Among the revelations in Vicky Ward’s explosive book, "Kushner, Inc.," is her own exploration of the Kushner family’s self-perception, which she traces across three generations. In particular, Ward describes the harrowing World War II experiences of Rae Kushner.
Before she became the Kushner family matriarch, she escaped a ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland through a tunnel, spent days hiding in the forests, and eventually joined the Bielski partisans before making her way to America when the war ended.
Speaking recently on the Trumpcast podcast, Ward explained, "There’s a reason they disdain rules..Jared’s grandparents, if they had followed orders, they’d be dead...there really was this sense of you never wait, you never follow the system, because the system is dangerous." In this context, Ward quoted the Kushner family motto, which remains, "Think like an immigrant, act like an immigrant."
Her depiction of inherited trauma and redemption bears particular resonance in light of Passover; it mirrors half of the message of the upcoming holiday - remembering the experience of oppression - but jarringly omits the second half: what it means to be free.
The Kushner motto echoes the often-repeated Biblical commandments demanding love of the stranger and proscribing causing a stranger distress, "because you were strangers in the land of Egypt." This call for empathy is extended right from the beginning of the seder, in which we hold up a piece of matzah and declare, "This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in Egypt."
But it is not enough for us as Jews to identify only with oppression and subjugation. We hold up that matzah that we once ate - in the past tense. The liturgy of the Haggadah continues, "In each generation, everyone must see themself as if they, themself, left Egypt." Though the Talmudic sages disagreed as to precisely what the story told at the seder should encompass, it was universally accepted that the narrative should “begin in disgrace, and end in glory.”
Reliving the experience of slavery is critical, but as the beginning of the story, not as its conclusion. In other words, a critical part of the Passover experience is not being the stranger, and expressing gratitude for having made it to a place of relative security and prosperity.
In stark contrast, though, Ward claims that the Kushners’ "immigrant mentality" has not changed through the years, even as Rae, her husband Joseph, and then their son, Charlie, built a billion-dollar real estate empire and ascended to the pinnacle of American society.
That mentality becomes more absurd with each passing generation. For Rae Kushner, distrusting rules meant taking the initiative and escaping the ghetto before the Nazis took her. For her son, Charlie, though, it meant (even aside from the crimes for which he served a prison term) preempting Harvard’s admissions process with a seven-figure gift, greasing the wheels for Jared’s acceptance.
And for Jared, it means having his father-in-law - President Donald Trump - sign off on his West Wing security clearance despite the well-documented and potentially compromising conflicts of interest flagged by intelligence agencies and law enforcement.
Generally, there are two types of habitual law-breakers: those who consider themselves above the law, and those who find themselves crushed beneath it. The first category contains the over-privileged and entitled, who have come to believe that laws are there to support and protect them, but not to restrain them. The second category consists of the disadvantaged, who will struggle against a discriminatory system rigged against them.
In Ward’s terms, the Kushner family continues to see itself within the second category, even when, by nearly every measure, it has long since moved to the first.
In Biblical terms, the Kushners cannot accept the reality that they left Egypt a long time ago.
Kushner’s failure of imagination has echoes in Trump administration policy development as well. In the words of Trump advisor Stephen Miller, the American immigration system should have the goal of encouraging "assimilation" into the American culture.
The mastermind of the president’s Muslim travel ban and fierce advocate of the family separation policy on America’s southern border, Miller’s ideal system discourages immigration from countries or cultures that he feels would be more likely to remain distinct and identifiable.
Miller’s thinking also carries Passover-related meaning. According to a series of rabbinic teachings, the ancient Israelites merited redemption from Egypt specifically because they did not assimilate into Egyptian culture, but instead retained their native language, names, and customs. Their steadfastness was both a form of resistance and a survival mechanism in the face of the oppression under which they suffered.
The Egyptians themselves may have reacted as Miller is reacting now, thinking of the Israelites as troublesome rule-breakers, aliens, and potential existential threats to national security - and certainly not a minority group responding to systemic discrimination.
To the extent that he still sees himself as the persecuted immigrant in his family’s story, Kushner may have a hard time recognizing that the actual immigrants in his present-day reality suffer under a socio-political system organized to protect people just like himself - and his interests.
As we celebrate Passover, part of appreciating our own relative freedom is developing the awareness that those who are less free are actually struggling against us - or, at least, against a social order that benefits us.
How we respond to that awareness determines the extent to which we remain mentally enslaved to the Pharaohs of our past - or if we feel secure enough in our freedom to extend and expand it to others.
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