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Breaking Tradition, While Breaking Bread

Obama invites Jews to Muslim meal at the White House

Allison Hoffman
September 02, 2009

Last night, Barack Obama hosted an iftar, the meal that breaks the daily fast during the Muslim month of Ramadan. It’s actually not a new White House tradition—Bill Clinton started it, and George Bush continued it, as an event for the diplomatic corps along the lines of a state dinner. Obama, as is his wont, broke precedent by adding Muslim community leaders to the guest list, and by expanding it to include Jewish dignitaries, including Israel’s recently installed ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren. Spokesman Thomas Vietor told the Washington Post that Obama “thought it was an opportunity to reach out to ambassadors of nations with sizable Muslim populations, including the ambassadors of France, the [United Kingdom], India, and Israel.”

Also in attendance were Rabbi David Saperstein (of the progressive Religious Action Center) and Nathan Diament (of the Orthodox Union), both of whom are members of Obama’s ecumenical Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships. Diament was seated with the Pakistani ambassador, Husain Haqqani; Muslim congressman Andre Carson; White House legislative assistant Phil Schiliro; and Kathleen Sebelius, Obama’s Secretary for Health and Human Services. “We were joking ahead of time about whether there would be one table for the Jews,” Diament told Tablet. “There was not.” That said, Oren wound up seated with Jewish White House staffers David Axelrod and Susan Sher (who handled Jewish outreach before being named Michelle Obama’s chief of staff). “It’s part of a normative statement that Israel is part of the Middle East landscape,” explained David Harris, head of the National Jewish Democratic Council, who was not on the guest list. “It’s another nod from the president to the Arab world that Israel is a fact on the ground that they have to deal with.”

Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.

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