Every new year (Jewish and the other one), JewishPress.com selects a person who stood out over the past year and had a significant impact on Jewish lives. This person may not necessarily be someone we agree with, and their actions may not meet our approval, but our criteria are their impact. This year’s choice came as a surprise to us as much as to anyone else, since the winner was not even in the running until a few short weeks ago – or was he?
Reichal (Rae) Kushner, Jared’s paternal grandmother, with her siblings and her father Nachum, were Holocaust survivors who made it to America in 1949 from Navahrudak, in Belarus. As Andrea Bernstein put it in her portrait of President Trump’s son-in-law (Who Is Jared Kushner?), his family made it “through the destruction of their home and the confiscation of their business; through family separations and multiple mass executions; through starvation, lice, beatings, forced labor, German dogs, and Nazi bullets; through barbed wire and months of hiding in the forest during the Polish winter, a trek across international borders, and years in a displaced-persons camp,” and she summarizes: “The Kushners lost everything.”
Rae met Yossel in post-war Hungary and they got married in a synagogue in Budapest, in a ceremony together with twenty other couples. Rae and Yossel then “illegally crossed the Alps and several borders by foot, train and any other available mode of transportation,” and ended up in a displaced-persons camp outside Rome, where they lived for the next four years. Then, the couple lied on their immigration paperwork and Yossel Berkowitz took his wife’s last name, making him Joseph Kushner.
Joe Kushner was a carpenter, and a very good one, apparently, in an era when the US government was investing heavily in creating housing for soldiers returning from the war. The GI Bill and the Federal-Aid Highway Act made Jared’s grandfather a very rich man. He died in 1985, having built four thousand homes and made many of millions of dollars. He put his four children in four separate mansions he built in West Orange and Livingston, New Jersey, where Jews had just been allowed in. Jared Kushner grew up in one of those mansions.
Jared attended the Frisch School, a.k.a. Yeshivat Frisch (or just Frisch), a co-ed, modern Orthodox yeshiva high school in Paramus, New Jersey. The school was involved in a controversy in January 2018, when the students were encouraged to write letters to President Trump, praising his moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Alas, New Jersey Jews, especially the affluent among them, are not members of the GOP, and Frisch’s parents were irate that their children were being used as propaganda pawns without their consent. Dozens of parents at the school lodged complaints, suggesting stating the move was “sycophantic” and that the school should not try to “normalize Trump.” Parents also complained there had been no “letter-writing campaign to thank Obama for the Iron Dome” missile system.
The same month, a few days later, Jason Greenblatt, President Trump’s peace envoy to the Middle East, was invited to speak at an assembly at Frisch, where he told students that anything they hear against President Trump is “fake news.” Needless to say, that, too, did not go over well.
In 1999, Jared Kushner enrolled at Harvard University, and according to journalist Daniel Golden, Kushner’s father donated $2.5 million to the University to make it happen (The Story Behind Jared Kushner’s Curious Acceptance Into Harvard). There was also Andrew Prokop’s report, exposing essentially the same details (As Trump takes aim at affirmative action, let’s remember how Jared Kushner got into Harvard).
The next part is both amusing and educational. Jared graduated in 2007 with dual JD/MBA degrees a joint Juris Doctor/Master of Business Administration program coordinated between New York University School of Law and New York University Stern School of Business. Armed with all this knowledge and expertise, the 26-year old Kushner became a real-estate investor and purchased the office building at 666 Fifth Avenue for the price of $1.8 billion. Following the property crash of 2008, the cash flow generated by the property was not enough to even cover its debt service, and the Kushners were forced to sell the retail footage at 666 5th Avenue to Stanley Chera and bring in Vornado Realty Trust as a 50% equity partner in the ownership of the building. By that time, Kushner’s company (named, aptly, Kushner Companies) had lost more than $90 million on the investment.
On June 30, 2004, Jared’s father, Charles Kushner, was fined $508,900 by the Federal Election Commission for contributing to Democratic political campaigns in the names of his partnerships without authorization. In 2005, following an investigation by the US Attorney’s Office for the District of New Jersey, US Attorney Chris Christie (later governor of NJ) negotiated a plea agreement with him, under which he pleaded guilty to 18 counts of illegal campaign contributions, tax evasion, and witness tampering. The witness-tampering charge had to do Kushner’s retaliation against his brother-in-law, William Schulder, who was cooperating with federal investigators. Kushner’s father hired a prostitute to seduce Schulder, recorded the encounter between them, and sent the tape to his sister. Charles Kushner served 14 months at Federal Prison Camp Montgomery in Alabama. He was released from prison on August 25, 2006. He was disbarred and prohibited from practicing law in New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.
It would have been fine – Jared’s father did the crime, he was ready to do the time. But Christie, who had great plans for his own future, had to also do a victory lap on the defeated man’s back, issuing a statement saying: “This is a great victory for the people of New Jersey. No matter how rich and powerful any person may be, they will be held accountable for criminal conduct by this office.”
Charlie’s kid did not hesitate to make Christie pay for humiliating his father. Christie contributed his considerable expertise as prosecutor and governor in serving as head of the transition team for the victorious President Donald Trump. Christie expected his reward to match his contribution, definitely a high cabinet portfolio – which he deserved. But after President Trump’s inauguration, Jared Kushner ordered then Trump official Steve Bannon to dump him from the team altogether. Bannon asked Christie to see him privately. The former governor followed Bannon to his office and said impatiently, “Hey, this is going to have to be quick.” “Oh, it’s really quick, Bannon told him, “You’re out.” The sunned Christie asked, “Why?,” and Bannon replied: “We’re making a change.” Still not getting it, Christie asked, “Okay, what are we changing?” and Bannon answered, “You.”
What a revenge-is-a-dish-best-served-cold story.
It can be safely stated that Jared Kushner’s life took a very good turn when he married Donald Trumps’ daughter, Ivanka (Yael after her conversion) in a Jewish ceremony on October 25, 2009, after going out together since 2005. They lead a Modern Orthodox lifestyle: a kosher home, Shabbat, and holidays). They have three children, a daughter born in July 2011 and two sons, born in October 2013 and March 2016.
Kushner performed exceedingly well as Trump’s digital, online, and social media campaigns, with Silicon Valley experts who joined his 100-member social-media team, “Project Alamo.” Kushner is the one who hired Steve Bannon’s Cambridge Analytica to lift the Trump campaign and make it the most effective in recent history.
He was rewarded with the president’s trust and with a succession of major appointments that were becoming so numerous, they were the subject of late-night TV shows’ satire. He headed the “White House Office of American Innovation,” where he was reportedly improving governmental efforts regarding Veterans Affairs, information-technology contracting, and the opioid crisis. Kushner was also involved in the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia, to the tune of more than $100 billion.
But the one assignment that became the subject of both admiration and fear on the part of Israel’s rightwing, especially the settlers’ movement, was what came to be known as President Trump’s Deal of the Century – a term that was dubbed by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi.
President Trump assigned to Kushner the task of brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, even though he had no foreign policy experience or knowledge of the Middle East. This is why many believe the real architect of the Trump deal was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu enjoyed a good relationship with Jared’s father, Charles, and even stayed at the Kushners’ home in New Jersey, where he slept in Jared’s bedroom (Jared, then still a teenager, slept in the basement). On August 24, 2017, Kushner met with Netanyahu in Jerusalem, then drove a few kilometers north and met with Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.
One of the strong points about the Deal of the Century was the fact that no one knew exactly what was in it. When Kushner assembled pro-American Middle Eastern businessmen in Bahrain in June 2019, he introduced to them his “Peace to Prosperity – The economic plan: a new vision for the Palestinian people.” With their generous contributions ($50 billion altogether, some of which would go to Jordan), the Arabs of both the PA and Gaza would be empowered through business alliances with many investors, Israeli companies included; they will receive a new infrastructure, new hospitals, great education – and then, with everyone there having emerged from poverty into a western-style suburban paradise, they could negotiate their political future with Israel.
It’s not a bad idea, except the two groups that run the PA and Gaza – the PLO and Hamas – would be ousted from power once the people establish a robust middle class capable of demanding democratic elections. Needless to say, neither group went for it.
Then came part two of the deal of the century, when Donald Trump formally unveiled his peace plan to render all other peace plans useless, in a White House press conference alongside Netanyahu, on January 28, 2020. No PA representatives were invited – it was pretty clear by then their heart wasn’t in it.
Kushner said in an interview that he had “been studying this now for three years,” and that he had “read 25 books on it, I’ve spoken to every leader in the region, I’ve spoken to everyone who’s been involved in this.”
But the plan that was introduced on January 28 and touted by US Ambassador to Jerusalem David Friedman as an invitation for Israel to annex 30% of Judea and Samaria immediately – turned out to be a lot less than that, and eventually lost any of its appeal to the majority of Israelis.
For one thing, it became very clear that the White House misled Israel, Netanyahu included, with what was perceived as an invitation to impose sovereignty on a slice of Area C including the Jordan Valley, albeit at the expense of committing in advance to a Palestinian State in the future.
What Israel ended up with was a promise to support a Palestinian state as soon as those PA folks decide they want one and said state would include a hefty portion of Area C, which Israel would have to vacate partially to make room for a contiguous landmass, including the promise of a protected road from Ramallah to Gaza.
Even so, the plan was described by the PA as demanding too few concessions from the Israelis and imposing impossible requirements on the Palestinians, such as being satisfied with only about 80% of Judea and Samaria, and accepting a ban on wholesale immigration of the great-grandchildren of Arabs who may or may not have at one time lived west of the River Jordan.
Needless to say, the settlers’ Yesha Council rejected the plan, seeing it for what it was – a three-card Monty game where you never catch the sovereignty card underneath the red, black & white plastic cups.
Time passed. The world became engaged with entirely other concerns – a furious pandemic that claimed the lives of millions. Many in Israel believed the D of the C evaporated into the ether like all its predecessor deals, when suddenly young Kushner pulled a completely unexpected rabbit out of his hat, and then a second rabbit, and this time succeeded in charming Israel’s media and some of its political class – while poll after poll has shown that rank and file Israelis were not impressed.
In any event, the presidential son-in-law has managed to bring together to the negotiations table with Israel two, count them, two Gulf states, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, both of which were far from being sworn enemies of the Zionist entity, the opposite is true, both have maintained close but quiet business and intelligence relations with Israel for the past twenty years.
Like Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Bahrain have long since decided that the enemy of their enemy is their friend, and their enemy is Iran, a militant, domineering, terrorist state sowing murder and terror around the region and threatening, occasionally through devastating attacks on the ground, the well being of their wealthy neighbors.
So the pro-Western Arab states, which include Egypt and Jordan, have been encouraged by the Trump administration to upgrade their relations with Israel in the ultimate win-win move (unless you’re the PLO, Hamas, Iran or Hezbollah, in which case, tough). Netanyahu gets a great achievement, being only the third Israeli leader to reach a peace accord with Arabs states; the oil-rich states get to boost their stance against the menacing Iranians; and President Donald Trump is getting his White House lawn signing ceremony this Tuesday, which could, who knows, yield him the Nobel Peace Prize. After all, they gave it to Barack Obama in his first year in office, for, essentially, being president while black.
But after we’ve had our fun with Jared Kushner, and he is an amusing character, a kind of Little Lord Fauntleroy from Livingston, New Jersey, in the end, his efforts have yielded at least one real, reliable and hopeful change in a region that does not get those very often.
In the end, Jared managed to dash the delusions of the Arabs in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza that time is on their side and that eventually the Zionists would succumb to outside pressure and grant them an independent state – which would mark the first significant reversal of the Zionist reclamation project of the Holy Land, to be followed by taking a bite of Haifa, a bite of Jaffa, you know the drill.
This coming fall, Muslim pilgrims from the Gulf states would invade Jerusalem the peaceful way, in hotel rooms and bus tours and tourist restaurants, and ascend to the Temple Mount to pray at the Al Aqsa mosque – while the Arabs of the PA would have to beg for measly permits and the Arabs of Gaza would pray on their dunes (much like the Jews who want to pray on the Temple Mount). This change – with God’s help, may the pandemic subside to allow for it – could be the key that turned on the car of peace and prosperity.
Happy New Year, Jared Kushner, we think you did a bang-up job (sovereignty freeze aside), no matter how much of it you improvised and how much you understood, and that’s why we are honoring you as our Man of the Year 5780.