Trump hotel Chanukah party draws groups of Jewish demonstrators

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After a rally in front of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, IfNotNow protestors walked back along Pennsylvania Avenue to Freedom Plaza. Photo by George Altshuler
After a rally in front of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, IfNotNow protestors walked back along Pennsylvania Avenue to Freedom Plaza.
Photo by George Altshuler

A Chanukah party at the Trump International Hotel in downtown Washington yesterday drew three groups of demonstrators, some protesting and others defending President-elect Donald Trump and the party’s hosts, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations and the Embassy of Azerbaijan.

Some 200 members of IfNotNow, a leftist Jewish group, gathered for another in its series of protests against Jewish organizations that they fault for not opposing President-elect Donald Trump and his incoming administration.


The group protested the party because the Conference of Presidents’ choice of the Trump hotel is a “sign that the Conference of Presidents is cozying up to the white supremacist and anti-Semitic attitude of the Trump administration,” according to protest organizer, Maiya Zwerling, 25. IfNotNow has criticized Trump’s choice of Steve Bannon for a top role in the White House because of Bannon’s links to the white nationalist group alt-right.

The IfNotNow protestors marched down Pennsylvania Avenue and arrived at the Trump hotel to find 15 pro-Trump demonstrators outside, many holding signs with a Star of David and the words “Jews Choose Trump.”

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Pro-Trump protestors before the IfNotNow group arrived. Photo by George Altshuler
Pro-Trump protestors before the IfNotNow group arrived.
Photo by George Altshuler

Lee Green, a Republican member of the Electoral College from North Carolina, said she came to show America “that there are plenty of Jews who support Trump and conservative values.”

A third group of about 15 activists came to protest Azerbaijan’s human rights record. “The irony here is that the invitation to this party talked about how this was a party for religious freedom,” said Jared Genser, the founder and managing director of Freedom Now, a human rights group with no religious affiliation. “Well, half of the political prisoners in Azerbaijan are prisoners because of their religious beliefs.”


The announcement of the party for the Conference of Presidents, an umbrella group for 50 Jewish organizations, caused a split among major Jewish organizations over the past month after IfNotNow announced that it would protest the event and news organizations including JTA, The Washington Post and Ha’aretz began covering the controversy.

Eight liberal groups, including the Union for Reform Judaism and the National Council of Jewish Women, announced that they would skip the Chanukah party in protest of Trump’s policies or in order to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest.

But in the days before the party, three other major Jewish organizations also backed out. Three of these groups, Jewish Federations of North America, Anti-Defamation League and Hadassah, cited scheduling conflicts as their reason for not attending, JTA reported.

JFNA referred inquiries about why it did not attend to Steve Rabinowitz, head of Bluelight Strategies, which handles media for the group. Rabinowitz said JFNA is not commenting on its decision.

Human rights activists led by the NGO Freedom Now protested human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, whose embassy co-hosted the event. Photo by George Altshuler
Human rights activists led by the NGO Freedom Now protested human rights abuses in Azerbaijan, whose embassy co-hosted the event.
Photo by George Altshuler

IfNotNow saw the decisions of these groups not to attend as a victory for its movement, which began in 2014 to challenge what it calls the mainstream Jewish community’s “unconditional” backing of Israel. Since the presidential election it has opposed Jewish institutional support for the incoming Trump administration.

“[The organizations] not attending the party demonstrates that there is momentum around this and that we have been forcing the question to the public of which side are you on,” said Sarah Brammer-Shlay, an organizer with IfNotNow. “Are you going to be on the side of the Jewish establishment that is cozying up to the Trump administration and centering pro-Israel at all cost politics or are you going to be on the side of freedom and dignity for all?”

On the other side of a line of police officers separating the IfNotNow group from the pro-Trump demonstrators, Carol Greenwald of Chevy Chase said that, “the Jewish community has done irreparable harm to itself in America by labeling half the country who are Trump supporters as racists. These people who probably didn’t care one way or another about Jews now have to have second thoughts because when people label you a racist you don’t like them very much.”

She also questioned the intentions of IfNotNow. “If they would say, we want the Jews out of Tel Aviv I would respect them because then they would be telling the truth,” she said.

IfNotNow protestors Rachel Goldstein of Washington dismissed Greenwald’s claim that IfNotNow is anti-Israel. “That’s not true,” she said. “Basically, we believe that Israelis and Palestinians deserve freedom and dignity and we believe it’s against our Jewish values to deny that.”

IfNotNow, which says that 3,000 people have attended its protests around the country since the election, puts an emphasis on how it is grounded in Jewish values. Members of the group often carry signs in Hebrew and sing Jewish songs during protests. Last night, a group of eight protestors held large cardboard and tinfoil mock-ups of a chanukiah. Protest leaders used Chanukah imagery as they talked through bull horns to the crowd assembled in front of the hotel.

“Tonight, we are all going to be shamashim, or leaders, as we shed light on the complicity of the Conference of Presidents with the Trump administration, and return light to our community to foster the Jewish resistance,” said Zwerling.

Earlier in the afternoon, Genser of the human rights group Freedom Now also evoked Jewish values as he held a battery-powered chanukiah.

“One of the 613 commandments is the mitzvah pidyon shvuyim, the redemption of the captives,” said Genser. “It’s considered a mitzvah rabbah, which means that you can transgress the Sabbath in order to help save someone.”

“This is an opportunity for all of those who are Jewish attending this reception to perform the mitzvah and to say to the Azerbaijani ambassador that we’re grateful for the support that Azerbaijan provides to the United States and Israel and, as a friend, we also are deeply concerned about the fact that there are 150 political prisoners in your country,” he said.

Daniel Schere and the JTA contributed reporting to this article.

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