It is an integral piece of Washington, DC Jewish political tradition. Or at least, it used to be.
Every president since JFK has made a point of dedicating a White House staff member to serve, either formally or in an informal fashion, as the liaison to the Jewish community. It is a unique position, one that requires the liaison to serve both as sounding board for the community, as it seeks to relay its interests and concerns to the White House, and at the same time as a mediator in charge of communicating the president’s messages to Jewish constituents.
But like many other political traditions, the Trump era brought an end to the idea of designating a point-person for the Jewish community. Deep into his second year in office, Trump, though he has not made any formal announcement about the future of the position, has preferred not to fill the post, thus doing away with the office of liaison to the Jewish community. At least for now.
Is this decision no more than a cost-effective move aimed at eliminating an unnecessary middleman or a display of insensitivity toward the Jewish community?
Regardless of politics, many of the individuals involved in both sides of the dialogue between the White House and the Jewish community see it as a missed opportunity. They argue that, while dedicating a government official to deal with a community representing 2 percent of the American population may sound like a misuse of taxpayer dollars, history has proved it valuable.
“Just remember that 70 years ago, rabbis came to Roosevelt and were turned down,” recalled former Clinton liaison Jay Footlik in an interview. “If there isn’t a point person at the White House, it’s hard for any administration to communicate its agenda and to receive feedback on what’s important to the community.”
Jewish political history stores many instances in which the role of Jewish liaison proved to be essential and helped avoid tragic miscommunications as those described by Footlik, when Jews wanted to lobby the administration to take action as the Holocaust loomed in Europe but failed to find an open door. In his book Ike’s Gamble, author Mike Doran describes a conversation in which President Eisenhower lamented to his friend, Jewish businessman and philanthropist Max Fisher, that if he had a Jewish adviser during the 1956 Suez war, “I doubt I would’ve handled the situation the same way. I would not have forced the Israelis back.” Marshall Breger, who was Ronald Reagan’s liaison to the Jewish community, was faced with a tough moment when Reagan decided to attend a ceremony in Bitburg, Germany, at a cemetery of Nazi soldiers from the SS. Breger could not convince Reagan to change his plans, but he did keep communication lines open between the White House and the Jewish community at a time of crisis, an effort he believed helped sensitize the administration. During the Obama presidency, Jewish liaison Matt Nosanchuk was tasked with the tough mission of communicating the Iranian nuclear deal to a skeptical Jewish community. After intense months of delivering messages back and forth, he was able to tell the president that a majority of American Jews backed the agreement, though Jewish organizations remained split.
Jewish activists from communal organizations also see a plus in maintaining the position. A former head of a major group said that while big donors and communal leaders have always been able to reach the higher echelons of the administration when needed, a dedicated channel of communication is valuable. “You want to know there’s an address, someone who will always take your call,” said the former leader.
Appointing a special envoy for the Jewish community is not, however, the crucial point in defining a president’s relations with American Jews. The relationship isn’t determined by the existence of the position, but rather by the policies and views of the administration. A president with close ties to the Jewish community, personal contacts and welcoming policies can probably do well even without a staff person carrying the title of liaison to the community.
In the case of Donald Trump, it seems clear that filling the position could have helped avoid many misunderstandings and perhaps bridge the gap of mistrust between the White House and the Jewish community. Needless to say, some good advice from a close aide who understands the community and who can communicate with its leaders when a crisis occurs could have helped Trump deal better with the fiasco of his reaction to the Charlottesville neo-Nazi protest which caused a breach with the Jewish community. Trump may feel he is surrounded by top Jewish insiders, including his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, or that he communicates well with Jewish billionaire friends including Sheldon Adelson and Ron Lauder. But the services they provide the president have proven to be insufficient when it comes to maintaining relations with the Jewish community. Gary Cohn, who served as Trump’s top economic adviser and who stood next to him when the president delivered his controversial Charlottesville comments in which he drew an equivalence between the Nazis marching in the street and those protesting them, later said he was ready to resign after hearing Trump speak. But he did not. Nor did he reach out and try to educate the president or mediate a conversation with the Jewish community. Because at the end of the day, a top Jewish official, as senior as he or she may be, does not serve as the president’s adviser on the Jewish community. This is the role of the liaison.
And while the necessity of a liaison to the Jewish community is a subject of legitimate debate, few question the need for another position still left vacant: the special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism. This State Department senior official is in charge of providing American leadership in the global battle against anti-Semitism and relaying the message that America cares about the issues and that relations with the U.S. depend, among many other factors, also on each country’s relations with its own Jewish minority. Early on in his administration, Trump and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to downsize the government service and to eliminate unnecessary positions, putting the job of the special envoy on the chopping block. Current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has promised to fill the position and has begun the search process. The necessity is obvious: With anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe, America’s voice in the battle is sorely missed. Pompeo may be the one to correct this mistake, but with a vetting and clearance process still underway, the U.S. may end up with a two-year absence from this important international arena—an absence Jewish leaders have been warning against, so far to no avail.