How influential were Orthodox Jews in Trump's administration? - analysis

White House Channuka parties included a broad swathe of the Jewish leadership.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a Hanukkah reception and executive order against antisemitism signing in the East Room of the White House in Washington, US, December 11, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)
US President Donald Trump speaks during a Hanukkah reception and executive order against antisemitism signing in the East Room of the White House in Washington, US, December 11, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/TOM BRENNER)
Pictures on the White House lawn of some two dozen Orthodox Jews gathering for Mincha, the afternoon prayer service, after the signing of the Abraham Accords in September was the apparent apotheosis Orthodox Jewish political influence in the US.
And during US President Donald Trump’s presidency, Orthodox Jews constituted some of his most prominent and closest advisers during an administration that was more supportive of the positions of the Israeli government than in any time in recent memory.
How far was this a result of Orthodox Jewish influence, and to what extent will this influence wane with the introduction of US President-elect Joe Biden’s administration?
For liberal Jews, often on the non-Orthodox Jewish religious spectrum, the Trump years represented a cold and lonely exile from the warm embrace of the progressive Obama era, who was of similar mind to liberal Jewish social policy and on Israel.
White House Hanukkah parties included a broad swath of the Jewish leadership, and liberal Jewish leaders were included in policy discussions on a wide range of issues, and also served ad policy advisers on Israel.
But under Trump that changed. One senior figure in the Jewish community says that during formal White House events focusing on Israel and American Jewry, the guest list went from being a diverse representation of the entire gamut of the community to a far more narrow group of Orthodox and conservative leaders and groups.
“If you weren’t in lockstep with their views on foreign and domestic policy, you weren’t welcome at their gatherings,” said the source.
In addition, large numbers of Evangelical Christian leaders were also now a customary and significant presence at such events in a way they had never been under US president Barack Obama.
Orthodox advisers such as Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, US Ambassador and former Trump attorney David Friedman, Jason Greenblatt, Avi Berkowitz and others all had the ear of the president as it pertained to Israel policy and the Jewish community.
Orthodox organizations and leaders have had significant and prominent access to the White House, as have leaders of the Israeli settler movement, which is overwhelmingly Orthodox.
Given that Orthodox American Jewry tends to have views more in line with the current right-wing Israeli government than their liberal counterparts, is it that Orthodox presence among Trump’s advisers and the general Orthodox support for Trump that brought about this greater friendliness to Israel?
A senior Jewish US figure not associated with the liberal, non-Orthodox movements said not necessarily. Yes, access for Orthodox Jews to the Trump White House was considerable, and this increased over the course of the Trump presidency.
And, said the source, the presence of Kushner, Friedman, Greenblatt and others was important in, for example, the generous terms given to Israel in the Trump peace proposals that were announced with great fanfare in a ceremony also noticeable for the large number of Orthodox Jews present.
But it is possible and even likely that it was Evangelical Christians, ardent political supporters of Trump, who were the real driving force behind the president’s pro-Israel policies.
“Everything Trump did was calculated,” said the source, saying that his massive backing for Israel would likely not have happened “if there was not enormous Evangelical support for it.”
Trump himself admitted during a recent election campaign rally that he moved the US embassy in Israel to the US “for the Evangelicals.”
An example was the issue of Israeli sovereignty over significant portions of the West Bank, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu initially thought would be immediately permitted by the Trump administration.
Trump was initially prepared to let it go ahead, but he took it off the table when it became clear that a normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates could be of greater value, the source said.
The President also took a tough stance on Iran, ripping up the deal negotiated by the Obama administration that had been so opposed by the Israeli government and by elements in the Orthodox Jewish leadership.
But there, too, Trump had indicated ahead of the election that he was keen to quickly come to an agreement with Tehran should he be reelected, saying a new nuclear deal could be reached within four weeks of the election, with Kushner also making overtures to the Iranians.
Where does this leave Orthodox and liberal Jews with Trump’s defeat and the forthcoming Biden presidency?
It seems very likely that the ideas and positions of liberal American Jews will have much greater currency with the incoming administration, and their bitter exile will be ended.
US Jewish leaders speak of their “very positive relationship” with Biden for many years, and the president-elect has spoken at conferences and events of non-Orthodox movements, and has long had a connection to the liberal part of the community.
The more conservative, right-wing Orthodox elements of the Jewish movement may not feel the icy banishment under Biden that the liberals felt under Trump, but it seems likely that their influence will decline.
But given Trump’s personal and political priorities, whether that influence was as great as it appeared made it is questionable.