Throughout his 14 months in office, President Trump, who has a reputation as a wildly inconsistent policy maker, has been a rock of consistency on two issues: failing to condemn Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and being tough on terrorism.
Those two issues spilled into the Jewish community this week with Jewish leaders asking fresh questions about whether the president — hailed in some quarters as a great friend to Israel and Jews — is actually tone deaf when it comes to some Jewish issues.
Some congressional Democrats and Jewish leaders called him out for failing to denounce Putin’s suggestion that Jews may have been responsible for meddling in the 2016 presidential election, and for siding with Palestinians who seek to overturn a $655.5 million judgment against them for promoting terrorism.
“We urge the president to condemn Putin for this disgraceful anti-Semitic comment,” said Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America. “Since President Trump has been fixated on this issue, we are surprised and disappointed that he has not criticized Putin.”
Ron Klein, chair of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, said in a statement that Putin, “after having intervened in our democratic process, has now added anti-Semitism to his long list of misdeeds … We demand the White House make it clear to Putin and the Russian government that such bigotry is abhorrent to the United States and its government.”
Rep. Nita Lowey (D-Rockland-Westchester) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal issued similar comments. The AJC said Putin’s comment was “eerily reminiscent of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” a fabricated anti-Semitic diatribe that claimed Jews were plotting global domination.
In his comments to NBC’s Megyn Kelly, Putin suggested that those behind the meddling may not have been Russians.
“Maybe they’re Ukrainian, Tatars, Jews — just with Russian citizenship,” he said.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, suggested that Putin may have misunderstood the question. He cited a JTA article that said there had been an error in the translation and that Putin may have been actually been asked if he thought a person of Russian ethnicity may have been responsible for the meddling. In Russia, Judaism is regarded as an ethnicity and not just a religion.
Thus, Rabbi Cooper said, in his answer Putin appeared to be “going down a phone book of nationalities. We didn’t appreciate he said that, but it is a long way from saying he deployed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. … Putin is an interesting and complicated person.”
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that because of the confusion, “we have requested that he clarify what he meant. That is the only way to address it and for him to make clear he was not insinuating it was the Jews” who were responsible.
Trump’s failure to call out Putin — combined with his administration’s siding with Palestinian terrorists — reminded some observers of his delayed condemnation of the white nationalist march last year in Charlottesville, Va.; Trump’s use of a six-pointed star and piles of cash in a campaign ad calling Hillary Clinton the “Most Corrupt Candidate Ever,” and of his failure to mention Jews in a statement on the Holocaust.
But ZOA’s Klein said that despite “mistakes,” he still considers Trump “one of the most pro-Israel presidents we have ever had.”
“He is a man who for the first time recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, has profusely praised Israel and its prime minister, and has agreed that a Palestinian state is not the answer to peace,” he said. “Like all presidents, he has made mistakes — and we called him on them.”
Jonathan Sarna, a professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, said he is not surprised by what he is hearing.
“Those who support Mr. Trump point to his recognition of Jerusalem and his strong support for Mr. Netanyahu,” he said. “Those on the other side — who are concerned that in some way the Republicans will pick up Jewish votes on account of these actions — naturally want to highlight places where the administration has acted in ways that have been less favorable to Jews. Each party can prove they are better for the Jews and that the other party is a danger to Jewish interests. We don’t usually see this quite this early in an election cycle, but it’s a very old story.”
Sarna added that the supporters of “all presidents turn them into the greatest president ever. Even Mr. [Barack] Obama was described that way by his supporters. … It has more to do with politics than with reality.”
The decision of the Trump administration to side with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in its court appeal seeking to nullify a 2015 verdict has caught many by surprise. The jury in Manhattan federal court had found them responsible for terrorist attacks that killed and injured American citizens, but it was overturned by an appellate court and is now being appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We were shocked” by the administration’s decision, said Mark Sokolow of Cedarhurst, L.I., the lead plaintiff in the suit filed in behalf of the Americans killed or injured in seven terrorist attacks orchestrated or carried out by agents of the PLO and the PA between 2001 and 2004.
“We thought that if any administration would support us, it would be this one,” he told The Jewish Week. “We’re very disappointed that they came out the way they did.”
In court papers seeking to refute the administration’s arguments, Sokolow’s attorneys said that if the appellate ruling is not overturned, it would “eviscerate” the Anti-Terrorism Act, which has been described as “an important means of fighting terrorist attacks. … [and] vital to this nation’s counter-terrorism capabilities.”
“The court should grant review in deference to Congress’ legislative judgment,” the attoneys added. “The United States does not dispute that the mass killings in this case are precisely the type of international terrorist attacks to which Congress intended the ATA to apply.”
The Trump administration’s brief filed by the Solicitor General’s office argued that it wished to preserve the executive branch’s prerogative to intervene in such cases in order to protect American foreign policy issues.
Stephen Flatow, whose daughter Alisa was murdered in a Palestinian terrorist attack in 1995, said this was the same excuse he heard from the Clinton administration.
“The State Department, Justice Department and Treasury have never shown themselves to be friends of terror victims,” he said. “They are in agreement that victims should not be able to recover money from the PLO or any other entity because we would be interfering with the foreign policy of the United States. It hasn’t changed.”
Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the plaintiffs’ lawyer in Israel, said in an email: “It’s shocking that the Trump Administration would throw the victims of Palestinian terrorism under the bus and side with those who intentionally murdered innocent Americans. The president has consistently been portrayed as one of the best friends Israel ever had in the White House, and yet here he’s taking the side of the terrorists against those they targeted.”
Regarding the ATA, she wrote: “Anyone familiar with this historic legislation knows the Jewish community lobbied intensely to have [it] enacted after the infamous Achille Lauro terrorist attack in which New Yorker Leon Klinghoffer was brutally killed. The ATA was specifically passed to provide terror victims, murdered and maimed by the PLO, to have a civil recourse against the terrorists. Now the Trump administration has taken this extreme step to undermine this path and block these families’ efforts at securing a measure of justice against those who devastated their lives. … One wonders if the President really knows what is being done by the Solicitor General in his name?”
Klein of the ZOA said he spoke with administration representatives and understands that the decision to support the Palestinians was made by the State Department and the National Security Council.
“I was told Trump was not involved, and I believe that because of his extraordinary statements in which he has said radical Islamic terrorism must be stopped,” he said. “We are still working to see how we can … reverse this awful decision.”
Klein added that the ZOA may file a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Supreme Court to agree to hear the case. The court is expected to announce its decision by March 29.
Rep. Kathleen Rice (R-L.I.) is Sokolow’s representative in Congress. In October she co-wrote a letter signed by 67 members of Congress asking the Trump administration to request that the Supreme Court hear the case. The letter pointed out that the House of Representatives filed its own brief with the court, saying the Court of Appeals decision was “deeply flawed.”
In a statement Monday, Rice lamented that if the “Trump administration gets its way, these survivors will not have their day in court.” She went on to point out that the ATA was passed in 1992 “with bipartisan majorities in Congress [and] was intended to deter international terrorist attacks by holding the perpetrators of these horrific acts accountable. … American victims of terror, at a minimum, have earned a right to plead their case in front of the Supreme Court. I strongly urge the honorable justices … [to] allow these citizens to seek justice for the atrocities they suffered.”