Jewish fears of Trump White House mount before Netanyahu visit

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday. Netanyahu heads to Washington this week for a high-profile meeting with President Donald Trump that is suddenly clouded in uncertainty. After embracing Israel's hard-line nationalist right throughout his presidential campaign, Trump appears to have softened some of his positions on key issues since taking office. [Pool photo by Gali Tibbon via AP]
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on Sunday. Netanyahu heads to Washington this week for a high-profile meeting with President Donald Trump that is suddenly clouded in uncertainty. After embracing Israel's hard-line nationalist right throughout his presidential campaign, Trump appears to have softened some of his positions on key issues since taking office. [Pool photo by Gali Tibbon via AP]
Published Feb. 14, 2017

POMPANO BEACH — When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Donald Trump in Washington, he will do so against the backdrop of an American Jewish diaspora more fearful and skeptical of the U.S. government than it has been in decades.

Interviews with more than a dozen top Jewish political operatives and leaders across the country reveal deep discomfort with a refugee ban than hits close to home, alarm about some of Trump's top advisers and, most of all, overwhelming concerns about the administration's rhetoric on the Holocaust and its approach to dealing with anti-Semitism.

Those worries were present throughout the 2016 presidential election, as some of Trump's most vocal supporters included avowed anti-Semites, and his campaign occasionally employed the veiled anti-Semitic messages and images associated with the white supremacist community.

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Now, concerns about the White House's tolerance of anti-Semitism have burst to the fore after the president's team said it intentionally omitted a reference to Jewish suffering in its Holocaust Remembrance Day statement in an effort to be "inclusive." Worse yet, in Jewish leaders' minds, Trump's team repeatedly dismissed ensuing criticism as "pathetic" and "asinine."

Indeed, on the eve of Netanyahu's meeting Wednesday with Trump, it's hard to overstate just how much that approach has rattled the Jewish community.

"Nobody can understand why the administration continues to fight efforts to just simply acknowledge, yes, the Final Solution was focused on the Jews. Hitler wanted to destroy the Jewish people," Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said in an interview with McClatchy, slamming his fist on a wooden table in a dimly lit community center here in Pompano Beach, north of Miami.

"They can't understand why there is this hesitancy, this defensiveness, on the part of the administration here - and they're concerned about it," said Deutch, who represents a sizable Jewish community in his South Florida district and is a Democratic co-chair of a congressional task force on anti-Semitism.

Those currents of anxiety are rippling through Republican Jewish circles, too, even as many there separately hold out hope for improved relations with Israel after a sometimes-tense period under former President Barack Obama.

"They've profoundly underestimated how unnerving the Holocaust statement was to the Jewish community, even to their supporters," said Michael Fragin, a strategist and radio host who helped direct Republican Jewish outreach in Florida during the 2004 election and has led Jewish outreach efforts for politicians including former New York Gov. George Pataki and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Andrew Weinstein, finance director of the Florida Democratic Party, added: "I guess Donald Trump deserves some credit for uniting the American Jewish community."

It's a difficult and confusing situation for Jewish Americans to confront given that the president voices strong support for Israel and his daughter and son-in-law are Orthodox Jews. Many people, in fact, say they don't doubt his personal affinity for the Jewish people.

But leaders of the "alt-right" white nationalist movement, which attracts racists and anti-Semites, say they have been emboldened by Trump's victory. And while Trump belatedly disavowed the movement, his decision to elevate adviser Steve Bannon, who once headed the controversial Breitbart News — which Bannon himself called a platform of the alt-right — has reinforced the fear among some that anti-Semitism has a conduit to the White House (though Bannon, who has some conservative Jewish allies, has said he is no anti-Semite and has highlighted his pro-Israel beliefs).

At the same time, anti-Semitic activity is rising across the country and especially in places like heavily Jewish Florida. Jewish community centers in this state alone have received at least 11 bomb threats since the beginning of 2017, said Hava Holzhauer, the Anti-Defamation League's Florida regional director, and dozens of others have faced threats nationally.

Add in Trump's Holocaust statement and the parallels some Jews see between U.S. policy toward their European relatives in the 1930s and Trump's travel ban targeting immigrants from Muslim-majority countries and it's easy to understand the fear, anger and sadness coursing through many Jewish communities.

Asked whether he would consider the administration itself anti-Semitic, Deutch replied, "No. My focus is on the atmosphere that's created and whether there's a clear and strong commitment to fighting bigotry and anti-Semitism. And on that issue, I'm not sure there is."

When asked about those concerns, White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters called them "ridiculous."

"The president has the utmost respect for the Jewish community," she said. "He does, and always will condemn anti-Semitism and bigotry."

Certainly, there is little question that on a personal level, Trump is surrounded by Jews he admires and cares about, starting with his daughter, Ivanka, and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, the grandson of Holocaust survivors.

Kushner has been tasked with running point on Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and has a personal relationship with Netanyahu, which eases the minds of some Jews who otherwise are uncomfortable with the recent rhetoric from the White House, and there are a number of other high-level Jewish Trump advisers and staffers who are well-respected in the community.

Trump also continues to have a number of influential Republican Jewish allies — including mega-donor Sheldon Adelson, who dined with him last week.

And while plenty of Jewish Republicans have been bothered by the rise of the white supremacist movement and the administration's Holocaust language — and many have spoken out — there are also those eager to give Trump the benefit of the doubt, because they see an opportunity to foster better relations with Israel's government after what they say was a disastrous period under Obama, whom they considered to be excessively critical of Israel.

That's why Mort Klein, the head of the Zionist Organization of America, who is close to Adelson, is willing to move on, even though Klein has repeatedly criticized the White House's language on the Holocaust.

"It was troubling, it was wrong, but in the scheme of what's important to Israel, to the Jewish people, as painful as it was — and it was painful — it's not an issue that affects, directly, Israel, or policy most Jewish people care about," he said in an interview with McClatchy last week.

"Because we had a president this extraordinarily hostile, almost any change would have been welcome," he said of Obama. "We're more forgiving (of Trump) because ... we think he's supportive in general. Even if he makes a mistake like the Holocaust issue, we don't think that has implications for issues that are more important."

(Two days later, however, Klein found himself criticizing the administration again in an interview with Politico, this time over its list of terrorist attacks that the White House alleged the media had under-covered. It left attacks in Israel off the list.)

Jews, like those who milled in and out of the kosher restaurants and tchotchke stores in a religious neighborhood of Miami on a recent evening, said they want to give Trump a "fair shot." Many said they were so scarred by Obama's tougher approach to Israel that they would not dwell on this administration's rhetoric.

Instead, they are waiting to see whether Trump will follow through on the actions he promised them during the campaign — including that he would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and not put undue pressure on Israel as part of any peace negotiations.

"Compared to Obama, I think the Trump administration is going to be 100 percent better toward our allies and 100 percent worse towards our real enemies," said Ronald Krongold, a Florida-based board member of the Republican Jewish Coalition and a longtime Jeb Bush ally. "The Jewish community should first of all have an optimistic view, considering where we're coming from, as to what the Trump administration is going to do vis-a-vis Israel."

Trump's administration is hardly the first to have a complicated relationship with the Jewish community. President Ronald Reagan, who on the whole was viewed warmly by a sizable swath of the community, still deeply insulted many when he visited Bitburg, a German cemetery where some of Hitler's SS troops were buried.

"Any president can survive a big mistake like (Trump's Holocaust statement). Bitburg was a much, much bigger mistake," said Noam Neusner, a former Jewish community liaison for President George W. Bush.

But, he continued, "It will be very, very hard for even rightward-leaning Jews to support a Trump White House which fails to acknowledge critical, critical things about the centrality of the Jewish experience in the Holocaust. It's one of those things you can't look past. It's one thing they'll have to figure out."

If the Jewish community's outrage at the Trump administration's Holocaust remarks has been nearly unanimous, the view on the White House's attempted ban on refugees has been less so (and in fact, Stephen Miller, a top Trump aide and an architect of the ban, is Jewish).

But on that, too, there has been widespread anger among Jews on both sides of the aisle, many of them children and grandchildren of Jewish refugees themselves. Last week, around 20 rabbis were arrested in New York protesting the ban, and from Chicago to Omaha, synagogue groups have been heavily involved in resettling the refugees who make it to the U.S.

"Jews grow up, from their earliest memories, knowing we have spent our history being persecuted," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., said in an interview. "We are taught that it's not only important we look out for ourselves, but that 'Never Again' has meaning through our actions, our commitment to standing up for justice for people who have no voice. . Throughout history, in many instances, no one stood up for us."

©2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau