For preeminent American Jewish historian Prof. Jonathan Sarna, overcoming the Cassandra syndrome has been an uphill battle of late.
Well cognizant of history’s repetitions, during a recent marathon summary of the Jewish condition in the US for a select group of Jewish professionals in Jerusalem, the scholar drew historical parallels — and warned the leaders of possible future outcomes.
One case in point was an investigation involving President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, arguably America’s most famous Orthodox Jew (especially when his religiosity is put into question).
Kushner, while not directly under suspicion, was recently named a “person of interest” by special counsel Robert Mueller, who was hired to oversee the Department of Justice’s investigation into suspected coordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin during the 2016 presidential election.
According to a recent Associated Press report quoting Maine Senator Angus King, Kushner is expected to meet with staff from the Senate Intelligence Committee, including King, as early as next week to answer questions about his meetings with the Russian ambassador to the United States.
In addition to Kushner’s December meeting with Sergey Kislyak to allegedly set up back-channel communications, he met last year with Sergey Gorkov, the chief executive of an American-sanctioned Russian bank, Vnesheconombank, or VEB. That meeting has also drawn condemnation from a Putin-wary America; the Arabic-speaking Gorkov is a former intelligence agent with direct ties to the Russian president.
With anti-Semitic websites jumping on the conspiracy bandwagon and claiming a Jewish connection between Kushner and Gorkov (who is not known to be a Jew), at a recent intimate lecture hosted by the Jewish Federations of North America at Jerusalem’s Beit Avichai, Sarna warned Jewish community leaders to prepare for fallout.
Citing insinuations made by Politico that Kushner had used his ties to Chabad through Russian Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar to make connections with the Kremlin, Sarna said that, if substantiated, the scandal could be “a major problem for the US Jewish community” in that its loyalty will once again be called into question.
“We ought to be prepared for that eventuality. Somebody ought to be writing a memo,” said Sarna. “If Kushner is indicted, we need to be prepared.”
After his talk, in a wide-ranging interview peppered with Jewish humor, the longtime Brandeis professor touched on the history of American anti-Semitism, the dissonance between the Israeli and American Jewish perceptions of convicted spy Jonathan Pollard, and what he sees as his own role as a tenured academic.
“The people who will make hay of Mr. Kushner always knew that there was a Jewish conspiracy — even before there was such a thing. But smart Jewish leaders need to be forward looking,” Sarna told The Times of Israel.
With a shrug and a smile, he continued, “I think every Jewish community needs to worry – it’s good for Jews to worry and always be nervous.”
One of your courses is about three instances of anti-Semitism in American Jewish history. How does what’s happening now compare to those instances, and what were the three?
First, when General [Ulysses S.] Grant expelled the Jews [from Paducah, Kentucky] during the Civil War [on December 17, 1862], which was an existential threat to the community. [Following the Jews’ expulsion, on January 4, 1863, president Abraham Lincoln ordered Grant to revoke the order.]
They’d been expelled from a large area – and nothing, I think, comparable to today, although there’s much that can be learned: Jews in many ways were in the position of Muslims [today], viewed as traitors and smugglers, and so on, in the Civil War.
The second that I teach is Henry Ford. Again, it does have parallels. Since it was a new immigrant group — after all, a couple of million Jews had immigrated — and Henry Ford portrayed them as the great problem of the world. “The world’s foremost problem,” he called Jews. And even looking at some of Ford’s writing, you see parallels to other groups, because he makes kind of truth and innuendo, selective truth. It’s also important for students to know that only a century ago, Jews were in the position that other groups are in today.
Third, I usually do the Leo Frank case. [A factory manager in Atlanta, Georgia, Frank was accused and convicted of the murder of a 13-year-old employee, Mary Phagan.] Brandeis has a lot of papers of Leo Frank. That requires you to understand the South: It’s the lynching of a Jew, and he’s important in terms of mob psychology and how – this poor fellow… When the community was sure that he was really guilty, they just took him out and lynched him. And one can really see the worst that human beings are capable of.
And the amazing thing is that there are still people who are persuaded that Leo Frank was guilty even though we know – I mean, at the time there was a lot of evidence that it wasn’t true – and we now have people who have confessed that they know exactly who did the job. But I just saw in one of the papers this week that Nazis are trying to reopen the case. So it was important enough in America, much like but not identical to the Dreyfus case [the 1894 trial and conviction of the French Jewish artillery officer on charges for treason famously spurred Theodor Herzl toward Zionism].
In your talk, you mentioned the Jonathan Pollard case in reference to Kushner. You don’t see Pollard as an epoch of American anti-Semitism as well?
That’s a very important question. Pollard is understood totally differently in Israel and in most of American Jewry. [Unlike in Israel, in the United States] there’s not a groundswell of acceptance, more pockets of the Orthodox community. There’s not a lot of sympathy for Pollard, who most people believe passed a lot of information that he wasn’t supposed to pass on.
Now, did he get a strong sentence, maybe stronger than he should have? Yes. But remember something crucial which is always forgotten here: The average American spy, when he’s caught he serves time, and then he says “chattati, pashati, aviti” [I’ve sinned]. He says, “I’m sorry,” he gets out of jail, he never opens his mouth again to the newspapers, it’s all hushed up, and then one day he dies.
Pollard, uniquely, has argued that he is an “assir Zion” [Prisoner of Zion], that he should be seen as a kind of Natan Sharansky figure, and that’s why Pollard has continued. That’s why he was in jail so long, and that’s why they won’t let him go to Israel. Because from the perspective of the establishment in the United States, to have him seen as a hero is absolutely unthinkable.
So if he had played by the same rules as everyone else – which he did briefly – if he said, “I made a terrible mistake, I greatly regret it, I paid my dues, I’ll never do it again,” he would long ago have been a free man. He probably could have traveled too. But because he is insistent that he wants to be greeted like Natan Sharansky, and he has been persuaded — or has persuaded himself — that he is an “assir Zion” it will never happen, I don’t think Trump will do it.
‘By turning Pollard into a hero, you are essentially saying, ‘Jews are a third column in America, they care much more about Jews than they care about the country’
What’s so interesting — especially now that he’s out of jail — is that there’s not a lot of sympathy for Pollard, because he also has this self-image which is at variance with the way most American Jews view it. I don’t think he can be a hero, because if he’s a hero no Jew will ever be employed in government again, and every Jew will be suspect. So by turning him into a hero, you are essentially saying, “Jews are a third column in America, they care much more about Jews than they care about the country.” You are feeding what every anti-Semite believes. And I think that Mr. Pollard did grave damage, and it’s astonishing to me that he doesn’t see that.
But I know people who served in the military, and they think Pollard sullied everything. “We fought to prove Jews are brave and loyal and fight for their country.” To their mind, and one of them said to me, “He should have been hung like Haman, and he’s damn lucky. If it had been up to us…” And nobody in Israel understands any of that.
Are there other examples of this disconnect in conception between Israel and the United States?
If you go back in the archive, you’ll see the Rosenberg affair. In Israel the Rosenbergs were largely seen as victims of anti-Semitism, and most of the newspapers viewed it that way. In America, [Julius] Rosenberg was seen as a spy who got what he deserved because he handed over crucial secrets – and of course today we know that as a fact from the Venona documents.
Yes, there are still a few die-hards who support the Rosenbergs, especially [Ethel], but even in the 1950s it was the same difference, because Israelis imagine that anti-Semitism is really at the core of the Diaspora; that’s how Zionist ideology works. And American Jews argue that if you’re a spy and you hand over documents, then you’re a traitor and that’s all.
So let’s take the case of Kushner. You very strongly said there should be a memo where the American Jewish leaders should be prepared for some kind of fallout if indeed he is indicted for collusion with the Russians, perhaps via his connections with Chabad. What do you mean by that and how should they be prepared?
I hope it’s not true. I know people who know him, who speak well of him. But, if he is indicted, since it’s been so widely touted that he’s Orthodox… and especially, if God forbid it turns out that he utilized kind of “Jewish” connections, then I think it will inevitably raise insinuations, discredit, doubts, from people who have always believed that Jews have multiple loyalties, and they will point to this and say, “See, we were right all along. We knew that Jews are not really loyal.”
The very idea that Jews are more loyal to Russia, which has persecuted and murdered Jews, than to America is absurd, but that’s what will be said, and talking to Jewish leaders, one thinks that they need to be prepared.
That doesn’t mean it’s true. In the same way that Jewish leaders needed to be prepared for [Ponzi scheme perpetrator Bernie] Madoff, and nothing happened after Madoff. There was tremendous fear in the community that Madoff would lead to… one person privately called me, and asked if I expect pogroms.
But after all, it was a disastrous event, and there was for a time a fair bit of anti-Semitism. Of course, as I said at the time, those people knew the Jews were responsible for the economic collapse even before the economic collapse happened, because Jews are always responsible. And so it will be now.
The people who will make hay of Mr. Kushner always knew that there was a Jewish conspiracy even before there was such a thing. But smart Jewish leaders need to be forward-looking. I mean, when I look at the true great Jewish leaders, let’s say, Ralph Goldman, the longtime head of the Joint [JDC] — what was so astonishing about him was he was always thinking of the future rather than the present. Even in his late 90s I had a meeting with him, and that’s the way we have to think.
One of the roles that somebody like me, who is, after all, tenured and not an insider, can play is to ask some of these questions to suggest that maybe the community should think about certain issues, and hopefully that will happen.