‘Very Fine People’: An Oral History of Trump and the JewsE
Donald Trump’s term in the White House was a time of great turmoil for America – as well as for its millions of Jews. The American Jewish community was courted by Trump with pro-Israel moves since his presidential campaign, but was also repulsed by his cultivating of white supremacist allies.
These four years have seen unprecedented gains for the Israeli government under the Trump administration – as well as unprecedented acts of violence against Jewish communities. The United States moved its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and neo-Nazis marched in the streets of Charlottesville. Trump’s administration brokered historic agreements between Israel and Arab states, and the worst antisemitic attack on U.S. soil took place in Pittsburgh.
Haaretz has asked figures from across the Jewish community to reflect on this period and what it meant to them. They represent a spectrum of religious denominations, political affiliations and community roles. They include rabbis, a mayor, an author, activists, leaders of major Jewish organizations and a Trump administration official; Democrats and Republicans; Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews.
This is their retelling of the United States under Trump.
Muslim Ban | January 2017
On January 27, 2017, President Trump signed an executive order banning foreigners from seven Muslim countries from entering the United States for 90 days, prohibiting other refugees from entering for 120 days and suspending entry to Syrian refugees indefinitely.
An introduction to Trumpian policies | Aaron Bisno
This is exactly what we were afraid of. It was our first introduction to Trumpian policies, as opposed to just rhetoric. Some of us had imagined that “when he gets into office, well, he is not beholden to anyone, maybe we’ll be ok,” or “when he gets into office, Ivanka and Jared will manage him.” We thought he would somehow be constrained or somehow would rise to the office, or would somehow feel the weight of our history. He didn’t do it.
This spoke to the ideas Trump had been pushing: us versus them; Muslims are bad; we’re going to stoke fear, we’re going to identify people as enemies because of the religion they follow. It was just so antithetical to American values.
Aaron Bisno is the senior Rabbi at Rodef Shalom synagogue in Pittsburgh.
Get up and tell your story | Ayelet Waldman
When we heard about the Muslim ban, I turned to Michael and said, “We’ve got to go to the airport.” Because we were there early, we ended up accidentally leading the protests. I started going up to people and asking “Are you an immigrant? Get up and tell your story.” And they did. People stood and told their family stories.
I think we all learn from childhood the reverence for the American immigrant narrative. The notion of a melting pot – it’s something we learn in school. So when that narrative is betrayed in the most blatant of ways, you almost can’t believe it’s happening.
That was the first moment I really understood that the systems of the American republic that I thought were self-sustaining had no infrastructure to support them. That they were a house of cards built essentially on goodwill, and if someone like Donald Trump is in charge, then the entire democracy can be destroyed.
Ayelet Waldman is an Israeli-American author and TV writer who lives in Berkeley, California.
A family separated | Rachel Schmelkin
My husband and I have very close friends in Charlottesville who are refugees from Syria. I remember that when the Muslim ban happened, it was devastating for them. We had multiple conversations with them about their fears living in this country. They have a daughter living in Jordan, and because of Trump’s ban, there has been no hope that she could come over here.
Rachel Schmelkin was Associate Rabbi and Rabbi Educator at Congregation Beth Israel in Charlottesville from 2016 to 2020.
A sense of meaning | Carly Pildis
It was an attack on the soul of America. We’re a nation of refugees and immigrants, and that’s the story of the American Jew. Any attack on that fundamental truth is an attack on us.
American Jews sprang into action, joining protests, legal efforts and direct actions at airports. We knew this attack on the Muslim community and Muslim refugees was an attack on us. This was an attempt to set “white” and “Christian” as the one true America – we needed to rebuke it as loudly as possible.
As my friends and colleagues mobilized, I was heartbroken to be unable to join them. I had just delivered a baby girl and was home recovering. I was falling in love with my little girl, but I felt angry at being sidelined.
Messaging friends on the frontlines, they were despondent, exhausted and terrified. I invited them to come to my place for a break. They cuddled my newborn, cooing and crying, and I was happy to be able to do something, to share my joy and happiness, so that they may regain their strength and remember what they’re fighting for. It gave me a sense of meaning and reminded them to have hope.
Carly Pildis, a writer based in Washington, D.C., was Director of Grassroots Organizing for the Jewish Democratic Council of America during the 2020 election.
A strong Jewish response | Jill Jacobs
In February 2017, we hosted a convening in New York for more than 200 rabbis to learn, plan, and organize for the next four years. This was after the first Muslim ban was ruled unconstitutional, and while President Trump was preparing a new version. We didn't want the conference to be just talk – we also wanted to take action. We organized a protest march of rabbis and New York Jewish communities that ended with 20 rabbis being arrested in front of the Trump International Hotel to send the message that we won't stand for attacks on people because of their religion or national origin.
As Jews, we have unfortunately had too much experience with autocrats using power against Jews and other minorities. Our community understands the experience of being refugees many times throughout history. We know that many of our families are alive today because the United States allowed us to seek refuge here – and that many members of our families and community died because the United States shut the border to Jews and other “undesirables” in 1924. For this reason, we saw a strong Jewish response to the ban on immigrants and refugees based on their coming from a majority Muslim country.
Rabbi Jill Jacobs is Executive Director of T'ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights.
Charlottesville | August 2017
On August 11-12, 2017, the Unite the Right rally took place in Charlottesville, Virginia. It brought together various racist, antisemitic, white nationalist and white supremacist groups, including neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan.
I became a target | Mike Signer
It was this very surreal experience for me, because we were watching as the social media just intensified. There was a battle among the alt-right to create more and more infectious memes that seemed more and more violent, that employed Nazi iconography – and that were galvanizing thousands of people around the country to come to Charlottesville on August 12 and defend the cause of white nationalism.
There was a level of military, paramilitary sophistication and planning there that day that you have not seen since, and it’s clear that it was the canary in the coal mine of the Trump era.
There was nobody in Charlottesville at the Unite the Right rally who was there solely for the cause of neo-Confederate pride and southern Civil War history – they were there for the cause of white tribal paramilitary groups, using those symbols to talk about things like “Jews will not replace us,” and “Russia is our friend” and openly racist symbols.
I had not spoken publicly about being Jewish often, it just wasn’t part of my message. But all of a sudden it became very public and I became a target, and it was quite something to reckon with. I thought it was really important, and still do, not to be intimidated and to be very strong and forceful in my embrace of my identity of pluralism – because a lot of what this is today is terrorism, and its aim is to terrorize.
Mike Signer was the Mayor of Charlottesville from 2016 to 2018. His book "Cry Havoc: Charlottesville and American Democracy under Siege" came out last year.
Never been more frightened | Rachel Schmelkin
The lead-up to the Unite the Right rally was really, really frightening. I found myself on the phone all day long in preparation, and out in the evenings training for nonviolent direct action.
One thing I’ll never forget is that the activists who were training us asked us to write letters to our loved ones explaining why we were doing what we were doing, in case we died that day – so that they could understand why we put ourselves in such a dangerous situation. Because of my inherited Ashkenazi Jewish superstitions, I couldn't do it. I couldn’t write a letter.
I have never been more frightened in my entire life than on August 12. I was really, really afraid for my physical safety in a way I had never been before. At the same time, I had never felt such a strong conviction to resist something.
I changed as a result of the experience in terms of how I see my own strength. If someone had told me before August 12th, “You will move to Charlottesville and find yourself in life-threatening situations,” I would not have been sure I could handle it. I found an inner strength that I didn’t know was there, and that has changed how I see myself in the world and what I believe I can do.
Bare-knuckled antisemitism | Dani Dayan
I was never a person who saw antisemitism as a great contemporary problem. But the sight of neo-Nazis marching with those torches, chanting “Jews will not replace us” – that was a turning point in my attitude toward modern antisemitism.
Today, we have several forms of antisemitism, but waving a Nazi flag is the most horrendous expression of antisemitism – it’s what I call bare-knuckled antisemitism. It was heartbreaking to see that happen in America.
Charlottesville was not in my jurisdiction, but I knew I had to be there. And so, two weeks later, I found a pretext to go there on a solidarity trip with the Jewish Federation of New York.
We did Shabbat with Hillel at UVA, and then the following day gathered at the Reform synagogue that barely escaped a pogrom. And I also paid respects to the young woman [Heather Heyer] who was murdered. And there’s no doubt that in this case, the reaction of President Trump left a lot to be desired. It was improper. I must admit, I didn’t imagine I would see a march like that in my term in the United States, and I didn’t expect a mild reaction like that from the president.
Dani Dayan was Israel’s Consul General in New York from 2016 to 2020, and previously the chairman of the Yesha Council, the leading nonprofit representing Israel’s settlements in the West Bank.
Signs of a brewing civil war | Yehudah Webster
It was scary and it was almost weirdly validating in the sense that Charlottesville, that moment, was something black people, organizers, activists had been warning about for years. This was in the making, the writing was on the wall and I felt similar to how I felt with the riot at Capitol Hill: certainly devastated, certainly worried, but also weirdly validated.
I hope I’m wrong, but I’ve been warning and pointing to signs of a brewing civil war. I’ve been laughed out in some situations, and so that was a moment of ‘I told you.’ We’re not far from there. I’m not out of touch with reality, and it’s not that I’m unique in seeing this alone. But I will say that the differences of experiences that race and racism produce in this country allow for some of us to have seen this coming from far off, and others to be totally taken by surprise. And the same goes for Charlottesville.
Yehudah Webster is a New York-based community organizer and activist at Jews for Racial & Economic Justice.
Trump’s reaction was baffling | Jonathan Greenblatt
I was in Israel for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. I think we were at a restaurant in Tel Aviv and my staff reached out late after things started that Friday evening.
I had people there on the ground in Charlottesville, monitoring. They reported back an incredibly frightening scene in real-time: people were marching with torches. Then the following day, on Shabbat, we were in Tel Aviv and I just remember getting a call that these people came out and they had guns and weapons. And then Heather Heyer was killed. We didn’t know who she was at the time, but one of these people had literally taken his car and driven over protesters.
I ended up getting all these calls from U.S. press and doing a bunch of live interviews. I remember running out and buying a blazer and a shirt... My phone rang off the hook for weeks.
Trump’s reaction was baffling – it was upsetting and it was kind of inexplicable. There are some who say “Oh, he really did condemn it.” But look, all he needed to do is to take the mic and say “America is no place for hate.”
Jonathan Greenblatt is the CEO of the Anti-Defamation League.
'It's not safe to be here' | Deborah Lipstadt
When I heard about Charlottesville, I felt shock and despair. For me, Charlottesville and Pittsburgh were stark examples of the confluence of the link between white supremacy, antisemitism and racism.
You can’t understand these white supremacists unless you understand how much they hate Blacks and how much they hate Jews. Charlottesville illustrated that and Pittsburgh illustrated that.
After Charlottesville, the story came out about the synagogue there [Congregation Beth Israel], and how the rabbi instructed the people at Shabbat morning services, when some of the demonstrators with guns situated themselves outside the synagogue, saying, “It’s not safe for us to be here. Go out the back door, go out in small groups,” and they took the Torah scrolls with them. I wept. I’m getting verklempt even thinking about it. It’s the only incident I know of where Jews in America had to sneak out of the synagogue.
Deborah Lipstadt is the Dorot Professor of Holocaust Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.
Embassy move to Jerusalem | December 2017
On December 6, 2017, President Trump announced the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and ordered the relocation of the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The new embassy was dedicated in a festive ceremony the following May.
A policy based on truth | David Friedman
The recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem were both a culmination and a beginning – an exclamation point on the return to Zion of the Jewish people and the start of a new policy based upon truth and realism. On that day, my enormous sense of pride was overshadowed by the recognition and the excitement that we had just embarked upon a bold new path in Jewish history.
David Friedman is the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, appointed by President Trump in 2017.
The Reform movement’s mistake | Dani Dayan
It was due to be one of the most joyous days of my term in New York. I woke up that morning extremely happy, looking forward to an exciting day in which the president will announce the moving of the embassy. But then I was shocked by the statement of the Reform movement that called on the president to refrain from doing it. It was a very negative surprise and a harsh blow. It made me understand how much domestic American politics influences Jewish organizations on matters regarding Israel.
The only explanation I could find for it was the attitude toward President Trump in Jewish organizations, even when it came to the most [widely-approved] topic: the centrality of Jerusalem. The following day I was due to fly to Boston for the Union for Reform Judaism Biennial and I decided not to go. I’m quite sure now that they understood it was a mistake and I am quite sure the Reform movement regrets it. I think the proof is that a year or so later, they congratulated the President for recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. For me that closed the circle, and ended the argument.
A symbolic gift to the right | Jill Jacobs
Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people. But there's a difference between the Land of Israel and the modern, political State of Israel, and there's a difference between affirming the significance of Jerusalem for Jews and making a political decision that changes the status quo. Jews should not need a statement by any non-Jewish government to affirm our connection to Jerusalem.
Today, Israel is a nation-state like any other, and is also an occupying power. The goal should be to end the occupation, and to move toward a solution that protects the human rights – including the rights to citizenship and self-determination – of both Israelis and Palestinians.
The clearest path is to work toward two states, side-by-side, each of which will have the responsibility to protect the human rights of all of their residents. Moving the embassy was a symbolic gift to the right-wing Netanyahu government, as well as part of a strategy of punishing the Palestinians, and brought us no closer to peace.
A promise kept | Matt Brooks
When President Trump promised to move the embassy, I was suspicious – I had heard other presidents promise the same thing and it never happened. I realized all the pressures that a president faces when he wants to do something like this.
But President Trump promised the Jewish community during his campaign that this was something he was going to do. The courage that it took to do this – when you look at the fact that literally the entire international community was telling the president he couldn’t – was tremendous.
All the smart foreign policy types said this would be a disaster – that the Middle East would go up in flames. Even his top advisers inside the administration were saying, “You can't do this, Mr. President.” And he knew that they were wrong. He knew that the Middle East would not go up in flames.
It was one of the great honors of my life to fly to Israel to be at that ceremony, the dedication for the embassy opening. I've been in the Jewish world advocating for this for 30 years and then was able to see it become a reality under President Trump.
Matt Brooks is the Executive Director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.
Pittsburgh synagogue shooting | October 27, 2018
On October 27, 2018, a gunman entered the Tree of Life synagogue during Shabbat morning services and opened fire, killing 11 people in the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in U.S. history.
It casts a shadow over everything | Aaron Bisno
For us, there’s before and there’s after the Tree of Life shooting. We are now in this mind-set that we feel threatened and besieged. The costs of still having to think about this are very high – the cost of security, the idea that we have to be vigilant against violence – it casts a shadow over everything we do.
When the shooting happened, and my synagogue was put on lockdown – at that moment, I thought that we were as safe as we could possibly be. We were locked down, whatever threat was outside would pass. Still, it was terrifying to be in the eye of an international storm, and knowing that the entire world came to your neighborhood because of some crazy guy. But Pittsburgh wasn’t special – it could have been anywhere.
I don’t know that we can draw a direct line between Trump’s rhetoric or his racism and the violence, and what happened to us in Pittsburgh or in or other places. But Donald Trump certainly fomented a culture in which violent words and violent actions were allowed, from speeches at rallies describing how people should be roughed up to not calling out violence where it happens.
Ending with ‘Hatikva’ | Dani Dayan
The shooting in Pittsburgh was the defining point of my term. When it happened, I was at a conference in Phoenix, Arizona. Because of the time difference, I started receiving reports about it very early in the morning. We found an afternoon direct flight to Pittsburgh and I landed around 10 P.M.
It was clear that we had to go immediately to the synagogue. We arrived close to midnight. It was a cold, rainy night. The bodies were still inside. It was a crime scene – we were prevented from entering – but I remember that the FBI and hevra kadisha, a Jewish organization that prepares the bodies of the deceased, were there, waiting to remove the bodies. It reminded me of a similar situation I experienced in 2011, when I arrived late at night to Itamar and the bodies of the Fogel family, who were murdered by terrorists, were still inside their house.
I stayed in Pittsburgh for the whole week. I went to the funerals, to the shivahs. I remember vividly the following Shabbat, a large part of the Jewish community convened at Rodef Shalom Reform synagogue, and it was a very long service with speeches and singing. What struck me was that the service ended with one anthem being sung, and that was “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem. For me, that spoke volumes. Every time that people talk about the disconnect between American Jews and Israel, I remember that at one of the most emotional and saddest moments that the Jewish community in the United States ever lived through, they concluded by singing “Hatikva.”
Forgetting far-right antisemitism | Deborah Lipstadt
That this would happen at a synagogue, that Jews would have to sneak out the back door because they were afraid for their lives – if someone were to tell about this, I would have thought they were talking about Poland in 1939. But we're talking about America in the 21st century.
I was talking to a high school senior a few days ago, and she said that for her generation, antisemitism is usually expressed through anti-Israel sentiment on the left, and she had not been used to seeing it on the right.
That is ironic, because up until 20 years ago, if you talked about antisemitism you were talking about the right. Lately, we have been so focused on antisemitism on the left, which is real, and has to be fought, but we haven’t paid sufficient attention to alert people to the antisemitism on the far right, which is far more dangerous. And many people on the political right have wanted to dismiss them as a bunch of crazies. Well, these crazies have killed a lot of people.
What do we tell them? | Rachel Schmelkin
I found out about the shooting right after our Shabbat service in Charlottesville ended, and I remember trying to figure out what to do. There was a bar mitzvah that morning, and after services there was a luncheon. And I was having an internal monologue: Do we need to make an announcement and tell our congregants what happened to make sure they know? Or should I not ruin this joyful lunch for this family? Do I let them have their lunch and feel their joy and find out later? Ultimately, no announcement was made and people found out as soon as they started looking at their phones.
Pittsburgh had a profound effect on my high school students. After the violence in Charlottesville, I had given them numerous opportunities to talk about what happened, but for the most part, they kept quiet. When Pittsburgh happened, I basically threw out whatever lesson I had planned for my students that week and we sat in our sanctuary in a circle, and they opened up like I’d never seen them open up before. One student shared with the group, “I’m surprised it didn’t happen here.” As I looked around the circle, I could see the other students were nodding their heads – they all agreed.
My greatest nightmare | Jonathan Greenblatt
It was a terrible day. I was in synagogue when it happened and I had uncharacteristically brought my cellphone – normally I don’t do that, but one of our kids wasn’t with us, so I had the phone with me. And then suddenly my phone starts vibrating. The first time it vibrates, I’m thinking “oh I forgot to turn it off, I’m sure it’ll stop” and then it vibrates again, and it vibrates again, and it’s buzzing.
It kept buzzing and I just ignored it. When we walked out, I opened it up and I couldn’t believe it. I had all these text messages from my staff, and messages of solidarity when I didn’t have the whole understanding of what happened. One of the networks called as I was pulling out of the parking lot, asking “can we put you on the air right now?”
Visiting Pittsburgh a couple of days after the shooting, I attended funerals and paid respects at a shiva, and it was soul-crushing. My greatest nightmare since I took this job, my greatest fear, was that one morning I would wake up at 6, my phone would buzz, and I’d open it up and read about a massacre of Jews at a synagogue in France or Belgium. I never would have guessed that it would happen here in the United States.
I was mute and just bereft | Mike Signer
When the Tree of Life massacre happened, it was made more frightening to me by its confluence with the metastasizing online conspiracies that had been ginned up against the Jewish population. And there was also the double game that Trump had been playing where he was catering to the pro-Israel sympathies of the evangelicals and of some American Jews, while at the same time coddling the white tribalist antisemitic movement.
So it was with a mix of emotions and thoughts that I came into the synagogue that night in Charlottesville to mourn what happened in Pittsburgh. I was no longer mayor at that time – I had concluded my term in January of that year. But I was the sole member of the Charlottesville City Council to attend. I was distraught about the massacre and the lives that were lost, and what it meant at the time and whether it could be a harbinger, God forbid, of more terrorism against Jews. I was mute, and just bereft. I was so overcome that I was unable to even speak the prayers. I just sat in the last row of the congregation basically trying to keep it together.
The Novel Coronavirus | March 2020
In early March of 2020, Jewish communities across the United States were hit by the coronavirus pandemic. It devastated the New York community as dozens of Jewish residents died of COVID-19. The virus would go on to kill as many as 400,000 Americans.
A tidal wave in slow motion | Julie Cohen
It was just a horrible time in March. We knew that something major was happening. We saw how horrible it was going to be, and yet we saw that a lot of people weren’t fully realizing it. It has a strange sort of emotional impact, like a tidal wave coming at you in slow motion. In New York at the time, you just heard ambulances all through the night. I remember telling a cousin of mine that this was going to be worse than September 11, and she was shocked by that description.
I was sick in mid-March, but I don’t know if it was COVID. There was no way to know. Everyone was told to stay home and getting a test was basically too difficult. I was sick for three weeks, and later had a negative antibody test. A number of my colleagues got sick as well. Some definitely got COVID; others, like myself, don’t really know.
I stayed in a little room and my husband cooked food and left it under the door. It seemed pretty clear to me that my life wasn’t in any danger. It was very early; it became clear later on that things were unpredictable.
Julie Cohen is a Brooklyn-based filmmaker who co-directed and produced “RBG,” an Academy Award-nominated film on the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
A collective responsibility | Jacob Kornbluh
In a health crisis, you expect people to unite around the common cause and take collective responsibility. Instead people didn’t take it seriously at the beginning, and then it became sort of a political debate. So, as a reporter, my mission became to raise awareness.
Because I’m a member of the New York City Orthodox Jewish community, and I know my community, I tried to do what the government didn’t do, which was to reach out to my community and speak their language. Unfortunately, that led to confusion. The government on the one hand was unable to enforce those restrictions; on the other, the community saw those restrictions as an infringement of their religious rights.
Yes, I was attacked for reporting on people who violated the restrictions, but the price that I paid is worth it if I could save even one life, and I believe I saved several lives. Even though people in the Orthodox Jewish community are not dying in the way they were dying in March and April, we still have a situation where over 300,000 people have died in the United States. So we have a collective responsibility to make sure people take this seriously.
Jacob Kornbluh is senior political reporter for The Forward, based out of Borough Park, Brooklyn.
Catastrophic on multiple levels | David Friedman
The virus was exceptionally cruel in its disparate treatment of the haves and the have nots. For those who could hunker down in a beachfront or mountain retreat with their families, it could almost be seen as an adventure. For those less fortunate, it was catastrophic on multiple levels. It gave me pause to rethink whether we are as humane a society as we need to be.
Frustration | Dani Dayan
When I think of the outbreak of the pandemic, the word that comes to mind is frustration. I made a point of immediately going to the places where anything dramatic was happening to the Jewish community. The first outbreak was in New Rochelle in Westchester in March, which was a massive calamity – I was prevented even from being near the places to help or show support.
I made a decision that the moment the shul there reopened for davening, I would be there. But I couldn’t do even that symbolic thing, and that was extremely frustrating. I did my best to do something – I organized a Zoom meeting between then-Health Minister Yaakov Litzman and the ministry’s director general with Orthodox leaders in Brooklyn and other hard-hit places. But that was a very minimal thing; that is not what I would have liked to do. I wanted to do more.
The other thing that I tried but unfortunately couldn’t manage to do was to bring a delegation of health workers – doctors, medics and nurses – from Israel to New York to help. But then COVID started to strike Israel in high numbers, so it was impossible.
Fewer congregations will survive | Aaron Bisno
COVID exposed and accelerated challenges and problems that were already there. All of the changes that were underway in the economy, along with all of the changes underway within Jewish life, began to be felt.
Financially, there were all kinds of concerns. Our congregation took big money from the Paycheck Protection Program funds, tried to keep our personnel on, and everyone took pay cuts. There was an enormous amount of fear and concern within the Jewish community.
My frustration right now is that congregations felt a sense of urgency early and were willing in some cases to work together, to pull together, to share information, or to share a common purpose and figuring these things out. But six months, eight months, nine months in, we’re reverting back to the idea that every congregation needs to do what’s in their own best interest, and are not really discussing or encouraging rethinking as to how we organize. Every congregation believes that they are going to be the one that will make it through, and they are no longer really trying to think strategically about how to work together. There simply aren’t going to be as many congregations that will survive this as we might have imagined.
Abraham Accords | August and September 2020
In August and September of 2020, Israel signed Trump administration-brokered normalization agreements with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, representing a major diplomatic breakthrough in the Middle East.
Absolute euphoria | David Friedman
It was a period of absolute euphoria. We had worked for years to achieve this result against headwinds of near universal skepticism that our efforts would bear fruit. But they did bear fruit, again and again, and we basked in the glow of having brought the region to a more just and peaceful place.
How can he be a peacemaker? | Carly Pildis
While peace and normalization between the UAE and Israel were welcomed and celebrated, there was no attempt by President Trump to bring this spirit of togetherness and peace to our own country. Life for American Jews was becoming more dangerous and frightening. Listening to my Israeli friends and family share their excitement and their plans to travel to Dubai, the dichotomy was painful. I shared their joy and hope for peace, but that joy was muted by President Trump’s malice at home.
He refused to condemn white supremacists on national television, the largest security threat our community faces. How could this man be a peacemaker? Why was he endangering Jews at home and then declaring his affection for Israel? Where was this unifying leadership here?
Ironically, the Abraham Accords gave me hope for the same reason the uprising against the Muslim ban did: A vision of a peaceful world where Muslims and Jews come together. That hope for peace, justice and a better world led American Jews to vote against President Trump en masse. I am grateful that we are entering a new era with President-elect Joe Biden, a passionate Zionist and longtime friend to Israelis and Jews worldwide.
A president you can rely on | Matt Brooks
Everybody thinks the Abraham Accords started with the peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates. But that's not the starting point – that's one of the ending points, actually. You would not have gotten to the Abraham Accords had this president not recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital, had not moved the embassy, had not ended the Iran deal and demonstrated to the world and to our allies that this was a president who meant what he said, and is somebody you can rely on for support.
It gave the Israelis and Prime Minister Netanyahu the security to know that, unlike with President Obama, who wanted to have daylight between the United States and Israel. The Arabs and the Arab states also knew this, because of the strong position that the president has taken on Iran, which is really the big issue in the Middle East – not the Israeli-Palestinian issue. All of these things that this president has done gave the Sunni Arab states the confidence that Israel and the United States are aligned against the Shi’a influence from Iran and Iran’s efforts to destabilize and inflame the Middle East.
A warm peace | Jonathan Greenblatt
By any measure, the Abraham Accords are an incredibly important achievement, and regardless of which administration it happened under, it deserves praise for creating the space for that kind of process to take place.
A couple of hours after I heard about it, I spoke to Ambassador Youself Al Otaiba from the UAE. He was so positive and buoyant about it. Israel has certainly had peace with other neighbors like Egypt and Jordan, and those have been described as a cold peace. The warmth the ambassador showed in that call was something I had not heard from another foreign leader in the Middle East towards Israel, and I think everything that has happened since then only reaffirmed how meaningful and transformative this is.
Ultimately, representing an organization that believes in a two-state solution, I think that more countries normalizing relationships with Israel creates the space for the country to ultimately work with the Palestinian Authority and other countries in the region, who all have a shared stake in a just and secure resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I’m encouraged by the whole thing and I think it’s incredibly laudatory.
The death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg | September 2020
On the night of September 25, 2020, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist icon and one of the most influential Jewish-American figures in recent decades, passed away from cancer.
Judaism, feminism and commitment to justice | Jill Jacobs
Justice Ginsburg was an extraordinary person in every sense of the word and also a role model for so many Jews. She took her Judaism, her feminism and her commitment to justice seriously – and saw all of these commitments as part of a whole. Her death was a tragedy for all of us. And it was an insult to replace her, through a truncated process, with a justice who threatens to use her power in ways that will damage women and minority communities.
Rabbi Lauren Holtzblatt, who led two memorial services for Justice Ginsburg, was exactly the rabbi we needed in this moment. It was extremely important that the person who represented Judaism for America at this time was a relatively young woman who beautifully wove together Jewish tradition with American tradition, and spoke – and chanted – the words that we all needed to hear.
Determination to outlast | Julie Cohen
When I found out, I was so sad, and I was shocked more than one might rationally expect. The news of her death hadn’t been announced yet, but I have a lot of friends who worked in the news and they saw it come over the wires, so I simultaneously got about 20 text messages, and I started flipping between the cable news networks to see when it would be announced.
Justice Ginsburg had made it abundantly clear that she planned to outlive the Trump administration, she planned to survive Trump’s presidency, and anyone who knew RBG understood that her level of determination and toughness was really unparalleled. And so despite the seriousness of the health challenges that she was facing, I think I expected that she would continue to live. Something about her overall mental and physical toughness and her eternal optimism made it truly surprising when she died.
I got a lot of media requests because I worked on the film about her and spent so much time with her. It was an unusual experience to have one’s life intersect with something like this. Not only Justice Ginsburg herself – but the whole phenomenon surrounding her prominence.
A review of our democracy | Aaron Bisno
It was so sad, so disheartening, particularly given the political climate in which it took place, the timing of it and how cynical Mitch McConnell and President Trump are. Once we realized the game was up, there was nothing you could do about him appointing her replacement. It felt like a dismissal of all that she had accomplished.
That is what I think the legacy of Trump’s presidency is about to an extent – his judiciary appointments, how much they have changed and will change the country, and how long that will last. I hope some of the takeaway from this last four years will be a review of the parts of our democracy that need to be refreshed. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to have lifetime appointments for the Supreme Court. Maybe it doesn’t make sense to make how many Supreme Court nominees a given president gets to make a random thing. The fact that Trump appointed three justices just because his one term was when retirement or deaths happened to take place is chilling.
Injustice and hypocrisy | Yehudah Webster
Truth be told, the first thing that came to me was numbness. Here was yet another moment of devastation, one last straw – even as symbolic as it already was at that point being in the minority on the Supreme Court. It just felt very defeating.
It was definitely another moment of outrage that she was barely even dead and they were talking about how they’re gonna ramp up an appointment. Just the injustice and hypocrisy of it all, relative to how the Republicans pressured the Obama administration to deal with a vacancy within the Supreme Court when they had months left before the election. Here they had weeks. It was just a numbing moment because before we could even allow ourselves to feel the impact of her death and the loss to the movement of justice, we already had to fight and express our outrage. Tragic.
Rage and grief | Ayelet Waldman
When I learned of her death, my first reaction was fury. It was only later that I felt grief at her death and appreciation for her incredible legacy. At first, though it pains me to admit it, I was enraged with her. I had believed for a long time that she should have stepped down as soon as Barack Obama was reelected for a second term.
I think she was a miraculous human being. But I think that staying on, knowing there was a very good possibility that there could be a Republican elected after Obama, was irresponsible. So yes, my first feeling was absolute rage with her.
Then I got sad. It’s a complicated set of emotions. You are reacting to what you know is going to be the unraveling of her legacy and the end of the possibility of feminist progress. That grief is an angry grief. But there’s also grief at the death of someone you admire, which is a more healthy grief. It took me a while to get to the latter.
Biden election | November 2020
On November 7, 2020, the major news networks in the U.S. all announced that Joe Biden had won the presidential election. Donald Trump refused for the next two months to accept the result.
Watching with bated breath | Mike Signer
The Biden campaign meant a lot to me, because he centered it so much on Charlottesville. I wrote an essay in the Washington Post in April 2019, explaining how he got it right with his “Charlottesville is key to the soul of America” message. I thought it was quite a risk for Biden to premise a presidential campaign in this era on that argument, but I was thrilled by that, because we in Charlottesville had seen up-close exactly what happens when you allow violent tribalism stoked by the president.
Every minute of every day before the election, I was watching with bated breath with memories of what we had seen in Charlottesville. I was watching as Joe Biden prosecuted his argument and as Donald Trump doubled down on white grievance, talking about the suburbs being “invaded.”
When the results were coming in on election night, it was evident that Biden had put together a better, smarter and dominant strategy that had managed against all odds to outwit and outperform the force that Trump represented. It was massively inspiring. But that said, it's been very hard to relax, because what we were dealing with remains a force of darkness.
Anxiety-ridden roller coaster | Julie Cohen
During the campaign I was nervously optimistic, I was doing a lot of phone banking, which overall was pretty miserable. Most people don’t want to talk, they hang up on you, and the percentage of helpful moments are few.
On election night, I was home watching cable news, like everyone else. We did have a Zoom going for a while when we thought it would be more celebratory. It wasn’t really one election night, it was a four-day election night, from Tuesday until Saturday. It felt like one long, anxiety-ridden roller coaster ride. Although by Wednesday morning, it was becoming clear that it was very likely that Biden had won.
I was glued to the TV the whole time, and it was Saturday at about noon when the networks made the official call. Within 90 seconds of the networks calling it for Biden, people in our neighborhood in Brooklyn just opened the windows and began cheering and clanging pots and pans. My husband and I went out for a long walk around Brooklyn Bridge Park, I wore my Biden/Harris T-shirt and people started cheering when they saw me. It was a fun day.
Unprecedented Jewish support | Matt Brooks
We believed that with everything Trump had done, we had such a compelling story to tell Jewish voters – Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, ending the Iran deal. Initially, this president had the potential to do very well among Jewish voters. If you go back and look at my Twitter feed, I was predicting that this president would get historic highs among Jewish voters. Democrats were making bets with me which I hoped to collect from them.
People are saying he got a historic low number, but if you look at the AP Votecast numbers, which is the gold standard, he got 30 percent of the Jewish vote nationally, which is far from low. We did our own exit poll and got 30.5 percent of the Jewish vote – you have to go back to the 1980s to find a Republican who did that well.
In Florida, where we invested $5 million, he got 43 percent of the Jewish vote and there is no question that this level of support for Republicans in the Jewish community is unprecedented and historic, and I think it reflects on how much the Jewish community acknowledges what President Trump has done and appreciated his leadership.
The interview with Matt Brooks was conducted prior to the events of January 6, 2021.
The genie is out of the bottle | Deborah Lipstadt
I was very relieved. What I felt wasn’t joy or feeling like I was jumping up and down and cracking open champagne or whatever. Not that I’d have anyone to drink champagne with, because I’m in isolation! But yes, I was relieved.
As good as the many things Donald Trump might have done relating to Israel are – and I know Israelis are very aware of that, as are many other Jews – he has sowed division in this country and he has attacked democratic institutions. I was relieved we weren’t going to have another four years of that. Do I think all of that is going to go away? No. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it’s very hard to put back in.
Denying the COVID crisis | Jacob Kornbluh
Hopefully, by January 20, 2021, when people see Joe Biden enter the White House, people will come to the realization that the majority of the American people rejected the leadership of President Trump, not because he didn’t do great things for America, but because he denied the COVID crisis as a scientific crisis. Because he ignored the specialists and the experts.
Tears of Joy | Carly Pildis
For days we were in suspended animation. There was endless coffee and no sleep. I felt like a rubber band pulled so tight it’s about to snap. Then finally, we got the news. I wept with relief. My husband popped champagne. We went outside to celebrate. I wanted my daughter to see American history. People banged pots and pans, honked car horns, blasted Nipsey Hussle songs, toasted and danced and cheered and cried. There were no strangers, only new friends to revel with. My daughter and I held hands, Joe Biden! Joe Biden! Joe Biden! That day, my daughter learned what tears of joy meant.
A moment of jubilation | Yehudah Webster
It was a great day. That’s one I won’t forget for a long time. I was on Zoom studying Torah with my family and all of a sudden we heard shrieking, and it was the kind of shrieking where it was unclear if it was a happy shriek or ‘Is somebody in trouble?’ We jumped up and ran to the window, and my mom was like ‘I just got the notification – Biden won!’ We ran up to the roof, my girlfriend and I: people were outside, cars were pulled over, people were honking and cheering. We added to it. We started clapping and hollering.
I’d already invited a bunch of friends and folks to come over. I had my birthday the week before and it just happened to be a nice day, so I had kind of hit people up to say ‘Come on by, I have a nice roof, we can kind of take it in.’
The fact it was on Shabbat was just an extra added blessing that we could really sit in and not immediately think about the work we have to do with the Biden administration, or the work we still had to do as Trump was in his last few months or weeks. It was good. That was a moment of jubilation.
An opportunity to repair | Dani Dayan
I am firm in my belief that Biden-Harris is the best Democratic Party ticket Israel could expect or hope for. I see their victory as an opportunity to repair the relationship with the Democratic Party and an opportunity to regain bipartisan support in the American political arena. I think that’s the way Israel should see the election of President Biden and Vice President Harris – as an opportunity.
A victory for empathy | Aaron Bisno
I remember when Trump was elected in 2016, it felt like the high school bully won. The number of votes Trump got in 2020 sends a chill down your spine, but I like the idea that the good guy won, the one with empathy and goodness and goodwill. I’m not suggesting that anyone is pure as snow, but clearly Joe Biden is a man of empathy, a man who has experienced life in a way that has made him a more compassionate, humane person, and that his life’s goal is to help people be better people.
We have a responsibility to each other and that’s what won. Is he the most creative politician? No one is claiming that. Is he the answer? No one’s claiming that. But it felt like a vindication. It felt like a return to normalcy, that this is the kind of politician that we remember, Republican or Democrat, who are good people.
Interviews: Allison Kaplan Sommer, Danielle Ziri, Ben Samuels
Copy editors: Linda Dayan, Adrian Hennigan
Graphics: Nitzan Salinas
Project editors: Jonathan Gorodischer, Amir Tibon