Doug Emhoff aims for a role as consoler amid the Israel-Hamas war

Second gentleman Douglas Emhoff spoke Tuesday to the owner of a Jewish-owned falafel restaurant in Philadelphia that was the target of protests the White House has called antisemitic, offering support amid heightened political tensions over the Israel-Hamas war. 

In the call, Emhoff and Michael Solomonov, the Israeli American chef and owner of Goldie, talked about how food was actually supposed to bring people together rather than be a source of division. Solomonov told Emhoff he was overwhelmed by the outreach he’s received since the protest at his restaurant Sunday, and thanked him as well as Vice President Kamala Harris for their support, according to a source familiar with the call.

The roughly 10-minute conversation was just the latest of dozens Emhoff has been quietly making during the past two months to both political leaders, as well as ordinary people affected by the fallout of the Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. They have been done with little fanfare, often coming about simply because he wants to check in on how the individuals and groups they represent are doing, making a personal connection at a fraught political moment, according to a source familiar with the calls. 

Emhoff has also reached out to the wife of Paul Kessler, a 69-year-old California man who died after a confrontation with counterprotesters at a pro-Israeli rally. He’s spoken with Ted Deutch, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, and Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League and reached out to Rabbi Sharon Brous, a leader in the Los Angeles Jewish community. He’s even spoken with actor Sacha Baron Cohen, who has been outspoken in criticizing the social media apps like TikTok for spreading antisemitic messages.

The Israel-Hamas conflict and the wave of public protests it has triggered at home has posed a significant challenge to the White House, which increasingly is seeking to balance its support for Israel with pressure on its ally to mitigate the Palestinian civilian death toll. But in a moment when every public comment is scrutinized, the source said Emhoff was simply aiming to be a consoler in these connections, and not part of any formal administration outreach.

There’s no obvious blueprint for the role of the nation’s second spouse. Jill Biden’s most public platform, apart from serving as a community college professor when her husband was vice president, was a partnership with then-first lady Michelle Obama on supporting military families. Karen Pence, wife of then-Vice President Mike Pence, worked to promote art therapy as part of her focus on supporting mental health.

But there has never been a second spouse like Emhoff, the first man and first Jewish person to be married to a vice president. Emhoff has already led the administration’s efforts to combat antisemitism, which predated Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks and the dramatic public demonstrations for and against Israel’s response.

In addition to the private calls, Emhoff has also held more than a dozen events since Oct. 7, mostly to demonstrate support for the Jewish community but also to hear from those concerned about Israel’s counteroffensive. On Oct. 18, he met with 39 Jewish Day school students visiting from New York who delivered letters of support to the administration. He and Harris have met with survivors of the Oct. 7 attack, as well as families of the hostages. 

Emhoff also attended a gathering of Muslim, Arab and Palestinian political appointees. Before Thanksgiving, he met in person with an Arab American student at Stanford University who was hit by a car on campus, an incident being investigated as a potential hate crime.

“No one should live in fear of being targeted for who they are. We must continue to fight back against Islamophobia and hate of every kind,” Emhoff tweeted after the meeting.

The White House has faced significant criticism for some of its outreach — or lack thereof — to Muslim and Arab American communities. Biden waited five days to reach out to the family of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy viciously stabbed to death in what has been charged as a hate crime.

On Thursday, Emhoff will kick off celebrations of Hanukkah with remarks at the National Menorah Lighting. He and Harris are also hosting a Hanukkah reception at the vice president’s residence this weekend.

President Joe Biden will host a Hanukkah reception at the White House next week.

Officials have stressed the need at a time of significant public protests to lower the temperature.

“It’s a very difficult time. And what I hope is that we can engage in conversation and discourse in a way that understands this is not binary, and then appreciates that we are talking about real human beings,” Harris told NBC News last month. “We’re talking about real fear, not to mention what it means in our own country in terms of long-standing issues with antisemitism, which has been on the rise even before this happened, Islamophobia and other forms of hate against people just simply based on who they are, or how they pray.”