The White House can add one more senior staffer to its list of advisers with Jewish roots, and it is an unlikely name. Valerie Jarrett, President Obama’s senior adviser and assistant for intergovernmental affairs and public engagement, disclosed her Jewish ancestry to a Jewish gathering on Monday.
Speaking on behalf of the administration at the annual plenum of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Jarrett, who is African-American, told the story of the first Passover seder she attended as a child.
“Many, many years ago, my parents hosted a seder for a group of our Jewish friends, and it was here that my father first told me that my great-grandfather was Jewish. What a wonderful surprise for our friends, and for me! So Passover has always been a special holiday for me.”
She went on to talk about the seder held by Obama’s Jewish staffers while on the campaign trail in 2008 and how Obama, after being elected, lived up to his promise to hold a Passover seder every year at the White House.
The Obama White House has lost several of its top Jewish staffers recently, with the departure of presidential chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, senior political counselor David Axelrod and chief economic adviser Lawrence Summers. It did gain, however, Jacob Lew, an Orthodox Jew, as director of the Office of Management and Budget.
In her speech, Jarrett reassured the Jewish audience that as the Arab world goes through historic changes, President Obama will work to ensure that “the region evolves in a way that advances American interests, including peace between Israel and her Arab neighbors.” She stressed, however, that just as the status quo in the Arab world proved unsustainable, so is the case with the Israeli — Palestinian peacemaking. A similar message was delivered last week by senior adviser Dennis Ross at the J Street conference.
Obama himself told members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations that advancing the peace process remained an urgent priority at a meeting on March 1.