NEW YORK – Throughout the last year and a half of a heated presidential campaign in the United States, American Jewish organizations, like much of the general US population, have been divided when it came to their views of the candidates, and particularly of President-elect Donald Trump.
Most recently, Jewish organizations clashed over the appointment of former Breitbart News chairman Steve Bannon as Trump’s chief strategist.
Last month, the Zionist Organization of America issued a statement defending Bannon in light of criticism by the Anti-Defamation League. In the statement, ZOA president Morton Klein accused the group of “engaging in character assassination against President-elect Trump’s appointee” and even called the ADL “a disgrace.”
On the opposite end of the spectrum, the advocacy group J Street encouraged its followers to “Keep Bannon out of the White House” by sending messages to their representatives in Congress. Bannon’s appointment, J Street said, “sends the message that the racist, antisemitic, xenophobic views of the alt-right will be embraced by [Trump’s] administration.”
Throughout the campaign as well, some organizations did not shy away from calling Trump out for some of his comments, particularly those concerning his proposed ban on Muslims and statements on Hispanics, women and other groups.
Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt told The Jerusalem Post that his organization was not trying to “[get] involved in the politics of the day” when it criticized Trump, but rather to uphold its more than 100 years-long mission of “fighting prejudice.”
“That is really what we are trying to do,” he said. “Sometimes that meant criticizing Bernie Sanders, when he accused the Israeli government of killing over 15,000 Palestinians in Gaza, which was absurd by orders of magnitude and so we called it what it was, sort of a modern blood libel that he needed to correct.
“At the same time we called out when candidates on the other side of the aisle did things like describe Mexicans as rapists or whatever,” Greenblatt added. “That’s what we do at ADL. We are not partisan, we try to be principled. We do think it’s critical to call out prejudice.”
The ADL, he pointed out, also praised Trump on numerous occasions over the past year, “when he disavowed antisemitism, which he did after David Duke endorsed him” or on election night for his acceptance speech about bringing the country together.
“We try to call it as we see it based on our historic mission,” Greenblatt explained.
Since the November 8 election, the ADL has seen a significant growth in its online donations, which Greenblatt believes may be a form of response to the “emergence of white supremacy as a political force and an unfortunate one, during this political season.
“People are deeply concerned about this and want to do something about it,” he told the Post. “It was organic. I think people are deeply disturbed by some of the rhetoric.”
Despite its somewhat “rocky relationship” with Trump, and pledging to “hold the administration accountable” on issues the ADL cares about, Greenblatt said he is “hopeful” that the ADL “can engage optimistically with this new administration and find ways to work together and collaborate in areas of mutual interest, as we have with Democrats and Republicans year after year, term after term, decade after decade, half century after half century.
“We’ve reached out to the transition,” he told the Post. “I certainly hope we have an opportunity to find ways to work together, even though we don’t agree on everything.
What we won’t do is say that the only thing that’s important is access,” he pointed out.
Access to the White House is still of significant importance to the work of American Jewish organizations, specifically in order to achieve the common goal of a strong and secure Jewish state with peace in the Middle East.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, told the Post that such access is “vital,” because Israel is a “complex issue and you can’t just communicate a detailed position in an email or on Twitter.”
“It’s having access that gives us the ability to present the case. It doesn’t mean dictate it. It means we have an opportunity to share,” he explained.
The importance of access, Hoenlein added, is explained by the fact that “there is a lot at stake. What the administration decides affects the lives of Jews as it does people around the world of all kinds, but particularly for Israel,” he said.
“The US-Israel relationship is particularly vital and every aspect of it is vital, so access for us is not self-serving, it is in order to enable us to be most effective.”
According to Hoenlein, the conference has had “very good ties” with all administrations, Republican or Democratic alike, with relationships developed over years based on trust and mutual respect.
He stressed that his organization is very cautious in its public comments about US leaders in order to not jeopardize the open door to the White House, which he views as “a vital, even sacred responsibility.”
“It’s not a given, it’s not an entitlement, it’s something you earn,” he told the Post. “People have to be very careful. Jewish power is like a muscle. If you exercise it right you build it up; if you abuse it, you destroy it.
“We try to be nonpartisan, but we advocate particular positions, particular points of view that represent the interests of our community, which we believe are consistent with the interests of the United States and I think it will be the same with the Trump administration,” Hoenlein added.
In Hoenlein’s view, organizations that have been critical of the president-elect during his campaign nevertheless shouldn’t be too worried about being sidelined.
“Trump is reaching out to people who are very critical of him, like Mitt Romney etc., so I don’t think there is a risk. But not everybody has access to the White House, not everybody has access to administrations.
Even Democrats to Democratic administrations.”
Getting access to the new president and being able to promote their views on what is best for the Jewish people and Israel is much less of a concern for the Zionist Organization of America, whose president Klein told the Post he already has meetings scheduled in Trump Tower soon.
“I am very close to many of the important people around Trump.
I know them personally, I know them very well,” he said. “I will be able to approach these people regularly, so I’m very happy about the access that I will have to this administration.”
This, he explained, is a major change for ZOA, which did not get to engage with the Obama administration over the past eight years.
“Obama had no interest in hearing views different from his,” Klein said. “Because we have different views than President Obama, most of the people around him would not meet with ZOA.”
“I think it’s high time that the Jewish organizations publicly recognize that we have a strong supporter of Israel in Trump and that the top aides and advisers around him are the most pro-Israel advisers around a president since Israel was established,” he added.
“Too frequently, organizations have done what they could to have access for access’s stake, and not have access to promote a proper Israel agenda. I am very much looking forward to working with them.”
Among the issues ZOA is hoping to bring to the new administration’s attention are the refusal of Palestinians to negotiate a peace deal, the results of Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, halting aid to the Palestinian Authority “as long as they promote hatred and violence against Jews” and pushing for the US Embassy to be moved to Jerusalem, as Trump promised on the campaign trail.
Hoenlein believes it may be too early and “a waste” for the community to start approaching the new administration at this time.
“They haven’t even begun to focus on policy except for general statements and it takes months for the administrations,” he explained. “I believe you gotta give them a little time to settle down and to take control and to get everybody in place.
“First of all, the people who are there now are not necessarily going to be there six months from now, and second of all they are under pressure now on so many fronts that they are not thinking yet about whether they are going to move the embassy,” Hoenlein continued. “And then we have to also always set our priorities and think what’s the most important issue. We have to think things through, plan it, do it intelligently.”
While the question of how to approach the administration preoccupies some, for J Street, which has been very critical of Donald Trump, not getting access to the White House is something the group is “very comfortable with,” according to its president, Jeremy Ben-Ami.
“Our view continues to be that the way in which he has been conducting himself, and the types of proposals that he has put forward on a wide range of issues, simply run counter to the values that the overwhelming majority of Jewish Americans hold,” he told the Post.
“We are in an interesting position, because it’s not our organization’s role to work with or make nice to the government in power, either in Israel or the United States,” he added. “Access is not what we are about.”
Ben-Ami explained that, as an advocacy organization, J Street “will work with anybody who shares our core beliefs and our core values. It was the case in the last eight years, that for this president, much of what he stood for aligned with us and so our advocacy work was often trying to help and clear space politically for the president and his team to get done what they were trying to get done.
“If the Trump administration goes a down a road of pursuing policies that, for instance, erode the possibility of a two-state solution rather than promote it, we will oppose that. We may not have as many meetings with the Trump administration as we have had with the Obama administration, but we’re certainly going to have a lot of meetings on Capitol Hill with the Democrats and some Republicans who don’t think that that’s the right way to do [things],” he said.
Ben-Ami made clear the organization is prepared to “play defense” and mostly react to “block things that are not in line with [their] interest and values.”
Concerning the divide in opinions when it comes to the new president and his aides, Jewish organizations know that true unity is unlikely to happen.
“I actually think it’s not something to worry about at all,” Ben- Ami said. “It’s human nature and its life. There are six million Jewish Americans. I can’t get agreement in my own family over anything, and we are four people.
“I never understood this concept that somehow, because we all happen to share ethnic and religious background, that we are supposed to all agree,” he added.
“There isn’t unity on a president,” ZOA’s Klein said. “From Oslo to the Gaza withdrawal, you’re not going to have overwhelming support on one side of those issues, because they are hard issues. What we should feel very comfortable about, or happy about, is that all of us want to see peace in the Middle East and virtually all of us want to see a strong and secure Israel,” he added. “We’re unified in that. That’s the most important thing.”