President Biden held out hope on Wednesday that he could still bring home U.S. hostages held by Hamas even as he gathered together with a group of American Jewish leaders at the White House to mourn what he called “the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.”
The Biden administration said that at least 22 American citizens were among the dead and that 17 more remained missing, some of them evidently seized by Hamas. John F. Kirby, a White House spokesman, said it was not clear precisely how many were hostages but estimated that the number was “very small, very small, less than a handful.”
The fate of the Americans held by Hamas has been a central preoccupation of U.S. officials since the surprise attack on Saturday, reinforcing that the crisis in Israel is an American crisis as well. While the White House has not ruled out U.S. action to rescue captives if an opportunity presented itself, it has largely deferred to Israel in public, saying that it has sent hostage specialists to help with any efforts to save the hostages.
“We want to make it real clear. We’re working on every aspect of the hostage crisis in Israel, including deploying experts to advise and assist with recovery efforts,” Mr. Biden told the American Jewish leaders at the White House. He added: “There’s a lot we’re doing, a lot we’re doing. I have not given up hope of bringing these folks home.”
But he said he did not want to provide more specifics because “if I told you, I wouldn’t be able to get them home.”
The president’s comments came during a brief talk to Jewish leaders convened by Doug Emhoff, the husband of Vice President Kamala Harris. Mr. Emhoff, who is Jewish, has made fighting antisemitism a central focus of his time in the administration. Wednesday’s event highlighted concerns about rising hate at home as well as abroad.
Mr. Biden, who has said that if he were a Jew he would be a Zionist, talked about taking his children and grandchildren to Dachau concentration camp to confront the evils of the Nazi genocide. “This attack was a campaign of pure cruelty — not just hate, but cruelty against the Jewish people,” he said, “and I would argue it’s the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.”
“Silence is complicity, it really is,” Mr. Biden said, adding, “I refuse to be silent, and I know you refuse to be silent as well.” The room applauded.
Mr. Biden’s personal brand of empathy, born out of multiple tragedies in his own family, has always been one of his political strengths and he gave voice to the overpowering grief that has consumed so many in Israel, the United States and around the world in recent days.
One person in attendance, Sheila Katz, the chief executive of the National Council of Jewish Women, had tears on her face. Another, Nathan J. Diament, the executive director of public policy for the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, noted that Jewish leaders seeking a meeting with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to raise alarms about Nazi atrocities during World War II were turned away from the White House.
“Thank you for your leadership and moral clarity,” Mr. Diament told Mr. Biden.
Where the president had seemed angry during public comments about the Hamas attack on Tuesday, on Wednesday he sounded more somber as the death toll from the Hamas attack rose to 1,200. He alluded to his own losses in offering comfort to those suffering.
“I know a little bit of what it’s like to feel loss, lose people you adore, get a phone call saying, ‘They’re gone,’” Mr. Biden said. “I get that part. Not the same, but I get that part.”
“And what I’ve learned is that as we persevere, we can grow,” he continued. “And the day will come when the memory of that person or those persons will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. It will happen. But God, it takes a long time sometimes.”