The annual National Menorah lighting in Washington is usually 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 it 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.
“So as I know, 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 told the crowd, which some estimated as upwards of 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 Under Secretary 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 died 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, and the video of that is readily available — even on the news outlets, which twisted what I said into a sensational headline at my expense.”
Shemtov did, however, stand by his criticism of the U.N.’s actions last week.
“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.
“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.
American presidents have long protected Israel from extreme censure at the United Nations. As recently as 2011, Obama vetoed a similar resolution on settlements that like this one was adamantly opposed by Israel.
Samantha Power, the American U.N. envoy, in a lengthy explanation of the American vote, said the resolution is consistent with longstanding U.S. policy opposing Israeli settlements and accurately reflects the facts on the ground.
“The United States has been sending a message that the settlements must stop privately and publicly for decades,” Power said.
“Our vote today is fully in line with the bipartisan history of how presidents have approached this issue.”
Power said the United States could not support the resolution outright because it ignores other relevant issues and because Israel is often mistreated at the United Nations. She talked at length about the latter sentiment.
“The simple truth is for as long as Israel has been a member of this institution, Israel has been treated differently from other members of the United Nations,” the ambassador said.
Power emphasized that the abstention did not reflect any change in the American commitment to Israeli security.
“Our commitment to that security has never wavered and never will,” she said.
In a speech before the vote, Israel’s U.N. envoy, Danny Danon, described the resolution as “evil” and likened it to condemning Americans for building in Washington or the French for building in Paris.
“This resolution today will be added to the long and shameful list of anti-Israel U.N. resolutions,” Danon said. “Instead of charting a course forward, you are sending a message to the Palestinians that they should continue on the path of terrorism and incitement, that they should continue to hold people hostage, that they should continue to seek meaningless statements from the international community.”
The resolution was introduced by New Zealand, Venezuela, Malaysia and Senegal after a similar resolution, introduced by Egypt in coordination with the Palestinians, was withdrawn on Thursday amid intense pressure from Israel and President-elect Donald Trump.
On Facebook, president-elect Donald Trump wrote that the resolution was “extremely unfair.”
“As the United States has long maintained, peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians will only come through direct negotiations between the parties, and not through the imposition of terms by the United Nations. This puts Israel in a very poor negotiating position and is extremely unfair to all Israelis,” he wrote.
Several U.S. lawmakers also criticized the American abstention. Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Nita Lowey, both New York Democrats, and Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., all issued statements criticizing the Obama administration.
“It is extremely frustrating, disappointing and confounding that the Administration has failed to veto this resolution,” said Schumer, the incoming Senate minority leader. “Whatever one’s views are on settlements, the U.N. is the wrong forum to settle these issues.”
The resolution and the U.S. vote drew differing reactions from American Jewish groups.
The American Jewish Committee in a statement said it was “deeply disappointed that the United States chose to abstain on a U.N. Security Council resolution today which singled out Israel for condemnation.”
The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the Jewish community’s foreign policy umbrella group, issued a scathing denunciation of the resolution and the American vote.
“There is no justification or explanation that validates the United States failure to veto the one-sided, offensive resolution adopted by the Security Council today,” said a statement attributed from the Presidents Conference chairman, Stephen Greenberg, and its executive vice chairman, Malcolm Hoenlein. “The United States vote will be seen as a betrayal of the fundamentals of the special relationship that will nevertheless continue to mark the close ties between the peoples of the two countries.”
Liberal Jewish groups issued statements supporting the vote and the American acquiescence in its passage. J Street, the dovish pro-Israel lobby, welcomed the resolution, as did the New Israel Fund. The progressive Zionist group Ameinu called it a “reasonable response” to the situation on the ground.
“The resolution is consistent with longstanding bipartisan American policy, which includes strong support for the two-state solution, and clear opposition to irresponsible and damaging actions, including Palestinian incitement and terror and Israeli settlement expansion and home demolitions,” J Street said.
JTA News and Features contributed to this story