This article first appeared on the Jewish Journal website on September 9, 2015
If the Jewish community can’t find a way to heal its wounds after the bruising Iran deal battle, it’s not because Joe Biden didn’t try.
On Wednesday night, Sept. 9, the vice president and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, hosted a reception for the Jewish community at their residence on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.
A quick scan of the 100 or so guests included some who opposed the deal and some who supported it.
Among the guests: Democratic Reps. Nita Lowey (New York), Brad Sherman (Sherman Oaks) and Steve Israel (New York), who voted against it; and Reps. Sander Levin (Michigan) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Florida), who voted for it.
Among the Jewish organizational leaders, there was Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, which took a nuanced stance against the deal, Ameinu president, Kenneth Bob, who organized petitions to support it, and Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America, which managed to walk the middle path.
Another very notable guest: Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, who has been at the forefront of the Israeli government’s opposition to the deal.
Among those who supported it, it’s fair to say the atmosphere was of a quiet, nongloating victory party — it would have been hard to imagine a similar party atmosphere had the administration’s signature foreign policy effort gone down to defeat.
They packed into the foyer of the stately mansion, and spilled into a dining room and a sitting room, where a Navy quartet performed.
Outside, as the guests entered, a limousine and black SUV pulled up. Secretary of State John Kerry got out, waved and walked to the porch, where he fell into a conversation with Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz.
Biden took the microphone in front of the staircase, just behind the vice presidential seal. He welcomed everyone, then said he wanted to begin by introducing “the mishpacha”— using a Hebrew word for family.
He pointed out Joan and Ron Olivere, whose daughter Hallie is the widow of Beau Biden, the vice president’s son, who died May 30 of brain cancer at 46.
Biden said he and Joan knew each other back in high school.
“I was the Catholic kid, “ he said. “She was the Jewish girl. I still tried. I didn’t get anywhere.”
Biden pointed to Ron Olivere. “He would go through a wall for my son,” Biden said.
Then Biden introduced his other in-laws, Bunny and Stanley Krein, parents of Biden’s son-in-law, Dr. Howard Krein. The Kreins, like the Oliveres, are also Jewish.
“Our kids signed the ketubah in the rectory,” Biden recounted.
“Everyone talks about this being an Irish-Catholic family,” Biden said. “I don’t think so.”
The introductions set the personal tone. The message was: This is not about politics but family.
Then Biden turned to politics.
Launching into a defense of the Iran deal, he acknowledged that many people he respected — many of them in the room — disagreed with him about the deal. Biden said he was willing to talk through people’s concerns at any point.
“I promise you it will be enforced,” Biden said. “Israel is more secure with this deal than without it.”
Biden said that no president has done more to help keep Israel safe than Barack Obama.
“Twenty percent of Israel’s defense budget is paid for by the American taxpayer,” he said, adding that the enormous expenditures are to the president’s credit.
And if Israel wanted more, it could get more, he added.
“We are fully prepared to sit down with the Israeli defense leadership with a menu and say, ‘What do you need?’ We are prepared to do a 10-year MOU [memorandum of understanding] for Israel’s defense.”
The vice president’s Iran-related remarks received appreciative, if not rousing, applause. The wounds may still be too raw for that.
But after he concluded his Iran comments, Biden returned to addressing the Jewish community as a community.
“You’re the most incredible community I’ve ever dealt with,” he said. “ You’re the only outfit that looks out not only for every Jew in the nation and the world, but everyone else.”
He said that, looking out in the audience, he could see so many people who stuck with him when things got really bad. Then the vice president choked up.
“The degree of compassion and understanding that so many of you expressed … you guys get it,” Biden said. “You understand the ineffable things we can’t explain. It’s baked into your DNA. It really matters. Those of you who have been through what we’ve been through, you get it.”
Biden apologized for getting too serious. “We are here to celebrate,” he said. “What I really wanted to say is … Happy New Year.”
Pumped back up, Biden shmoozed the crowd before posing for pictures with the guests.
At one point, Dermer approached, and the two fell into a hug.
The wine and kosher hors d’oeuvres were passed — little hot dogs with deli mustard, fried eggplant batons, tuna tartare on cucumber rounds, mini burgers — and an atmosphere of community and good will returned, for now.