Why was Jason Greenblatt in Pittsburgh?

"It is difficult to comfort people in the wake of this kind of terrible tragedy. But it's a very, very strong community. They're trying to pick up the pieces," Greenblatt said.

By
November 4, 2018 21:45
Jason Greenblatt, US President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy.

Jason Greenblatt, U.S. President Donald Trump's Middle East envoy, attends a reception hosted by the Orthodox Union in Jerusalem ahead of the opening of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD/REUTERS)

 
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WASHINGTON – As news broke of a massacre at a synagogue in Pittsburgh last weekend, senior West Wing officials hurriedly discussed how the president should respond and who from within his circle should represent him on the ground.

The team chose Jason Greenblatt, the US special representative for international negotiations and a senior adviser to the president, who had been scheduled to depart for Israel before the shooting altered his plans.

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Greenblatt has occupied several roles in US President Donald Trump’s orbit over many years. Since 1996, he has served as an executive and as legal counsel at the Trump Organization, a campaign adviser on Jewish world issues and, currently, as his lead diplomat in an effort to jump-start peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians. Designing that Middle East peace plan has been his preoccupation in the White House, to the exclusion of much else.

And so his visit to Pittsburgh on Monday was a new sort of ambassadorial position for Greenblatt, who, in his mild-mannered way, carried a message of apolitical support to a community in shock and mourning.

“I met with one individual who knew several of the victims, and she really lifted the names of the victims off the page by telling me about the impressive lives they led and all they did for their community,” Greenblatt told The Jerusalem Post last week. “It is difficult to comfort people in the wake of this kind of terrible tragedy. But it’s a very, very strong community. They’re trying to pick up the pieces.”

On his first night there, just one day after the shooter, Robert Bowers, opened fire on the Tree of Life Synagogue in neighborhood of Squirrel Hill, Greenblatt attended an interfaith vigil where Muslims and Christians expressed solidarity with the city’s substantial Jewish community. He tried to keep a low profile throughout his visit, and especially on that night, he said, briefly introducing himself to Tree of Life’s rabbi and engaging in brief conversations with attendees.

Greenblatt then toured three schools the next day where he prayed with students at a Chabad school, took questions from students at an all-girls school and met with faculty and students at a community day school.

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“He talked about what it was like to be a Jew working in the White House,” said Rabbi Yossi Rosenblum, principal of Yeshiva Boys School in Pittsburgh. “The setting was helpful to students, and he didn’t come with some speech that wouldn’t have been appropriate at the time. It was more him listening. His tone was appropriate, he was a little bit under the radar – he did not seem to want to make public statements and was clear this was not a media event.”

Rosenblum said that students expressed satisfaction and appreciation with Greenblatt’s visit and that many took photos with the White House official. The conversation remained non-political, the rabbi added.

Evan Indianer, chair of the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and secretary on the executive board of the Community Day School, told the Post that he intentionally steered Greenblatt’s visit away from environments that might stir political tensions.

“It was presented to me was that Jason was already in town and that, since he was here, he wanted to give community members the opportunity to engage him in whatever way they wanted,” Indianer said. “I thought that sort of opportunity for engagement, even in crisis, is always advantageous. And I thought not engaging would be a horrible message – people have to come to together. So I offered to host Jason.”

He toured Greenblatt around the school and showed him its Holocaust memorial, which evokes a Star of David, before guiding him around Squirrel Hill. On these stops, too, Greenblatt opted to talk less and listen more, according to Indianer.

“Under normal circumstances, when someone loses somebody, even if the person is older and has lived a very full life – even then people don’t know what to say. And in Judaism, when you go to a shiva [mourning] house, you’re there to listen,” Indianer continued. “And Jason’s a smart individual – I think he knew there was nothing you could say. But you can be there. And that makes the world of difference.”

GREENBLATT LATER spent time coordinating Trump’s visit, which took place on Tuesday. Protesters accusing Trump of stoking political violence were audible as the president, first lady Melania Trump and the president’s Jewish daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, paid tribute to the victims at Tree of Life. But Greenblatt said he did not see the protests and questioned the crowd size of the gathering.

“I thought the president’s visit was exactly the right tone,” Greenblatt said. “His visit was important and respectful and I thought that most people respected it. The feedback from people I interacted with was to thank the president for his respectful visit.”

Both he and the president kept low profiles during their visits to Pittsburgh. But on Saturday night, hours after the killings, Trump delivered a forceful message in a speech in Indianapolis where he adopted rhetoric conspicuously similar to that of the Ambassador to the US, Ron Dermer, who frequently goes on the offensive against antisemitic figures.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, as well as Greenblatt, helped shape the president’s response, according to administration officials.

But Greenblatt’s role in Pittsburgh was of supporter and comforter – a soft form of domestic diplomacy that Trump’s administration has largely dismissed, declining to appoint traditional White House roles on Jewish world issues, such as a permanent liaison to the Jewish community or a special envoy to combat antisemitism.

There is no figure or office in the White House whose job is to investigate a spike in antisemitism nationwide or how best to address it.

Those who protested the president’s visit accused him of providing cover to antisemites by using conspiratorial language at his rallies and on Twitter, evoking “globalist” puppeteers who control the strings of power in finance, media and government. But Greenblatt, in his first comments on the accusation, said he rejects that theory as misinformed.

“As far as fighting the viciousness of these conspiracy theories – it has obviously never been true, and it is not true today,” Greenblatt said. “President Trump was incredibly forceful in his condemnation of the attack, about the need to fight antisemitism and said that those seeking [the destruction of the Jews], we will seek their destruction.”

Those Pittsburghers who met with Greenblatt were just glad his visit did not devolve into a debate over the root causes of antisemitism, or over the president’s role in its rise. In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, they simply were not up for it.

Now, one week on, they are equally disinterested in remaining a national spotlight and focused instead on rebuilding their daily routines.

“I think right now we want to get back to normal,” said Rosenblum. “I don’t expect anything further. The president was here and he kept that a very private event as well.”

“If we ever have the president or any other representation,” he added, “I hope it’s for good things.”

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