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Doug Emhoff has made antisemitism his issue, but says it's everyone's job to fight it

First gentleman Doug Emhoff is using his political platform to help fight hate. But he stresses that tackling antisemitism is not a partisan effort.
Catie Dull
/
NPR
First gentleman Doug Emhoff is using his political platform to help fight hate. But he stresses that tackling antisemitism is not a partisan effort.

Doug Emhoff knew that he and Vice President Kamala Harris would be making history as the country's first female vice president and first second gentleman, respectively.

But he quickly realized that his gender wasn't the only aspect of his identity that resonated with people.

"I really thought that would be the big deal," he says. "As it turned out, that's 1, but 1a. Right behind it is being the first Jewish person in this role."

Emhoff, a former California entertainment lawyer, stepped into the role as the first Jewish spouse of a U.S. president or vice president at a particularly fraught time.

Antisemitic incidents and beliefs are on the rise in the U.S., both online and in-person, from everyday settings like college campuses and local synagogues to the high-profile stages of sports, entertainment and politics.

Emhoff has been alarmed by what he calls a pervasive and interconnected "epidemic of hate going on throughout the world." And while he may not have set out to wage a public campaign against antisemitism, he's grown increasingly vocal about it in recent months.

In an interview with NPR's Asma Khalid, Emhoff says one of the main messages he and the Biden administration want to share is that "we have your back."

"We're working on a national plan for antisemitism and combating hate," he says. "But I also want people to be proud of who they are. Like, I love being Jewish. I'm proud of being Jewish. I want everyone, however they are, just to be proud of that so they can be able to live openly, freely, safely, without fear."

Emhoff's recent efforts include holding an antisemitism roundtable with Jewish leaders, meeting with lawmakers and students on the topic and visiting Poland and Germany last month to promote Holocaust awareness.

There he visited the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, as well as the Polish village where his ancestors lived. Some of them moved to the U.S. some 120 years ago; others were "shot in the town square" during the Holocaust.

"This is a shared experience of millions and millions of people," Emhoff says. "But I got to experience that. It's very personal."

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, during an NPR interview.
Catie Dull / NPR
/
NPR
Second gentleman Doug Emhoff in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, during an NPR interview.

Antisemitism has taken on a political dimension, too. For example, former President Donald Trump — who is running for reelection — had dinner in November with white nationalist and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes, and Ye, the rapper whose antisemitic rhetoric has been linked an uptick in bigoted harassment and vandalism across the country.

Emhoff is using his political platform to help fight hate. But he stresses that tackling antisemitism is not a partisan effort.

"There's no two sides to hate. There's no two sides to antisemitism. There's no two sides to denying the fact that the Holocaust happened," he says. "And so when so-called purported leaders, people in leadership, people who have big microphones, espouse antisemitic tropes, who deny that the Holocaust happened, then that's not partisan at all. I mean, we all must speak up, speak out and call out when things like that happen."

Emhoff spoke with Khalid about what it's like being second gentleman, both when it comes to representing American Jews and being there for his own family.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


Interview highlights

On his visit to Auschwitz for International Holocaust Remembrance Day last month

Emhoff reacts after laying wreaths honoring Holocaust victims at the former Auschwitz I site on January 27, 2023 in Oswiecim, Poland.
Omar Marques / Getty Images
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Getty Images
Emhoff reacts after laying wreaths honoring Holocaust victims at the former Auschwitz I site on January 27, 2023 in Oswiecim, Poland.

I had seen, like many people have seen, pictures of concentration camps. And you've seen the grainy photographs, the horrible images. And until you actually step up to that gate and you see the barbed wire, the silence, the coldness, you can literally see the despair and the desolation, and then you see the ovens where people were cremated. And you see they've saved thousands of pairs of shoes, many of them children's shoes. So you see the shoes. You see the eyeglasses that were taken off, the human hair. It is so overwhelming to experience that and to imagine what went on there.

On the importance of Jewish representation

I really started to feel how big a deal that was with the first Passover seder that we did virtually, year one of the administration, and I think tens of thousands of people tuned into that. And I cannot tell you how many people, when I was out and about traveling the country and the world, would come up to me, or my parents would tell me how many people that affected and impacted and some were in tears. They never thought they'd see a Jewish person in this role.

And I really then leaned into it and just decided to continue to live openly as I had as a Jewish person. And that included hanging a mezuzah on the wall of the front door of the residence, having a live seder for Passover the next year, celebrating Rosh Hashanah at the White House for the first time, and all these things that everyday Jews do in their own homes — but doing it here as second gentleman, and it's really had an impact.

Vice President Kamala Harris (C) and second gentleman Doug Emhoff attend a dinner for governors and their spouses at the White House earlier this month.
Andrew Cabellore-Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images
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AFP via Getty Images
Vice President Kamala Harris (C) and second gentleman Doug Emhoff attend a dinner for governors and their spouses at the White House earlier this month.

On the job advice he got from former second ladies

[First Lady Jill Biden's] main advice, and I followed it pretty much to a tee .. is just be yourself. ... And it's just, I think, really served me well in the role. I had a nice chat with Mrs. [Karen] Pence. She gave me some great practical advice. ... I had a nice talk with Mrs. [Tipper] Gore, who really told me about the history of the residence and some of the things that they had done there, also what it was like for them to raise a family there and having kids in the spotlight like that. So it's been very helpful for me.

On why his supporting role matters

I want to also be able to make sure there are more Kamala Harrises out there. I don't want anyone to look at me and think, "Wow, I'm not going to go put myself out there in public service because that Doug Emhoff guy was not supportive." I want to be as supportive as I can to help her in her incredibly intense job of being vice president, but I also understand that people are watching me and watching how I do this. I want to make sure I'm setting as good an example as I can in this role, so we have more women in leadership. We need that.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.