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Thursday, August 13, 2020

Nikki Haley’s chutzpah

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Nikki Haley has served as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations for only a few months, but she’s already achieved something virtually no other political figure in recent years has done: She’s united the Jewish community.

That’s saying a lot for someone appointed by a controversial president who managed to alienate 70 percent of the Jewish vote even as he claimed staunch support for Israel and his Jewish grandkids.

Haley’s willingness to buck the status quo and adopt moral stances is bold, and her confident stand at her Congressional confirmation hearing worked like an elixir on the Jewish psyche: “Nowhere has the U.N.’s failure been more consistent and more outrageous than in its bias against our close ally Israel.” She was confirmed 96-4, even as other Trump appointees were stonewalled, grilled and flayed.

At a time when fractious political divisions have split many Jews, Haley has emerged as a unifying figure. If there’s anything both progressive and conservative Jews can agree on these days — and there isn’t much — it is the longstanding hypocrisy of the U.N. Security Council, which routinely “condemns,” “deplores” and “censures” Israel for its actions while ignoring more egregious abuses of power elsewhere.

“It was a bit strange,” Haley said of her first Security Council meeting in February. “The [Security Council] is supposed to discuss how to maintain international peace and security. But at our meeting on the Middle East, the discussion was not about Hezbollah’s illegal buildup of rockets in Lebanon … not about the money and weapons Iran provides to terrorists … not about how we defeat ISIS … not about how we hold [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad accountable for the slaughter of hundreds and thousands of civilians. No, instead, the meeting focused on criticizing Israel, the one true democracy in the Middle East.”

That speech sealed broad Jewish support for Haley — and affirmed the conviction of right-leaning Jews that Trump would be a stalwart defender of Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lauded Haley’s “unequivocal support” and praised her agenda to put to rout the U.N.’s anti-Israel bias. “It’s time to put an end to the absurdity in the United Nations,” he wrote on Facebook.

At the AIPAC policy conference in March, Haley received a hero’s welcome, with a standing ovation that lasted long enough for her to bow, sit, then stand up again.

But even as Haley’s message was widely celebrated, I wondered whether they really were her words. Does her stance on Israel reflect her own personal values and commitments, or is she just one voice among many in an administration that often puts forth opposing views? How much freedom does Haley have to speak her mind?   

Apparently, too much.

Last week, The New York Times reported that Haley’s assertive voice is beginning to rankle those who outrank her in the White House.

As one of the few women in Trump’s cabinet and that rare non-white appointee, she is often “the first, most outspoken member of the Trump administration to weigh in on key foreign policy issues,” the Times said. Her strong criticisms of Syria and Russia (sometimes at odds with her bosses) and her prescient observations about the link between human rights abuses and the eventuality of violent conflict have swelled her status as a voice of conscience. But they’ve also overshadowed her superior, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

Now, the State Department is trying to rein her in. According to an email the Times cited, Haley was encouraged to use predetermined “building blocks” when issuing public remarks and was reminded to “re-clear” her comments with Washington “if they are substantively different from the building blocks, or if they are on a high-profile issue such as Syria, Iran, Israel-Palestine, or [North Korea].”

Haley’s willingness to buck the status quo and adopt moral stances is bold, and her confident stand at her Congressional confirmation hearing worked like an elixir on the Jewish psyche.

How ironic that an administration led by the reigning king of running his mouth, a president who disavows formalities and prides himself on speaking freely, openly and often coarsely, would seek to silence one of its most eloquent spokespeople. How ironic that the target of this hushing is a woman, descended from immigrants.

Perhaps this is all part of Trump’s foreign policy plan to remain unpredictable. Better to beam out mixed messages and retain the element of surprise so that provocative foreign powers like Russia and North Korea are kept in the dark, guessing. But another read on his plan is this: A predominantly white male administration needs to remind the world who the real masters are by diminishing the star of its most promising woman (sorry, Ivanka).

The climate of fear and anxiety Trump wants to cultivate abroad, he cultivates at home.

Last week, when Haley accompanied 14 members of the U.N. Security Council to the White House, Trump put her out on the ledge.

“Does everybody like Nikki?” the president asked his guests, knowing they were the ones she had criticized. “Because if you don’t, she can easily be replaced.”

The council members laughed.

“No, we won’t do that, I promise,” Trump said. “We won’t do that. She’s doing a fantastic job.”


Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.

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