread of antisemitism in recent weeks. All of the congressional leaders embraced the symbolism of Hanukkah’s story in their remarks, of the Maccabees rededicating a desecrated temple and lighting a candle that miraculously stayed lit for eight days and nights.

“We can’t help but think of what the Jewish people are experiencing while they celebrate this special season. Many are experiencing persecution for expressing their faith and some merely just for existing,” Johnson said as he opened the event. “It’s incumbent upon leaders to not only denounce this hatred, but to counter it with love … the only way to drive out darkness is to overwhelm it with light.” 

Tomer Keshet, center, joined congressional leaders on Tuesday to call for the release of hostages held in Gaza, including his cousins. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell noted how every year, Jewish families light menorahs in their windows to show their faith.

“I know for so many American Jews, this year feels quite different. This year, the darkness of the ancient form of hatred feels even darker. Israel is in mourning and America mourns with her,” said McConnell. “But even in pain and grief, a people called ‘a light unto the nations’ are gathered to light candles and ward off the darkness once again.”

“We stand together in the effort to crush antisemitism, anti-Jewish hatred, and of course, all forms of hatred,” House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries said. “We stand together to support Israel.”

While other menorahs have been lit by Jewish members in bipartisan ceremonies at the Capitol over the years, Shemtov said Tuesday’s event was the first time he could remember so many congressional leaders showing up. 

The lighting began shortly before sundown, with members mingling with one another in the Rayburn Room while staffers laid out a spread of latkes, donuts, coffee and tea. Like any congressional social event, it was a chance to work the room.

After the event, though, there was only one person the lawmakers lined up to speak to: Tomer Keshet. His cousins were kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7: Kfir, an infant, and Ariel, age 4, along with their parents Yarden and Shiri Bibas.

The Bibases were the only children he knows of not included in the hostage exchange during last month’s temporary cease-fire, Keshet said. “We ask that you continue to keep this top of mind in the U.S. and continue to press for their release,” he said.

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