Five Things to Know This Week: Trump’s Jewish American Gambit
1. Who’s in and who’s out of Trump’s Jewish allies circle?
Last Tuesday, the White House hosted a group of Jewish leaders for a short pre-Passover meeting and briefing. There was a nice spread of gefilte fish, potato kugel and some Israeli-style salad, and, according to participants, the atmosphere was good with plenty of time left before and after the discussion for friendly schmoozing. That’s worth noting, because in terms of substance, participants didn’t get much—all the White House had to offer was an overview by the newly appointed Special Envoy for Monitoring and Combating anti-Semitism Elan Carr and a speech by Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer, praising President Trump and his policies toward Israel.
The real point of interest is the list of invitees, and more importantly those left off. Trump’s White House made a point of not inviting any officials from non-Orthodox denominations—no Reform, no Conservative, no Reconstructionist, even though they represent the vast majority of American Jewry. Representatives of the Orthodox Union Agudath Israel and Chabad were more than welcome. In addition, participants also included representatives of major mainstream Jewish communal groups such as AIPAC, the Jewish Federations of North America and the American Jewish Committee.
Also absent were officials from major Jewish groups that had been critical of Trump’s policies or comments, including the Anti-Defamation League, which is America’s largest Jewish defense group, and HIAS, which deals with immigration and refugee resettlement. It almost goes without saying that liberal organizations such as J Street, the Israel Policy Forum or Americans for Peace Now were also left out.
What we’re left with is a list of individuals and organizational officials that represents Trump’s potential support base within the Jewish community: Orthodox, politically conservative, strongly pro-Israel, many with past or present contacts in Republican politics.
2. How unusual is it to select certain Jewish groups and leave others out?
It’s not unusual at all. Political access, particularly to the White House, is hard currency in the advocacy world. Those who have it use it to their advantage, and those who control the access make sure it is given to players who appreciate it. This makes perfect political sense. During the Obama presidency, representatives of the Republican Jewish Coalition and the Zionist Organization of America could only dream about warm latkes on silver platters at the East Room during the annual Hanukkah reception or of being on the line for top-level phone briefings with administration officials.
But, as always, it comes down to common sense and proportionality. While no one really expected Trump to host political groups he opposes, be it J Street or Jewish Democrats, the idea of shutting out major religious denominations and national defense organizations is highly unusual. If Trump wishes to speak to the broader Jewish community, there’s no way he can bypass the Reform and Conservative movements or sideline ADL. They’ve all been highly critical of some of his policies, but they also rightly claim the mantle of representing a majority of Jewish Americans. Without them in the room (or on the line for the High Holiday conference call, or in the White House for the Hanukkah reception), it is merely a discussion with Jewish Trump supporters, not with the Jewish community.
3. Is this a problem for legacy Jewish organizations?
It could be. In a world where access is power, the lack of it could eventually reflect on a group’s ability to carry out its mission. The effect for most groups, however, would be limited. Reform activists know all too well that whether they get invited to the White House or not, it would be all but impossible for them to advance their liberal agenda with a Republican administration and Congress. Likewise, conservative groups such as the Orthodox Union are acutely aware of the fact that getting their agenda items relating to education or American policy toward Jerusalem stood no chance with the Obama administration, even if the president was kind enough to have them over for latkes and kosher lamb chops.
The bigger problem is with perception. Being stamped by the president as too liberal to attend a White House Jewish community briefing could pose a problem in the long run for denominational and communal groups that are bound, both legally and publicly, to non-partisanship. No one would mistake the ADL for a Trump supporting organization, but when the White House deems it too partisan to attend a meeting, the label is likely to stick.
4. On a peace plan, Jewish groups are all in the dark
Whether you’re one of the lucky Jewish leaders to sit in the White House Indian Treaty Room last week, or one of those following the news from afar, there’s one thing both groups have in common—full and perfect ignorance of the Trump administration’s upcoming Middle East peace plan. Jared Kushner’s peace team has held meetings and conversations with a variety of Jewish groups and individuals, but all came out with the same impression: Members of the team are keeping their cards close to their chests. Kushner, Trump’s special representative for international negotiations Jason Greenblatt and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman are happy to share optimistic visions of the future for Israelis and Palestinians, they’re glad to explain the need for a new approach, and they are great listeners to their counterparts’ concerns. But they will not reveal details. This could, and likely will, change very soon, when the plan is ready to be rolled out and Jewish groups become an important vehicle in selling it to their constituents.
5. Peace plan watch: We have a date, sort of
Details of the “deal of the century” are scarce, but at least there’s some news to report. The deal, according to Kushner, will not be presented until June and only after the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, some time around June 4. By then, Netanyahu’s new right-wing government will likely already be sworn in and it’s hard to think of any other excuse for further delaying the rollout. Unless, of course, less-than-welcoming reactions already voiced by the Palestinian Authority and the Arab League will send Kushner and his team back to the drawing board.