Analysis

From Dachau to St. Louis: Mike Pence Emerges as Donald Trump's Unlikely Ambassador to the Jews

Pence may not know what the Israeli flag looks like, but the very Christian and conservative vice president, who was estranged from the Jewish community as a governor, is being dispatched as damage control.

US Vice President, Mike Pence addresses the crowd during a press conference at Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery on February 22, 2017 in University City, Missouri.
Michael Thomas/AFP

Characterizing the relationship between the White House and American Jews during the first month of the Trump presidency as rocky would be an understatement. 

Event follows event: The Jew-free Holocaust Remembrance Day statement; Trump’s angrily snapping at a Jewish reporter; the fact that the president only begrudgingly condemned anti-Semitism by name after pressure and a pointed tweet from his daughter; the dog-whistles of his alt-right affiliated senior advisor Steve Bannon against the “corporatist, globalist media;" and many American Jews have been on edge.

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With Trump’s Jewish son-in-law and Israel policy point man Jared Kushner hidden behind the scenes, his presumptive ambassador to Israel David Friedman the subject of controversy and division himself, one man has emerged in recent weeks as the go-to guy when it comes to efforts to tell the Jews that Trump is on their side.

Notably, the official smooth-over, repairer and soothsayer to the Jewish community, isn’t one of the Jewish members of Trump’s family, inner circle or his cabinet, but his Midwestern, blue-eyed and very Christian Vice President Mike Pence. 

The Jewish community gets upset over the Holocaust statement? Pence makes it a point to visit the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. Accompanied by a survivor of the camp with his wife and daughter, Pence toured the exhibits showing how tens of thousands were killed during World War II and placed a wreath beneath the memorial at the center of the camp, visited the barracks and the ovens inside the crematorium with proper reverence and respect.

Jews are freaked out over what appears to be Trump’s avoidance of confronting anti-Semitism in America? Pence makes an unannounced visit to the vandalized Chesed Shel Emeth Cemetery in St. Louis, gets himself photographed with a rake in his gloved hands, helping to repair the graveyard. Mid-work, Pence picks up a megaphone and declares loudly that "there is no place in America for hatred, prejudice or anti-Semitism" and praises the Jewish community's commitment to its history and heritage.

Pence is clearly Trump’s go-to man when it comes to addressing Jewish audiences. While Trump loves to preside over adoring crowds at his Florida rally and the conservative activists who gathered in Washington last week, he has, so far, taken a pass on addressing Jewish audiences. It isn’t surprising that he wasn’t eager to return to the Republican Jewish Coalition, where he famously raised eyebrows in 2015, saying that “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money” and “You want to control your own politicians.” But still, there was a chance he might have made his way to Vegas as a show of gratitude after the RJC’s main benefactor Sheldon Adelson, who hosted the gathering in his hotel, threw financial support to Trump late in his presidential campaign, giving $20 million to a pro-Trump superpac. After all, Adelson had a prime seat on Inauguration Day and was one of Trump’s first dinner guests at the White House.

But Trump decided instead to dispatch Pence to Las Vegas, both to meet with Sheldon Adelson privately and vouch for him publicly. “The president I know will be an unabashed advocate for a stronger Israel-American relationship,” Pence told the RJC audience, declaring further that, "If the world knows nothing else, the world will know this: America stands with Israel." 

Pence thanked Adelson, his wife Miriam and the RJC for "steadfast support" throughout the campaign. 

In a few weeks, Pence is likely to once more serve as Trump’s stand-in, this time at the AIPAC policy conference in March, barring a surprise last-minute decision by the president to show up. At last year’s conference, Trump’s appearance sparked controversy when he aggressively attacked Obama in his speech. Following the incident, the senior leadership of AIPAC publicly apologized. 

In a way, Pence is stepping into the shoes of his predecessor. As the tension rose between President Barack Obama and the Jewish community, it was frequently his vice president, Joe Biden, who was sent to address American Jewish audiences, increasingly so after the relationship between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hit the deep freeze over the Iran deal.

Like Biden, Pence has a stronger relationship with Israel advocacy groups and the Jewish community than the man serving as his president. Pence, an evangelical Christian, has long been involved in pro-Israel activism, including a trip he took in 2014 as governor of Indiana, sponsored by Christians United for Israel, a pro-Israel organization founded and run by the controversial televangelist John Hagee.

But unlike Biden, whose social and domestic politics match up with most American Jews, Pence matches fervent pro-Israel declarations with hardline social conservatism that distanced him from most of Indiana’s Jewish constituency while he was governor. Most notably, Pence was disliked for his support of the 2015 Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which permitted private businesses the right to restrict or limit services to LGBTQ persons on religious grounds, along with his opposition to abortion rights and stand on immigration. 

But American Jews have in the past clashed with conservative Republican politicians on such issues, and are used to papering them over when they show a genuine affinity for Jews and solid support for Israel. 

Thus far, Pence seems to be doing successful ambassadorial work in being the friendly face of the Trump administration and repairing the frayed nerves of American Jews triggered by the unsettling behavior of the commander-in-chief and his aides.  

The one exception was the embarrassing gaffe Pence recently made on Twitter. If he wants to be perceived as being a good friend to Jews, the vice president would do well to pay closer attention as to what the Jewish state’s flag looks like.