Throughout American history, there have been Jews who have held important positions in the White House as advisers to various presidents. And there have been family members of sitting presidents — wives and brothers, in particular — who have wielded enormous political power from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
But never has there been the combination reflected in the appointment — should it come to pass — of Jared Kushner as senior adviser to his father-in-law, Donald Trump. The combination of pure political authority and airtight family bonds residing at the most powerful address in the world means that Kushner, who turned 36 years old yesterday, could represent a level of Jewish influence that is historically unprecedented.
Whatever we think of him or the man at whose pleasure he serves, Kushner will be redrawing the image of the quintessential American Jew — ironically, since, as a super-wealthy, Modern Orthodox, politically conservative (especially on Israel) man, he reflects the tiniest sliver of 21st-century Jewry. That won’t matter, not to those who look at him in admiration, believing there are more of him than there are, or to those who see in him the embodiment of the scheming, clannish, all-powerful Jew of centuries-old stereotypes.
He will not be the first Jewish president. But he will be the first Jew to come so close, and at such a young age, with no civic or governmental experience — and with enviable job security.
“I cannot think of a president who had a Jewish adviser who was also his son-in-law,” Jonathan Sarna, the eminent American Jewish historian at Brandeis University, told me. “So far as I know, no previous president had a Jewish son-in-law while serving in the White House.”
Sarna reminded me that other 20th-century presidents had close Jewish advisers: Woodrow Wilson listened to Louis Brandeis; Franklin Roosevelt was advised by Sidney Hillman, Henry Morgenthau, Samuel Rosenman and others. (That’s why anti-Semites called it the “Jew Deal.”) “Bernard Baruch, of course, is supposed to have advised nine presidents,” Sarna added. Richard Nixon had his Henry Kissinger; Barack Obama his Rahm Emanuel. Had the election of 2000 turned out the way the votes actually indicated once counted, Joe Lieberman would have been vice president, and only a heartbeat away from the Oval Office.
Centuries of powerful first ladies also shaped their husbands’ time in office, from Abigail Adams to Eleanor Roosevelt. After Wilson suffered a stroke, his wife, Edith Wilson, assumed presidential duties. Bill Clinton put Hillary Clinton in charge of reforming the national health care system.
As in so many things, Trump is rewriting the script. It’s hard to imagine Melania Trump — who, for now, won’t even move to Washington — playing any sort of substantive political role in her husband’s administration. Instead, it will be Kushner with the office in the White House, who will have the ear of the president — who will be the power behind the throne. The only precedent is the role Bobby Kennedy played in his brother Jack Kennedy’s administration, when he was U.S. attorney general — but that arrangement raised so many red flags that anti-nepotism laws were written to prevent it from happening again.
Those anti-nepotism laws, along with strict measures to avoid conflicts of interest, ought to prevent Kushner from working in even an unpaid official role, but such niceties don’t seem to stop Trump from acting as if he can do what he wants. Rather, family ties all but ensure that Kushner, unlike any other adviser, will never be fired or removed; if, as seems the case, the son-in-law is supremely loyal to the father, presumably the father is just as loyal to the son-in-law.
And so we have the strange prospect of arguably the most prejudiced candidate to be elected in contemporary America elevating the grandson of Holocaust survivors to the highest position so far in our history.
Am I being too grand? Perhaps. But the long history of the Jewish people is laced with surprisingly few times when we have held genuine political power. “Centuries of survival in other people’s lands prevented Jews from achieving full acceptance — and access to the levers of government. Some individual Jews may have lived large, but the Jewish people as a whole lived on sufferance, afraid to antagonize those from whom they sought tolerance,” wrote Ruth Wisse, a scholar of Yiddish literature and the author of “Jews and Power.”
Wisse wrote those words nearly a decade ago — back when Kushner and Trump, not yet related, were both Democrats — in the context of insinuations that the “Israel lobby” was exercising way too much power, a point that Wisse, a staunch conservative, vigorously denied. Instead, she argued, Jews had developed over centuries “strategies of accommodation,” excelling in trades and commerce permitted by non-Jewish rulers, careful not to upset the prevailing economic, political or social order, willing to assimilate or separate to ensure survival.
The Zionist project was a response to this inherently servile position, which is why the establishment of the State of Israel, granting Jews land and sovereignty and means of defense, was such a monumental inflection point, a sharp turn away from history’s entrenched limitations.
Kushner’s ascension might be another inflection point, far less monumental, of course, but still significant. Some Jews may rejoice at this milestone, using Kushner’s very presence as a proof text that Trump isn’t as bad as we know he is, doesn’t really mean the things he says, and surely can’t condone any anti-Semitism, since three of his grandchildren are being raised to observe Shabbat.
But Kushner will also become a magnet for every anti-Semitic trope floating around the internet. That is already beginning, with white supremacist websites publishing veiled threats about Kushner’s undue influence in “Jewmerica.”
He does not deserve such hateful words. No one does. But neither has Kushner spoken out against the surge in anti-Semitism — along with the bigotry against other minorities, immigrants and the disabled — unleashed by his father-in-law’s campaign. Does his loyalty blind him? Does his desire to win at any cost erase all other values? Does he not see the Jewish connection?
I’ve been wondering lately whether Kushner is a modern-day Joseph, the Bible’s first “professional Jew,” who rises literally from the depths to become Pharaoh’s second-in-command in ancient Egypt. Kushner must feel some affinity for the Joseph story — one of his sons bears the name.
Joseph magnanimously saves his family, ensuring the continuation of what becomes the Jewish people. Will Kushner serve his people — by which I mean not only Jews, but also the American people? Or will he enable only the worst and most dangerous impulses of the man who now will determine his future? For what is power if not used for good?
Contact Jane Eisner at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @Jane_Eisner
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, became editor-in-chief of the Forward in 2008, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward readership has grown significantly and has won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.