WASHINGTON — The annual National Menorah lighting is a ceremonial event. Held on the Ellipse, it is used to mark the beginning of Chanukah and celebrate the American-Jewish community a stone’s throw from the White House. But a bit of controversy ensued Sunday when Rabbi Levi Shemtov, the executive vice president of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad), criticized the 14-0 vote by the U.N. Security Council on Dec. 23 to adopt a resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
The resolution, which carried after the United States refused to veto and instead abstained in the vote, called Israeli settlements “a flagrant violation of international law” that damage the prospects of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Some of us are so sad about what happens [in the United Nations] with regard to Israel, we must remember that the way to counter any darkness, any disappointment is not with harsh rhetoric, not with anger, but by creating light,” Shemtov, son of Philadelphia’s Rabbi Abraham Shemtov, told the crowd, which was estimated as exceeding 4,000. “Because when we create light, the darkness dissipates and we look forward to the day when there will be no more darkness, there will be no more evil, there will be no more disappointments.”
Shemtov’s comments followed remarks by Treasury Acting Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Adam Szubin, who spoke about the Chanukah candles as symbols of hope. Szubin, who was representing the Obama administration, also helped light the menorah.
In his own speech, Shemtov said Szubin’s remarks reminded him of those made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he was serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations in the 1980s.
Back then, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, who passed away in 1994, “told [Netanyahu], you are working in a place where there is great grief and darkness, but remember that in that place of darkness, you can only counter it by lighting a candle, by creating light.”
The mention of the United Nations led media outlets such as the Washington Examiner and the New York Post to report it as a direct criticism of the Obama administration’s policies toward Israel. Shemtov, though, said they took his words out of context, which were not intended to be a jab at the president.
“Of course the vote is a disappointment,” he said. “I still believe harsh rhetoric is not going to make any progress and I said as much. People will hear what they want to hear, that cannot be my responsibility. I can only be responsible for what I actually say.”
Shemtov stood by his criticism of the U.N.’s actions.
“Personally, the biggest problem I have on the vote is I find it hard to believe anything positive will come of it,” he said.
Shemtov added that Obama has always been courteous to him personally and that overall he thinks the president’s relationship with the Jewish community has stayed positive.
“The prime minister of Israel and its ambassador to the U.S. clearly stated many times, despite points of strong disagreement, the president and the administration have over time done many good things for Israel, and specifically because of that record I believe many in the American-Jewish community are baffled as to the practical utility of the position at the vote,” he said.
Daniel Schere covers politics for the Washington Jewish Week, an affiliated publication of the Jewish Exponent.