Who is Doug Emhoff? Kamala Harris’s Jewish husband and potential First Gentleman

Working to combat antisemitism as Second Gentleman has “driven me a lot closer to faith,” Doug Emhoff said


Doug Emhoff (Getty Images)

Shortly after the October 7 attacks in Israel, American Jewish leaders convened at the White House to hear President Biden speak. The man who had brought them there was President Biden’s unofficial advisor on anitsemitism, Doug Emhoff.

Husband of vice-president Kamala Harris, Emhoff is the first Second Gentleman to sit in the White House. He is also the first Jewish spouse of an American president or vice president. If – as rumours and indeed memes suggest – Kamala Harris replaces Joe Biden in this year’s presidential race, Emhoff could become the first First Gentleman and the first Jew to hold the role.

The grandson of Polish refugees, Emhoff grew up in Brooklyn with two Jewish parents. He was raised in the Jewish faith, attending Temple Shalom, a reform synagogue in New Jersey where he became bar mitzvah in 1977, and has reminisced about his family’s tradition of cooking brisket each year for Rosh Hashanah. He has hosted a Seder at the vice president’s residence, and visited Ellis Island to see his grandparents' synagogues, who fled to the US.

Arriving in the White House in 2021, Emhoff took a step back from his career as an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles. Antisemitism was on the rise in the United States, and the Second Gentleman found himself becoming more and more active in working to fight what he called the “epidemic of hate”. “Dougie, this issue has really found you,” he remembers his wife, Harris, saying. “Now lean into it”.

Emhoff – self-proclaimed “wife guy” – did just that. In 2022, following Donald Trump’s dinner with white supremecist nick Fuentes, and Kanye West’s praise of Adolf Hitler, the Second Gentleman hosted a round table on antisemitism where rabbis, advocacy groups, and government officials gathered to discuss the rise in antisemitism across the US.

“We cannot normalise this,” Emhoff said at the event. “As long as I have this microphone I’m going to speak out against hate, bigotry, lies. I’m going to speak out against those who praise fascist murderers and idolize extremists”.

Leaders of the Jewish community have praised Emhoff’s commitment to combating antisemitism. “I think a lot of people don’t relaise how significant it was right away that he’s a Jew in that role,” said Sheila Katz, chief executive of the National Council of Jewish Women. “These spaces have never been our places before, and what Emhoff is doing by who he is and who he’s engaging with in the community is just nothing we’ve seen before”.

Since 2022, Emhoff has continued to engage with Jewish communities. He visited Auschwitz on International Holocaust Remembrance Day in January 2023, and laid a wreath at the “Wall of Death,” where thousands were executed. After helping to launch the US National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, the first of its kind, in May 2023, he visited London to meet with members of the Jewish community in the UK.

Discussing the “crisis of antisemitism” as a “venom coursing through our world right now,” Emhoff’s message was not to be afraid. “You still have to have that joy and that love of being Jewish”. Speaking in November, just after the Hamas terror attacks, the Second Gentleman condemned the “murder of innocent people in Israel,” and the “reflexive antisemitism that somehow always seems to accompany conflict in the Middle East”.

Since the October 7 attacks and the war in Gaza, Emhoff’s role has become even more important. He met with Nataie Sanandaji, an American survivor of the attacks, and visited Jewish schoolchildren, promising them that “I have your back”.

If Kamala Harris were to run, her husband wouldn’t be her only link to the American Jewish community. Attending a high school in Montreal with a large Jewish student body, the vice president raised money for the Jewish National Fund as a child. Harris, though, did concern pro-Israel voters in taking a harsher stance than Biden in challenging Benjamin Natanhayu. Harris called for an “immediate” ceasefire in March, ahead of the President, and said Netanyahu has “no excuses” in ensuring aid reaches Gaza.

Donald Trump – who Harris would be running against if Biden steps down – was criticised earlier this year for “antisemitic rhetoric” by the White House, after saying that Jews who vote Democrat “hate Israel” and “hate their religion”. Notably, it was Doug Emhoff who took the harshest stance against the former president. “This is a disgusting, toxic, antisemitic thing to say, by anyone, let alone a former president of the United States, and it must be condemned,” Emhoff said.

When he affixed his mezuzah to the door of the vice presidential residence in 2021, Emhoff wasn’t planning on becoming a voice for Jewish Americans. “I didn’t realise what a big deal it would be not only to the Jewish community and to faith communities but to myself,” he said in 2022. “It’s actually driven me a lot closer to faith. It has opened my eyes to a lot of things”.

A lot would have to happen before a mezuzah is affixed to the White House’s front door. Biden would have to step down, Kamala would have to replace him, and – of course – she’d have to win. But at a time of increasing antisemitism across the States, even the possibility might be something to celebrate.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive