Opinion

A Roll-call of American Jewish Politicians of Honor

Netanyahu and Kushner are paraded as Trump's Jewish 'cover.' But the truly powerful Jewish voices in American politics, fighting anti-Semitism and immoral orders, aren't in the White House. They’re in Congress.

Al Franken, Jerrold Nadler and Adam Schiff.
AFP PHOTO / ZACH GIBSON, Stephanie Green/Bloomberg, AP Photo/Alex Brandon

“There is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump. I think we should put that to rest." 

It was a nadir moment for any self-respecting American Jew. 

And it was mouthed by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in his eagerness to kiss up to the new POTUS. 

As the Trump campaign radicalized right wing, mostly anti-Semitic groups, hate crimes spiked in the past year. Neo-Nazis, white nationalists, Ku Klux Klan and Christian Identity, a religious movement that considers Jews descendants of Satan, grew, while anti-Muslim groups tripled. Forty-eight Jewish centers have received bomb threats in the past month.

But when a reporter asked Trump about this alarming anti-Semitic surge during the press briefing with Netanyahu, the President boasted about his victory, then used the “but my best friends and family are Jewish” excuse. Then Netanyahu, all too eager to please the new POTUS, chimed in with his hyperbole.

The repercussions of Netanyahu’s free-pass to Trump were played out the next day as he snapped at an identifiably Jewish reporter who asked the same question, and told him to sit down, called him a liar, and repeated Bibi’s ludicrous claim as he struggled to remember the Israeli prime minister’s name. Meanwhile, he never denounced the ubiquity of swastikas in Trumpland, nor addressed his own adoption of the “America First” slogan, made famous by American Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh, nor called out Kellyanne Conway for tweeting “Love you back” to a white supremacist

For months we’ve heard versions of Netanyahu’s preposterous claim: A Trump White House would be flush with Jews like Jared Kushner who would wield real influence and tone down the racist tenor of the son of Fred Trump, once arrested for participating in a KKK rally. Not like that enemy Obama who appointed Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court as well as David Axelrod and Rahm Emmanuel and on and on.

But during just three weeks, Kushner has mutely stood by while Trump chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon has drafted the types of edicts that would have barred his own Holocaust survivor grandparents from entry into the U.S. What could justify his silence? 

Perhaps revelations that Kushner is far more political than initially understood. On Friday, it was revealed that he was the one who advised keeping Rex Tillerson away from Netanyahu, and that he was behind the firing of most of the Secretary of State's career professional staffers, all done while Tillerson was out of the country on his first diplomatic mission. 

Then there’s senior policy advisor Stephen Miller, a 31-year-old Jeff Sessions former Senate aide, who recently spouted: “The powers of the president will not be questioned,” a comment many found positioning him closer to Reich propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels than any Jew of note, other than Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s chief counsel during the Red Scare and Trump’s big mentor. 

But don’t despair. There are powerful, righteous Jewish voices in American politics, only they’re not in the White House. They’re in the House of Representatives and Senate. And they’re morally outraged, leading the resistance to anti-Semitism denial and also to the many Trump scandals, immoral executive orders and the issue of Russian influence that offer the strongest challenge to American democracy. Here is an abbreviated roll-call of today’s American Jewish politicians of honor.

Moments after Trump dodged the question about rising anti-Semitism, Representative Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) took to Twitter to call him out: “@realDonaldTrump FAILS to condemn the rise in antisemitism and REFUSES to address rising hate crimes since his election.” 

Jewish representative Adam Schiff (D-California) also took Trump to task for his non-response to the anti-Semitism question: “Thank you Mr. President. Your electoral college victory is surely a great comfort to Jewish Community Centers receiving bomb threats.”

Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, was equally outraged by Trump’s recasting of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s ouster as being the fault of the “dishonest” media. Schiff has been calling for a full, independent probe of Trump’s Russian ties. 

Of course Republicans are attempting to block these efforts as Trump calls intelligence-confirmed reports “fake news” or “illegal leaks.” Trump has now alerted his minions to hunt for leakers and plug the leaks, calling it “criminal” activity and threatening to punish offenders. But so far his bullying isn’t silencing the leaks or the Jewish opposition. It didn’t work last weekend, when Trump attacked Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut), who wrote a letter with 11 Democrats to Sessions, urging him to appoint an independent counsel to investigate Flynn’s Russian ties and efforts to cover it up.

Frustrated by House Speaker Paul Ryan’s dismissal of the scandal, Nadler filed a motion forcing the House Judiciary Committee, on which he sits, to address it within 14 legislative days. Nadler also proposed changing the Committee’s rules, to launch an investigation each time the U.S. President or one of his staffers publicly discredits a federal judge.  In other words—be warned, Stephen Miller. Executive power is being challenged.

Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who dressed down many a Trump cabinet pick and whose clear-eyed, forceful critiques have gone viral, has emerged as a surprise leader of the Resistance. “Russia wants to subvert our democracy,” he said last Wednesday. He implored Trump, whom he called a racist a week earlier for calling Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas,” to release his tax returns if he wants to dispel his allegations that the Russia probe is a “ruse.” And he hasn’t backed down from his aim to get to the bottom of the Trump-Russia relationship. His efforts have been recognized: the Washington Post ran a piece entitled: “Why Al Franken makes a weird amount of sense as a 2020 presidential candidate”; the New Republic proclaimed the Trump presidency as “Franken’s time to shine.”

Perhaps one of the more significant battles against Trump’s executive power overreach is being waged by Senate Minority Leader, New York Senator Charles E. Schumer, who’s demanding that Attorney General Jeff Sessions recuse himself from the Flynn probe and allow for a bipartisan, independent investigation. 

While many attacked Sessions’ bigoted and anti-immigrant record during his Senate confirmation hearings, Schumer is now focused on his closeness to those named in the Russian probe, which disqualifies him from being a neutral arbiter of justice. 

The Senate’s Judiciary Committee’s top-ranking Democrat Dianne Feinstein also called for Sessions to recuse himself during his Senate confirmation hearings last month and sent a letter to Sessions and FBI Director James Comey demanding a briefing on Flynn's resignation in two weeks.

Of course, Sessions can ignore her and block any type of Watergate-like congressional hearing on Trump’s Russia ties, thereby jeopardizing any chance of impeachment. He can also heed Trump’s call for the DOJ to start criminally investigating “leakers.” Feinstein was quick to note that such a move flies in the face of long-standing policy that limits communication between the White House and the Justice Department, which is not supposed to be a partisan branch of power and there to be flexed by the executive branch for political purges. 

But that probably won’t stop Sessions from abusing his position to thwart justice, or White House top tribesman Kushner to do anything but play along, while his father-in-law verbally attacks individual Jews, whistle-blowing to his white supremacist base, so long as Kushner can grab more power and cast himself as the Great Middle East Peace Broker. 

American Jews, who voted by a vast margin against this president, may feel ashamed by the behavior of their coreligionists in the White House. But more importantly we, as individuals and as a community, should take heart in the Jewish resistance. Al Franken’s time to shine is our time, too.

Marisa Fox-Bevilacqua is a New York based freelance writer and editor for the New York Times, Haaretz, Elle, and is working on a book and documentary about her mother’s hidden Holocaust past called "By A Thread". Follow her on Twitter: @MarisaFox