Q+A: What Does a Jewish White House Li­ai­son Do Any­way?

Forward Magazine - - Con­tents - By Nathan Guttman

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.


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