“Having someone who grew up like us, who is now close to the president—that’s never a bad thing,” one associate of Jared Kushner told me recently. This source was not referring to Kushner’s experience in the real-estate business, where he leads his family’s multi-billion-dollar–development concern. Nor were they gesturing to Kushner’s tenure as a media executive. (In 2006, as is well known, the recent Harvard graduate purchased The New York Observer for $10 million.)
Instead, this person was pointing to a far deeper matter: the 35-year-old’s faith. Kushner, the increasingly influential son-in-law of President-Elect Donald Trump, is an observant Orthodox Jew. He grew up attending a Jewish day school in northern New Jersey. His wife, Ivanka, converted before the two were married by a rabbi. They send their young children to a Jewish school in Manhattan. Both observe the Sabbath each week.
Kushner’s faith became an undercurrent of the Trump campaign in July, when then candidate Trump was accused of promoting anti-Semitic imagery through a tweet. One of Kushner’s own employees called him out in his own news organization for not denouncing the social-media missive. “Please do not condescend to me and pretend you don’t understand the imagery of a six-sided star when juxtaposed with money and accusations of financial dishonesty,” Dana Schwartz wrote. Kushner responded by disputing the assertion. “The fact is that my father in law is an incredibly loving and tolerant person who has embraced my family and our Judaism since I began dating my wife,” he wrote. “His support has been unwavering and from the heart. I have personally seen him embrace people of all racial and religious backgrounds, at his companies and in his personal life.”
In the intervening months, however, the issue has only grown more fraught. Kushner has risen within Trump’s inner circle, after all, by showing steadfast loyalty to a candidate who is wildly popular with the alt-right—a group that, as the Anti-Defamation League notes, condones anti-Semitism. Trump may embrace people of all faiths, as Kushner suggested, but his supporters have often and volubly projected a discordant message. Days before the election, Dana Milbank published an article in The Washington Post headlined, “Anti-Semitism Is No Longer an Undertone of Trump’s Campaign. It’s the Melody.” Soon after the election, Slate compiled a list of racist incidents reported across the country, many involving Nazi imagery. More recently, the Huffington Post recorded dozens of of incidents of hate crimes, including those evoking anti-Semitism. This past weekend, vandals drew swastikas above the words “Go Trump” at Adam Yauch Park in Brooklyn Heights, while a group of white nationalists convened in Washington, D.C. to celebrate Donald Trump, discuss the Jewish problem, and exchange Sieg Heils. (On Monday, Trump issued a vague, tepid denunciation of the neo-Nazi confab.) Amid it all, Rob Reiner denounced Kushner in the Daily Beast for “turning his back on his religion and his heritage.” (During an interview with Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes, Trump told those committing hate crimes in his name to “stop it.” Representatives for both the Trump campaign and Kushner did not immediately respond to request for comment.)
Can Kushner be loyal to both his father-in-law and his faith? “There are very much two camps,” said one former Senate staffer who now works with major Jewish organizations. “You have one side that’s up in arms about the language. And then you have a group of organizations that are being savvy here.” This latter group, this person told me, appeared prepared to turn a blind eye to such incidents in order to focus their attention on the goal of ensuring support for the state of Israel. This camp, this person continued, appears to be saying, “Actions speak louder than words, so let’s keep our powder dry for now, see what’s in his budget, and look at how serious he really is in his support for Israel before speaking up.”
Those familiar with Kushner’s dynamic with Trump believe his proximity to the president might bode well for Israel. Still, they are not without reservations. “For a lot of the community, they think it’s a comfort,” the Kushner associate told me, to have Trump’s son-in-law in the inner circle. “They would say, though, that if they were to want anyone from our community in this role, Jared would not have been the first person they would have put on the list. . . . He would not be the guy where you’d be like, ‘Oh, thank God he’s there.’ He wouldn’t be a first- or second- or third-round draft pick.”
Still, this person conceded the importance of having someone of their faith and background close to the president. “But, great,” this person continued, “we have someone there. It’s a comfort. He’s totally solid and fine.”
During his first fortnight as president-elect, Trump appears to be assembling not so much a team of rivals as one of adversaries. Entreaties to the conservative Establishment (such as the appointment of Reince Priebus as chief of staff) appear undercut by gestures to his alt-right base (like the selection of Stephen Bannon as his top strategist). Trump’s attempt to woo the avuncular and cool-headed Mitt Romney as his secretary of state appears compromised by his appointment of the more bellicose Mike Flynn as national security adviser.
Kushner fits somewhat naturally into this tableau. Given the dynamic of Trump’s inner circle, he can be viewed less as an apologist for the politician’s more racially charged supporters than, his supporters hope, as a stalwart against them. After Bannon, the former chairman of Breitbart News, was appointed to Trump’s administration, many Jewish organizations expressed grave concern over the site, which has found support among white nationalists. (In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Bannon said he was a tolerant person who simply happened to be an “economic nationalist.”). But others appeared relieved that Kushner, who said in a new Forbes interview that Bannon is “an incredible Zionist and loves Israel,” have a solid working relationship with Bannon (though he reportedly agitated for Priebus to get the chief of staff job, could provide a calming counterweight. He has “the trust and ear of the entire inner circle of the Trump administration, including the most important member of that group, the president-elect,” as Matthew Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told The New York Times this weekend, making him what he called “one of the most important players right now beyond the president- and vice president-elect.”
“JARED … WOULD NOT BE THE GUY WHERE YOU’D BE LIKE, ‘OH, THANK GOD HE’S THERE.’ HE WOULDN’T BE A FIRST- OR SECOND- OR THIRD-ROUND DRAFT PICK.”
Much of the divide, predictably, fractures along party lines. The Anti-Defamation League, for example, issued a strongly worded condemnation of Bannon’s appointment, calling it a “sad day” and asking President-Elect Trump to appoint individuals who promote tolerance and pluralism. The more conservative Zionist Organization of America, on the other hand, extended an invitation for Bannon to attend its annual dinner in New York on Sunday night. (Bannon, who reportedly reached out to ask for the invitation, did not show up.) At the heart of the schism is a disagreement about objectives: some Jewish groups are gravely concerned by the anti-Semitic views that have been percolating throughout the campaign; others appear more singularly focused on courting Trump’s strong support of Israel. “Our policy is we have to side on the practical, unfortunately, regardless of how much we have intense disagreements,” one director of a major Jewish organization, who wished to remain anonymous, told me. “If you know anything about Trump and Bannon, if you insult them, they’ll never forget it. We don’t have the luxury of doing that, because one day down the line, something really serious will happen, and we’ll be glad that we still have a channel in there.”
Susie Gelman, the board chair of the Israel Policy Forum, a nonpartisan group that has advocated for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said that she has talked to a number of leaders who share this pragmatic outlook. As to whether Kushner’s presence alongside Bannon gives her any comfort, Gelman said that having a Jewish family member doesn’t predispose anyone toward supporting Israel or the Jewish community. “We have to judge the president-elect by his words and his deeds, not his family,” she said. “That he has Jewish members in his own family in no way exonerates him from speaking out vociferously on the kind of anti-Semitism we’ve seen throughout the campaign.”
In some ways, the split among members of the Jewish community is merely a microcosm of larger ones enveloping the Republican Party and the American electorate itself. The challenge for Kushner, as it will be for Trump, is achieving policy solutions that narrow the divide rather than enlarge it.
(via: Vanity Fair)