Such a short time ago, it seemed unimaginable that any White House could divide American Jews or exacerbate cracks in their relationship with the State of Israel as seriously as Barack Obama’s did. Remember the Iran deal?
But let’s face it, President Donald Trump’s America has left Obama’s in the dust when it comes to pitting Jew against Jew. Not a month has gone by in which Trump and his team haven’t managed to trigger intense and often emotional debates everywhere from Jewish and Israeli Twitter to family Friday night dinner tables.
So much has happened that the traditional year-end list of five or 10 highlights feels insufficient. So here’s a month-by-month recap...
It was a day of firsts when President Donald Trump was inaugurated on January 20.
For the first time ever, an Orthodox Jew, Rabbi Marvin Hier, was asked to deliver the benediction at a presidential inauguration – and agreed. There were complaints from sections of the Jewish community appalled by the tone of Trump’s campaign and the way it awakened what became known as the “alt-right.” But Hier went ahead because he said he was a “big fan” of Trump’s “support for Israel.”
This early controversy was to prove a bellwether for the year-long dynamic among U.S. Jews. While Orthodox Jews and those who prioritized “pro-Israel” positions generally remained in Trump’s corner and cheered him on, the majority of non-Orthodox, progressive Jews that make up the majority of the community joined the anti-Trump resistance: Turning out in force to protest Trump’s refugee ban and taking part in the Women’s March.
Another first: A crash course for Americans in the rules and restrictions of Orthodox Jewish observance. Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s Jewish son-in-law and daughter, received dispensation from an unnamed rabbi to travel by car on Shabbat over Inauguration Weekend, triggering heated discussion among Jews as to whether attending an interfaith service – in a church, no less – and inauguration balls justified violating Shabbat restrictions (and whether it was anybody’s business in the first place).
It wasn’t the last “Shabbat-gate” the couple would have to grapple with over the coming months: The same anonymous rabbi gave them the go-ahead to accompany the president on Air Force One on the Sabbath.
Shabbat observance also played a role in the drama around Trump’s controversial executive order known as the “Muslim ban,” pulling the plug on travel from Libya, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Sudan. The signing of the order – later struck down by the courts – took place after sunset on Friday when Kushner was absent. The order was crafted by another controversial, high-profile Jewish member of the Trump team, Stephen Miller, together with the senior Trump adviser who made U.S. Jews most profoundly uncomfortable: Steve Bannon.
Another early-days event that deeply concerned many Jews was the White House statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day. While it decried the “horror inflicted on innocent people by Nazi terror,” it failed to mention the role that anti-Semitism played or the Jewish people. The White House responded to criticism of the statement from the Jewish community by digging in its heels, calling critics “pathetic” and “disappointing.”
A worrisome trend that had grown throughout the 2016 presidential race and Trump transition hit a crisis point in February: Anti-Semitic vandalism and violence was growing, and a wave of bomb threats directed at Jewish community centers and other institutions disrupted community life and sparked fear. Trump was silent on the issue, with critics denouncing him for failing to decry the behavior.
That disappointment turned to outrage when he finally did speak out, as it seemed he was echoing conspiracy theories that the acts were “false flags” perpetrated by Jews themselves or by the left in order to make him look bad. And when Trump unleashed his anger on ultra-Orthodox reporter Jake Turx during a White House press conference, interrupting him and ordering him to “sit down,” and calling himself “the least anti-Semitic person you have seen in your entire life,” it grabbed national headlines.
Tensions continued to rise as the bomb threats continued. But in a bizarre twist the perpetrator turned out to be – to the shock of most observers – a disturbed Israeli teenager who was summarily arrested. Trump’s Jewish supporters, breathing a sigh of relief, felt vindicated. And those who had vilified him – rather embarrassed and sheepish. All were glad the culprit had been apprehended and the chapter was over.
It was White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s turn to take center stage when he made a train-wreck level series of gaffes regarding the Holocaust. It began while condemning Syrian President Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, when he said that “someone as despicable as Hitler didn’t even sink to using chemical weapons” against “their own citizens.”
In fact, the Nazi regime did use gas, Zyklon B, to commit mass murder in death camps during the Holocaust, including against Germany’s Jews who were Hitler’s “own citizens.”
Spicer’s comments were denounced as “serious and outrageous” in Israel. The PR veteran then bungled his apology, asserting that he meant Hitler hadn’t used gas “on his own citizens” (he did), and bizarrely referring to concentration camps as “Holocaust centers.”
Trump, however, scored points on the Holocaust sensitivity front later in the month with a moving speech at a ceremony marking Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, which helped repair the damage done in January following the Jew-free International Holocaust Remembrance Day statement. It won wall-to-wall praise from Jewish groups, but disappointment from the white nationalist alt-right.
The president’s much-hyped and largely successful whirlwind visit to the Jewish state in mid-May contained some moments that were unforgettable – and others that were memorable for other reasons. Who can forget Melania Trump flicking away her husband’s hand on the tarmac; MK Oren Hazan’s infamous selfie; Sara Netanyahu’s blatant fangirling of the American first lady; or the U.S. president’s “bizarrely chipper” note left at Yad Vashem.
Trump made history when he became the first sitting U.S. president to visit the Western Wall, and Ivanka Trump’s tears there warmed Israeli hearts. One person was able to look back on the visit with a sense of accomplishment: Education Minister Naftali Bennett, who did away with small talk and told Trump: “We expect you to be the first president to recognize Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.” Trump’s comeback: “That’s an idea.”
The early summer months were relatively quiet on the Jewish front in the afterglow of the Israel trip. Perhaps this was because the White House was busy with other matters, gripped with a dizzying series of major events when the Russia investigation hit its stride and John Kelly took the reins at the White House.
July did not pass controversy-free, though. Eyebrows were raised when Trump became the first U.S. president who failed to visit the monument to the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Revolt during a trip to Poland. Polish-Jewish leaders called the absence of a presidential visit a “slight.” Following the criticism, Ivanka Trump – who was rapidly accumulating experience smoothing Jewish feathers ruffled by her father – ultimately visited the site instead.
If there was a moment when even Trump’s staunchest supporters in the American-Jewish community were concerned about where he stood on anti-Semitism and his affection for Trump fans in white supremacist circles, it was in the days following the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Following that traumatic weekend, which resulted in the death of an anti-racism protester, Trump repeatedly condemned violence and hate “on many sides,” with no specific condemnation of the rally’s organizers or their white nationalist sentiments, asserting that there were “very fine people” among both groups.
In the storm of condemnation that ensued, Trump’s Jewish cabinet members came under intense pressure to distance themselves from him, or even resign, but they stood firmly by his side. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said Trump “in no way, shape or form” equated neo-Nazis with peaceful protesters.
Fallout from Charlottesville continued into the fall. Leaders of the Reform and Conservative movements (the two largest Jewish denominations in the United States) boycotted a phone call by Trump in which he wished the Jewish community well over the Jewish New Year and other High Holy Days – a tradition started by Obama.
In the call to those who agreed to accept the invitation, Trump expressed support for Israel and said he vowed to “forcefully condemn those who seek to incite anti-Semitism, or to spread any form of slander and hate,” and that “America is stronger because of the many Jewish Americans who bring such life, hope and resilience to our nation.”
To the delight of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and officials on both the right and the left, and to the chagrin of much of the international community, Trump announced his decision to formally decertify the Iran nuclear deal and to impose new sanctions on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The reemergence of the issue opened old wounds from the fierce debate over the deal in Israel and the Jewish community.
It had seemed that the ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into possible collusion with Russia and other misdeeds from the Trump campaign and transition team, casting an ever-lengthening shadow over the White House, contained no clearly Jewish or Israel-related angle. But as the year drew toward a close, it emerged that Mueller’s probe had expanded to include actions taken by Kushner against a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem in his investigations.
According to reports, Mueller has looked into efforts by Kushner against the resolution – which passed in December 2016 during the transition period between the Obama and Trump administrations – as part of his examination of possible inappropriate contact with foreign leaders.
Over the course of 2017, innumerable rumors flew that Trump would finally make good on his election campaign promise that he would not only pledge to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – he would actually do it. Yet every time his supporters got their hopes up, they were disappointed. But then, on December 6, they finally got their wish – sort of. Trump issued his bombshell declaration that the United States was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and that he was ordering his administration to set wheels in motion to move the embassy, though the exact time when it would happen was left murky.
The announcement set off a flurry of praise (from Israel and its supporters), and a tide of criticism and condemnation – most notably from the United Nations, whose General Assembly condemned it with an overwhelming majority of 128 to 9.
The year had been slated to end with a bang – a visit by Trump’s second-in-command, Vice President Mike Pence. But it was not to be. The visit was postponed by a month, the White House said, due to Pence’s presence being required at a key congressional vote on tax reform.
It was probably just as well. Jews and Israel-watchers needed time to catch their breath, buckle their seat belts and steel themselves for what is sure to be an even more action-packed 2018.
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