It is a time of uncertainty for many Jewish Republicans, checking their mobile phones with a sense of hope and concern.
“Everyone is getting calls,” said one activist. “I’m sure I’ll be getting one too.”
He was referring, of course, to a call, or more likely an email message, from Trump Tower, where the President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team is trying to staff more than 4,000 top federal government positions.
But this time around, the anticipation for a new and exciting administration opportunity has been replaced with a sense of anxiety. “I wouldn’t know what to say, if they asked me,” said the Republican, a former congressional staffer who knew of two former colleagues who have already been approached by the Trump transition team, and who asked that his name not be mentioned.
While Jews may be a tiny portion of the GOP electorate, they’ve filled an oversized portion of top positions in the last Republican administration, that of George W. Bush. It was an administration that fit the classic Jewish Republican profile: moderate on social issues, tough on national security and focused on foreign policy.
But now former Jewish administration officials are split on whether or not to serve Trump: Where some see an offer that must be refused, others see a calling to re-enter government and try to save it from going off track.
“A lot of us are telling younger conservatives: ‘If you’re asked - go in,” said Dov Zakheim, a former top Pentagon official in the Bush administration. “You want to have a policy that makes sense, you don’t want four years of failure.”
Zakheim was an outspoken anti-Trump Republican, who was among the signers of an open letter of Republican national security figures in March denouncing Trump’s foreign policy stance. Now, he believes it is time to help out Trump, though not enthusiastically. “If you get asked, then why not?”
This was once the view of another Bush administration Jewish official, Eliot Cohen, who served as the State Department counselor from 2007 to 2009. Cohen was never shy about his criticism of Trump, but, like other conservative policy experts, he came to believe it was time to join forces and work to ensure the success of a Trump administration.
In a recent Washington Post column, Cohen detailed just how wrong he was. “The tenor of the Trump team, from everything I see, read and hear, is such that, for a garden-variety Republican policy specialist, service in the early phase of the administration would carry a high risk of compromising one’s integrity and reputation,” Cohen wrote. His email exchange with a Trump transition team official, who told Cohen: “you guys are trying to insinuate yourselves into the administration…all of YOU LOST,” was the last straw. He stopped trying after that.
After exchange w Trump transition team, changed my recommendation: stay away. They’re angry, arrogant, screaming “you LOST!” Will be ugly.— Eliot A Cohen (@EliotACohen) November 15, 2016
Cohen’s conclusion was that policy-minded Republicans like himself are better off keeping their distance from the Trump administration. “Conservative political types should not volunteer to serve in this administration, at least for now,” he wrote. “They would probably have to make excuses for things that are inexcusable and defend people who are indefensible.”
The unwelcoming tone of the future Trump administration is not the only problem facing some Jewish Republicans considering a role in Washington. Many of those involved in national security and foreign policy positions during the Bush years face both an ideological barrier and pushback from within the Trump team. Trump made his (eventual) opposition to the Iraq war, a move many of the Jewish national security officials supported, into a cornerstone of his presidential campaign. Joining forces with Trump now would require not only swallowing their pride, but also breaching a significant ideological divide.
Looming over the possibility of taking a position in a Trump government is also the question of whether Jews will be welcome in an administration that appointed Stephen Bannon, the former head of Breitbart News, to a top White House position and which has come to power with the support of bigoted activists and organizations.
Infowars, a fringe-right website headed by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones issued a warning Wednesday against the “Neocon invasion of team Trump.” The term neocon, short for neoconservative, has been used interchangeably by anti-Semitic websites to describe Jews in general, regardless of their exact positions on America’s role in the world.
Infowars pointed to Trump’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whom it described as “someone who is aligned with the Likud Party of Israel” as the key force in bringing in neoconservatives to the Trump circle, speculating that former officials including Richard Perle and Michael Ledeen are on their way into the new government.
“I’m not really worried about Bannon,” said a former Jewish official under Bush, arguing that he did not think that Bannon’s previous associations will be relevant to his work in the White House. “But what I don’t see is how we can find our place there.” He added that Jewish officials like himself represent a school of thought foreign to many of Trump’s supporters, and perhaps to Trump himself.
“They’ve demonized us,” he said. “I wouldn’t advise anyone to rush in there.”
Nathan Guttman staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Ha’aretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Contact Nathan at email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter @nathanguttman