August 22, 2019

A Jewish family in the White House

“No matter what happens, at least there will be a Jewish son-in-law in the White House,” veteran comedy writer Rhea Kohan quipped when I saw her last week at the Los Angeles fundraiser for Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.

That salve, after a bruising and deeply divisive election season, is perhaps a bright spot American Jews can agree on. God knows, we do not agree on the Iran deal or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or even tax cuts. And now that fringe neo-Nazi elements in our society are newly emboldened by a coarse politics that openly scapegoats minorities and remind us of dreadful times from the Jewish past, the thought of a little Jewish blood coursing through the first family’s veins is at least some consolation.

But in the case of the Jewish sons-in-law in question — Marc Mezvinsky on the Clinton side and Jared Kushner on Trump’s — each brings a very different model of American Judaism to the world stage. 

Mezvinksy and wife Chelsea Clinton are Jew-ish, a secular, intermarried couple that only sometimes observes Jewish tradition. When they married in 2010, I wrote on my blog, “It may not have been a kosher wedding, but it was definitely a Jewish one.” The Clintons, who are Methodist, produced a ceremony in which a rabbi and reverend co-officiated. It was reported that Mezvinsky’s family said the Seven Blessings — Sheva Brachot — a staple at any Jewish wedding, and that the groom wore a kippah and tallit. In one photograph, the couple is seen standing in front of what appears to be a ketubah, the Jewish marriage contract. But after the wedding, we never heard much about the couple living a recognizably “Jewish” life.

By contrast, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are the portrait of a Modern Orthodox family. Ivanka underwent a full Orthodox conversion with Manhattan rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, before their 2009 nuptials. The Kushner-Trumps reportedly observe Shabbat, keep a kosher home and celebrate Jewish holidays — and they’ve been spotted more than once at an annual Passover retreat for wealthy, observant Jews. 

But for all of their private observance of halachah, their Jewishness — at least on the campaign trail — has been veiled, as The Atlantic’s Emma Green described it. It is “essentially invisible to those who don’t know it’s there.”

The presence of Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner on the Trump campaign trail did nothing to deter Trump’s anti-Semitic, xenophobic supporters such as David Duke and his neo-Nazi minions. It didn’t stop anti-Semitic trolls online from targeting Jewish journalists in particular and barraging them with classic anti-Semitic imagery. And Trump’s daughter’s Jewishness certainly didn’t stop him from encouraging his zealous fan base, or retweeting some of those anti-Semitic images himself. 

Even in the final days of the campaign, Trump released an ad warning that an international cabal of bankers was conspiring alongside Hillary Clinton to keep hard-working Americans down. All the financiers featured in the ad — George Soros, Federal Reserve chief Janet Yellen and Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein — are Jewish. So it wasn’t long before Jewish leaders and others drew comparisons to the 20th-century anti-Semitic pamphlet “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which depicted an international Jewish conspiracy to run the world. As Journal editor-in-chief Rob Eshman put it, “Trump likely isn’t anti-Semitic — but there is no denying his campaign is. It provides intellectual support and cover for America’s most fervent Jew haters. [The ‘Protocols’ ad] mainstreams blatant anti-Semitic stereotypes and ideas.”

The fact that Trump’s own grandchildren are Jewish apparently is irrelevant.

But the Clinton side hardly fares better as a model of Jewish virtue. They get little credit — or added credibility — from their son-in-law’s Judaism, probably because it’s barely noticeable. When it comes to foreign policy and friendliness toward Israel, the Clintons are still routinely criticized for using the Clinton Foundation to curry favor with the Arab world, and some Jewish circles cannot forgive their support for the Iran deal. 

From an image standpoint, the Mezvinsky-Clinton model appears less Jewish. It is the poster child of intermarriage and secularism that some say will spell our demographic doom. The Kushner-Trump model, on the other hand, appears aspirational — if all mixed relationships ended up as Modern Orthodox families, hallelujah, right?

Not necessarily. Because for most of us, “being Jewish” means living in accordance with what we believe are the truest and deepest Jewish values. Judaism isn’t only about observance — it’s not enough to light Shabbat candles, go to shul and avoid treif. Judaism is about living lives of moral action and actively resisting anything that undermines human dignity — whether our own or that of others. 

That’s why I’m much less interested in the Jewish sons-in-law than I am in the grandchildren they produce. One way to determine which model works better is to find out, eventually, whether the Jewish and part-Jewish grandchildren of the Clinton-Mezvinskys  and Trump-Kushners will live Jewish lives of their own, according to the communal values that have endured for generations. 

I wonder if the half-Jewish Clinton-Mezvinskys will become curious about their roots and seek the Jewish community that awaits them.

And I wonder if Donald Trump’s Jewish grandchildren will come to possess a moral clarity and conscience that has eluded their grandfather.