A sense of relief has been palpable in most of the American Jewish community as the clock ticks down to the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, promising less turbulent times ahead.
But the transition between the Trump era and President-elect Joe Biden’s term is proving to be a tricky period riddled with minefields, and those who make it their business to worry about flammable issues like antisemitism and the U.S.-Israel relationship would do well not to exhale just yet.
Of course Trump’s refusal to concede and the way this is hampering Biden’s future administration from dealing with life-and-death matters like national security and the effective distribution of the much-awaited COVID-19 vaccine is not just a sectoral issue, but a problem for the entire country. But in the chaotic atmosphere fueled by inflammatory and misleading Trump tweets and slanted reporting in outlets friendly to the president, conspiracy theories are flourishing across social media platforms. Many of them feature antisemitic tropes – blaming supposed cabals led by Jewish figures like George Soros and Michael Bloomberg for Trump’s defeat.
Beyond the overall atmosphere, some of Trump’s post-election moves are problematic as well. Personnel decisions made only two months before he is due to leave office paint a troubling picture of what he is trying to accomplish during his lame duck period.
The hire that has garnered the most attention in the Jewish community was his decision to nominate Darren Beattie to the Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad – a branch of the U.S. government charged with preserving historical sites in Europe, including cemeteries, monuments and Holocaust killing sites, that are associated with the heritage of U.S. citizens.
Beattie is Jewish, but has, nonetheless, been tied to white nationalism. A Trump loyalist and defender of the president’s Muslim ban, he lost his job as a White House speechwriter after it was revealed that he had attended a conference of the H.L. Mencken Club in 2016, appearing on a panel with Peter Brimelow – a white nationalist behind the anti-immigrant website VDare.
After the nomination was revealed last week, the American Jewish Committee said Beattie was “not an appropriate appointee” and the Anti-Defamation League called on Trump to rescind the appointment.
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ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt said there was “no place in any presidential administration or government commission for an individual who would attend and participate in such well-known racist events,” adding: “It is absolutely outrageous that someone who has consorted with racists would even be considered for a position on a commission devoted to preserving Holocaust memorials in Europe.”
Beattie responded on Twitter by calling Greenblatt a “scam artist,” saying that “no one serious respects his joke organization ADL.” He told The New York Times that “as a Jewish Trump supporter, I consider it an honor to be attacked by the far-left ADL and its disgraced leader, Jonathan Greenblatt.”
Jason Richwine, a second Trump November nominee with ties to white nationalism, was appointed as deputy under secretary of commerce for standards and technology at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, a division of the Department of Commerce.
Richwine, 38, is affiliated with the right-wing Center for Immigration Studies. Previously, he worked at the conservative Heritage Foundation. In 2013 he authored a controversial study claiming immigrants are a massive drain on the U.S. economy. The report was widely criticized and Richwine resigned from his position at the think tank.
It was also revealed that Richwine has been published in a journal founded by Richard Spencer, and that his Harvard Ph.D. thesis argued that Hispanic immigrants have IQs below those of white people and that “the difference is likely to persist over several generations.” It also advocated the use of IQ tests in the process of deciding who may become a legal immigrant to the United States.
Another lame duck Commerce Department hire is Corey Stewart, a Trump supporter who has become principal deputy assistant secretary for export administration.
Stewart lost a 2018 U.S. Senate bid against Tim Kaine in Virginia, with only 41 percent of the vote to Kaine’s 57 percent. Stewart has been tied to antisemites, the alt-right and advocacy for the preservation of Confederate monuments, including one with an inscription explicitly praising white supremacy. He has praised antisemitic politician Paul Nehlen and appeared with Jason Kessler, organizer of the infamous 2017 “Unite the Right” event in Charlottesville that drew neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and during which counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed in a car-ramming attack.
Troubling in a different way is the decision to appoint Rabbi Aryeh Lightstone as the head of the Abraham Fund. Lightstone currently serves as a senior adviser to U.S. ambassador to Israel David Friedman. The new body he will head is an offshoot of the U.S.-brokered normalization agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
When the fund was announced in October, the U.S. government stated that “the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, the UAE, and Israel will mobilize more than $3 billion in private sector-led investment and development initiatives to promote regional economic cooperation and prosperity in the Middle East and beyond.”
Lightstone, 40, is a former executive director of Shining City, a “dark money” U.S. fundraising entity with ties to Israel’s right wing and Republican donors. The group once gave $1 million to the far-right movement Im Tirtzu, a political attack dog group that battles liberal Israeli activists, particularly university lecturers.
Congressional Democrats slammed Lightstone’s appointment, teling the Jewish Telegraphic Agency it was an example of Trump “burrowing” political appointees into sensitive career positions before he leaves office.
“The burrowing into a role that has important decision-making power, using taxpayer resources, in that part of the world cannot be done by someone who is clearly a partisan,” a House aide told JTA.
Beyond the appointments, other precedents are being set in the Trump-Biden transition period.
He also declared that the U.S. government will “immediately take steps to identify organizations that engage in hateful BDS conduct and withdraw U.S. government support for such groups,” taking aim at the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.
While all moves by Pompeo – or anyone else in the current administration – can be undone by Biden, Trump’s camp will surely point to any such changes and contrast the policies with Biden’s in an effort to stir up discontent in their pro-Israel and evangelical base as quickly and intensively as possible.
This makes sense in view of reports that Trump plans to announce that he’s running for the presidency in 2024 – presuming he ever admits that he’s leaving office. It sets the stage for a continued argument – no matter who occupies the White House – that Trump and the Republicans are “good for Israel,” while the Democrats are sympathetic to their enemies and Jewish Democrats are “disloyal.”
The transition period not only demonstrates that Trump continues to be eager to fan the flames of racial division and xenophobia, but that the painful divides within the Jewish community forged in the Trump era are likely to persist even after Biden is in the White House.
The transformation of antisemitism and Israel from bipartisan consensus issues to highly partisan Molotov cocktails won’t be ending anytime soon.