Q+A: What Does a Jewish White House Liaison Do Anyway?
The idea of designating a White House staffer to be in charge of relations with the American Jewish community dates back to the Kennedy administration. It is based on the idea that providing a dedicated channel of communication between the administration and the Jewish community could benefit both sides.
From feeling the pulse of the Jewish community on American policies toward Israel to managing invitation lists to the White House Hanukkah reception, the liaison’s office has been the first, and at times the exclusive, address for Jewish leaders.
But breaking with tradition, President Trump has yet to appoint a liaison to the Jewish community and has not indicated his intention to fill the position in the future.
The Forward reached out to 4 former liaisons from Republican and Demo- cratic administrations and all voiced their support for maintaining the position in the Trump White House.
Should President Trump fill the position of liaison to the Jewish community and if so, why?
REAGAN ADMINISTRATION: He should fill it. There are two roles for this position. In an administration that doesn’t have connection with the Jewish community, it becomes an essential point of entry for the community and for the administration to get its views through.In administrations that have a good relationship with the community, there’s a lot of more bureaucratic work of getting views of the community to the administration and hearing responses back. So, even in an administration like Trump’s, where you have Ivanka, Jared, and Sheldon Adelson, you still want to have the regular contacts.
CLINTON ADMINISTRATION: Of course he should. It’s critical that we have our voices heard.
Just remember that 70 years ago, rabbis came to [Franklin] Roosevelt and were turned down. The office of the liaison serves a real vital function—to have an address in the White House, an email, a phone number to call and express your concerns. If there isn’t a point person at the White House, it’s hard for any administration to communicate its agenda and to receive feedback on what’s important to the community. TEVI TROY
GEORGE W. BUSH ADMINISTRATION: The binary question of Jewish liaison or not is less relevant than whether the president has Jewish advisers who can provide the community’s perspective, and can also represent for the president within the community. Recent presidents have typically had this, but it was not always so. Mike Doran’s “Ike’s Gamble” quotes former President Dwight Eisenhower telling Max Fisher in 1965, “Max, if I’d had a Jewish adviser working for me, I doubt I would’ve handled the situation the same way. I would not have forced the Israelis back [from Suez in 1956].” JARROD BERNSTEIN
OBAMA ADMINISTRATION: Early in my tenure someone asked me “how does the Jewish community feel about x issue?” I looked back at them and answered, “which one are you talking about?” While we are one people and one community in many respects, we have a diverse set of issues that matter to us when broken down by region or stream of Judaism. An individual who can help understand the nuanced way that these different communities approach everything from Israel policy to the charitable tax deduction is extremely helpful.
Equally as important is that diverse strands of the American Jewish community have an individual in the White House who is charged with ensuring that their views are accurately reflected to policy makers in Washington, particularly when it comes to Jews not represented by one of the major American Jewish Organizations.
What was the most significant or memorable moment for you as liaison to the Jewish community?
MARSHAL BREGER: My first most memorable moment was when Vice President George H. W. Bush, called me from Air Force 2 to tell me the first Jews from Ethiopia had arrived in Israel with Operation Solomon. I was in tears. Then there was Bitburg. [Reagan’s controversial decision to attend a ceremony at the Bitburg cemetery in Germany where Nazi SS soldiers were buried] In the narrow sense, I failed, but I was able to keep lines of communications open. I believe the President and his team became sensitized to the problem. It was traumatic, it was significant, it was all-consuming.
I was deeply involved in the Jewish community before taking the office, but was never in Israel. My first trip was with the president of the United States, when he attended the signing of the peace accord between Israel and Jordan. It was also moving to have Jewish groups knocking on the door of the White House urging the president to take an active role in saving Muslim lives in Bosnia.
My most memorable moment was President Bush’s visit to the 6th & I synagogue on the way to speaking at the 350th year celebration of a Jewish presence in America. Rabbi Zvi Teitelbaum brought Bush to the bimah and read the section from Deuteronomy saying that a ruler must write a Torah scroll, so that he should know he too is confined by the limits of the law. Bush then went to the 350th anniversary and told the crowd, “I just came from shul.” I had suggested that the line read, “Unlike the rest of y’all, I just came from shul,” but it was wisely edited down.
Hanukkah at the White House brought a fair amount of mishgas but also offered an opportunity to reflect on how lucky we are to be both Americans and Jews. I recall a moment the day of the Hanukkah party where I was touring the White House kitchen with a leader of a major American Jewish organization and his grandson. The Kitchen had been made kosher for the day (as it had every year since First Lady Laura Bush decreed it—credit where credit is due) and the leader of this organization looked at his grandson and remarked to him that we were truly living in a great country that the home of the leader of that country cared so much about the rights of minorities that they would make the whole kitchen kosher for us for one day. It was a deeply powerful moment for me about how lucky I was to be an American and Jew and how important it was for us to respect the rights of all religious minorities.