Jewish leaders mixed on ‘Trump effect’ for Israel

Jewish leaders mixed on ‘Trump effect’ for Israel

President-elect Donald Trump.
President-elect Donald Trump.

A day after the presidential election, Mark Levenson was elated.

Although he is a registered Democrat and supports most liberal social policies, Levenson said he was “satisfied” with his vote for Donald Trump, even as he noted that “both candidates have plusses and minuses.” 

“Neither candidate was a George Washington or a Menachem Begin,” he said.

The West Orange resident, who chairs the New Jersey-Israel Commission and is past president of the State Association of Jewish Federations, is an attorney at the Newark law firm of Sills Cummis & Gross. He believes in considering Israel, Trump will be the better president.

He predicted Trump “will help change the illegitimacy that the UN has foisted upon Israel,” move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, continue providing strong support to the Israeli military, and reject the notion that Israel is an “occupier.”

Although Levenson does not believe Trump “will rip up” the nuclear accord with Iran, he said the president-elect will “take much stronger action against Iran in terms of it being a bad actor in the Middle East, and expect Iran’s actions may be tempered a bit.”

Jared Silverman, a West Orange attorney and once-a-month columnist for NJJN, said his vote for Trump “was essentially a vote against Clinton.” He would have preferred as presidential candidate Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker or Vice President-elect Mike Pence, “who was on the conservative side and had a track record.” 

Asked why he thought 70 percent of the Jewish vote went to Hillary Clinton, Silverman called it a “knee-jerk” reaction. “I was conditioned at birth to be a Democrat. In the Bronx it was a shonda if you were not a Democrat.”

Alan Steinberg, a Highland Park attorney and “moderate conservative” Republican who broke party ranks to support Clinton after Trump won his party’s nomination, had a different analysis. 

“There are a lot of people in the Jewish ultra-right who have hated the Clinton family for a long time,” said Steinberg. “They are very opposed to dealing with the Palestinians or a two-state solution. The Jewish ultra-right is not that concerned about social issues like abortion. They are totally about Israel. That is what I think accounted for the anti-Clinton feeling.”

To Daniel C. Kurtzer, the S. Daniel Abraham professor of Middle Eastern policy studies at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, a good relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President-elect Trump may be one of few bright spots in the Republican victory.

“It’s a good thing when the president and prime minister get along,” Kurtzer said. “The anomaly was that Netanyahu and Obama didn’t get along, but the relationship was better than it ever has been in terms of aid and U.S. support of Israel at the United Nations. If the relationship can improve, that is good for everybody.”

Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt (1997-2001) and to Israel (2001-05), supported Clinton’s run for president.

“Of course I am disappointed,” he said. “Having worked for as many years as I have on the prospects for peace in the Middle East, I am concerned that this could be a fundamental change in our commitment to a two-state solution, which I think is the only thing that helps the United States, Israel, and the Palestinians.”

He surmised that the Jewish support for Trump came from Orthodox voters and what he termed “Israel voters,” who vote according to what they believe to be beneficial for Israel.

Both Levenson and Silverman said they were concerned about the Obama administration launching a “November surprise” at the UN that might condemn Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem or condemn Israel for not creating a Palestinian state.

Kurtzer took a different view. “I think if Clinton had won, President Obama would have coordinated whatever he was thinking of doing with her. Whether he will do something now in coordination with the new president is anybody’s guess.”

The former ambassador predicted “some significant change” in American policy in the Middle East.

Both Silverman and Levenson hope Trump will carry out his promise to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – Trump is already hedging on this point – but Kurtzer is skeptical. 

“A lot of presidential candidates have promised it, but every president until now has said it would upset the prospects for peace,” Kurtzer said. “The Arab states and the Palestinians would react very badly because it is a unilateral action on an issue which has to be negotiated.”

However, David Friedman, Trump’s senior adviser on Israel affairs, supports not only the embassy move, but the expanding of Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

Rabbi Azriel Fellner, former religious leader at Temple Beth Shalom in Livingston, said he believes the 30 percent of Jews who voted for Trump “went for him because of his supposed stance on Israel.”

“I did not support Trump on anything he said because his position is usually self-serving and of the moment, not something he has thought through,” said Fellner. “He is not analytic or reflective. If at the moment it looks good for him to be pro-Israel, he will be pro-Israel.”

Fellner is skeptical about the close relationship between the president-elect and the Israeli prime minister. “Netanyahu seems to be happy about Trump but I think Trump has monovision when it comes to Israel and the Arab world,” said Fellner. “He has no nuanced position. He sees one as the good guy and one as the bad guy. In the beginning the relationship between him and Israel will be warm, but I don’t know if it will be productive.

Pat Sebold, a Democratic Essex County freeholder, said she “just can’t believe” Trump was elected. 

“It scares me because Trump was against so many things I believe in — the immigrants, the refugees, the Muslims, the LGBT community,” she said. “He had anti-Semitic literature. There was so much bigotry. I have always known there were right-wing extremists in this country but they stayed in the background. They have come to the forefront now, and I’m scared.”

Phyllis Bernstein of Westfield, cochair of the Greater MetroWest federation’s Israeli Arab Committee, did volunteer work for the Clinton campaign before the election.

“It is hard to feel optimistic,” she said. “I worry that people will retreat, but we have to be vigilant to make sure America is a democracy. I am mourning today but I feel we have to pull it together and go on.” 

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