Kushner and Israel: A personal bond

When Jared Kushner was 17 years old, he stood where 1 million Jews had been murdered and listened to Israel’s prime minister stress the country’s importance.

“The Holocaust could have been prevented. We know it could not have taken place had the Jewish state been established a few years earlier,” the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said in 1998, standing amid the ruins of an Auschwitz-Birkenau crematory. He had just led Kushner and thousands of other teenagers waving Israeli flags in a procession through the camp’s gates and past the barracks. As part of the commemoration, the group would soon leave Poland and fly to Israel, to complete the journey from slaughter to Zionist rebirth.

Back then, Kushner was a high school basketball player, a Billy Joel fan, a quiz team manager and no one’s guess to become a negotiating partner with Netanyahu. But unlike other students on the trip, he knew the prime minister, who was friendly with his father, a real estate developer and donor to Israeli causes. Netanyahu had even stayed at the Kushners’ home in New Jersey, sleeping in Jared’s bedroom. (The teenager moved to the basement that night.)

On Wednesday, when the Israeli prime minister visits the White House, Netanyahu and Kushner will reunite on far different terms from before — and yet their meeting will be imbued with some of the shared ideas of those old encounters. Netanyahu is on his second stint as prime minister; Kushner, now 36, is President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a leading adviser on Middle Eastern affairs with a daunting assignment. Trump has said that Kushner will try to “do peace,” which the president has called “the ultimate deal.”

Kushner, on something of a crash course in diplomacy, has been speaking with Arab leaders in recent weeks. But he is a mystery to most Middle Eastern officials. He has no experience in government or international affairs. His up-close exposure to the Arab world amounts to little more than trips to a handful of Persian Gulf countries and one star-studded jaunt to Jordan.

Though Kushner has visited Israel since childhood, and more recently to do business, he is little known there. He holds strong views about the state of Israel, he has not been outspoken about them, save for editorials in The New York Observer, the newspaper he owned. His thinking on matters like settlements is not well understood.

“Israel wasn’t a political discussion for him; it was his family, his life, his people,” said Hirschy Zarchi, rabbi at the Chabad House at Harvard, where Kushner was an undergraduate.

Rather than diplomatic experience, Kushnerhas ties to Israel that are personal and religious. His visit to Auschwitz was stark, but its themes were not new to him. His grandmother survived the Holocaust by crawling through a homemade tunnel in Poland. His grandfather escaped the massacres by hiding in a hole for years. An Orthodox Jew, Kushner was instructed to protect Israel, remember the genocide and assure the survival of the Jewish people, those close to him say.

He was educated at Jewish schools where second-graders were expected to draw maps of Israel from memory and the West Bank was often referred to by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria, a practice that emphasizes Jewish claims to the land. His family used its real estate fortune to donate millions of dollars to American Jewish and Israeli hospitals, schools and other institutions, including a few in settlements, according to public records. In his classes, Palestinians were regarded at a distance, in part as security threats who committed acts of terrorism — including one that killed a sister of a classmate of Kushner’s.

When Trump ran for president, his son-in-law’s stances on Israel helped shape the campaign. Kushner helped script a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and consulted with Netanyahu officials behind the scenes. When he brought the candidate and the prime minister together for a meeting, his father, Charles Kushner, was invited to join them.

Thanks in part to Jared Kushner, Netanyahu will arrive at a White House that has adopted many of the prime minister’s perspectives on the region. Now Kushner is helping Trump and Netanyahu craft a strategy to recruit Sunni Muslim countries that oppose Iran to help foster an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The approach is a long shot: Negotiations are dead. The Israeli right is pushing for more settlement in the West Bank as talk among Palestinians turns to a single state in which they have equal rights.

Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian leader who was involved in peace talks with Israelis and internally, said Palestinians were skeptical of Kushner, and Trump’s team generally, seeing them as close only to the Israeli side. As part of its philanthropy, Kushner’s family has made donations to the Beit El settlement, which Barghouti finds particularly worrisome.

“We need somebody who is really impartial,” Bargouti said, pointing out that it is unclear whether Kushner has ever visited a Palestinian area (the White House would not say). “There is no indication he is interested in hearing from the other side.”

Through a White House spokeswoman, Kushner declined to respond or be interviewed. But others said his life had given him cause to believe in the improbable. His grandparents survived against all odds, then came to the United States and made the kind of money of which most people can only dream. Kushner plunged into his father-in-law’s presidential campaign with no experience and helped him win.

“This is a region that has resisted solutions from people with vast résumés,” said Ken Kurson, editor of The New York Observer, suggesting that his former boss may do better. “For 60-plus years we’ve been sending the best diplomats in the world, and it’s yielded zero results.”

Faith and family

Kushner’s religious upbringing may have been intense, but his high school yearbook message was laid-back, with an ode to his broken-in sneakers. He was a “6 ft. 2 inch basketball and hockey player who just loves to be comfortable,” the message said, noting that he also liked to deliver frozen yogurt and Slurpees to his siblings.

There was little mention of Jewish identity beyond his Hebrew name, Yoel Chaim. But that was Kushner, classmates said in recent interviews: easygoing and polite, a decent student but not a standout, not particularly engaged in religious questions or the urgent political matters of the day. He did not participate in the high school club devoted to criticizing coverage of Israel in The New York Times. Many of his peers spent a year after graduation studying religious texts in Israel; he did not.

But his family was busy building a world to replace the one it had lost: schools, organizations, synagogues, campuses. The Kushners’ Judaism and support of Israel were one and the same, friends said: about ensuring survival.

The major Jewish institutions of Kushner’s life — school and synagogue — emphasized the connection between religion and Zionism. “In the modern Orthodox community, the state of Israel has an important place in identity, as a religious ideal, not only a political reality,” said Elie Weinstock, rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun, the Manhattan synagogue Kushner joined.

At his elementary school, the Hebrew Youth Academy in Livingston, New Jersey, it was impossible to walk the halls “without seeing the flags of Israel and Israeli historical figures and how the kids celebrate Israeli holidays,” said Stephen Flatow, whose daughter Ilana was in Kushner’s grade.

In eighth grade, their class was stunned by the killing of Ilana’s older sister, Alisa, in a bus bombing in the Gaza Strip. The school community “couldn’t fathom how a young man can load himself up with dynamite and blow himself up in a van and have his parents celebrating his death,” Flatow said. A few years later, the school was renamed for Jared Kushner’s grandfather, Joseph, and when a new building opened, the family dedicated the flagpole that flies the Israeli flag to Alisa’s memory.

During high school at the Frisch School in northern New Jersey, where Jared Kushner spent long days attending mandatory prayers (morning and afternoon) and studying in English, Hebrew and Aramaic (the language of the Talmud), every year of his education was interwoven with events in Israel. In 1995, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, teachers and students mourned together. In 1996, a recent graduate named Sara Duker was killed in a bus bombing, sending shock waves through the school. In 1997, about the time Kushner was on a six-week summer trip to Israel, a double suicide bombing in the main Jerusalem market killed more than a dozen people.

But classmates say the environment Kushner lived in could feel apolitical, because most everyone shared similar views, and Palestinian perspectives were barely considered. Some teachers told students that “Palestinian” was a made-up identity, a label adopted for political reasons. There was little discussion of what it was like to live under occupation, several classmates of Kushner’s recalled. Many rabbis and teachers seemed comfortable with settlements, and some students said they never learned that Israel’s borders were a highly contested topic.

“There was such an assumption that Jews deserve to have this place, that it was theirs for thousands of years by biblical fiat,” said Eli Schleifer, who graduated the year before Kushner. “There was such a strange blindness to the complexity of the situation.”

In 1999, Kushner left New Jersey for Harvard, where he no longer wore a skullcap to classes, but continued to follow rules of Orthodox Jewish life. Jordan Reid Strauch, a friend of Kushner’s, could not recall his mentioning Israel. Soon the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, was setting off criticism of Israel on campus and then responses from students who defended the country, but Kushner kept his head down.

Instead he spent time at the Chabad House, where Zarchi was struck by how Kushner “never felt the need to apologize for his differences, his religious commitments,” he said.

Kushner sometimes expressed his views during long Sabbath meals at the house. “He certainly believed that a strong and secure Israel was in America and the world’s best interest,” Zarchi said. He didn’t believe that Israel needed “the approval of Europe, the United Nations or even Washington or London,” the rabbi continued.

While Kushner was at Harvard, Netanyahu once again visited his father, speaking at his office, kicking a soccer ball at one of the schools that carried the family name and sitting down for a tabbouleh lunch with students, including Jared’s younger brother, Joshua.

Netanyahu’s visits helped lead to an unexpected outcome: Charles Kushner’s brother, Murray, sued him for misusing the family company’s funds by paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to the Israeli leader, among other high-profile figures. The suit was eventually settled, but it set off investigations and misdeeds by Charles Kushner that eventually led to a two-year prison sentence for tax evasion, witness-tampering and making illegal campaign donations.

A few years later, Charles Kushner and Netanyahu still seemed close: When the Israeli media obtained Netanyahu’s partly handwritten list of wealthy Americans most likely to fund his party’s primary elections, Kushner was near the top.

A formidable task

Last June in Washington, Yousef Al Otaiba, ambassador of the United Arab Emirates, received an unexpected request from his friend Thomas Barrack Jr., a Lebanese-American businessman and Trump fundraiser: Would he meet with Jared Kushner?

“What struck me in our first meeting is that he asked a lot of questions and listened,” Otaiba said. Since then, the two have been in touch, with Kushner playing the student, asking Otaiba for his impressions of shifting forces in the Middle East, Syria, Iran, extremism, relationships.

Kushner had become a force in his family’s real estate business, and a member of a synagogue known for a brand of religious Zionism similar to the one he was raised with. He took out loans for the real estate business from Israel’s Bank Hapoalim and almost bought a major Israeli insurance company called Phoenix.

Though he had been raised a Democrat, Kushner endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential race, in part because of disappointment with President Barack Obama on Israel. “Rather than strengthen the nation’s relationship with Israel as the Arab world imploded, Obama treated Jerusalem as less a friend than a burden,” the Observer endorsement read, using language similar to what Trump would eventually say.

Now Kushner has given up his life in New York for a government ID card and a groaning portfolio. Many foreign policy experts wait their entire careers for a White House job, but Kushner is fielding inquiries from foreign leaders even as he is still learning to navigate the subject. He is far from the first American Jew with strong ties to Israel to wade into Middle Eastern diplomacy — Rahm Emanuel, the former White House chief of staff, is the son of a former Jewish paramilitary fighter — but the others were Washington professionals or seasoned negotiators.

In his first weeks in the White House, Kushner has had exchanges with officials from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and elsewhere, and greeted King Abdullah II of Jordan, whom he met several years ago on a trip to that country that included the actors Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman.

It is unclear what shape Kushner’s role will take, especially as figures like Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and others in the foreign policy apparatus become engaged in Middle Eastern diplomacy. Some observers see Kushner as a welcome counter to an unpredictable president and to firebrands like Stephen Bannon, the White House strategist, and David M. Friedman, the ambassador designate to Israel.

Kushner “could be a moderate voice,” said Dan Gillerman, Israel’s former ambassador to the United Nations, who got to know Kushner in New York. “The strange thing is, that 36-year-old kid may end up being the grown-up in the room.”

Many years after his teenage encounters with Netanyahu, he may also be in a position to help the Israeli leader, who is facing multiple corruption investigations and ever-stronger challenges from the right.

But Kushner’s task is formidable. Netanyahu and Trump want to set in motion a chain of events that could block Iran, redefine Israel’s relationship with the Arab world and create Israeli-Palestinian peace — “the deal that can’t be made,” as Trump has said.

“The prime minister is coming into the meeting with the hope to forge a common policy with the president, and Jared’s role is critical in that,” said Ron Dermer, ambassador of Israel, with whom Kushner has been in close contact. “He’s someone who, in my interactions with him, has really been able to deliver.”

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