More Jews will be named to more key positions in the next administration than in the past. Unlike the Jews serving in the current administration who ranged in practice from Chabad to Modern Orthodox, this time there will be Reform and Conservative Jews.
It may be conservative, provincial and extremely ethnocentric. It is relevant to look for a moment at the incoming American administration from a Jewish point of view. You don’t need binoculars to see a recognizable difference between the Jews that Donald Trump appointed and the Jews who (so far) President-elect Joe Biden has appointed. With Trump they were few, Orthodox, and appointed to positions where they dealt mainly with issues related to Israel, the Middle East or anything that played up to the evangelical base of our soon-to-be ex-president. Biden’s nominations and appointments, by contrast, at least so far, are not only overwhelmingly senior positions, but they are not concentrated in any particular policy or ethnic area. It’s not their ethnic origin or their specific role in the government that determined whether they were chosen, but their resume, their education and the political path that they have followed within the Democratic Party.
Trump was considered by many to be a sworn supporter of Israel, and the actions of his administration, from decisiveness in thwarting the Iran nuclear agreement to transferring the American Embassy to Jerusalem, testify to how consistent his support was. But we have to admit, his perception of Jews has flirted more than once with anti-Semitism. As a businessman, he said that he likes to let Jews take care of his money. As president, he hinted that American Jews (Republicans, actually) had a prime minister in Benjamin Netanyahu who faithfully represented them, as if to say that they were not really Americans. On the other hand, Trump was astonished at how Jews could vote for the Democratic Party and concluded that they must be disloyal.
He called Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff (a Jew), “Shifty Schiff,” or the sneaky Schiff, an epithet that he would not have earned if not for his (Jewish) origins. Trump’s son, Donald Jr., called the attempts to impeach his father “a Jewish plot.”* That’s not to mention the fact that Trump almost completely ignored anti-Semitic incidents in the United States during his presidency, and there are those who say that he actually laid the groundwork for them to occur.
In contrast, Biden’s new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is Jewish. So is Treasury secretary nominee Janet Yellen. Alejandro Mayorkas, a Jew whose family immigrated from Cuba, has been nominated to serve as as secretary of homeland security. Former Rep. Ron Klain will serve as White House chief of staff — the president’s gatekeeper.
Even before we see the final list of nominees and appointees — it’s already clear that there will be more Jews in more key positions in the Biden White House than in any previous administration. Only one Jew — Henry Kissinger — has ever been nominated to serve as secretary of state. That was 50 years ago.
The cries of delight of more than 75% of U.S. Jews elicited by the vote count this week when it became clear that Biden was definitely going to be president could be heard all the way to Tel Aviv. It seems those cries of delight were heard in Jerusalem, too. No president was more hated than Trump.
When Trump was elected, I remember conversations between senior Jewish leaders who wondered if he would invite them to a symbolic Passover Seder (presidents usually do this) or to the customary Hanukkah candle lighting. There were those who planned how they would phrase their refusal to attend. But Trump didn’t even try. It did not occur to him to invite them. Reform Jews, Conservative Jews — anyone who carried a whiff of liberalism just wasn’t there. The Jewish invitees to White House events were on the Chabad-Modern Orthodox spectrum.
Is the presence of Jews in key positions in the new government good for Israel? I don’t know. Not necessarily. And in my opinion, this is also not the most important issue. Happily, many of Biden’s appointees are also outstanding supporters of Israel. I am happy at the success of my brothers and sisters even if they are not lovers of Israel. A Satmar Hasidic Jew who won a Nobel Prize would make me happy even if he were not a Zionist. I feel pride in a Jewish war hero who fought in the Red Army against the Nazis even if he was a devout communist.
Jewishness is sometimes a gut feeling, not a pure ideology. It makes it possible for me, a committed Zionist, to look at my extended family circle with a kind eye. I am happy for their success, and I also wish them well.
Dr. Yizhar Hess is the vice executive director of the World Zionist Histadrut
*Editor’s note: This quote, though accurately translated, could not be independently verified.