The Triumphs and Failures of a Jewish Son-in-Law

Jared Kushner earned bipartisan praise by brokering the breakthrough deal between the UAE and Israel. But he remains an elusive and divisive figure.
Presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner visited Abu Dhabi as part of the joint U.S.-Israeli delegation in August.

Nearly four years into Donald J. Trump’s presidency, Jared Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, remain the prince and princess of the administration and arguably the nation’s “First Jews.” Kushner’s Jewish pedigree is unquestionable. The Modern Orthodox grandson of Holocaust survivors, Kushner attended Jewish day schools, observes Shabbat and, according to his rabbi, can recite the Megillah in Hebrew with ease. Ivanka Trump, who converted under the guidance of a Modern Orthodox rabbi, gives every appearance of being devoted to Judaism.

The couple’s 2017 arrival in Washington, DC was highly anticipated. The city’s Jews were curious about where the new president’s Jewish daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren would worship. That question was quickly answered. The young power couple bypassed the Modern Orthodox synagogue in Georgetown, choosing the politically well-connected Chabad shul within walking distance of the house they rented in the tony Kalorama neighborhood where the Obamas also live.

There were weightier questions as well. Americans on both sides of the aisle wondered what roles the two, thought to be fairly typical New York Jewish liberals, would play in the Trump administration. Democrats hoped they would be a moderating influence on the new president. Conservative Republicans were concerned about the same thing. Would they influence the administration’s approach to peace in the Middle East and help combat the sudden rise of anti-Semitism in America?

Americans were already familiar with Ivanka Trump—said to be the president’s favorite child—from her highly visible role in the campaign, her eponymous women’s clothing line and, if they had read it, her 2009 book, The Trump Card: Playing to Win in Work and Life. But Kushner was a cipher, his views largely unknown and his voice rarely heard in public.

Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, walk with their three children— (from left) Theodore, Arabella and Joseph— during the 2017 presidential inauguration parade.

Kushner and his wife, Ivanka Trump, walk with their three children— (from left) Theodore, Arabella and Joseph— during the 2017 presidential inauguration parade. (Photo credit: Department of Defense, SGT. Marianique Santos)

THE GO-TO GUY

As assistant to the president, Ivanka Trump would carve out policy corners she had spoken about in the past—children, economic empowerment and the education of women—but it quickly became clear that her husband would be handed a very different portfolio. The then 36-year-old senior adviser became what New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has termed the president’s “go-to person for every known problem on the planet.”

For those who had followed Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, this would come as no surprise. Kushner was already a trusted Trump consigliere and had played a key role in helping his father-in-law beat the odds to get elected. He was, however, new to government, although he had majored in it at Harvard. (A good but not a stellar student, his admission was greased by his father’s $2.5 million donation to the school, according to Daniel Golden’s 2006 book, The Price of Admission.) He had the kind of credentials that many young people have on arrival at the White House: MBA and law degrees from New York University, and a brief stint at an elite Manhattan law firm (although he never took the bar exam).

Nevertheless, Kushner had previously shown no interest in public service. Most of his experience, like that of his father-in-law, was in real estate investment and development. At 23, he had taken the reins of his family’s New Jersey-based real estate company, Kushner Companies, expanding it to New York City, and spearheading the purchase of an office tower at 666 Fifth Avenue for $1.8 billion, then the highest price ever paid for a building in Manhattan. As the eldest son, he was filling in for his father, Charles Kushner, who was serving time in federal prison for tax evasion, witness tampering and illegal campaign contributions stemming from a family business feud. (Charles Kushner had set up his estranged brother-in-law with a prostitute, had the encounter filmed and sent the video to his sister, who brought it to the attention of the FBI.)

Two months into the administration, the president named Jared Kushner to head a new Office of American Innovations formed to streamline government. Kushner may have been the first son-in-law appointed to this task, but making government more efficient and business-friendly has been a goal sought by many presidents, including George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, both of whom assigned the task to their vice presidents.

Kushner assembled a team, largely from outside government, but the results of its efforts “to drive agencies to the cloud and better data management” and to pass an infrastructure bill, originally by spring 2018, are yet to be seen. Kushner, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this article, then threw his energies into criminal justice reform, inspired by his father’s prison experience. (The two are reportedly very close. Kushner regularly visited his father in prison, loyally characterizing his actions as a family matter rather than a criminal one. This kind of loyalty would serve him well in the Trump world. “From an early age,” journalist Franklin Foer observed in The Atlantic, “Jared learned how to accumulate influence by faithfully serving the interests of powerful, mercurial men.”)

President Trump and Kushner meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel, in May 2017

President Trump and Kushner meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, at the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, Israel, in May 2017. (Photo credit: Government press office, Kobi Gideon)

Kushner pushed through the 2018 First Step Act, which, among other things, shortens mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent drug offenses and eases the federal “three strikes” rule that imposed a life sentence for three or more convictions. Despite opposition from some of Trump’s most conservative congressional allies, it passed the Senate with a bipartisan vote of 87-12 and sailed through the House. The Obama administration had sought similar legislation, but was unable to get Republican support. To get the bill passed, Kushner formed relationships across party lines and “took it on with a passion and zeal,” recalls Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times. And although prison reform was not a topic that interested his father-in-law, Kushner persuaded the president to support it. In dealing with the president, Baker notes, Kushner and Ivanka Trump “strive to be strategic, employing their best sense of when he might be open to listening and not bothering on stuff they know they’re not going to win.”

Among the many tasks Kushner juggled—from the construction of the border wall to trade deals with China and Mexico—it was the First Step Act that gave him his first clear success. But there was another subject that he cared about even more deeply: Israel. Although it was widely reported that U.S. intelligence agencies viewed Kushner as a possible security risk because of his diplomatic “naivete” and his previous business relationships, the president overruled then-chief-of-staff John Kelly and got him top-secret security clearance. He then put his son-in-law in charge of a new venture: peace in the Middle East.

President Trump interrupts Kushner as he speaks at a coronavirus briefing at the White House on April 2, 2020. At the time, 5,700 people had died from the virus in the United States.

President Trump interrupts Kushner as he speaks at a coronavirus briefing at the White House on April 2, 2020. At the time, 5,700 people had died from the virus in the United States. (Photo credit: Kevin Dietsch/Pool via CNP /MediaPunch)

AN UNORTHODOX PEACE PLAN

Generations of diplomats have tried and failed to negotiate an accord between Israelis and Palestinians. The list of unsuccessful efforts, led by experienced negotiators, is sobering. Trump was throwing Kushner into something at which, in many people’s eyes, he was bound to fail. But Kushner forged ahead. Rather than approach the conflict though the traditional Israel-Palestinian binary, Kushner approached it in regional terms.

He was not by any means the first would-be peacemaker to do this, but the situation in the Middle East had vastly changed. With proxy wars in Syria and Yemen and the price of oil volatile, the Sunni-led Arab Gulf States were focused on diversifying their economies and on Iran, rather than on the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “Kushner’s strategy was to encourage them to unite with Israel against Iran,” a Shi’a Muslim state “and their mutual enemy,” says Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator under both Democratic and Republican presidents and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Kushner worked hard, says Miller, to cultivate relationships with the Gulf States. It didn’t hurt that some of their leaders and representatives had stories similar to Kushner’s. They were wealthy men who had been appointed to serve in positions of power by fathers or older male relatives. One of the most prominent of these is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, 35, the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and a son of 85-year-old King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud. This relationship was forged by a mutual concern over Iran, and, at least in part, because of Trump’s declared interest in sealing a big weapons deal with the Saudis. Trump’s first trip abroad as president in May 2017 was to Saudi Arabia, followed by a stop in Israel. In Riyadh, accompanied by Kushner and Ivanka Trump, he signed a deal in which the Saudis promised to buy $350 billion in sophisticated weapons from the United States over ten years.

Kushner played a major role in the negotiations leading to this deal. Multiple reports say that he both shocked and impressed the Saudis by personally calling the CEO of Lockheed Martin to ask if she would cut the price of a missile detection system included in the package. Two years later, Kushner negotiated another deal. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Jordan came away with $8.1 billion of the world’s most sophisticated weapons and a provision that allowed top U.S. weapons manufacturer Raytheon to team up with Saudi Arabia to build high-tech bomb parts, potentially sharing technology that has been closely guarded for national security reasons. The administration issued an emergency declaration to push the deal through without congressional approval.

Kushner didn’t need to engage in the same kind of relationship-building with Israeli leaders. He already had a lifelong connection to Israel. He grew up in a tightly knit pro-Israel Jewish community in Livingston, New Jersey. In his views about the importance of the Jewish state, Kushner was heavily influenced by his grandparents. In particular, he was inspired by his grandmother Rae’s daring 1943 escape through a hand-dug tunnel from the Novogrudok ghetto in what is now Belarus and by her fervent support for Israel. “For the Jews, the doors were closed,” she wrote in her book The Miracle of Life, recalling her desperate struggle to obtain a visa to escape Europe.

In 1998, a teenage Kushner participated in “The March of the Living,” a trip to Israel and Poland that included a three-kilometer walk between the Auschwitz and Birkenau concentration camps. That year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the procession of teenagers waving Israeli flags. Unlike most of the other trip participants, Kushner already had a close family tie to Netanyahu. Charles Kushner was friendly with the prime minister. On at least one reported occasion, Netanyahu even slept in Jared’s bed at the family home in Livingston, relegating Jared to the basement.

There were also financial ties. The elder Kushner had hired Netanyahu to give speeches at various venues, including the family’s synagogue in November 2001. Instead of paying Netanyahu from his personal bank account, he used real estate partnership funds to pay him $400,000, according to Andrea Bernstein in her 2020 book, American Oligarchs: The Kushners, the Trumps, and the Marriage of Money and Power. (Bernstein adds that this was one of the points of contention between Charles and his brother-in-law.) In addition, the Kushner family’s various foundations frequently donated to a wide variety of Jewish and Israeli causes, including gifts to Jewish organizations on the West Bank. According to ProPublica, the Kushner Companies Charitable Foundation, controlled by Charles Kushner, has made several gifts to American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva Center, an American charity supporting a hard-line Religious Zionist yeshiva in the settlement of Beit El, situated in the West Bank near Ramallah. The foundation even made an $18,000 gift to American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva Center in 2017 after Jared Kushner had been handed the Middle East portfolio.

Those who spoke with Kushner while he was developing his Middle East plan agree that he did his homework. Along with Jason Greenblatt—then the president’s envoy for international negotiations and special adviser on Israel and an Orthodox Jew who had been a longtime legal counsel for the Trump Organization—Kushner met with Israeli and Gulf leaders. He also met with Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in June 2017, as well as with people who were close to Abbas and others. Kushner read voraciously, as if studying for a final exam, according to Israeli journalist Amir Tibon, who met with him several times. Among the books was The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Fall of Mahmoud Abbas, by Tibon and Grant Rumley, now an adviser for Middle East Policy at the Department of Defense. “I think he came into this issue without a lot of knowledge,” says Tibon. “I think he really trusts his own judgment.”

Kushner and Greenblatt also sought the advice of foreign policy leaders. Most prominent on the hawkish right was then-national security adviser John Bolton, with whom Kushner met repeatedly. As he writes in his 2020 tell-all, In the Room Where it Happened, Bolton believed it was useless to seek an Israeli-Palestinian deal and thought the focus should be on the regional threat posed by Iran. Kushner also talked to Dennis Ross, a former State Department director of policy planning and diplomat deeply involved in previous peace efforts under both Republican and Democratic presidents, and to David Makovsky, Ross’s colleague at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The meetings, held both in the West Wing and in the Old Executive Office Building, began in spring 2017. Ross says his last face-to-face meeting with Kushner was in 2019.

“I have to say the meetings and discussions were good,” Ross says. “He asked good questions, the kind somebody trying to be serious and learn lessons from the past” would ask. “He asked fair questions. He asked about some of the core issues, what I thought a reasonable or logical outcome would be. At one point he said he’d seen a lot of past efforts that didn’t succeed; he would be trying to do things differently.”

Kushner’s efforts stood out in a White House that was and still is dominated by far-right-wing positions on Israel and the Palestinians. In 2018, the administration cut funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, reversing a policy of support by every president —Republican and Democratic—since it was created 70 years ago. It also shut down the PLO office in Washington. “Kushner, when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian policy, does represent, at least at the moment, a more moderate voice among the right-wing ideologues in the administration, such as U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo,” says Tibon. “But still you’re talking here about shades. He’s just more moderate and responsible on some issues.” (Ambassador Friedman, previously a bankruptcy lawyer affiliated with the Trump Organization, is a former president of American Friends of Beit El Yeshiva Center in the West Bank, the organization to which Charles Kushner donated. Trump himself donated to this group in 2003, according to a statement from one of Beit El’s original settlers.)

Kushner’s Gulf State strategy was almost derailed in the fall of 2018 when Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S.-based dissident Saudi columnist for The Washington Post, was murdered and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. Despite widespread outrage and substantial evidence that Mohammed bin Salman had ordered the killing, Kushner, who had developed a personal relationship with the Saudi prince, gave him a pass. Khashoggi’s murder, Kushner told Newsweek, “was a very, very tough situation. We told them we weren’t happy, and we urged them to be transparent. But we couldn’t upend the entire relationship.” The Saudis, Kushner said, had made “a couple of missteps,” but “they’ve been a good ally.” He held out the hope that the Saudis would eventually recognize the State of Israel as part of a new regional alignment. Kushner’s father-in-law went even further, dismissing the conclusions of his own intelligence agencies in a statement of support for the Saudis that The New York Times called “remorselessly transactional” and “heedless of the facts.”

Kushner’s approach to dealmaking is transactional, explains Middle East analyst Miller, and includes a willingness to negotiate with strongmen with records of human rights abuses. In this he is similar to Trump, says the Times’ Peter Baker. “He’s very different from his father-in-law,” Baker says. “He’s not busy fighting all the time. He’s not given to incendiary language or bellicosity. He and his father-in-law don’t always share the same opinions…But they share a certain outlook.”

Once public outrage over Khashoggi’s murder had largely blown over, Kushner previewed his peace plan by hosting a summit in Bahrain in June 2019, which Palestinian leaders boycotted. He floated an offer of vast financial aid to improve the lives of Palestinians, who he said had been abandoned by their leaders, and called the conference a “tremendous success.” The 180-page plan, “Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People,” was finally rolled out in January of this year. It included a $50 billion fund, which the administration hoped would be bankrolled primarily by wealthy Arab countries and private investors, to support infrastructure, business and tourism investments aimed at bolstering the Palestinian economy, as well as those of neighboring Arab states. Kushner promised to create one million new jobs in the West Bank and Gaza, to double the Palestinian GDP and halve the Palestinian poverty rate.

Although Kushner characterized the plan as a two-state solution, there were so many carve-outs for Jewish settlements that there could hardly be a contiguous Palestinian state. The plan made it possible for Israel to annex settlements and connecting lands equaling about 30 percent of the West Bank.

The Palestinians rejected the plan. Ross stresses that for the Palestinians, there needed to be “some rough balance in the plan; it can’t be one-sided, 15 versus 85 percent.” Unfortunately, he says, “I don’t see much reflection of what I had to say in the plan.”

Aaron David Miller also met several times with Kushner, whom he always found respectful. “In one of my first meetings with Mr. Kushner, he made it unmistakably clear that the Palestinians, as the weakest party to these negotiations, have to understand that their stock is falling, and if they didn’t settle soon, they stood to gain very little or nothing. It was one of the core assumptions of their [Kushner’s team’s] policy, and they’ve made good on it in every conceivable way.”

This stance on the Palestinians opened the door to opprobrium. “The Kushner peace plan was neither about peace nor a plan for peace,” says Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the left-leaning J Street. But along with the criticism came praise from the right. “This is the first U.S. administration to try to make peace by encouraging constructive resignation on the part of the Palestinians,” wrote Douglas J. Feith, an architect of the 2003 invasion of Iraq as undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration, now a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute, in The Wall Street Journal in late January. “It may not work, but we know the alternative has failed for a century.”

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash (center), Kushner (left) and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat (right) during a meeting in Abu Dhabi on August 31, 2020.

UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Mohammed Gargash (center), Kushner (left) and Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat (right) during a meeting in Abu Dhabi on August 31, 2020. (Photo credit: Amos Ben Gershom, government press office)

THE UAE-ISRAEL WIN

The administration’s “deal of the century” did not materialize. Kushner blamed the Palestinians, then moved on to a related one. That deal was announced in mid-August. In a surprise White House press conference, Israel and the UAE announced the establishment of “fully normalized relationships,” a deal brokered by the Trump administration. The UAE would then be the third Arab country, after Egypt and Jordan, to recognize the Jewish state. In return, Netanyahu agreed to suspend his plans to annex the West Bank.

The response was positive even from expected critics. Ross called it “a hopeful development,” “an unexpectedly positive move” and “an important contribution to peace-building between Arabs and Israelis.” Suspending annexation plans, Ross wrote in The Washington Post, preserved at least the possibility, however slim, of a two-state solution. Thomas L. Friedman, the New York Times columnist and author of From Beirut to Jerusalem, praised the deal, calling it a “geopolitical earthquake.” Friedman adds: “It’s a good thing. It doesn’t, however, negate the need for Israel to deal with the Palestinians.”

Kushner did not start the ball rolling on the agreement. For two decades, under the leadership of Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Netanyahu, Israel had been working quietly to cultivate business, technology and security ties with the Gulf States in the hopes of normalizing relationships with more of its neighbors. While not secret, these efforts were kept quiet, and normalization proved elusive. But while Kushner did not play a Henry Kissinger-type shuttle diplomacy role in brokering the accord, Middle East hands say his relationships with Gulf State Arab leaders helped bring it to fruition. Generally, Kushner’s ability to forge and maintain working relationships has benefited the administration, in some cases smoothing over Trump’s unpredictable behavior, says Aaron David Miller.

One of those relationships is with Yousef al-Otaiba, the 46-year-old UAE ambassador to the United States. Al-Otaiba, son of a former oil minister and six-time OPEC president, has been ambassador since 2008. He is close to Emirati ruler Mohammed bin Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, who is considered the driving force behind the UAE’s foreign policy. According to The New York Times, al-Otaiba ran into Netanyahu at a Washington restaurant in 2018 where they chatted about improving relations. Al-Otaiba said “he hoped to greet Netanyahu in Jerusalem someday.” Then, last year, al-Otaiba spoke with Kushner about establishing diplomatic relations with Israel. “He said, ‘This is something we see as an inevitability. If we can find the right way to do it, we’re interested,’” Kushner recalled in an August 16 article in The New York Times.

But this past May, the possibility of a UAE-Israel deal was suddenly thrown into jeopardy when Netanyahu announced he was committed to unilaterally annexing parts of the West Bank that had been spelled out in Kushner’s peace plan. He said annexation would occur in July, once a joint Israeli-U.S. team completed mapping the exact territory based on a conceptual map released by the Trump administration. The annexation plan had been pushed by Netanyahu and Ambassador Friedman, says Tibon, and given a tentative thumbs-up by the White House. In June, al-Otaiba took the extraordinary step of publishing an op-ed in Hebrew in an Israeli newspaper warning that annexation would derail any progress toward normalizing relations.

Kushner went to work behind the scenes at the White House to save the deal, and Israel’s annexation plan was never green-lighted. As it turned out, the threat of annexation and its suspension helped seal the accord. “The deal’s suspension of the annexation plans provided the Emiratis with cover to normalize relations with Israel,” says Miller. “They could say they were helping the Palestinians. The deal also provided Netanyahu with the best possible way out, since he couldn’t proceed with annexation without American support.” Thomas Friedman credits Kushner with preventing Netanyahu from moving forward with annexation, but says that al-Otaiba’s efforts deserve even more credit.

Meanwhile, Kushner has been pushing a side deal that rewards the UAE, which the U.S. considers a trusted military ally, with the right to buy F-35 stealth fighter planes and advanced armed drones. Until now, Israel has been the only country in the Middle East allowed to buy these planes. Netanyahu’s office put out a statement opposing the sale, but analysts say that although Netanyahu is not thrilled, he will likely accede.

An August survey conducted by an Israeli television station found that 77 percent of Israelis supported the peace deal over annexation. “The deal is a creative transaction in which each party gains something,” says Kobi Huberman, head of the Israel Regional Initiative, a think tank in Israel. “It’s a win-win solution. The Emiratis are successfully eliminating annexation, and we hear they are getting military support. Israel is getting a peace deal. And the White House can show a great success for American diplomacy.” Kushner continues to push other Arab states to normalize relations with Israel. Bahrain followed the UAE in September, and other countries are expected to do likewise.

Kushner with a delegation of Israeli officials at the arrival of the El Al flight to the Abu Dhabi International Airport on August 31, 2020 following the first-ever flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates.

Kushner with a delegation of Israeli officials at the arrival of the El Al flight to the Abu Dhabi International Airport on August 31, 2020 following the first-ever flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates. (Photo credit: Matty Stern, US embassy israel, flickr)

A DIVISIVE FIGURE

Kushner’s success in brokering normalization between Israel and some of its regional neighbors has received bipartisan support across the U.S. But he himself, like his father-in-law, is an otherwise polarizing figure, including in the American Jewish community.

In part, it’s because of whom he works for. A February 2020 poll by the bipartisan Jewish Electorate Institute found that nearly 70 percent of American Jewish voters believe that Jews are less secure in the United States than they were two years before. Seventy-one percent disapproved of the way Trump has handled anti-Semitism and white nationalism, including one-third of Jewish Republicans, and nearly 60 percent believed that the president bears at least some responsibility for the shootings at synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway.

Kushner has vociferously defended his father-in-law. He first weighed in on the anti-Semitism question in 2016, after Trump tweeted an image of his Democratic presidential opponent—former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—with a six-pointed star, which resembled the Star of David, superimposed over a pile of $100 bills. The image had previously appeared on white supremacist websites. Kushner penned an op-ed in the newspaper he then owned, The New York Observer, in which he said Trump was being unfairly held accountable for “utterances of even the most fringe of his supporters.”

Jewish Trump supporters often name Kushner and Ivanka Trump as proof that Donald Trump can’t be anti-Semitic. But given the couple’s high visibility, they have only occasionally spoken up or acted when the president has said too much—or too little. And almost always, it has been Ivanka Trump—not Kushner—who has publicly stepped up. When Trump’s first International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement in 2017 inexplicably omitted any reference to Jews, Ivanka Trump issued an official statement from the White House specifically honoring “the six million Jews” and “many other victims of persecution” killed by the Nazis, then followed up with a tweet and the hashtag #NeverAgain. That August, when Trump said there were “some very fine people on both sides” after white supremacists chanted “Jews will not replace us” at a Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Ivanka Trump tweeted, “There should be no place in society for racism, white supremacy and neo-nazis.”

Kushner was, however, the driving force in the White House behind the 2019 Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism that the president announced at last December’s White House Hanukkah party. The order focused on anti-Semitism from the left rather than the right, and, says a former Obama State Department official, did not actually change existing government policy. It was only newsworthy, the official says, because the president reiterated the existing policy of adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism as one tool to determine if a university should be investigated for allowing anti-Semitic discrimination. Kushner, the official adds, misrepresented IHRA’s definition when he wrote that the order made clear that “anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism” in a New York Times op-ed. The IHRA definition gives a number of examples where holding Israel to a double standard as well as defaming or delegitimizing Israel “could, taking into account the overall context, be anti-Semitic,” but never mentions anti-Zionism. The underlying intent of this broader interpretation of the definition is to curtail free speech on campus, says Kenneth M. Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate and a key drafter of the IHRA definition. “There have been many proponents of the executive order saying that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.”

The order was applauded by right-wing Jewish groups and cautiously welcomed by some mainstream ones. But Democrats say it was designed to appeal to evangelical Christians and to Jews who are part of the president’s political base. Like his father-in-law, Kushner has made little effort to engage with American Jews who are not Trump supporters. In 2019, in a departure from previous Democratic and Republican administrations, the leaders of three of the four major Jewish religious streams—Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist—were shut out of a White House briefing on issues affecting the Jewish community. Only officials of two Orthodox umbrella groups—the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel—as well as the American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) were invited. Similarly, the administration’s White House Hanukkah parties have been less bipartisan than in the past, and have largely excluded congressional Democrats. Invitations to the ceremony marking the move of the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem were not issued to Democratic lawmakers, even though some wanted to attend, says Halie Sofier, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA). “Donald Trump is president only for those he considers loyal to him,” says Sofier. “No other American president has excluded three-quarters of the American Jewish community.”

Not all Jewish Republicans are Trump supporters, but those who are often argue, as Kushner has, that the president has not emboldened white supremacy, and has rightly focused on anti-Semitism coming from the left. “On college campuses, the left is the bastion of anti-Semitism, of BDS, of Israel-as-apartheid-state mutterings that simply aren’t true,” says Norman Coleman, a former Minnesota senator who is chair of the Republican Jewish Coalition. Coleman also says that Trump is the most pro-Israel president in American history.

But surveys show that while most Jewish Democrats care about Israel, they generally disagree with Trump administration policies toward Israel and are more concerned about domestic issues such as health care. Jews of both parties have been horrified by immigration policies engineered by White House senior adviser Stephen Miller, who is Jewish. To critics, many of them descendants of immigrants, one of the most odious actions was the family separation policy on the U.S-Mexican border that the administration began implementing in late 2017.
Kushner has not spoken out against this policy. It was Ivanka Trump who reportedly asked her father privately to end it, which he did officially in June 2018, after which she tweeted her approval of Trump “ending family separation at the border.” (Still, the president has threatened to bring the practice back, and there are reports that it continues.) The family separation policy cannot be blamed directly on Kushner: He has tried, unsuccesfully, to push a larger immigration reform package of merit-based visas. But Kushner’s silence on Miller’s policy has been deafening, according to the JDCA’s Sofier. “In his silence, he is complicit,” she says. “I don’t think Jared Kushner shares the values of the majority of Jewish Americans.”

American Jews, like other Americans, have also watched the Trump administration’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and in this Kushner has played a critical and controversial role. As infections and deaths increased in March, Trump assigned Kushner to head a task force to speed up delivery of crucial medical supplies to fight the pandemic. Operating apart from the official coronavirus group headed by Vice President Mike Pence, Kushner chose a team of people from outside government with little or no experience in pandemic control and sought to bypass what he regarded as cumbersome official procedures.

What did his task force achieve? “Probably less than the spinners would have us believe, but you hear from people inside government, if you could get to him, he could make things happen,” says The New York Times’ Baker. “Certainly, you’d hear from at least some governors and others that if they could get Jared on the phone, he could get a problem solved.”

As cases and deaths continued to rise, Kushner made a number of erroneous public statements about the production and distribution of PPE and unfounded predictions about the virus, such as saying that the country would be “back to normal” by June and be “really rocking again” in July. In April, Vanity Fair reported that early on, Kushner told Trump that talk of the pandemic as a major public health threat was coming from Democrats seeking to undermine his re-election. Later Vanity Fair reporting found that Kushner’s COVID-19 team had prepared a national testing plan that was scrapped due to political rather than public health considerations. Citing a public health expert who spoke with a member of Kushner’s team, the magazine reported, “Most troubling of all perhaps was a sentiment…a member of Kushner’s team expressed: that because the virus had hit blue states hardest, a national plan was unnecessary and would not make sense politically.” The White House quickly denied the report as “entirely false.”

Kushner has toed the administration line in public, repeatedly defending its response to the virus. In interviews, he has joined a chorus of administration officials who regularly avoid acknowledging the troubling number of COVID-19 cases and deaths in the U.S. In August he told CBS’s Face the Nation host Margaret Brennan that he would “absolutely” be sending his children back to their private school because he believed they were at a higher risk of dying from the flu than from COVID-19. The children’s school, he added, would not be opening five days a week, but he wished it would.

At the behest of his father-in-law, Kushner, in addition to all his other duties, is also one of the architects of the divisive and racially charged Trump reelection campaign. This November, Jews in battleground states such as Florida could provide the deciding margin.

President Trump displays his signature on an executive order committing his administration to combating the rise of anti-Semitism, signed during an afternoon Hanukkah reception on December 11, 2019.

President Trump displays his signature on an executive order committing his administration to combating the rise of anti-Semitism, signed during an afternoon Hanukkah reception on December 11, 2019. (Photo credit: The White House, flickr)

A CIPHER NO MORE

Jared Kushner is no longer a complete cipher. He has a mixed scorecard for observers to evaluate. He has proved loyal to his father-in-law, who on one occasion this year referred to him as “my star.” He is clearly a partisan player; a one-time unaffiliated voter, he registered as a Republican in 2018, according to Vice. And he is more cautious than some others in Trump’s intimate circle. Although he was in the room for the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, and according to a Fortune article expressed interest in promised dirt on Hillary Clinton, he has emerged largely unscathed by the investigation into Russian attempts to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Moreover, Kushner has shown himself to be a remarkably successful infighter, who has amassed significant clout in a chaotic White House. John Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser who left the White House after 18 tempestuous months, declared Kushner the person, other than Trump, who wields the most power in the White House. He has outlasted or forced out Steve Bannon and Trump’s first two White House chiefs of staff, Reince Priebus and John Kelly, among others. (Kelly had tried, unsuccessfully, to limit Kushner and Ivanka Trump’s direct access to the Oval Office, earning their enmity.) In this ever-changing cast of characters, Kushner may be the last man standing next to the president.

Kushner’s quiet, relatively undramatic voice is now heard in public. He manages to stick to administration talking points with a straight face but without the outright cynicism of a Kellyanne Conway or a Stephen Miller. He doesn’t criticize his father-in-law, although occasionally he says something out of sync. As a result, Kushner has become one of Trump’s most effective official spokespeople. He has never “particularly liked or respected journalists,” says Kyle Pope, the editor-in-chief of the Columbia Journalism Review and a former editor of The New York Observer who clashed with and was ultimately fired by Kushner. While Kushner refrains from tweeting, he now grants an increasing number of strategic interviews, quite often to so-called fake news outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN.

“Jared is not just some pretty, dumb boy, but neither is he the Sunday school boy he appears to be,” says a veteran White House correspondent. “But behind the scenes, it would appear he has been an asset for his father-in-law, and a counterweight to Stephen Miller, who exploits all the worst Trump impulses.”

The full story of Kushner’s role in the Trump White House will come only when everyone in the administration writes their post-presidency books, except perhaps Kushner himself. The son-in-law is unlikely to be portrayed positively in many of them, but it could emerge that his appointment will have led to Donald Trump’s signature foreign policy achievement.

Opening picture: Presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner visited Abu Dhabi as part of the joint U.S.-Israeli delegation in August. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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