Jewish American organizations long active in Washington politics are struggling to communicate with the Trump administration, scavenging through old Rolodexes and e-mail lists to find points of access into the president’s small policy team.
A traditional structure governed these communications before the Trump era: Presidents since Jimmy Carter have hired White House Jewish liaisons to serve as point men for the community. But the position has been vacant since January 20, and the White House has no plans to fill it, a senior administration official told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
The absence of a liaison has forced Jewish community activists to resort elsewhere within the government to raise their questions and concerns. But several other positions that have previously served as secondary access points also remain empty. The State Department’s special envoy for monitoring and combating antisemitism– a congressionally mandated appointment– has not been filled; there is no ambassador-at-large for religious freedom, nor a special envoy for the Middle East peace process.
“It was easier when there were liaisons specifically assigned to the Jewish community, and I’m hoping they will move in that direction— that they’ll recognize the benefits of that,” said Jason Isaacson, director of government and international affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “It’s required going back to directories and old emails, tracking down people who are in positions of influence at a lower level and calling on them directly as opposed to going through a liaison office.”
Donald Trump renamed Barack Obama’s Office of Public Engagement to its old name– the Office of Public Liaison– once he entered the White House, and has not appointed any constituency-specific posts. Several Jewish community leaders say that Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special representative for international negotiations, is actually wearing two hats, leading the White House effort to restart talks between Israelis and Palestinians while also organizing the administration’s contacts with the Jewish world.
Greenblatt was behind the guest list for an Israeli Independence Day reception in April, which included more conservative-leaning Jewish groups, said one attendee. Tom Rose, a close confidante of Vice President Mike Pence, has become another critical connection for several Jewish organizations.
Greenblatt may become the next Tevi Troy, a George W. Bush administration official who served in 2003 as both deputy cabinet secretary and Jewish liaison, said Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy for the Orthodox Union.
“My experience so far is that its more similar to the Bush administration than to the Obama administration,” said Diament, who attended the April reception. “The Obama administration had a person in the liaison office, but in the Bush administration, most of the time they did not have that.”
Troy’s successor, Noam Neusner, said the liaison position was a vehicle for the president to relay his positions to the Jewish community.
“There are policy making roles that are yet to be filled that are perhaps more critical in nature,” said Neusner. “But they are right to want to express themselves. It’s a good role to fill, as with any other of the liaison roles.”
That role was particularly critical in 2015, when Obama reached a nuclear deal with Iran deeply unpopular with the Jewish American establishment. Matt Nosanchuk, Obama’s longest-serving liaison, proved himself a critical surrogate at the time, painting for the president a landscape of the community’s concerns while relaying to its leadership the White House’s best arguments.
“When it comes to the organization of the White House staff, people are policy– whether a certain position exists and who fills it reflects the priorities of the President and his administration,” Nosanchuk said. “The consequences of not having someone in that role were evidenced within a week of the inauguration, when President Trump issued a statement for International Holocaust Remembrance Day that omitted any mention of the Jewish victims, an insensitivity that would have been prevented had there been an effective Jewish liaison working in the White House at the time.”
“A Jewish liaison at the White House not only prevents these kinds of unforced errors,” Nosanchuk added. “He or she also works to mobilize the American Jewish community around the president’s priorities.”
Jonathan Greenblatt, national director and CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said it was “unfortunate” that Trump had yet to appoint a liaison and called on Trump to allocate “appropriate resources” to the State Department in order to continue the work of monitoring antisemitism worldwide.
“Every White House in recent memory has had a liaison to the Jewish community,” Greenblatt said. “We hope this is remedied soon so we and others in the community can work closely on our shared goals.”
A State Department official told The Jerusalem Post in March that the administration recognizes its responsibility to fill the role of antisemitism envoy, but declined to comment on the search.
A senior administration official said that the Office of Public Liaison would continue the work of Jewish liaisons past. The official declined to comment on the future role of the still-vacant antisemitism envoy position.