Despite being boycotted by key liberal Jewish organizations, President Donald Trump attempted to reach out to American Jews on Friday with a conference call to express wishes for the upcoming High Holy Days.
The annual conference call, a tradition instituted by President Barack Obama to mark Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, has typically drawn leaders from across American Jewish denominations. This year, the weeks leading up to the call exposed a fracture between liberal American Jews who are critical of the president, and their more conservative counterparts who are interested in keeping a line of communication open with the White House.
Leaders in the Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist movements boycotted the virtual meeting, citing the president’s initial claim that neo-Nazis and their counterprotestors were both responsible for the violence that erupted at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August. The White House reportedly ended up leaving some of the liberal Jewish organizations off the invitation list.
Representatives from several Orthodox-leaning organizations were invited to participate and decided to call in ― including leaders from the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Agudath Israel of America, the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, the Republican Jewish Coalition, and other groups.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, told HuffPost that he participated in the conference call around 8 a.m. Pacific time on Friday morning, and that it lasted between six to eight minutes. Unlike the Obama-era High Holy Day calls, Hier said that there was no Q & A session during Trump’s call.
Hier said that overall, the president spent time giving High Holy Day greetings to the group and reaffirming a strong commitment to Israel.
“He condemned anti-Semitism in the strongest terms and basically said that America is a stronger country because of its vibrant Jewish community,” Hier, who delivered a blessing at Trump’s inauguration, told HuffPost.
Hier said he was told that there were Holocaust survivors on the call as well. The president reportedly thanked these survivors for telling their stories and confronting evil in the world.
Nathan Diament, executive director of the public policy arm of the Orthodox Union, echoed Hier’s comments about the content of the call, saying that the president expressed admiration for the Jewish community, condemned ant-Semitism and all forms of hate, and reaffirmed support for Israel.
“It was significant and meaningful for the President of the United States to speak to the Jewish community ahead of the high holidays,” Diament told HuffPost. The High Holy Days begin this year on September 20.
Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10 percent of the American Jewish community, are more likely than members of other denominations to say that they approve of Trump’s performance as president. A recent survey conducted by the American Jewish Committee found that 71 percent of Orthodox respondents had favorable views of the president’s performance so far.
However, members of the other three main branches of American Judaism have markedly different views ― 73 percent of Conservative, 88 percent of Reform, and 92 percent of Reconstructionist Jews surveyed viewed Trump’s performance unfavorably.
Trump’s track record with the American Jewish community has been riddled with difficulties from the start of his presidency. A few days after his inauguration, he issued a statement about Holocaust Remembrance Day that failed to specifically mention Jewish victims.
In August, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jewish organizations jointly criticized the president for his comments on Charlottesville. The president has alternated between condemning white supremacist hate groups and claiming that “both sides” were responsible for the violence that erupted in that city. The three branches of Judaism came together to say that Trump’s “words have given succor to those who advocate anti-Semitism, racism, and xenophobia.”
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism told HuffPost that his organization stands by their decision to not host a High Holiday call with the president this year.
“We are disappointed that the president continues to draw a false equivalency between white supremacists and counter-demonstrators in Charlottesville,” he said.
On Friday, Hier defended his decision to participate in the call, saying that while he was critical of the president’s comments on Charlottesville, he felt the American Jewish leaders needed to be at the table to discuss matters that are important to the community.
“My philosophy is if we want the United States of America to be a strong country and to have dialogue and freedom, we can’t eternally be mad at each other,” Hier said. “I disagreed with the president’s remarks about Charlottesville, but I’m not in favor of long-term boycotts, because when will it end?”
Hier told HuffPost he was confident that the president understood the concerns American Jews have about anti-Semitic rhetoric.
“The president’s family are Orthodox Jews, so he knows very well the feeling of vulnerability, how we feel about neo-Nazis and the Klan,” Hier said. “We’re human beings, we all make mistakes. In my opinion, the president misspoke [about Charlottesville].”
“But if we never talk to the other side because we’re so angry at their political beliefs, then you fracture forever the United States of America,” he said.