President Donald Trump in the Cabinet Room of the White House Sept. 13. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

Watch Trump’s High Holy Days greeting


Per White House tradition, President Donald Trump released a greeting ahead of the Jewish High Holidays. The White House sent the video message on Monday, ahead of Rosh Hashanah, which starts this year on Wednesday evening.

Below is the transcript and video of Trump’s address:

“On behalf of all Americans, I want to wish Jewish families many blessings in the New Year. The High Holy Days are a time of both reflection on the past year and hope for renewal in the year to come. Jewish communities across the country, and around the world, enter into a time of prayer, repentance, and rededication to the sacred values and traditions that guide the incredible character, and spirit, of the Jewish people. We reaffirm the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel, and we ask God to deliver justice, dignity, and peace on Earth. Melania and I wish everyone a sweet, healthy, and peaceful year, which we hope will bring many blessings to all. Thank you, God Bless you, and God Bless America.”

Jared Kushner speaking at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building next door to the White House on June 19. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Some Trump lawyers reportedly recommended Kushner step down over Russia scandal


Some lawyers for President Donald Trump recommended that Jared Kushner step down as senior White House adviser over the Russia scandal.

The Wall Street Journal reported Monday that the president’s lawyers were not united in the opinion. The article also said that Trump believed Kushner had done nothing wrong, thus there was no reason he should quit.

Due to the concerns of some members of the president’s legal team, press aides to the team drafted a statement explaining Kushner’s departure, the newspaper reported, citing people familiar with the matter.

Kushner reportedly had several meetings with Russian officials during and after the election campaign. He also failed to disclose on his application for a security clearance a meeting he had with a Russian official, along with his brother-in-law Donald Trump Jr., to receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate for president, during the 2016 campaign.

In July, Kushner appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of its investigation into Russian interference in the election. Afterward he released an 11-page statement denying collusion.

Some of Trump’s attorneys worried that keeping Kushner as an adviser could involve other White House officials in the Russia investigation, including his discussing the probe with the president without a lawyer present.

Senior Counselor to the President Steve Bannon in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20. Photo by Win McNamee/Reuters

Was Stephen Bannon good for the Jews? A review


Stephen Bannon, whose advice to President Donald Trump was that “darkness is good,” was thrust out into the light of the sunshiny day enveloping Washington, D.C., on Friday: He is no longer Trump’s strategic adviser.

It’s not clear yet what led to Bannon’s departure. He alone among Trump’s senior advisers favored the president’s decision to blame “many sides” for the violence last weekend when white supremacists descended on Charlottesville, Virginia, a posture that has outraged Americans across the political spectrum. Bannon and Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, were always at odds.

Bannon conveys, perhaps unintentionally, the impression that he is manipulating Trump, an impression that Trump is known to hate. And Bannon told the American Prospect this week that there is no military solution to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, just as Trump and his national security team are ramping up claims that a military option is not off the table.

One thorny issue that kept coming up: Was Bannon, who made gutting the Iran nuclear deal a priority, the Jewish community’s best friend in the White House? Or was the man who embraced conspiracy theories about globalists the most Jewish-hostile White House presence since Richard Nixon stalked its halls?

Let’s review:

Breitbart

Bannon helmed Breitbart News, the right-wing news site, since the sudden death of founder Andrew Breitbart in 2012.

Breitbart plus: In 2015, under Bannon’s leadership, the site launched Breitbart Jerusalem because Bannon wanted to counter what he sees as media bias against Israel. Breitbart also aggressively covers anti-Semitism in Europe.

Breitbart minus: Bannon has described the news site as “the platform for the ‘alt-right,’” the loose coalition of anti-establishment conservatives who include among their ranks anti-Semites and racists.

The alt-right

Alt-right plus: Bannon, addressing a conference held at the Vatican in 2014, recognized the tendency of the alt-right to attract racists and anti-Semitism, but said he rejected those bigotries and predicted they would “wash away.”

Alt-right minus: Even absent specifying Jews or blacks or other races, the conspiratorial mind-set of the alt-right is uncomfortably redolent of the toxic myths that have led to violence. Bannon is believed to have written a speech by Trump on the eve of his election suggesting that his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, was part of an international banking conspiracy. It set Jewish hairs on end. Trump’s final campaign ad, excerpting parts of the speech against a backdrop that include a rogues gallery of “internationalists” who all happened to be Jews, didn’t help.

The Trump agenda

The agenda plus: Bannon has worked closely with the pro-Israel right, which says he has been particularly aggressive within the White House in advocating for scrapping the Obama administration deal they most revile, trading sanctions relief for Iran’s rollback of its nuclear program. Undoing the Iran deal featured on Bannon’s famous whiteboard, where he checked off Trump’s “to-do” list. (The deal has yet to be undone, but not for lack of trying by Bannon.) Whatever one thinks of the Iran deal, Bannon’s opposition to it comported closely with the current Israeli government, whose officials appreciated his advocacy.

The agenda minus: Trump’s “America First” outlook, spurred by Bannon and his White House acolytes, has rejected “identity politics.” Bannon believes rejecting “politically correct” views on race helped Trump win the White House, which is why he cheered on Trump this week when the president insisted that “many sides” were responsible for the deadly violence in Charlottesville. This outlook is not new to the Jewish community: It was behind the bizarre Jan. 27 International Holocaust Day declaration that failed to mention that Jews were the victims of the Holocaust.

Shall we invite him to the seder? Bannon and Jewish staff

Watercooler chat plus
: Bannon brought into the White House a host of staffers, among them Jewish Breitbart alumni like Julia Hahn, who is a special assistant. He reportedly is close to Ezra Cohen-Watnick, who was the National Security Council staffer responsible for coordination with the intelligence community. McMaster removed Cohen-Watnick from the NSC, reportedly in part because his views on Iran were too hawkish.

Watercooler chat minus
: Bannon clashed with Jared Kushner, Trump’s Jewish son-in-law and a senior adviser, reportedly calling him a “globalist” — seen in some quarters (see above) as coded language for Jews. Ditto Trump’s senior economic adviser, Gary Cohn. Breitbart, still believed to be influenced by Bannon, has recently taken to surrounding Cohn’s name with globes in its headlines.

Some of his best friends

The human factor plus: Bannon’s former Jewish staffers at Breitbart swear by him as an understanding boss. Joel Pollak, a former editor in chief at the news site, told NPR that Bannon not only encouraged him to take off Jewish holidays, he would wish him a “Shabbat Shalom” on Friday afternoons.

The human factor minus: One of Bannon’s ex-wives said in a sworn declaration that he made anti-Semitic remarks while they were searching for a private school for their girls. Bannon has denied the claim, although at least one third party has corroborated part of her account.

Stephen Bannon at the White House on June 1. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

White House: Stephen Bannon is out as chief strategist


Stephen Bannon is leaving his position as White House chief strategist.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said that Friday was Bannon’s last day in the role.

“White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Steve Bannon have mutually agreed today would be Steve’s last day,” Sanders said. “We are grateful for his service and wish him the best.”

The statement came shortly after The New York Times reported that President Donald Trump had decided to remove Bannon. Two administration officials told the Times on Friday about Trump’s decision.

A source close to Bannon told the Times that the decision was his idea and that he had submitted his resignation to Trump over a week ago. The source claimed that the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, delayed the process.

Bannon’s position in the administration has been intensely scrutinized over the past week. At a news conference, Trump was ambivalent about Bannon’s status, saying “We’ll see” about his future in his strategist role.

On Thursday, the liberal American Prospect magazine published an interview with Bannon in which he mocked members of the administration and criticized Trump’s posturing with North Korea.

Bannon has also feuded for months with other members of the Trump administration, including senior adviser Jared Kushner and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

Bannon, the former head of the right-wing site Breitbart News, has been under fire since he began working for the Trump campaign last year. He has been criticized for calling Breitbart a platform for the “alt-right,” a far-right and white nationalist movement that includes anti-Semitic figures and followers.

Bannon has denied he is anti-Semitic, and supporters point out that Breitbart  is pro-Israel. This week he welcomed the president’s divisive comments on a far-right rally in Charlottesville, saying that as long as Democrats are focused on race and identity, the Republican Party will crush them in the polls.

Seated with U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster (R), U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with service members at the White House in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

You want McMaster out over Iran? That’s fine. Over Israel? Senseless


Is US National Security Advisor H.R McMaster anti Israel? Senior Israeli officials say there is no sign that he is. McMaster, one of them told me, is a general. A military man. His views on the Middle East are not always compatible with Israeli thinking – because he has other priorities, and is in charge of another country’s policy. But accusing him of being anti-Israel is not helpful, nor reasonable. He is a professional, discussions with him are cordial, disagreements with him are always businesslike – and he never gives the impression that ego or grudge are involved.

Nevertheless, McMaster is accused, among other things, of being anti-Israel. “In a volley of attacks from right-wing media, McMaster has been accused of being anti-Israel, having a short temper and collaborating with Obama-era officials”. So much so, that the president felt a need to defend his advisor: “General McMaster and I are working very well together”, Trump wrote. “He is a good man and very pro-Israel. I am grateful for the work he continues to do serving our country”.

That he is short-tempered is a shortcoming but is hardly unique to McMaster. If Trump does not want short-tempered people around him, he is entitled to make such a decision, but clearly that’s not why McMaster is suddenly facing problems. That he collaborates with Obama-era officials is both a plus and a minus. Even in the Obama era some officials were good at their jobs, and might still have something to contribute. That the advisor is not blind to this fact is good – and of course, carries the risk (for those who consider  it a risk) that the views of these wise officials might influence the thinking of the advisor.

So is Israel the problem? It is and it isn’t. Because in fact, there are two types of proofs by which one can  argue that McMaster is not Israel’s best buddy. The first proof concerns Israel: McMaster used the word “occupation” to describe Israel’s presence in the West Bank, he did not want Prime Minister Netanyahu to accompany Trump when the President visited the Western Wall, he would not even say that the Western Wall is in Israel (following him, former White House press secretary Sean Spicer stated that the Western Wall is “clearly in Jerusalem”, but refused to answer the question whether it was a part of Israel).

Taken together, all these pronouncements do not amount to much. Mc Master is solidly in the camp of those still in line with the traditional US policy of not declaring any change to the status quo in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. You could safely assume that he did not want the US embassy to move to Jerusalem – because it is a change that could ignite trouble. You can see that he opposes other implied changes to US policy – mainly because he sees no benefit to the US from making such change. The Arab world will react with fury, the US will gain little.

Is it the ideal position of an American official from Israel’s viewpoint? It is not. Is this anti-Israel? It is not. McMaster might be guilty of conventional thinking about Israel and Palestine. He is not guilty of hostility towards Israel. Not without more proof.

The other issue that is highlighted in attacks against the advisor is more serious. McMaster seems to be cautious on the issue of Iran. He does not support the idea of ditching the Iran nuclear deal. He fired from his staff some of the analysts that were more hawkish on Iran and preferred a more none-confrontational approach to contain its aggressive advance in the Middle East.

Is it the ideal position of an American official from Israel’s viewpoint? It is not. Is this anti-Israel? It is not. McMaster, for whatever reason (there are good arguments in support of keeping the deal – it is not a preposterous position) believes that the deal should be kept. For a horde of reasons, all related to his understanding of the American interest, he seems reluctant to clash with the Iranians. This is not something he does to spite Israel, or annoy it, or put it in danger. He is not anti-Israel – he disagrees with Israel on some issues.

So why is McMaster under attack? That’s a good question, with two possible answers. One – because of personal infighting within the White House. He fired people close to advisor Steven Bannon, the Bannonites are going after him. Two – because of policy differences. McMaster takes a traditional approach to foreign policy and thus takes the bite out of Trump’s foreign policy.  And of course, these two reasons are not mutually exclusive. Often personal grudges and turf battles are fought because of policy disagreements. If a group of advisors and analysts wants Trump to take a more confrontational approach to Iran – and another group want him to remain cautious and prudent – these two groups are likely to have a disagreement that will soon become personal as well as content based.

Israel rarely benefits from such disagreements. It rarely benefits from being identified with the most radical policy ideas. Men and women such as McMaster, the backbone of the military and of the foreign policy establishment, are not always easy to deal with. They can be brash. They can be conventional in their thinking. They often prioritize their reluctance to militarily commit the US to a cause, over the necessities of world leadership.

Still, they should not be made to believe that Israel is an obstacle to everything they stand for. They should not be accused of being anti-Israel only because they refuse to adopt its viewpoint. If anyone want McMaster ousted because of his conventional thinking about policy – that’s find. If anyone thinks he ought to be ousted for harboring negative feelings towards Israel – that’s senseless.

Stephen Miller arriving at Trump Tower in New York, Jan. 9, 2017. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Stephen Miller in running for White House communications director


White House policy adviser Stephen Miller reportedly is under consideration to be White House communications director.

He would replace Anthony Scaramucci, who was let go in part because of an obscenity-laden interview he gave to The New Yorker magazine late last month. Scaramucci wasn’t set to formally take the job until Aug. 15, but had been working in the position for 10 days when he was effectively fired.

The effort to find a successor to Scaramucci is still in the name-gathering process, and Miller is not the only top contender, the news website Axios reported Saturday.

Miller raised his profile last week after telling CNN’s Jim Acosta during a White House news conference that a famous poem by Jewish writer Emma Lazarus praising the Statue of Liberty as a beacon for new immigrants “doesn’t matter” since it was attached to the site years after the statue was erected.

Axios reported that White House top strategic adviser Stephen Bannon likes the idea of Miller for the job, and said Miller was the hero of the West Wing after he attacked Acosta as a “cosmopolitan” for his views on immigration.

Miller, who is Jewish and the descendant of immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island, is known as a proponent of what Bannon calls “economic nationalism.”

Miller has been called “one of the chief architects” behind the executive order that temporarily banned citizens of seven predominantly Muslim countries and indefinitely banned Syrian refugees from entering the United States. He also has ties to David Horowitz, founder of a right-wing think tank that “combats the efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values and disarm this country as it attempts to defend itself in a time of terror.”

Jared Kushner in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 20. Photo by Saul Loeb/Reuters

Jared Kushner speaks — and the internet is obsessed


Jared Kushner has given his first public speech since he became senior aide in charge of everything for President Donald Trump.

And it was about as bland, scripted and New Jersey inflected as we expected.

Kushner’s speech Monday kicked off Technology Week at the White House — it presumably doesn’t focus on how to set up backchannel communications with Russia. Instead, Kushner gave a seven-minute address on improving government efficiencythat included plenty of buzzy words like “bureaucracy,” “forms,” “cloud,” “interagency” and “optimization.”

“Together we have set ambitious goals and assembled interagency teams to tackle our objectives,” he said. “It’s working and it’s very exciting.”

It was not very exciting. It was supposed to be a boring speech, and it was. But because Kushner said it out loud — with Jersey vowels (“awwditing”) in a nasal, midrange voice — the internet is obsessed.

The obsession with Kushner’s voice — or, more to the point, the absence of his voice — is an avatar for his overall mysteriousness. As John Oliver pointed out recently in a viral smackdown, we don’t know much about what Kushner believes, what his priorities are or how his experience as a real-estate developer qualifies him to, say, solve the opioid epidemic while also achieving Mideast peace.

For the record, JTA had a video of Kushner speaking publicly before it was cool. That speech, from a 22-year-old Kushner in 2003 dedicating Harvard’s new Chabad center, includes a heartwarming anecdote about chicken soup.

Kushner’s White House speech included anecdotes about government compliance. Still, it also included a couple of zingers: For example, he pointed to government technology being so outdated that “the Department of Defense still uses eight-inch floppy disks.”

As close as he may be to his father-in-law, Kushner is his polar opposite as a public speaker — his tone remained even, he didn’t go off script. In fact, he barely cracked a smile.

But at least everyone now knows he doesn’t sound like Gilbert Gottfried.

Jewish groups lambaste Trump’s pullout from climate accords


President Donald Trump on Thursday said he will withdraw the United States from the landmark 2015 global agreement to fight climate change, earning statements of dismay from critics, including Jewish groups who regard the pullout as a diplomatic and environmental disaster.

Speaking Thursday at ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, Trump said the so-called Paris accords, signed by every country except for Syria and Nicaragua, place “draconian” financial and economic burdens on American businesses and taxpayers and give other countries a trade advantage over the United States.

“As someone who cares deeply about our environment, I cannot in good conscience support a deal which punishes the United States,” he said. “The Paris accord is very unfair at the highest level to the United States.”

Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, issued a statement on behalf of the Reform movement saying the announcement was “an abdication of responsibility to address global climate change and is both physically dangerous and morally reprehensible.

“The decision disregards vitally important environmental efforts to protect both our planet and the population, with consequences that will reverberate for generations,” wrote Pesner. “Reneging on the agreement diminishes U.S. leadership and undermines longstanding alliances, placing an undue burden on other nations to address climate change.

American Jewish World Service, which advocates for people in developing nations, said such countries would bear the brunt of the severe storms, flooding, droughts and famine that a scientific consensus regards as the already apparent signs of the effects of man-made global warming.

“The longer the U.S. denies climate change and fails to take responsibility for its outsized contribution to global warming, the greater the risk posed to the entire world, especially the poorest people on Earth,” said Robert Bank, president and CEO of AJWS, in a statement.

Added Banks: “We stand proudly as Jews who cherish the Earth to object in the strongest terms to the President’s shortsighted and damaging decision. As American Jews, we will continue to raise our voices in solidarity with the people worldwide who have done the least to cause global warming but who suffer the most.”

Vatican officials also signaled their dismay with Trump’s decision. The Catholic church strongly supported the climate accords. Last month, the Union for Reform Judaism, AJWS and the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life joined 20 other religious groups in urging Trump to adhere to the agreement, which was reached in 2015 and signed in 2016.

The 195 countries that signed the Paris Agreement pledged to adopt nonbinding plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

Republicans largely applauded Trump’s decision to pull out of the accords, although reports indicated that there was opposition among some of his closest advisers, including Gary D. Cohn, the director of the National Economic Council; Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and unpaid adviser, and Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson.

Neither Ivanka Trump nor her husband attended the announcement ceremony, which fell on the second day of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot. Both are observant Jews.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President Donald Trump at he White House on May 3. Photo by Carlos Barria/Reuters

Toward a renewed Middle East peace process


Momentum is building toward resumption of the dormant Middle East peace process. The efforts by presidential envoy Jason Greenblatt, the successful visit of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House last week, and President Donald Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the West Bank all signal that, for now, the Trump administration is serious about promoting peace. Can it succeed where others have failed?

Optimists believe things could be different this time around. An alignment of interests between Israel and key Arab Sunni states seeking to contain Iran’s regional ambitions and to confront Islamic extremism has made these countries ready to embrace ways to put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict behind them. Pessimists warn, however, that except for the new U.S. administration, not much has changed.

The truth is probably in the middle. A changing regional setting coupled with a renewed interest in the conflict on the part of an unconventional U.S. president could open a window of opportunity. But rather than overpromising to achieve the ultimate deal, a promise that would likely backfire, the administration could take concrete steps that might pave the way toward resumption of an earnest peace process. Here are four steps that could help get there:

• The president could state a clear vision, while setting realistic benchmarks, and remain committed for the long haul. Speaking generally about “peace” and implying indifference between the two-state and one-state options may suffice for first meetings, but the Trump administration could articulate that in the absence of another feasible option, it is committed to a two-state solution that allows the peaceful existence of a Jewish democratic Israel alongside a demilitarized Palestinian state.

But promising to end the conflict in an unrealistic time frame could dim the chances for success. In this part of the world, when it’s all or nothing, it usually is nothing. It would make more sense to move forward with concrete measures and achievable goals to gradually help set the stage for a two-state solution.

In addition, Greenblatt is perceived in the region as directly executing the president’s wishes. This credibility could be crucial for regional leaders.

• Second, the administration could promote a three-pronged approach combining bilateral, multilateral and unilateral processes. Traditionally, the U.S. role in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts focused on bringing the two sides to the negotiation table hoping that with a little help, they would reach a peace deal. Focusing solely on a bilateral approach has not worked before and it is unlikely to work now.

In parallel to resuming peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the U.S. could promote a multilateral approach by bringing in the Arab Sunni states to help back the Palestinians and incentivize Israel. Unilateral independent steps could include pushing Israeli and Palestinian leaders on issues that are hard for them politically at home.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s move to curb settlement construction in the West Bank is a welcome start, but Israel could be encouraged to do more to rein in settlement expansion.

While too sensitive to push for during a highly publicized hunger strike of Palestinian inmates in Israeli prisons, the Palestinian Authority (PA) could be prodded to stop generously paying prisoners convicted of terrorism. This could send an important signal to Israel and to the world that the Palestinians are serious about peace.

  • Third, the U.S. could continue efforts to stabilize the Gaza Strip, while at the same time seeking to help strengthen the PA. The Gaza Strip is on the verge of collapse and the winds of war are blowing again between Israel and Hamas. This administration has been following the footsteps of its predecessor in an attempt to stabilize Gaza. Building on these efforts, Trump could use his leverage to coordinate with Israel and push the Gulf States — maybe during his visit to Saudi Arabia before he heads to Israel — to follow through on their pledges to help stabilize Gaza.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s move to curb settlement construction in the West Bank is a welcome start, but Israel could be encouraged to do more to rein in settlement expansion.

Efforts also could focus on providing Gaza’s residents with clean drinking water, proper sanitation, a regular supply of electricity and improved freedom of movement for people and goods. It is crucial, though, that efforts in Gaza do not bolster Hamas at the expense of the PA.

Trump gave a much needed boost to the weak PA by meeting with Abbas, calling it an “honor,” tweeting about the meeting and not asking Abbas publicly to make any compromises.

• Finally, the administration could sign the waiver forestalling the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Moving the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem so close to the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Six-Day War could shatter any chance of peace and risk plunging Jerusalem and the whole region into turmoil.

Such steps may not bring about the ultimate deal. Despite regional dynamics and a new energy from the White House there are still plenty of obstacles to an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. Without a clear, consistent plan that delivers quick, tangible results to both Israelis and Palestinians and helps restore trust between the two sides, the newly created window opportunity to addressing this conflict will close again.


Shira Efron is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp., a special adviser on Israel with Rand’s Center for Middle East Public Policy and a professor at the Pardee Rand Graduate School.

President Donald Trump, right, reaches to greet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after a joint news conference at the White House on Feb. 15. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

White House: Trump will reinforce strong alliance, talk peace on Israel trip


President Donald Trump will visit Israel later this month after visiting Saudi Arabia, his first foreign trip since taking office in January.

“Tolerance is the cornerstone of peace,” Trump said during an event in the White House’s Rose Garden. “That is why I am proud to make a major and historic announcement this morning and share with you that my first foreign trip as president will be to Saudi Arabia, then Israel, then the Vatican in Rome.”

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

A senior administration official said the planning started shortly after the elections after being approached by Saudi Arabia wanting to reset warm relations with the U.S. Administration.

Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, according to the WH official, will focus on trying to reach an understanding with Arab leaders on joint “long-term” goals to achieve peace and stability in the Middle East.

In Israel, Trump will “reinforce the strong alliance that we have with the Israeli people, and then we are going to talk a little bit about the peace process with the Palestinians and how we plan to go forward.”

The official did not provide any specific details and refused to say whether or not Trump will work to arrange a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas while on the trip. “We are hoping to achieve peace between now and then,” the official said. “We will approach it with a lot of humility. The President is very involved in [discussing] a lot of ideas.”

In a statement, Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Trump will discuss with President Reuven Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu “a range of regional issues, including the need to counter the threats posed by Iran and its proxies, and by ISIS and other terrorist groups” and “discuss ways to advance a genuine and lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.”

Trump will also meet with Abbas “to discuss ways to advance peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, as well as efforts to unlock the potential of the Palestinian economy,” Spicer said.

President Donald Trump welcomes Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House on May 3. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

House members divided about Trump’s optimism on Middle East peace


Similar to almost every appearance by President Donald Trump, his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday afternoon was met with great anticipation and a sense of unpredictability. “I will do whatever is necessary to facilitate the agreement… And we will get this done,” asserted Trump.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

Representative Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.) was not convinced that the real estate mogul turned Commander in Chief will bring a resolution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Arizona lawmaker told Jewish Insider, “This is not a real estate deal you are putting together. An effort without content and just blowing smoke is a huge mistake given his reversal of positions on foreign affairs, it begs the question whether he can handle it or not.”

On the other hand, Republican House Members expressed appreciation for the President’s commitment and handling of the issue. “Like everyone else, I want to see peace there. I think the President deserves a chance,” noted James Comer (R-KY). “He’s our leader and does things a different way and maybe that’s what we need in foreign policy. As a leader of the strongest nation of the world, he is an appropriate negotiator.”

While Abbas called for an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital during his White House remarks, Trump declined to endorse the two state solution, just as he refrained from doing so when meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in February. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MS) explained, “That has been our policy across Democratic and Republican administrations. It has served us well. Saying the opposite could stir up the hornet’s nest. I would hope that as usual — the President just forgot.”

Putting aside the question of a two state solution, Robert Aderholt (R-AL) believes the President offers a unique perspective. The Alabama lawmaker told Jewish Insider, “I know this is an issue that is very near and dear to his heart because Israel is one of those issues he talked quite a bit about during the campaign.” Hosting both Netanyahu and Abbas during the first few months of his presidency “sends a strong message that he is interested in moving forward and try to get a peace agreement,” Aderholt added.

While repeatedly pushing for a “deal,” Trump did not mention any of the thorny final status agreements that have long divided the parties including East Jerusalem, refugees, or borders. The Republican leader did find the time to praise Abbas. “That seems to be consistent with his (Trump) foreign relations strategy to get people to like him. That might work with a few Members of Congress, not many of them. That’s not going to work (here),” emphasized Cleaver.

When asked if he agreed with Trump’s proposal for the “ultimate deal,” Aderholt responded, “It’s important to what the deal says. Did he elaborate on what was in the deal? That really is the $64,000 question.” The US President did not offer any details on Wednesday. Noting the ongoing violence that has resulted from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Cleaver warned, “Moses would have great difficulty getting a deal as would Abraham so this is not a business deal. This is the Middle East and it involves people who have been at war for almost a millennium.”

Vice President Mike Pence in Washington, D.C., on May 1. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Pence at Israel Independence Day event: Jerusalem embassy under ‘serious’ consideration


Vice President Mike Pence celebrated Israel’s independence and touted the Administration’s unapologetic support for the Jewish State at a White House reception to mark Israel’s 69th Independence Day on Tuesday.

Pence told the crowd that in a phone call a short while ago, he wished Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “Happy Independence Day.”

“Under President Trump, if the world knows nothing else, the world will know this – America stands with Israel,” Pence said to applause. “President Trump is a lifelong friend and a supporter of the State of Israel. President Donald Trump stands without apology for Israel, and he always will.”

Addressing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process amid growing “momentum” and the understanding that Israel will be required to undertake compromises, the Vice President assured the Jewish leaders, “President Donald Trump will never compromise the safety and security of the Jewish State of Israel, not now – not ever. Today, America’s support for Israel’s security is at record levels.”

Pence added that – “as we speak” – the President is “giving serious consideration to moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.”

The event took place in the Indian Treaty Room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, Senators Orrin Hatch and Ted Cruz, Rep. Lee Zeldin as well as Democratic House Members Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Ted Deutch and Brad Schneider attended the event, among others.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman delivered opening remarks and served as emcee. According to Friedman, this marks the first time the White House hosted an event on Israel’s Independence Day. He thanked President Trump and Vice President Pence for “initiating what we hope will be a joyous annual event for many years to come.”

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman

 

President Donald Trump will host Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House tomorrow. “The President’s ultimate goal is to establish peace in the region,” WH Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters on Monday. “That’s obviously the goal and the discussion that he’s going to have with the head of the Palestinian Authority. But that’s going to be a relationship that he continues to work on and build with the ultimate goal that there’s peace in that region between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

Sebastian Gorka. Screenshot from YouTube

5 reasons why Sebastian Gorka may be on his way out of the White House


Sebastian Gorka, who advises President Donald Trump on counterterrorism, reportedly is leaving the White House for a role elsewhere in the administration.

Gorka has been an object of Jewish attention since he was photographed at an inaugural ball sporting a medal of the Vitez Rend, a movement founded by the anti-Semitic pre- and World War II-era Hungarian leader, Miklos Horthy. Gorka has said he wore the regalia as a tribute to his late father, who battled the communists as an adult after the war. The Jewish Daily Forward has reported that he retains deeper ties to a reconstituted version of the movement.

So why after barely three months in government is Gorka leaving a plum job on the National Security Council? We won’t know for a while, if ever. His defenders told the Washington Examiner that the position was temporary in any case, and in his new role he will be better positioned to engage in the “war of ideas.”

There are plenty of theories out there. Let’s assess:

It’s anti-Semitism.

Horthy was an anti-Semite and, for a time at least, a Nazi collaborator. The State Department lists his Vitez Rend as having been under Nazi direction. The most explicit calls for Gorka’s dismissal — or at least for an investigation into his ties to the far right — have come from influential Jewish lawmakers and groups.

But Gorka denies membership in any current manifestation of Vitez. (The Forward quotes leaders of one of two namesakes as saying he is a member, but there is no smoking gun evidence.)

Gorka says he wore the medal as a tribute to his father, who was awarded the honor in 1979 for his struggles against the Hungarian communist regime. The order by then had come to be identified with resistance to communists.

No one has uncovered any anti-Semitic writings or pronouncements by Gorka. In fact, he reportedly co-founded a Hungarian political party in 2006 in part out of disgust with the anti-Semitism of other parties on the right.

It’s a smear.

Gorka’s defenders, particularly at Breitbart News, where like some other Trump administration officials he was employed, say leftists out to get Trump are seeking blood. These defenders note the lack of hard evidence (outlined above) that Gorka has a formal relationship with Vitez, and of any evidence that he is an anti-Semite. (They also quote Gorka’s late father as saying in a book that his family protected Hungarian Jews during the Nazi occupation, although they have not produced corroborative evidence.)

But the Vitez’s Nazi associations may not have been preeminent for Gorka, or his father, or the fellow resisters to communism who gave him the award. The Nazi taint remains, though, for Jews with even a passing acquaintance with Horthy and the Vitez.

Political involvement is bruising, and insensitivity to appearances costs, career wise. Were a Southern politician to sport a Confederate tribute to honor an ancestor, however dedicated the politician was in the present day to racial healing and reconciliation, he would face political repercussions, at least until he delivered a public apology.

George Allen, a Virginia senator once touted as a presidential hopeful, saw his career go down in flames in 2006 after he used a racial slur, “macaca,” that he may not have realized was a racial slur. His failure to apologize in real time, combined with his subsequent denial that his mother was Jewish, cost him – and he now acknowledges mishandling the scandal.

Perhaps Gorka did not realize that wearing a Vitez medal would bring up painful associations for Jews and other victims of the Nazis, no matter how the group reconstituted itself. He may not be an anti-Semite, but he’s not exactly warm and fuzzy when it comes to Jewish sensibilities: He dismissed as “asinine” criticism of a Trump statement on the Holocaust that omitted reference to Jews, even though attempts to suppress the particularity of Jewish suffering during World War II is now at the center of nationalist politics in Hungary and elsewhere in Europe. That exacts a price.

In 2008, Daniel Kurtzer, an Orthodox Jew who had served as ambassador to Israel, campaigned for Barack Obama hoping for a position in the administration. That summer he made what may have seemed to him a routine trip to an academic conference in Syria. The McCain campaign seized on the trip to embarrass Obama, and Kurtzer spent the next eight years in academe. Notably, some of the same conservatives who targeted Kurtzer are now defending Gorka and still hope to wound Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., the Democratic National Committee’s deputy chairman, for associations he has long since repudiated.

It’s the security clearance.

Gorka reportedly still doesn’t have one, which means he has to sit out meetings requiring a clearance – and attending those meetings pretty much defines being employed by the National Security Council.

But — there’s not much of a but here. Lacking a security clearance is the likeliest reason Gorka is leaving the NSC. Trump, however, reportedly enjoys Gorka’s combative TV personality and has given a pass to other staffers who do well on camera but otherwise seem to be flailing. (See Sean Spicer, spokesman.)

Why the security clearance no-go? It’s the fabrications or the gun.

BuzzFeed last week outlined how Hungary’s security agencies denied Gorka clearance in 2002, supposedly because Gorka had exaggerated the importance of his prior experience in the British military.

Gorka also was arrested last year for bringing a handgun through airport security. A judge this year dismissed the charges, and Gorka said the incident was a mistake.

But the reason for the reported denial of a security clearance may be straightforward and have little to do with Gorka’s colorful biography. U.S. security clearances are notoriously hard to secure for folks with deep ties in foreign lands, however innocent those ties may be and however closely allied the foreign countries are to the United States. Gorka was born in Britain, served in its military and was a player in Hungarian politics. Those alignments would likely raise flags for the U.S. national security establishment.

It’s the questionable doctorate.

Gorka’s doctorate in political science from Corvinus, a little-known university in Budapest, has been lambasted both for a dissertation on terrorism that experts in the field have said is vague to the point of parody, and for a report that three of its referees lacked doctorates themselves — and one was a friend of Gorka’s. He claims expertise in Islam, but there is no indication that he speaks Arabic, the language of the Quran, or has lived in Muslim majority lands.

It’s the sweeping generalizations.

Gorka acknowledges peaceful and moderate iterations of Islam, but he also argues that Islam’s holy texts may be used to justify barbarous violence in a way that Christian texts cannot.

But Gorka works for Steve Bannon, who has said “Islam is not a religion of peace,” and Trump, who has said “I think Islam hates us.” Gorka’s is the comparatively nuanced view.

Dr. Vivek Murthy. Photo from Wikipedia

And on his 92d day, he fired the surgeon general


At least I got to thank him for his service while he was still serving.

If you saw the “Diabetic Lesbians and a Blushing Bride” episode of last season’s CBS sitcom “Mom,” an improbably funny series about the struggles of a mother (Allison Janney) and daughter (Anna Farris) in recovery from alcohol and drug abuse, the last five minutes held a shocker for you: a teenager played by recurring guest star Emily Osment dies of a drug overdose.

But then you were in for another surprise: U.S. surgeon general Vivek Murthy in dress blues, flanked by Janney and Farris, warning that drug overdoses kill more Americans than car crashes.  The families behind these numbers, he tells us, need our compassion. The 30-second PSA ends with a 24/7 Helpline number to call “if you or someone you know needs help.” After it ran, calls to 1-800-662-HELP tripled.

Last week, 48 hours before Donald Trump fired him, Dr. Murthy came to Los Angeles to talk to a roomful of TV show runners, producers and writers. Communicating public health messages is central to the surgeon general’s job, and Murthy understands how powerfully entertainment can influence audiences. When we identify with fictional characters, when we’re transported by their narratives, our knowledge, our beliefs, even our behavior can be shaped by made-up stories.

Murthy’s message to the creative community: Opioid addiction is an epidemic. Everyone knows someone struggling with it. But it’s a chronic illness, a disease of the brain, not a moral failure. He asked Hollywood’s help in depicting it that way, and that when they do, to please depict hope, not just pain; recovery, not just despair.

If the surgeon general knew that two years into his four-year term as a nonpolitical appointee, the president was going to ask for his resignation, or that when that happened, Murthy would refuse, forcing the president to fire him, I saw no sign of it that night.

I was his host. As director of the Norman Lear Center, named for the TV pioneer and philanthropist whose shows have wrestled with cancer, sexual assault, racism, homophobia and so many other realities of American life, I’m especially proud of our Hollywood, Health & Society program run by my colleague Kate Folb. For 16 years, HH&S has provided free expert advice to hundreds of shows on issues of public health, safety and security. We connect writers with top medical and scientific specialists to answer their questions; we bring experts to writers’ rooms to brief them on topics ranging from HIV to climate change to the risk of nuclear war; we invite speakers to tell their personal stories, and to inspire writers with their passion to repair the world.

Murthy told the TV writers that when President Obama nominated him in 2013, a nurse at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital where he worked said to him, “If you can do one thing, please do something about the addiction crisis.” He recounted some of the stories people told him as he traveled the country trying to do what she asked, like the man addicted to opioids who told Murthy that when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer, he actually welcomed the news: He figured that after his surgery, he’d be given painkillers.

Surgeon general Vivek Murthy, right, and Marty Kaplan. Photo courtesy Norman Lear Center

Surgeon general Vivek Murthy, right, and Marty Kaplan. Photo courtesy Norman Lear Center

Cortney Lovell, a 28-year old mom-next-door from upstate New York, told the writers her story as well. She recalled the winter night in her car nine years ago when she deliberately shot an overdose of heroin and cocaine into her veins. She thought death was a better option than the hell of her life. Lovell doesn’t know why she didn’t die that night, but today she’s in long-term recovery from addiction, and she’s helping others prevent and escape from what happened to her.  The writers also heard Gemma Baker, writer/producer and co-creator of “Mom,” and Zoanne Clack, executive producer of “Grey’s Anatomy,” explore the craft of informing audiences while also entertaining them.

And none of us, except perhaps Murthy, had a clue he’d be out the door two days later.

The Senate held up Murthy’s confirmation for more than a year because Republicans held his support of the Affordable Care Act against him, and because the NRA opposed him for calling gun violence a public health issue. Once in office, when he warned that the nicotine in e-cigarettes was harmful to kids’ developing brains, Big Tobacco and right wing groups like Americans for Tax Reform called for Murthy’s ouster. Last week, when he listed the causes of opioid addiction at our event, he included the prescription drug industry’s aggressive pain pill marketing, which made me think he must be on Big Pharma’s hit list, too. With that many strikes against him – to me, badges of honor – it’s amazing he lasted until the Administration’s 92d day.

The farewell message that Murthy, 39, the grandson of a poor farmer from India, posted on his Facebook page is extremely gracious, especially given the circumstances.  I’m not sure I’d be able to pull off being that lovely. But I’m reasonably sure that the nice folks who pulled the trap door under Vivek Murthy are indifferent to the oath known to anyone who’s seen a medical show on TV: First, do no harm.


MARTY KAPLAN is the Norman Lear professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on March 27. Photo by Yves Herman/Reuters

White House denies report it postponed Abbas visit


A White House official denied a Palestinian media report that the Trump administration postponed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ upcoming visit to Washington.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

The claim, reported Thursday by the Ramallah-based publication Raya Al-Alamiya, cited unnamed Arab diplomatic sources and offered no explanation for the alleged delay.

A White House official, who requested anonymity, told Jewish Insider that the report was “not true.”

In March, Trump phoned Abbas where he informed the Palestinian leader his “personal belief that peace is possible and that the time has come to make a deal,” according to an official White House statement. During the call, Trump also invited Abbas to an official White House visit “in the near future.” The meeting was reportedly expected to take place in mid-April.

The President left the White House on Thursday to his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida for Easter weekend.

King Abdullah of Jordan. Photo via WikiCommons.

A Mideast bonfire of the hypocrites


The day after more than 80 of his Arab brethren perished in a horrific gas attack in Syria, King Abdullah II of Jordan stood at a White House press conference and repeated the biggest lie of the past half-century: “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict … is essentially the core conflict in our region.”

For decades, this great lie has been a lifeblood for Arab leaders looking to change the subject from the vicious conflicts of the region and the oppression of their own people. Their countries may be in total meltdown, but if they pivot to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they know the international community and the media will lap it up.

Arab dictators are simply getting a good return on their investment in Jew-hatred. Thanks to their brilliant job of promulgating this hatred for so long throughout their societies, whenever things start to heat up, they can just serve up the perfect scapegoat: “It’s all about the conflict with the Jewish state!”

That is how we ended up with the sorry spectacle of an Arab king telling the world with a straight face that the conflict with the Jews is the key problem in the region.

Never mind that when Foreign Policy (FP) magazine announced its “Ten Conflicts to Watch in 2017,” the top three came from King Abdullah’s very own region, and, needless to say, none of the 10 mentioned Israel or the Palestinians.

The first was Syria and Iraq, where after nearly six years of fighting, an estimated 500,000 people have been killed and some 12 million uprooted.

The second was Turkey, which, as FP reports, “is facing worsening spillover from the wars in Syria and Iraq and a spiraling conflict with the PKK. Politically polarized, under economic strain, and with weak alliances, Turkey is poised for greater upheaval.”

The third was Yemen, where the war has created “another humanitarian catastrophe, wrecking a country that was already the poorest in the Arab world. With millions of people now on the brink of famine, the need for a comprehensive cease-fire and political settlement is ever more urgent.”

You can go down the list and find conflicts throughout the region that make the Israeli-Palestinian conflict look like a therapy session. From rampant Islamic extremism and political turnover to economic stagnation and age-old sectarian hatreds, the region is bursting with volcanoes that have absolutely nothing to do with Israel or the Palestinians.

I’m sure you remember the famous Arab Spring protests of 2011, when tens of millions of Arabs exploded onto Mideast streets because they couldn’t take it anymore. The funny thing is, none of the protestors was screaming about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Instead, they were screaming for basic stuff like human rights, civil rights, freedom, economic opportunities and so on.

In other words, they wanted what their Arab brothers and sisters already have in Israel, where Arab judges have made it all the way to the Israeli Supreme Court. How’s that for dark irony?

That might explain why Arab leaders are so intent on making Israel the biggest problem of the region. They know the truth is the exact opposite — that Israel is not the problem but the solution to the Middle East.

As much as it pains them to admit it, they know their countries would be a lot better off if they were more like Israel. They see how constant innovation in Israel keeps improving the quality of life; how Israel’s open society has created a vibrant and progressive culture; how Israeli Arabs have more freedoms and economic opportunities in the Jewish state than in any country of the region.

If you’re an Arab leader raised on Jew-hatred, how humiliating must that be?

But there’s something else these hypocrites know well — they know the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won’t be solved anytime soon, certainly not with the region in violent turmoil and the prospect that the West Bank would turn into another terror state if Israel left. This is great news for leaders petrified of losing their power. It means their trusted Jewish scapegoat is alive and kicking.

These insecure dictators, who couldn’t care less about the welfare of the Palestinians or of their own people, know that as long as a solution to their favorite conflict remains far, far away, they can keep milking the Big Lie and live to see another day.


David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

Photo courtesy of Four Season Resort and Residences Whistler

Where in the world are Jared and Ivanka for Passover? Canada


In a misdirection of sorts, Ivanka Trump posted the following photo on Monday of her family at the White House:

This post led to much of the media including The Jerusalem Post to conclude, “This year, Ivanka and Jared celebrated Passover at America’s first home, the White House, continuing a tradition first started in 2009 by former US president Barack Obama.”

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

However, Jewish Insider has learned exclusively that the president’s daughter and son-in-law spent the first days of the Passover holiday at the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler, a resort town in British Columbia, Canada.

A Jewish Insider reader shared a photo with us of Ivanka in ski gear filling up a plate of food while chatting on her cell phone a few hours before Monday night’s Seder.

 Ivanka in ski gear at the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler, British Columbia. Photo from Jewish Insider

Ivanka in ski gear at the Four Seasons Resort in Whistler, British Columbia. Photo from Jewish Insider

In past years, Ivanka has joined Jared’s family at the Biltmore in Arizona, at a program near the Mayan Ruins in Mexico, and last year at Ivanka’s own Trump National Doral in Miami.

In fact, Jared first met Avi Berkowitz, now his deputy at the White House, on the basketball courts at the Biltmore Passover program.

Among the featured speakers at the Whistler Passover program this year is Ami Horowitz. Horowitz is a frequent Fox News contributor and is credited with sparking President Trump’s controversial remarks in February that Sweden “took in large numbers” of refugees and was “having problems like they never thought possible.” He told those at the rally to “look at what happened last night in Sweden,” leading to a strong reaction from Swedish officials who said no terrorist attack had taken place there the previous day or in recent months. After the backlash, Trump clarified via Twitter that he first heard about the stories in Sweden from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News segment with Horowitz.

No word yet on whether Ivanka’s friend, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit the First Family in Whistler.

From Republican governor to Democratic congressman: Charlie Crist’s journey


When the 2008 economic downturn struck America, Florida was hit especially hard. Charlie Crist — who was then serving as the state’s Governor — received a call from President Barack Obama inviting him to a Fort Myers rally backing the White House’s plan to inject $12 billion in recovery assistance to the Sunshine state. Crist’s staff hesitated. As a Republican, Crist publicly accepting an invitation from Obama could wreak a devastating political blow. But, the Florida Governor agreed and introduced the President since Crist felt the state desperately required economic support and he believed in the importance of honoring the office of the Presidency.

[This profile originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

After his speech, Obama approached Crist and hugged the Florida governor. The moment was caught on camera. The Florida lawmaker told Jewish Insider, “That was the hug that killed me as a Republican. Because some in my party still couldn’t quite get their head around the fact that we had this new first African American President.”

After deciding to run for a U.S. Senate seat in 2010, Crist was collapsing in the polls. Given his ongoing discomfort with what he perceived as a rightward shift among the Republican Party, Crist reached out to Senator Joe Lieberman (I-CT) for advice. The two became friendly in the 2008 Presidential race; Crist asked the 2000 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate if he should make the switch to Independent and Lieberman responded, “Charlie, if you do it, you’ll feel so liberated.” That same week, the Florida governor left his longtime party and registered as an independent. While he ended up losing the Senate race to Marco Rubio (R-FL), Crist emphasized, “It worked out the way it’s supposed to. Beshert.”

Despite switching parties, Crist has maintained strong support for Israel. He was the first governor to sign a bill that divested Florida’s retirement funds away from Iran collaborating with then-State Senator Ted Deutch (D-FL). He selected the Jewish state as his first trade mission with former Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) joining the trip. “We went to Tel Aviv, which reminded me of Florida because you are right on the coast,” Crist noted. “I love Israel. The food is amazing.”

An avid swimmer, the Congressman heads to the pool every day before work. The former governor’s first call each morning is to his father who Crist describes as “his best friend” and role model. Crist has a unique heritage as his grandmother was born in Lebanon before leaving the Middle East while his grandfather arrived in America when he was only 14 from Cyprus. “I’m 60 and I can’t think about going on a boat by myself around the world. But, he did it,” Crist noted. The Florida lawmaker does not allow Washington’s partisan clashes to constrain him. On the Congressman’s office wall, hangs pictures of both Obama and former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, who coincidentally served in the exact same office when in the legislative branch.

After completing his term as governor, Crist surprised many when he expressed interest in running for the House of Representatives. “People would say to me – friends – ‘my gosh, you were governor of Florida now the third largest state in the country, why would you want to be 1 of 435?’” Crist said. The Florida lawmaker stressed his passion for public service that has kept him involved in politics and his love for engaging with constituents. “I believe in the same things I always have: not wasting money, a strong defense, a great education, and protecting the environment,” he noted. “My former party changed – just like what I think happened to Ronald Reagan.”

Jewish Insider: Why did you run for Congress?

Representative Charlie Crist: “Well, I have run for Congress before, I ran for the Senate twice and lost. Then you learn a lot. You learn more from losses than you do from victories. It’s good to have both. Basically, it’s because I love to serve, literally. It’s like a calling; it may sound a little weird, but it’s true. It started when I was a junior in high school. My first exposure to politics was through my father. My dad was a family doctor in my hometown of St. Petersburg, Florida. I had the privilege to represent St. Petersburg and Clearwater because of the Florida Supreme Court, they redrew the district lines. I was recruited by the DCCC to run and then a friend Kathy Castor, who is a member here. We had a conversation, and she encouraged me to run because I had no intention of running to be honest. I had recently been defeated for the governorship by Governor Scott by about one point. I thought maybe it was done and then out of nowhere I was reading the paper in July following that November defeat and it said that the districts had been redrawn and it included where I lived.”

“What’s funny is people would say to me – friends – ‘my gosh, you were governor of Florida now the third largest state in the country, why would you want to be 1 of 435? I said it’s because I love to serve. I want to help. It’s what I do. And by the grace of God, we won. I’m very humbled and happy. My father ran for the school board when I was nine and I remember it was a Saturday morning and a fish fry because he really hadn’t campaigned much so the local Republican Party chairman told my Dad, you need to go out and campaign if you want to win. My dad came up to me, he called me arlie because my older sister – God rest her soul – couldn’t pronounce the “Ch” in Charlie so arlie kind of stuck when I was a kid. He goes: Arlie, you want to come to this fish fry with me? I said, yeah. Let’s go see what’s going on. He and I went. There were all these picnic tables around the lake. He gave me a stack of his cards and said Why don’t you go table to table and introduce yourself? We have the same name. I’m junior. And ask them to vote for Pop and I did. And I loved it. I just love talking to people and here where are they from and what they care about.”

JI: When changing political parties, have your views also shifted?

Crist: “Not for me. I haven’t changed at all. I believe in the same things I always have. I believe in being decent to other people, not wasting money, a strong defense, law and order, a great education, protecting the environment: the same things that I always have. I am what I am. My former party changed – just like what I think happened to Ronald Reagan. He was a Democrat and became a Republican. His former party, I assume, changed.”

JI: Why did you change parties?

Crist: “I saw it beginning when I was governor (picture of Obama on his wall, Cheney). It was January 2009 and I met with my economic advisor, Jeremy McDaniel. I said, Jeremy, what’s going on with the economy? And he said terrible. Virtually, money is not coming in. I said, what’s the plan Jeremy? He said the plan is that the President Obama wants to give you $12 billion. I said, I like that plan. We need it badly. He (Obama) said he needs to get it through Congress. I guess a few weeks later, early February, my office in Tallahassee got a call from the White House. The purpose of the call was to let us know that he was going to come to Fort Myers soon and was inviting me to be there with him, if I wanted to be. I said sure. And my staff said, are you sure? I said, yeah. They said, you know he’s a Democrat. I said he’s the President of the United States of America and I am in honor of the office and him, particularly because what he is trying to do for our Florida and our country with the Recovery Act so I went. The President motions to me and says, please have a seat. So, I sit next to him in the back of the big car. And he said, before you go in, I wanted to say something to you. He said: first, thank you. I want to thank you for coming. You are going to pay a political price just for being here today. Since you are here, would you mind introducing me? And I said, that would be an honor too. So, we went up there and I go to the podium and it was loud. I said, please give a welcome to our President? It’s great to have him here. He is here to talk about something that can be very good for Florida and America: The Recovery Act. I said we need to do it in a bipartisan way because it is right for all of America. So, please give a warm welcome to President Barack Obama. Then he comes to the podium and I wait to greet him. When he gets there, he shakes my hand. And then he did it. He pulled me in and hugged me. And somebody took a picture of it. And that was the hug that killed me as a Republican. Because some in my party still couldn’t quite get their head around the fact that we had this new first African American President. I will just call a thing a thing. And that’s sad. Now, not all Republicans, mind you. But there was an element that didn’t like it at all. I heard about it. “

JI: So, you think that race played a significant factor in those opposing President Obama?

Crist: “I would rather characterize it as unfairness. Unfairness and arrogance are the two things that get under my skin. It’s why as Attorney General I fought for civil rights. It’s why as Education Commissioner I fought for higher pay for teachers. It’s why as state senator I wanted to protect the environment and sponsor the net ban to save our fisheries. I was at a rally when I ran for the Senate a second time, 2010. I go up and give my speech and it was politely received until the very end of my speech, there were 500 people there – I’m guessing – towards the back this white guy stands up and he goes, “Go hug Obama again!” I just kind of looked at him and I’m like, “I’m detecting something here that isn’t Kosher. It’s not right.” I continued to see it in little incidents like that. More frequently after a while. It broke my heart. I was seeing elements in my former party that didn’t reflect that to the point that finally I couldn’t tolerate it personally anymore so I became an independent, after talking to Joe Lieberman. I love him to death. He’s been very nice to me. I came close to being picked to run for Vice President with his friend John McCain and I got to know him during this time of my life. I felt comfortable reaching out to Senator Lieberman. I asked him, you’ve been where I think I’m about to go. And I just wanted to seek your advice. So I said, how was it going independent? He said, “Charlie, if you do it, you’ll feel so liberated. I’m paraphrasing, he said if you’re even thinking about it, then you should do it. So, I did. That week. It was April 2010. I was horribly collapsing in the poll anyways so it was kind of convenient being honest. But, it was consistent with my soul and my heart. Partially (it was politically) of course. But, primarily my heart couldn’t take it anymore. Of course, I lost. It worked out the way it’s supposed to. Beshert. Is that the right word?”

JI: Do you believe support for Israel is declining in the Democratic Party?

Crist: “I don’t think it’s dis-unifying. There are always differences of opinion. That’s fine and healthy. I love Israel. I committed in the race for governor, the one I won, that if I won that my first trade mission would be to go to Israel. And so I did that in May, 2007 with Robert Wexler. We went to Tel Aviv, which reminded me of Florida because you are right on the coast. The food is amazing. The people are amazing. Afterwards, we went to Jerusalem. There is no place like it. I love to go there. I think Democrats, and many Republicans, are so strongly aligned and care about the State of Israel. As Floridians, we do particularly. We have an enormous Jewish population in my state and I’m very proud of that. When I became governor, with Ted Deutch, he was Senator Deutch, in the Florida State Senate, a wonderful man, we had a divestment bill that would not have our retirement funds invest anything that would somehow favor Iran. I was the first governor who did that. The State of Florida and the State of Israel have a unique bond. Probably the most moving thing I did on the trade mission to Jerusalem was visit Yad Vashem. I love Judaism, anything that I can do to strengthen, protect and help. It’s a democracy surrounded by a lot of people who may not be all that friendly to Israel.”

JI: In addition to your political views, is there an element to your personality or schedule that many in Washington or your constituents may not know?

Crist: “I swim every morning. Everybody knows that my hair is white. My father’s parents name was Cristodoles. He immigrated from Cyprus. My father’s mother Mary Khoury immigrated from Lebanon from a village north of Beirut around 1912. They met in Pennsylvania. When my grandfather came in, he was only 14. 14. I’m 60 and I can’t think about going on a boat by myself around the world. But, he did it.”

JI: Who is your role model?

Crist: “First and foremost, my father. My best friend. My first call every morning. I love him with all of my heart.”

President Barack Obama celebrates Passover at the White House. Photo by Pete Souza/The White House

Trump administration to host White House seder


The Trump administration is planning to continue the tradition set by President Obama of hosting a Seder at the White House Monday night, White House sources told Jewish Insider.

“Many of our Jewish staff are actually going to be able to spend the holiday with their families. Our tradition is still taking shape but this year it will be an opportunity for observant WH staff that can’t be with their families to celebrate the holiday among friends,” a White House spokesperson confirmed on Monday, following our exclusive report on Friday.

[This story originally appeared on jewishinsider.com]

“We’ll also be opening it up for other interested WH staff (Jewish and non-Jewish alike) to take part in a Seder on campus,” the official added.

As of Monday morning, it seems the President will not be attending.

President Barack Obama was the first sitting president to host a Seder in the White House.

Eric Lesser, who was one of the originators of the Obama White House Seder back in the 2008 campaign, and is now a Massachusetts State Senator, told Jewish Insider that he is not sure if the former president will be attending a Seder this year. “I’ll be in Maryland with my in laws for both nights,” Lesser said.

The first and only White House Seder before the Obama era was held in the Indian Treaty Room for 50 WH staffers under President Bill Clinton. It was organized and led by Steve Rabinowitz, now President at Bluelight Strategies.

Stephen Bannon, left, with Jared Kushner, in the East Room of the White House on Jan. 22. Photo by Andrew Harrer/Pool/Getty Images

Stephen Bannon reportedly calls Jared Kushner a ‘cuck’ and a ‘globalist’


A report on emerging tensions between Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, and Stephen Bannon, his top strategist, said Bannon called Kushner a “cuck” and “globalist,” terms familiar to “alt-right” conspiracy theorists.

A Daily Beast report on Thursday detailed Bannon’s alleged use of the pejoratives. “Cuck,” a play on “cuckold,” is the alt-right term for conservatives who allowed themselves to be played by liberals and the establishment.

“Globalist” refers to theories of a conspiracy of elites to maintain control of the global economy. Its use has overlapped with anti-Semitic theories of Jewish financial control, but it is not a term used exclusively by anti-Semites. Kushner is Jewish.

Before joining the Trump campaign last summer, Bannon helmed Breitbart News, a site that he said was a platform for the alt-right, a loose assemblage of anti-establishment conservatives that includes anti-Semites, as well as some Jews and some fierce defenders of Israel.

News of the tensions between Bannon and Kushner, who reportedly were close during the campaign, follow Trump’s order this week removing Bannon from the National Security Council.

Kushner, according to the reports, believes Bannon went too far in pushing for travelers’ bans and in playing hardball with Congress in an attempt to replace the Affordable Care Act. Both initiatives failed.

Bannon, according to the reports, in turn resents Kushner for bringing into the White House figures associated with Democrats, including Gary Cohn, the former Goldman Sachs banker who is Trump’s chief economic adviser, and Zeke Emanuel, a physician who consulted with the Obama administration on the Affordable Care Act and is the brother of Rahm Emanuel, President Barack Obama’s first chief of staff. Kushner reportedly has hosted three meetings with Zeke Emanuel. Cohn and Emanuel are Jewish.

White House aide Ezra Cohen-Watnick reportedly leaked sensitive information to House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), above. Cohen-Watnick's wife worked on behalf of Russia. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

Wife of key Trump aide worked to make Putin’s Russia look good in the West 


In the rush to connect the dots between the Trump Administration and Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Jewish wedding provided the latest purported link.

Specifically, it’s the Jewish wedding of Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the White House aide whom the New York Times identified as having leaked sensitive intelligence to a high-ranking Republican congressman in March. New information suggests Cohen-Watnick’s wife worked on behalf of the Russian government as a Washington D.C-based public relations specialist before they married.

In November, the 30-year-old Trump aide celebrated his upcoming wedding with Rebecca Miller, a content executive at the multinational public-relations firm Ketchum, which was retained until 2015 by the Russian government. While at Ketchum, Miller reportedly worked to “make Russia look better.”

The information comes from an oral history interview of Miller’s mother, Vicki Fraser, by the State Historical Society of Missouri in August 2014 (Fraser was born in St. Louis).

“Her big challenges right now are Ketchum is responsible for providing PR and marketing to try to make Russia look better,” Fraser told the interviewer of her daughter, “which is particularly difficult when they’re invading other countries and when Putin is somewhat out of control.”

The interview was discovered by E. Randol Schoenberg, a Los Angeles-based attorney and genealogy who made a name and fortune by recovering some $300 million worth of paintings pilfered by Nazis in Vienna in a landmark case in 2006.

On his blog, Schoenberg wrote that he and a fellow genealogist managed to uncover family details about Cohen-Watnick that led to the find.

Cohen-Watnick, the National Security Council senior director for intelligence, reportedly provided California Congressman Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, with information suggesting President Donald Trump was swept up in surveillance by American intelligence agencies.

The leak is particularly significant because it led to a breakdown in the intelligence committee’s investigation of ties between Trump associates and Russia. In addition, after the source of the leak was revealed, National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster reportedly sought the aide’s firing, but Trump intervened personally to save Cohen-Watnick’s job.

Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a Conservative synagogue outside Washington D.C., announced Cohen-Watnick and Miller’s aufruf, the Shabbat celebration that precedes an observant wedding, in November.

White House aide Ezra Cohen-Watnick reportedly leaked sensitive information to House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), above. Cohen-Watnick's wife worked on behalf of Russia. Photo by Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

NSC aide Cohen-Watnick said to have leaked intel to back Trump eavesdropping claims


A National Security Council aide is reportedly behind a White House leak that is roiling Congress and the Trump administration.

The New York Times reported Thursday that Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, was one of two White House aides who leaked information to Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, that Nunes and the White House apparently hoped would vindicate President Donald Trump’s claim that his predecessor, Barack Obama, had eavesdropped on him.

Trump made the claim, without citing evidence, on Twitter earlier this month. Intelligence and law enforcement officials, along with Democratic and Republican lawmakers, responded by saying there was no evidence to show that Obama had wiretapped Trump.

Nunes, who until then enjoyed a cooperative relationship on the committee with his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., initially was part of the no-evidence chorus. But after making a sudden visit to the White House last week, Nunes emerged with a claim that he suggested partially vindicated Trump’s assertion. But the evidence – that U.S. persons were caught up in routine intelligence sweeps of foreign officials – did not implicate Obama personally.

According to the Times, Watnick-Cohen started to review highly classified information after Trump posted his tweet in a bid to substantiate it. He and a colleague, Michael Ellis – formerly a staffer on the House Intelligence Committee – then contacted Nunes, who was on Trump’s transition team.

The affair has opened a rift between Schiff, who is Jewish, and Nunes and halted their committee’s review of allegations that Russia interfered in last year’s election. Top Democrats have called on Nunes to recuse himself from the inquiry, which may implicate Trump campaign officials. He has refused.

Earlier this month, Politico reported that Trump overruled a decision by his national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, in order to keep Cohen-Watnick in his position.

McMaster saw Cohen-Watnick as tainted because he had been brought to the NSC by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, who quit after revelations that he had obscured the truth about his conversations with a Russian official. The CIA also perceived Cohen-Watnick as a threat because he shared Flynn’s distrust of the national intelligence community.

Cohen-Watnick appealed to two Trump administration officials with whom he was close, Politico said – Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, and Stephen Bannon, his top strategic adviser. Trump sided with them over McMaster.

Cohen-Watnick celebrated his engagement to Rebecca Miller in November at Ohr Kodesh Congregation, a Conservative synagogue outside Washington, D.C., according to a synagogue newsletter.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer takes questions during his press briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. January 30, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Spicer: Trump was right not to jump to conclusions about JCC bomb threats


White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer said President Donald Trump had been right not to jump to conclusions about anti-Semitic threats following the arrest last week of an Israeli-American teen on suspicion of making over 100 bomb threats against U.S. Jewish sites.

“We saw these threats coming into Jewish community centers, and there was an immediate jump to criticize folks on the right, and to denounce people on the right and ask them to condemn them, and it turns out that in fact it wasn’t someone on the right,” Spicer said Monday at a media briefing. “The president from the get-go had said ‘I bet you it’s not someone [on the right]’ and he was right.”

Spicer added that “people on the left” who had blamed the right for the threats had not been held accountable.

“In that particular case, we saw that the president was right and that this rush to judgment by a lot of folks on the left was wrong, and none of them have been held to account on that,” Spicer said.

Last week, an Israeli-American teen was arrested in southern Israel on suspicion of carrying out bomb threats on Jewish institutions in the United States. The 19-year-old, Michael Kaydar, reportedly used advanced technology and voice-altering equipment to call in the threats to more than 100 JCCs, Jewish day schools and other Jewish institutions in the United States.

Many Jewish groups had blamed white supremacists, emboldened by Trump’s campaign, for the bomb threats that plagued Jewish institutions since the beginning of this year. In February, the president reportedly saidthat the threats against Jewish communal institutions may be a false flag “to make others look bad.”

Also in February, when asked about the bomb threats, Trump shouted down a Jewish reporter who asked him about what he planned to do to address the intensification of incidents.

“Some of that anger is caused by people on the other side,” he then told another reporter at the news conference. “It will be by people on the other side to anger people like you.”

Ivanka Trump (C) has received security clearance. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images (via JTA).

Ivanka Trump scores West Wing office, government security clearances


Ivanka Trump, the Jewish daughter of President Donald Trump, reportedly is working out of a West Wing office and is in the process of receiving a government security clearance.

Ivanka Trump’s office is on the second floor, next to senior adviser Dina Powell, who was promoted recently to a position on the National Security Council, Politico first reported Monday evening. Ivanka Trump also is set to receive government-issued communications devices this week.

Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to the president, moved their family to Washington, D.C., when the president took office.

Though Trump does not have an official title and will not draw a salary, she will follow the ethics rules that apply to government employees, Jamie Gorelick, an attorney and ethics adviser for the first daughter, told The Associated Press.

While Trump continues to own her own lifestyle company, which sells clothing, shoes and jewelry, she has turned daily management to the company president and has set up a trust to provide further oversight. She also has barred the business from using her image in advertising to promote the products.

“I will continue to offer my father my candid advice and counsel, as I have for my entire life,” Trump said in a statement while acknowledging that “there is no modern precedent for an adult child of the president.”

Trump had said during the transition that she would not play a formal role in the administration when she moved to Washington. She also said, however, that she would continue to fight for women’s issues, including maternity leave and child care.

On Friday, she participated in a meeting of the president and German Chancellor Angela Merkel with the CEOs of U.S. and German companies to discuss workplace development, sitting beside Merkel during the discussion.

Jason Greenblatt, left, meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to Jerusalem, March 13, 2017. (Israeli Government Press Office)

State Dept.: Trump adviser Jason Greenblatt is on ‘listening’ tour of Israel, West Bank


Jason Greenblatt, President Donald Trump’s adviser on international relations, is touring Israel and the Palestinian areas to gauge attitudes to peacemaking and there will likely not be any developments from the trip, a Trump administration spokesman said.

“He’s really there to listen to both sides and how they perceive getting to a peace process,” Mark Toner, the State Department spokesman, said Monday in the daily briefing for reporters. “I don’t expect any big developments out of this trip.”

Trump has expressed an eagerness to bring about a peace deal while retreating from 15 years of U.S. policy backing a two-state outcome to the peace process.

On Friday, Trump spoke on the phone with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, and the White House readout of the call sounded bullish on the prospects for peace.

“The President emphasized his personal belief that peace is possible and that the time has come to make a deal,” the readout said. “The President noted that such a deal would not only give Israelis and Palestinians the peace and security they deserve, but that it would reverberate positively throughout the region and the world.”

Trump on the call invited Abbas to the White House. The U.S. leader met last month with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

During that visit, Netanyahu appeared to be taken aback by a request from Trump to stop settlement expansion for now. Settlement building was a key point of tension between Netanyahu and Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, and both Netanyahu and Trump have said relations would be smoother now.

Toner said settlements would be discussed during the trip, but also cautioned against any expecting any pronouncements.

“Settlements will obviously be a topic of discussion, but I wouldn’t predict there would be any resolution of that issue,” he said. “As we said earlier just a few weeks ago, with respect to settlements, we see them as a challenge that needs to be addressed at some point.”

Greenblatt, a longtime lawyer to Trump, solicited followers this week on Twitter to track his trip.

“Honored to be meeting with Israelis and Palestinians this week as I travel to the region,” he said. “Follow me for updates on the trip.”

Greenblatt, who is an Orthodox Jew, tweeted Monday from a stop in Frankfurt, Germany, that he was saying shacharit, the morning prayer, and called on followers to “pray for peace.”

Netanyahu later posted a photo of their meeting, welcoming Greenblatt.

Greenblatt is also due to meet with Abbas in Ramallah.

 

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas attends the 34th session of the Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the U.N. in Geneva, Switzerland. Feb. 27. Photo by Denis Bailbouse/REUTERS.

Trump invites Abbas to the White House


President Donald Trump invited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to the White House.

Abbas and Trump spoke on Friday and a Palestinian Authority spokesman soon after reported the invitation, saying the meeting would be aimed at reviving the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which has been dormant since 2014.

Sean Spicer, the White House spokesman, confirmed the invitation later Friday but did not add details.

Trump met at the White House last month with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a meeting both leaders said would lead to improved ties after eight years of tension between Netanyahu and President Barack Obama.

Netanyahu, however, appeared taken aback at Trump’s request during a press conference that Israel stop settlement building for now. Israelis are also wary of U.S. leaders assuming an oversized role in peace-making, while Palestinians have traditionally welcomed it.

Trump has said he is open to outcomes to the conflict that don’t necessarily end in two separate states. The Palestinian Authority still embraces a two-state outcome, as does Netanyahu. Trump’s retreat from the two-state solution have led some Israeli Cabinet members on Netanyahu’s right to call for annexing portions of the West Bank.

Headstones were toppled at the Waad Hakolel Cemetery, also known as the Stone Road Cemetery, in Rochester, N.Y. Photo courtesy of News 10 NBC WHEC

No Esther in sight


The role of Achashverosh, the vain king who prefers to drink from goblets of gold, who is ready to turn over a nation to a minister who offers ten thousand talents of silver, is too easily filled this year’s Purim. Haman and Bannon practically rhyme. It’s a facile elision I’m not sure I agree with, but it comes naturally. But where is our Esther, and where is our Mordechai? 

I don’t think people are still pinning their hopes on Ivanka and Jared. They couldn’t do anything to stop the erasure of Jews from the White House statement about the Holocaust. And Trump still denounced the Orthodox Jewish reporter who pitched him that softball question so he could denounce anti-Semitism.

It was only after the first Jewish cemetery was vandalized that Trump finally had something to say about the subject. That gave Jews on the right a glimmer of hope that the Haman and Achashverosh shoes wouldn’t fit. Was Ivanka working behind the scenes?

But after more Jewish cemeteries were vandalized, Trump shared another brilliant insight. He thinks it’s possible that anti-Trump people might be knocking down Jewish tombstones in order to make him look bad. Of course, David Duke said it first – not that Trump notices or cares where he gets his ideas from. That’s right up Achashverosh’s alley: everything bad happens to him; his is never the flaw or fault that allows it.

If there’s one thing Trump loves to talk about, it’s not crimes of hate but the crime rate. Despite Trump’s fantabulism, it’s increasing across the U.S. for real in just one way, hate crime. But he won’t talk about the seven African American transgender women who were murdered. Or give an ounce of reflection to how his rhetoric against immigrants might have played a role when an Indian engineer was murdered by a crazy white man who screamed “Get out of my country!” 

But that’s old news. Like Peter denied Jesus (l’havdil – not to morally compare them), Trump and his entourage won’t talk about how the perpetrators could be following the lead of his rhetoric. Every day we keep learning in new ways that Trump does not have the capacity or desire to understand what’s going on, or to take responsibility, the way we would want a president to do in order to lead the nation.

But if Trump doesn’t get it that cemetery vandalizers are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, how could his two closest Jews, Ivanka and Jared, not? It’s inconceivable that neither of them understands what kind of a person you have to be to knock down Jewish tombstones.

Any or all of these three things must be true: Jared and Ivanka are too cowed by Bannon to do anything, or they don’t have the power to change Trump’s course when Bannon is pushing him, or they are willing to let it slide as long as Jared gets what he wants for Israel.

I would guess number three, but whichever it might be, it means neither of them is prepared to be Esther. Not that I wouldn’t like to see Jared in a diadem (on Ivanka it would be redundant), but I don’t think the most beautiful crown will make either one a queen.

The bottom line is that with all that is happening, many right-wing elements in the Jewish community, like Jared, are willing to trade our safety here for the sake of letting Israel do whatever it wants as it trades Palestinian lives and land to build more settlements.

It would be as if Esther were to go to Achashverosh and beg to spare only the lives of a particular Jewish sect in the holy land, while letting Haman carry out his plot against all the other Jews throughout Persia’s empire.

Their bet seems to be that it will work out in the grim end, that Israel and the U.S. don’t need democracy as much as they need more control. They may also be betting that stateside Jews will come out with our privilege intact after everything goes down – that we will get to stay “white,” and not get grouped with Muslims and Latinos. (Never mind that Jews are all races, or that Sephardim may look like Arabs.)

That can only happen if we willingly separate our lives from the lives of Muslims and immigrants and Latinos and Black people and queer people. And maybe some American Jews could have done that, since we have almost forgotten that not too long ago, Jews were not considered white, and that our essential identity was one of refugees. But the world has been conspiring to remind us. 

Trump wants us to believe that we will stay white no matter what happens, as if his opinion will matter, while the cemetery destroyers desperately want us to to know that we never were white. Whoever is wrong, when pushing comes to shoving, I don’t think we will make it through unscathed.

So far, the most extreme extremists in the U.S., the ones who target Muslims and Jews equally, are outside the halls of power – it seems like a litmus test for White House staff is that one must be willing to target Muslims but not say anything against Jews. (And maybe there are too many Hanukkah books, after all.) That makes the Trump administration a natural fit with Jews who accept the idea that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But how long will it be before the wall between being anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim falls as other walls go up? How long before anti-Semitism gets to embody its full meaning: hatred of the descendants of Noah’s son Shem, which includes Ishmaelites and Israelites, Jews and Arabs?

Facing his fear that Esther will fail, Mordecai promises that “help will arise from another place” – and then Esther comes through. Maybe it’s not too late for Ivanka. But for now, we need to be looking for help from that other place. Our best prospect may be the compassion that has been passing back and forth from Muslims to Jews and Jews to Muslims, as we each step in to help when the other is attacked. A Muslim community given the key to a synagogue after its mosque was burned down; Muslims raising funds and giving time to repair Jewish headstones.

Mishloach manot and matanot la’evyonim, sending nourishment to one another, exchanging gifts of encouragement to revive our lives, which are being impoverished by these times. Just like the Jews did for each other at the end of the Scroll of Esther.

Not exactly a silver lining, but if the powers that be can’t generate an Esther, then we have to step into those royal shoes. Let’s step lively.

Donald Trump speaks at a press conference. Photo by Reuters

Searching for truth in an age of lies


Let’s give it up for truth. C’mon, a nice hand. It gave us a lot of good years.

Back in the day, Truth began with a capital T, and it came straight from God. Then science had a long run with it. The Enlightenment. Good times. But modernity was no piece of cake for truth. All that everything-is-relative business was shattering. As for post-modernity, let’s just say that everything-is-politics hasn’t been pretty, either. In a few thousand years, we’ve gone from Truth, to truth, to your truth and my truth, and now to the so-called truth, when everything is entertainment and the capital T goes on Twitter. No wonder truth is taking the buyout.  Let’s wish it all the best.

Last week, old school truth had its last hurrah — three hurrahs, actually: one in the East Room, one at Fox and one on Facebook. Each was prompted by an existential threat to truth, and all were ultimately about attention.

At the White House, the event was President Donald Trump’s 77-minute news conference. It was irresistible theater with the press providing the conflict, the technology feeding the spectacle to our screens and the infotainment industry monetizing our eyeballs.

At 20th Century Fox, the event was the viral marketing campaign for “A Cure for Wellness,” a movie about a fake cure that the studio promoted by faking a fake news controversy, which became a real controversy when real news hammered the campaign as an assault on journalism.

On Facebook, the event was the release of “Building Global Community,” a 5,800-word open letter from Mark Zuckerberg about the responsibility of one of the planet’s largest publishers for distributing and profiting from sensational, delicious, dangerously polarizing and totally fabricated stories.

At his news conference, Trump stated yet again that his 304-vote Electoral College tally was the biggest since Ronald Reagan. The reporters, many of whom had had it up to here with Trump’s factual negligence, were determined to answer his attack on the media by challenging his credibility. That’s what NBC’s Peter Alexander did when he respectfully ripped the president a new one. He reeled off the 365 electoral votes that Barack Obama got in 2008, and the 332 in 2012, and he mentioned the 426 that George H.W. Bush got in 1988.

“Why should Americans trust you when you have accused the information they receive of being fake,” Alexander asked, “when you’re providing information that’s fake?”

I would have loved it if Alexander had triggered a “Perry Mason” turn from Trump: “I admit it! I killed the truth! It had it coming!” If Alexander wasn’t expecting that, perhaps he anticipated that the notoriously thin-skinned president would lash out, which he did — but not until the next day, when he tweeted that the “FAKE NEWS media” — he identified them as The New York Times, NBC News, ABC, CBS and CNN — “is the enemy of the American People!”

What Alexander got from Trump in the East Room was this: “Well, I don’t know. I was given that information. I was given — actually, I’ve seen that information around.”

Throwing his staff under the bus, Trump brushed off his credibility problem by taking his own accountability off the table. You can’t call him a liar for trusting those “best people” he’s surrounded himself with. Worse, with five words, Trump put the journalistic norms of verification and attribution in play. “I’ve seen that information around” amounts to, “It must be true — I saw it on the internet.” It also means, “Believe me.” Forget the assessment of evidence; forget weighing the independence and the track record of sources. For Trump, extreme vetting of information consists of watching Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly, reading Breitbart and Infowars and basking in the buzz in the Mar-a-Lago dining room.

In that world, the old sorting categories are toast. Instead of true and false, there’s true and alt-true; there’s facts and (in Kellyanne Conway’s creepy coinage) alternate facts. Fox News is good news; bad news is fake news. Trump knows the currency of news isn’t accuracy — it’s attention. The more he tweets, the more the echo chamber uncritically amplifies him, and the more unearned gravitas his falsehoods acquire. Virality is the new veracity.

Which takes us to the Fox lot. The studio that marketed “A Cure for Wellness” by manufacturing fake fake news — you read that right — is part of the same corporation responsible for Fox News’ “fair and balanced” fakery. (If this kinship is a coincidence, randomness has a droll sense of humor.) The movie’s social media strategy was to disguise ads for the film as editorial content and post them on fabricated websites with names like the New York Morning Post and the Houston Leader.

This scam was inspired by other scammers like the Macedonian teenagers who created NewYorkTimesPolitics.com and USAPolitics.co to propagate fake stories like “Clinton Indicted” as aggregation bait for alt-right sites, as link bait for the Facebook pages of Hillary haters and as a cash cow courtesy of Google’s AdSense. Talk about meta: The movie’s fake news sites carried fake stories like “Trump Orders CDC to Remove all Vaccination Related Information from Website,” which included real Trump tweets drawing a fake connection between vaccinations and autism.

The New York Times — “enemy of the American People” — ran two big negative stories within two days about the Fox campaign, which was yanked. But the idea that Facebook is a breeding ground for untruths was a motive for Zuckerberg, leapfrogging over Twitter’s dithering on the issue, to address a problem increasingly faced by its users: With universal access to unlimited content, how can you tell what’s true?

Most of us inhabit filter bubbles. Generally, we consume news whose framing and viewpoints we believe to be fair. At the same time, we’re suckers for sensationalism; stories arousing emotions like fear and disgust are great at grabbing our attention. But democracy is strongest and community is most robust when we’re exposed to quality information from a variety of different perspectives. To protect its users, should Facebook more aggressively screen out fake news? If “Pope Endorses Trump” gets banned, why shouldn’t “Trump’s Margin Biggest Since Reagan”?  Even when a story is accurate, showing someone an article whose perspective is opposite their own only makes them dig their heels in deeper. Should Facebook push back against polarization?

Zuckerberg answers these questions not by calling for new codes of conduct, but by promising new software code. In a world of inconceivable diversity, algorithms are more practical than ethics. Let the platform’s news feed show you a range of perspectives, not just the poles, so you can see where you fit on the spectrum. When stories spread, couple them with what fact-checking sites say about them, so text carries a context along with content. Let the analytics discover which stories are most shared without being read, most driven by attention-hijacking headlines; see if the data point to publishers who are gaming the system; and nail them.

None of this affects Facebook’s raid on the struggling news business’ bottom line. But what appeals to me about this approach is its reliance on intelligence more than on morality. Ever since Truth became truths, people have been searching for common values that don’t depend on divine authority. “The best life is not the moral life, but the life based on the use of reason” — that’s Israel Drazin’s gloss on Moses Maimonides.

Give truth a gold watch for its long service to civilization, but don’t leave the adjudicator position vacant. Education, media literacy, critical thinking, breadth of sources, caliber of intelligence, quality of craft — there’s no shortcut to information you can rely on.

Thinking is hard. Truth is complicated. Focus is fragile. No question: Tweets are superb at stealing our attention, but it’s no accident that birdbrain is not a compliment.


Marty Kaplan holds the Norman Lear chair at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com

President Donald Trump, second from right, and wife Melania, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and wife Sara, left, at the South Portico of the White House, Feb. 15, 2017. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Jewish groups express dismay as Trump says he can ‘live with’ one-state solution


Liberal and centrist American Jewish groups expressed dismay following remarks by President Donald Trump that he “can live with” a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Speaking Wednesday at a White House news conference prior to closed-door meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump was asked if he were “backing off” from the two-state solution, a pillar of U.S. policy under at least three former presidents.

“So, I’m looking at two-state and one-state and I like the one that both parties like,” Trump replied, going on to refer to Netanyahu by his nickname. “I’m very happy with the one that both parties like. I can live with either one. I thought for a while the two-state looked like it may be the easier of the two but honestly, if Bibi and if the Palestinians — if Israel and the Palestinians are happy, I’m happy with the one they like the best.”

The Reform movement called Trump’s response “potentially devastating to the prospects for peace and Israel’s Jewish, democratic future.”

“The question is: can Israelis and Palestinians live with it in a way that allows for a Jewish, democratic State of Israel and realization of the legitimate rights and aspirations of the Palestinians,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said in a statement. “Only a two-state solution can achieve the goals of the Israelis and Palestinians.”

The American Jewish Committee, while welcoming the “spirit of cooperation and friendship expressed at the press conference,” also reaffirmed its support for a two-state solution. Its statement quoted from a policy issued by the AJC National Board of Governors in December reasserting that “a two-state solution is the only realistic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as established through direct bilateral negotiations between the parties themselves.”

Trump’s comment came days after a senior White House official said a two-state solution was not a necessary outcome of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. If formalized, it would represent an official retreat from U.S. policy since 2002, when President George W. Bush said Palestinian statehood was a goal of peace talks. A two-state outcome was also the implied policy of Bush’s predecessor, President Bill Clinton.

Israelis and Palestinians have different conceptions of — and fears about — a “one-state” solution. The pro-Palestinian movement has promoted the idea of a single binational state of Jewish and Palestinian citizens, which many Israelis warn would erase the Jewish majority in Israel. The right wing in Israel has spoken of annexing most or all of the West Bank, but without extending citizenship to the Palestinians living there.

“The only alternative to that [two-state] outcome is one bi-national state and increased violence, with tragic consequences similar to the recent war in Syria,” Ami Ayalon, Gilead Sher and Orni Petruschka wrote in an op-ed in USA Today on Tuesday. The authors are principals of the Israeli nonpartisan organization Blue White Future.

Rep. Nita M. Lowey, D-N.Y., the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, also urged the president to reaffirm a policy that “secures two states for two peoples — a democratic, Jewish state of Israel and a democratic, Palestinian state.”

“Today President Trump refused to lend his voice toward this goal. Not only were his remarks shameful, they were short-sighted,” she said in a statement. “A two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians is the only means to ensure Israel’s long-term security and enable Palestinian aspirations for their own state. That is why Presidents from both parties, the vast majorities of the House and Senate, and the American people have consistently supported this objective, and why President Trump must as well.”

In its statement on Wednesday’s meeting, the Republican Jewish Coalition did not mention the president’s remarks on one- or -two-state solutions.

“Today’s meeting between President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu is a welcome sign that a new era has arrived for United States-Israel relations,” the RJC said. “It is in the interests of both our nations’ securities that we recognize the fundamental challenges facing the region, and their root causes. Whether it’s preventing a nuclear Iran, or the responsibilities of the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table in order to reach peace, we will only achieve our mutual goals if we stand united in the process. Thankfully, it’s clear that going forward there will be no daylight between the U.S. and our closest ally in the Middle East.”

World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder welcomed the meeting as “extremely positive” and called it “an encouraging sign that the historic alliance between Israel and the United States is back on strong footing.”

President Trump's Senior Advisor Jared Kushner and Senior Counselor Stephen Bannon talk with senior executives from Ford Motor Company and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles on Jan. 24. Photo by Shawn Thew-Pool/Getty Images

Jared as Trump Whisperer? Why a hoary cliche can’t be good for the Jews


“When the Jews are away, the goys will play.”

Alec Baldwin, playing Donald Trump on Saturday Night Live, is assured by an aide that his daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared, have disappeared for Shabbat – not the Sabbath, not Shabbes: The Not Ready for Prime Time Player uses current Jewish parlance, the Hebrew “Shabbat.”

Which sets the Donald free, so to speak: He proceeds to run diplomatic havoc with Mexico, Australia, Germany and Zimbabwe. Jared and Ivanka “always keep me so calm and make sure I don’t do anything too crazy,” Baldwin-as-Trump says, which turns out not to be so much an appreciation but a lamentation.

Apart from the novelty of Shabbat entering the SNL lexicon, there is another significance to the cold open. It’s the latest manifestation of the Wise Jew, the serene archetype who presumably spends his off-hours with the Magic Negro and the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, polishing aphorisms and working on their warm, knowing chuckles to save the main (usually white and often male) characters from themselves..

All three figures – and there are others: the noble savage, the serene Oriental, the hospitable Arab – are hostility disguised as flattery. They are objectifications, and reduce whole ethnic and religious classes to flat and unlovable clichés. (Yes, unlovable. Who loves a scold? Right. Which is why Baldwin’s letting loose is so funny.) They are constrictive.

And they get dusted off from generation to generation and dressed up as new. The sassy black friends who until not long ago populated Lifetime movies as wise sidekicks might as well be crafted by Harriet Beecher Stowe, albeit after she binged on Cosmo. Kate Hudson, in a different age, could have as easily played Scheherazade — or Esther for that matter — as she did Penny Lane in “Almost Famous.”

And now here comes the wise, even-keeled goy-whisperer, as old as, well, Jesus and his disciples. Jared and Ivanka as Trump’s even keels — Mordecai and Esther to Trump’s Ahasuerus — cropped up in recent days in Vanity Fair, in New York Magazine, in the New York Times and on CNN. According to the Magic Jared theory, bad things happen when he’s not there to run interference.

None of it makes sense: The evidence in the most recent instance is Trump’s signing the chaos-inducing executive order banning travelers from seven predominantly Muslim nations. Trump signed the order at 4:42 pm on Friday, and Jared and Ivanka were busy getting ready for candle lighting, which was at 5:06 pm.

But Jared, as a top counselor to Trump, would have been consulted throughout the drafting process – if he was in the loop – and was still available by phone at signing. Is the implication that, had he been physically present, he would have examined the document and whisked it away, demanding revisions? That seems unlikely.

Abe Foxman, the Anti-Defamation League’s CEO-emeritus, sees a sinister side to the elevation of the Trump-Kushners to figures of overweening influence made unavailable because of a Jewish ritual.

“It’s about Jews controlling, in this case Orthodox Jews,” he said in an interview. “It’s disturbing, and sinister. What this comes down to is that if they didn’t observe the Sabbath, the immigration executive order wouldn’t have happened.”

I asked him if he thought there was sinister intent, and Foxman said no, but that was not the point: The default of the Controlling Jew never ends well for them.

“Ultimately, it blames the Jews for what goes on in the White House,” he said.

Eliza Davis, a Jewish friend of Charles Dickens, took the novelist to task for his portrayal of Fagin, the grasping den leader of a band of pickpockets, in his seminal work, “Oliver Twist.” Dickens, with the best of intentions, apologized, and created by way of atonement the Jew Riah in “Our Mutual Friend,” a character as noble as he is boring and in fact quite sickening.

When Dickens died, the London Jewish Chronicle eulogized him as follows: “He had touched the Jewish character with a somewhat rough and undeserved severity in the unreal character of Fagin. He made amends in his wiser more chastened days by the beautiful if equally unreal character of Riah.”

In modern parlance, the term of art would be: Don’t flatter us, don’t smear us. Just keep it real.

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