4 years of President Trump: A Jewish report card
As President Trump makes his closing arguments for reelection, the staggering events of the last year loom large.
The coronavirus pandemic has, to date, taken more than 230,000 American lives, and the country is mired in the most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression. And, though it now feels like ancient history, Trump in January became the third president to be impeached by the House of Representatives (and the third to be acquitted by the Senate).
None of these ground-shaking events had anything overtly to do with Judaism, and most American Jews generally base their votes on issues separate from their ethnic or religious identity. And yet, we are a Jewish news organization, and this administration has been marked by a number of intense moments for American Jews, and decisions with major consequences for our communities.
So after four years of a breakneck news cycle, in which the events of any given week tend to seem distant by the next, we have compiled here something of a report card exploring 10 major moments specifically related to Jewish identity or Jewish issues — how the president handled them, and how the Forward covered them.
This is an administration in which Jews have had prominent roles and voices. President Trump’s closest advisers are his daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, who are Orthodox Jews; there is also Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Steven Miller, the architect of many of Trump’s anti-immigration policies, who has called critics of his ideological affiliations antisemitic.
And there are the Jews whose long careers of public service Trump disparaged or even ended. Most prominent among them: Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who Trump removed from the National Security Council in February after Vindman testified in the impeachment trial.
American Jews have voted predominantly Democrat for more than a century. While recent polls suggest that President Trump’s Jewish support may be slipping some since 2016, when he got 24% of the Jewish vote to Hillary Clinton’s 71%, it is clear that he remains popular in some swaths of our community, including Haredi enclaves in New York; the Persian immigrant areas of Los Angeles; Israeli-Americans and others in Florida; and the pro-Israel right.
Assessing an administration in a single article is impossible — inevitably, some will quibble with which moments we chose to focus on and which we left out. For each, we tried to summarize reactions, but also offered several news articles and Opinion columns published at the time for those who want to delve deeper.
One takeaway from our look back: While Trump’s approach to Jewish issues can seem erratic, it’s clearly had a profound effect on the Jewish political world, solidifying and widening divisions within the community more dramatically than recent predecessors.
May 2017: Executive order on religious liberty
The administration had a rocky start when it came to issues of particular Jewish interest, after Trump issued a statement for Holocaust Remembrance Day that omitted any mention of Jews and one of his top advisers, Sebastian Gorka, was revealed to have substantial ties to antisemitic groups in his home country of Hungary. For some, this executive order, Trump’s first major policy move with a direct effect on the broad Jewish community, helped correct the course. For others, it was a further cause for concern.
The order mandated that the IRS no longer penalize religious organizations or clergy for campaigning from the pulpit, and asked the Treasury, Labor, and Health and Human Services departments to look into doing away with a part of the Affordable Care Act that requires most employers to include contraceptive care in employee health plans. (In May, the Supreme Court ruled that employers who objected to the mandate on religious or moral grounds could legally refuse to fulfill it.)
While the order was weaker than many conservatives wished, it signaled Trump’s commitment to what would become one of his signature stances: defending religious communities from the infringements of a secular government. Some Jews celebrated the move, and some, like Jay Michaelson, feared that it would feed antisemitic conspiracy theorists: “It sends a clear message: that there was some kind of secularist — media-governmental — elitist war on Christianity — and that that war has now been won by the Christians,” wrote Michaelson in an op-ed.
Trump’s rhetoric on religious liberty would evolve over time, and help seed deep-rooted support for him in some Orthodox Jewish communities.
In December 2019, after a poll in Ami Magazine found that support for Trump had skyrocketed among the Orthodox, Eliezer Brand wrote that the trend had less to do with Trump’s policy toward Israel — more on that shortly — than with a shared outlook on the proper boundaries between church and state.
During the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has consistently clashed with state governors, demanding they allow houses of worship to freely reopen despite the public health risks. As Molly Boigon and Helen Chernikoff reported, in parts of the Orthodox world, that position has led to “a protest in Borough Park” looking “at least a little like a Trump boat parade in Tampa Bay.”
August 2017: “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.
The first summer of Trump’s presidency delivered one of its most defining moments: the now-infamous rally of white supremacists, which featured the antisemitic rallying cry “you will not replace us” and ended in a car attack on counterprotesters that killed Heather Heyer, who was 32.
Trump’s response to the rally, in which he declared that there “were very fine people, on both sides,” further emboldened white-supremacists who had been energized by what they saw as sympathetic rhetoric during his campaign, and escalated alarm among those horrified by the event. This was hardly helped when Steve Bannon, then Trump’s chief strategist, reportedly invoked antisemitic tropes in celebrating Trump’s comments as “a ‘defining moment’ when Trump ditched so-called ‘globalists’ in order to line up with ‘his people.”
Charlottesville strained Trump’s relationships with some of the most prominent Jewish members of his administration, including Gary Cohn and Mnuchin, both of whom expressed discomfort with the president’s reaction. And it left many wondering if Republican Jews would disavow their party’s leader.
“While Trump has been widely condemned for his insistence that the violence of the weekend came from ‘many sides,’ one group has failed to make their voices heard,” wrote Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt. “The Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox leadership has, in general, refused to condemn the President’s anodyne response.”
In the first presidential debate this September, Trump revived the debate over Charlottesville when he responded to a question as to whether he would denounce white supremacy by instructing the Proud Boys, an antisemitic white supremacist group, to “stand back and stand by.” As with Charlottesville, Jewish responses to the comment largely split along party lines: Jewish Democrats were aghast, and Republicans largely unfazed.
December 2017: Recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, plans to move embassy
At the end of his first year in office, Trump delivered Israel, and diaspora Zionists, a major emotional victory that upended decades of American policy.
The recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state was controversial for a number of reasons. The obvious: the status of Jerusalem is one of the greatest sticking points in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and decades of peace talks have promised that it would not be resolved until everything is resolved. Acknowledging it as Israel’s capital — despite Palestinian aspirations to also have it as the capital of their future state — tilted the scales in a way that threatened both the two-state solution and America’s role as an honest broker in peace negotiations.
For American Jews, there was also concern over why, exactly, Trump had made the move.
Shortly after the president announced his decision, Nathan Guttman reported that evangelical Christian groups had led the campaign for it, while major Jewish groups like AIPAC stayed quiet. When the embassy opened in Jerusalem in May, 2018, Ari Feldman reported that “it was the Trump administration’s way of endorsing evangelicals whose beliefs put Israel at the center of the apocalypse.” And this August, Trump made it explicit. “We moved the capital of Israel to Jerusalem,” he said, at a Wisconsin rally. “That’s for the Evangelicals.”
In March 2019, Trump delivered a follow-up to his recognition of Jerusalem, by declaring the Golan Heights, Syrian territory that Israel had captured in 1967, a part of Israel.
Naomi Zeveloff reported that American Jews in Israel were split between celebrating the move and protesting it: “While most American Jews are Democrats, the right-wing minority has gained an outsized voice in the Trump era,” she wrote, “scrambling the traditional power dynamics between the two groups.”
December 2017: Frees Sholom Rubashkin
In mainstream discourse, this commutation barely made a splash: few even recognized the name of Shlomo Rubashkin, a corrupt agriculture executive, and the embassy announcement was dominating headlines.
But for the Orthodox Jewish community, where Rubashkin had become a cause célèbre, it was a profound gesture.
Rubashkin had been chief executive of the Iowa-based meatpacking business Agriprocessors, which during his tenure went from being the biggest producer of kosher meat in the United States to bankruptcy. He was sentenced to 27 years in prison in 2009, after being found guilty on 86 counts of bank fraud. (The business had long been dogged with legal woes and allegations of labor abuses, as chronicled in this 2007 Forward exposé.)
Rubashkin is part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, and the Haredi community saw his trial as tainted by antisemitism, and his sentence as disproportionate to the severity of his crimes. Alan Dershowitz, the attorney and former Harvard professor with great influence in the White House, persuaded Trump to take another look at the case.
Eli Steinberg wrote in a Forward op-ed that, Haredim, as a tight-knit community, had all felt the pain of Rubashkin’s plight. “The news spread like wildfire,” he said, “and with the reports, incredible, pure and unadulterated joy.”
Among the diverse Orthodox population, there was actually substantial disagreement about how to receive Rubashkin. But the case broadly suggested that after years of feeling cast off by government officials, the community had found a president who understood and sympathized with its priorities.
Summer 2018: Donations from white nationalists revealed
As political contributions go, the amounts were relatively small: $48.33 from James Allsup, a white supremacist who participated in the “United the Right” rally; $262.12 from “Nazi stage mom” April Gaede; a total of around $200 from Morris Gullet, a neo-Nazi. But, as the Forward’s Ben Fractenberg wrote in exposing the donations, they pointed to either a troubling lack of oversight — or a lack of concern about taking money from members of hate groups — in Trump’s 2016 campaign organization.
“The filings show that the campaign is aware of the contributions, as they have redirected them — but not returned them,” he explained.
When Fractenberg followed up on the story that October, he found that the campaign had still not returned the money. Despite months of inquiries, neither the Trump campaign nor the Republican National Committee, which had also accepted donations from Gullet, responded to requests for comment.
In August 2020, Ari Feldman reported that Gullet had continued to contribute to both Trump’s campaign (more than $2,000) and the RNC (at least $626).
Oct. 27, 2018: Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh
It was the deadliest attack on Jews in American history: a gunman with a history of antisemitic and anti-immigrant vitriol burst into a synagogue during Shabbat-morning services and murdered 11 people as they prayed.
Trump’s response to the tragedy brought mixed responses. Some reports suggested that Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner had needed to persuade the president to issue a statement decrying antisemitism in the wake of the attack, and that it was only due to their influence that he decided to visit the city. Protests greeted his visit: some said his rhetoric had helped create an environment that empowered the gunman, and some felt his initial response to the shooting had laid blame with the synagogue’s security measures.
Though Trump remained somber while meeting with grieving members of the local Jewish community, he later lashed out at the thousands of protesters — many of them Jewish — and the journalists who covered them.
“Melania and I were treated very nicely yesterday in Pittsburgh,” Trump said in a Tweet. “The Office of the President was shown great respect on a very sad & solemn day. We were treated so warmly. Small protest was not seen by us, staged far away. The Fake News stories were just the opposite-Disgraceful!”
The Jewish leadership in Pittsburgh had mixed responses to Trump’s visit.
Jeffrey Myers, the rabbi at the Tree of Life, welcomed the president. “Hate is not about politics,” he told Feldman, one of the Forward reporters covering the shooting and its aftermath. “It’s never been about politics. Hate is across the board.”
But Lynette Lederman, one of the synagogue’s former presidents, called the president “the purveyor of hate speech.” And within three days of the shooting, more than 71,000 people had signed a letter requesting that Trump not return to the city until he issued a concrete disavowal of white nationalism, a petition he did not acknowledge.
Aug 20., 2019: Trump says Jewish Democrats are “disloyal” to Israel
Trump’s rhetoric has been met with allegations of antisemitism since his first campaign for president. But those claims may have reached their apex when he told a group of reporters in the Oval Office that “any Jewish people that vote for a Democrat — I think it shows either a total lack of knowledge or great disloyalty.”
The idea of Jewish disloyalty or dual loyalty is an antisemitic trope that goes back centuries, suggesting that Jews are loyal to other Jews before any government, and therefore cannot be trusted as patriots in any country. Seeing that trope reflected in Trump’s comments, many Jews were alarmed and outraged — especially after the president doubled down the next day. “If you vote for a Democrat, you’re being disloyal to Jewish people and you’re being very disloyal to Israel,” he said, speaking on the White House lawn.
And that was not the only time he invoked the trope.
In a December, 2019, speech at the annual conference of the Israeli-American Council, Trump offered an iteration of the same idea: “So many of you voted for the people in the last administration,” he said. “Someday you will have to explain that to me because I don’t think they like Israel too much.”
This September, Trump drew flak for saying, in a Rosh Hashanah call with Jewish leaders, “we love your country,” suggesting that Trump viewed Israel as the home country of American Jews: “My country is America,” tweeted Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz, who is Jewish.
December 2019: Executive order recognizes Jews as nationality
This order was framed as a response to antisemitism on college campuses, a subject of a rising concern across American Jewish communities. But its mandate that universities recognize Jewish students as a class protected from discrimination garnered a mixed response, with familiar divides along partisan lines.
The order bypassed a bipartisan work of legislation in Congress, and had implications beyond campuses. By demanding that colleges and universities that receive federal funding treat Jewish students as members of a nationality, not only a religion, the order empowered the government more broadly to do the same.
Many Jewish leaders and scholars pointed out that “the Jewish people” have been considered as a small-n nation and not just a religious sect since Biblical times. But others found the order, especially in the context of the dual-loyalty debate, to have frightening implications.
“The question of when Jewish identity is a religion and when it is a national origin, and when governments should have the right to adjudicate this question, has a long and sordid history among antisemites,” Joel Swanson, a Forward contributing columnist, wrote in an op-ed. “At a time when antisemitic dual loyalty allegations are again rearing their head, does anyone think that the U.S. government claiming the right to determine when the Jews constitute a national origin and when a religion will be good for the Jews?”
Others embraced the order as a much-needed response to a reported rise in campus antisemitism.
“As a Jewish college student who has faced antisemitism on my campus and does not agree with many of President Trump’s decisions, I welcome and am grateful for this action,” wrote Josh Eibelman, then a senior at Cornell University. But Blake Flayton, then a sophomore at George Washington University, worried the order could make the situation worse.
“This order will chill conversations on campuses, when what we need is the exact opposite: more conversations, more discussions, more openness,” Flayton wrote. “Its goal is to intimidate those on campus who may not see how criticism of Israel can sometimes trespass into antisemitic territory — instead of to educate students on Jewish history and our sense of peoplehood.”
Jan. 28, 2020: Israeli-Palestinian peace plan
Details of Trump’s long-promised peace plan were notably announced without any Palestinian representatives present, a gesture that spoke to the administration’s long history of stonewalling Palestinian interests. Critics considered the plan, which proposed to recognize a number of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory as official Israeli territory, too one-sided to stand a chance of winning Palestinian support.
That imbalance could be traced back to Trump’s December 2016 announcement that upon his inauguration, he would install David Friedman, a vocal supporter of the settlements, as ambassador to Israel. Kushner similarly influenced the administration toward policies aimed to weaken the position of the Palestinians, including by attempting to dissuade other Middle Eastern countries’ efforts to provide aid.
But Trump’s declaration that he would move the U.S. embassy sparked the administration’s greatest diplomatic falling-out with Palestinian leaders. President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority stalled peace talks in response; Trump, in turn, kicked off 2018 by threatening to cut American aid to the Palestinian Authority and hitting the brakes on American funding for the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), which provides significant aid to Palestinians refugees, especially in the Gaza Strip.
In August of that year, Trump made good on the threat, cutting $200 million in funding for the Palestinians, and cancelling the previously paused $65 million payment to UNRWA. That September, he cut another $25 million in aid and announced the shuttering of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s mission to Washington.
Trump’s recognition of the Golan Heights, which raised Palestinian fears that he would similarly acknowledge Israel’s claim on East Jerusalem and the West Bank, also worsened tensions. The administration declared in November 2019 that it no longer viewed Israeli settlements as illegal, a policy shift that Peter Beinart, then a Forward columnist, wrote in an op-ed was the equivalent of legitimizing Jim Crow.
Summer/fall 2020: The Abraham Accords
Late in Trump’s term, and in the heat of his reelection campaign, the administration made a surprising announcement: the United Arab Emirates would normalize diplomatic relations with Israel. Shortly after, Trump announced that Bahrain would do the same, followed by Sudan just this month.
Though none of these countries were ever formally at war with Israel, the so-called peace deals felt like a sea change. They were the first Middle Eastern nations since Jordan in 1994 and Egypt in 1979 to establish normalized diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, a change that opened new economic and political possibilities — but also signaled how far back the Palestinian cause had fallen on the Arab world’s agenda.
The action had immediate effects. The UAE began to allow direct commercial flights to Israel; Kushner, who helped spearhead the normalization process, flew on the very first of them. And as Ilan Ben Zion reported, the normalization announcements swiftly opened new opportunities for Israelis long stymied by the inability to establish public business relationships in most of their neighboring countries.
In the United States, the accords changed election-cycle discourse around foreign policy. Michael Weiner, a student at Yeshiva University, wrote an op-ed saying the sudden change was making him rethink his previous plan to vote for Biden.
But Trump was not the only candidate poised to benefit from the agreement. The UAE normalization plan was contingent on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s agreement to stop pursuing annexation of the West Bank, a de-escalation that presented Biden with an unexpected gift. “Had Israel gone forward with annexation, Biden would have been put in an awkward position, caught between progressives looking to cut aid and centrists fighting to maintain it. That’s no longer an issue,” Aiden Pink wrote in a report on the agreement’s political impact.
Still, it was clear that Trump saw the deals as a boon to his campaign. On a phone call announcing the agreement between Israel and Sudan, Trump tried to egg Netanyahu into an endorsement.
“Do you think Sleepy Joe could have made this deal, Bibi, Sleepy Joe?” Trump asked, using his preferred derogatory nickname for Biden. “Do you think he would have made this deal? Somehow I don’t think so.”