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Debate | Hero or villain? What is Jared Kushner’s legacy?

We are now weeks away from the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. The end of the Trump era is nigh. Perhaps other than President Trump himself, there has been no figure more important in the White House than his son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Kushner has played many roles as Trump’s right hand man, with a portfolio that spanned China to Mexico to — most controversially — the Middle East, where he was the architect and enabler of Trump’s radical and polarizing agenda. To some, this agenda was a wishlist of accomplishments; to others, a long litany of disasters. Most recently, Kushner was the driving force behind a series of normalization agreements between Israel and a host of Muslim countries including Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Morocco.

We asked The Forward’s contributing columnists, Ari Hoffman and Joel Swanson to debate: What is Jared Kushner’s legacy?

Ari Hoffman: When historians puzzle over the chaotic years of the Trump presidency, they will have to figure out what to do with the figure of Jared Kushner, himself the scion of a tri-state area real estate family not unknown to tabloids and law enforcement. The Orthodox boy from New Jersey married Trump’s daughter Ivanka, who converted in his synagogue, while Jared converted to his father-in-law’s increasingly grand ambitions, becoming a senior adviser to the insurgent’s presidential campaign and then by all accounts the power behind the throne in the White House.

Ari Hoffman | artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman | artist: Noah Lubin

It’s no secret that Jared has come under withering criticism, becoming a punching bag for what many see as complicity within an Administration many view as beyond the pale.

The reality, however, is that Kushner achieved remarkable things in power. A fair assessment of this Administration would acknowledge those successes, and a savvy incoming Administration would build on those accomplishments. Along the way, Kushner wrote a new chapter in the story of Jews in American politics and demonstrated that religious observance need be no obstacle to playing a key role in the drama of American history.

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson Image by Noah Lubin

An accounting of Kushner’s legacy needs to begin not in Washington but in the Middle East. Decades of peacemaking that made little peace created an opportunity for Kushner to reshape the region, and in Bibi Netanyahu he found a partner for doing so. The Abraham Accords have generated normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco. Nearly overnight, the sky became alight with flights between Tel Aviv and locales that previously would have been as accessible to Israelis as the moon. Bridges with the Muslim world are being built, with warmth and enthusiasm. An emphasis on economics, which at first was met with skepticism, has yielded results that aligned people and profits in ways that seem likely to endure.

To leave office with the American Embassy in Israel’s capital, the Golan Heights recognized under Israeli sovereignty and the Jewish State integrated into its wider regional context is a set of realities that nobody could have imagined four years ago. Credit goes to Kushner and his second in command, Avi Berkowitz.

On the domestic front, Kushner’s spearheading of the First Step Act put criminal justice reform into law, something that many on the left have prioritized for decades. It also shortened mandatory minimums for nonviolent drug offenses and lessened prison terms for violators of three strike statutes. This was the right thing to do, and Kushner ensured that it happened.

As Kushner said in an interview, “One thing you have to remember when you work for President Trump is that you don’t make the waves. He makes the waves.” Your opinion on Jared is likely to be inextricable from your larger feelings about the man he serves as family and adviser. But even those highly critical of Donald Trump (myself included) shouldn’t be afraid to admit that in several areas, Jared Kushner has been a success.

Joel Swanson: Kushner has hailed the Abraham Accords as a “historic breakthrough,” but it’s worth reflecting that these deals fail to make any progress whatsoever on Palestinian rights or on a lasting peace in Israel and Palestine — and this despite the fact that Kushner became a key Trump aide in 2016 with the explicit goal of negotiating a lasting peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians, not just between Israel and the surrounding Gulf States. In other words, what the Abraham Accords prove more than anything else is that the Arab Gulf States are perfectly happy to sacrifice the future of a Palestinian state for their own domestic interests and in order to further isolate Iran in the region.

Kusher promised as recently as 2019 that he would not just bring diplomatic normalization for Israel with other states in the region, but would betoken a lasting peace in one of the most intractable conflicts in the world. So he has utterly failed on his own terms, not just those of his critics. The Abraham Accords do nothing for the Palestinian future.

But it’s on domestic issues where Kushner has truly and shamefully failed the nation. A recent report in The Washington Post on the Trump administration’s failure to manage COVID-19 places much of the blame squarely on Kushner, whom Trump placed in charge of testing and supply initiatives. Kushner’s failure to invest in adequate testing or adequate masks early on in the pandemic has resulted in the deaths of thousands of Americans.

Moreover, Kushner’s failures on the coronavirus were not the mere incompetence of a young and inexperienced aide promoted through nepotism, though they were certainly that; they were a sign of a deeper cruelty. In a report that ran in Vanity Fair, a public health expert in frequent contact with the White House’s coronavirus task force spoke of hearing a political rationale from a member of Kushner’s team for why a large-scale national plan never materialized. “The political folks believed that because it was going to be relegated to Democratic states, that they could blame those governors, and that would be an effective political strategy,” said the expert. It was a logic that may have swayed Kushner, Vanity Fair reported. “It was very clear that Jared was ultimately the decision maker as to what [plan] was going to come out,” the expert said.

Finally, we can’t discuss the legacy of Jared Kushner in a publication like The Forward without discussing his impact on the Jewish community. Obviously, Kushner is one of the most prominent Jews in Trump’s orbit, and as a result, he has become a convenient punching bag for far-right voices upset that Trump did not fulfill all of their expectations during his presidency. Stephen Bannon has called Kushner a “globalist,” a term with a clear antisemitic history. And Fox News host Tucker Carlson has gone so far as to portray Kushner as the devious Jew who has “subverted” Trump’s supposed far-right political instincts. All of this, needless to say, does not seem good for the Jews.

Ari Hoffman: There is no doubt that the Abraham Accords have not cured all that ails Israel, and that the ravages of Covid have exacerbated an already perilously unequal society, much as they have done in this country. But I’m not so sure whether the spate of normalization agreements actually puts peace with the Palestinians further out of reach.

There is a scenario where these agreements actually strengthen Biden’s hand in returning to the Palestinian issue from a wider vantage point. It’s true that there has been no Netanyahu-Abbas-Trump signing ceremony in the Rose Garden. But what we have seen has been remarkable.

The failures of the Trump Administration’s Covid response have been well documented, and the loss of life and livelihood that this country has seen in the past months will scar the nation for decades to come. I take a back seat to nobody in decrying the incompetence and sheer lunacy of much of this country’s Covid response. But I would also point out that Trump-free Europe is being absolutely ravaged by another wave of the disease as well. Meanwhile, my Facebook feed is filling up with friends receiving Covid vaccinations, something that scarcely anyone would have believed possible just a few months ago. There is some credit to parcel out there.

As for the hate directed by the likes of Carlson on account of Kushner’s Jewishness or the furthest reaches of the alt-right, I say “bring it on” if that is the price for Jews being visible and proud in the public sphere. We doubtless will be accused of string-pulling and conspiracy mongering regardless, so I don’t think that is a salient reason to refrain from trying to make a difference.

While there are no doubt many Jews who see the role Jews have played in this Administration as an utter disgrace, a betrayal of Jewish values of the highest order, there are other Jews, largely Orthodox, who see this Administration as successful, and look at figures like Kushner, Berkowitz, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman and Mideast Peace Negotiator Jason Greenblatt with pride. Polls before the election had 83% of Orthodox American Jews set to vote for Trump, an astounding figure given that nearly eight in 10 of all American Jews gave their vote to Joe Biden. So even as you look at a figure like Kushner as a nightmare of Jewish representation, many Jews see him as something like its crowning achievement.

Joel Swaonson: The statistics you cite here, that roughly eight out of 10 Orthodox Jews voted for President Trump’s reelection, even while a nearly exact mirror image, eight out of 10 American Jews as a whole, voted for Biden, point to a larger fault line that has emerged in American Jewish politics during the Trump administration. Just as he has divided the nation writ large, Trump has exacerbated deep divisions within the American Jewish community, largely cleaving American Jews into a sizable pro-Trump faction, largely centered around the Orthodox community, and a non-Orthodox community that largely despises Trump and everything he stands for politically. These divisions are not likely to disappear, even after Trump himself leaves office.

And while I don’t think Kushner himself is solely to blame for dividing the American Jewish community, there can be little doubt that this child of an Orthodox Jewish day school embodies those divisions and fractures. I think the story of Jared Kushner is a story of missed opportunities as much as it is a story of failed undertakings. It’s telling that when we discuss Kushner’s uniquely Jewish accomplishments in office, as opposed to his more general policy failings, such as those surrounding COVID, we’re basically left talking about the Abraham Accords, and nothing else.

The fact is, the non-Orthodox American Jewish majority overwhelmingly rejects Trump’s politics. Israeli politics are near the bottom of our list of political priorities; only four percent of American Jewish voters consider Israel a priority in our decision on who to vote for.

Meanwhile, what has having representation from a Jew like Kushner in such a prominent role in the White House brought us? Trump still directly saluted the far-right Proud Boys in a presidential debate, leading directly to a rise in their membership. He labeled marchers that included neo-Nazis as “very fine people.” He still accused American Jews who vote Democratic of “disloyalty” to Israel, a nation where we don’t live. And he still falsely blamed the Hungarian Jewish financier, political donor, and Holocaust survivor George Soros for funding Central American migration to the United States — the very same conspiracy theory echoed by the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter.

If Jared Kushner had any positive influence over his father-in-law at all, you would think he would have managed to soften some of these more inflammatory statements. After all, a major promise of Kushner was that he would serve as a more moderate voice in the administration, a tolerant counterbalance to the bomb-throwers of the far-right like Stephen Bannon.

That influence does not appear to have manifested.

Ari Hoffman: You are right to lament the missed opportunities of the last four years, and Kushner has insisted that moderating his father in law is not on his agenda, and likely no more possible than you or I doing the same. In fact, he has been explicit that he doesn’t conceive of his role in those terms. This is a tricky area: Kushner is not the President, yet he has been beside him the entirety of his presidency. I don’t think it is fair to totally equate him with the personal deficiencies of the President, nor do I think it reasonable to dissociate him entirely from the more harmful pathologies of the last four years.

But I do think it appropriate to evaluate him on the efforts that reporting has specifically linked to his portfolios: the Abraham Accords and criminal justice reform are two justifiable points of pride.

Joel Swanson: I suppose we disagree over how much responsibility to place on Kushner for Trump’s many verbal dog whistles to white supremacist groups throughout his four years in office.

Kushner helped to legitimate this sort of rhetoric by his mere presence, allowing Trump to point to a powerful Jewish adviser and family member as evidence against allegations of antisemitism, even while Trump openly engaged in classically antisemitic tropes. At a certain point, if you choose to serve an administration that engages in such calumnies, you can’t escape the moral stain. If Kushner did not want to legitimate such rhetoric, he could have made the choice to leave at any time.

So, that’s the tally of Jared Kushner’s four years as a right-hand man to his father-in-law, as I see it. He provided Jewish legitimation to Trump’s worst bigotries, did nothing to stem the tide of rising white nationalism that is stoking American Jewish fears, made Trump less popular among American Jews, and did nothing to bring about the Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that he had long promised.

It is a record of failure, and worse.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for The Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist for the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at N.Y.U., and his writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, and a range of other publications. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.


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