Teaneck—It’s not really a question of “how” Jason Greenblatt, the real estate transactions lawyer and son of Hungarian Jewish immigrants who grew up in Forest Hills, Queens, became a presidential candidate’s adviser on issues related to Israel. For him, it’s more a question of “what,” i.e., what will he do with the immense opportunity he has been given?
Greenblatt, of Teaneck, named on April 14 as a primary Israel adviser to presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, spoke to The Jewish Link about the honor he carries with him in his role each day. “That phrase, of being a light unto the nations, is in my mind every single day, it’s part of the responsibility I feel every morning when I get into the car and drive to work. I run that theme through my mind, to make sure I adhere to that principle.”
In spite of the fact that many Washington political action committees cloak big donor fundraisers as “advocacy events,” the part that individuals have played in the realm of true Israel advocacy cannot be discounted. Profound, history-altering roles have contributed to Israel’s very establishment and continued vibrancy by Jewish ad hoc presidential advisers, most notably Eddie Jacobson, who parlayed President Harry Truman into meeting with Chaim Weizmann, at the point when a provisional government had been formed in Israel, before it was recognized by any other nation. At this past year’s AIPAC Policy Conference, a six-minute presentation on Jacobson by Robert A. Cohen, AIPAC’s chairman of the board, might have gone unnoticed; after all, there were a number of presentations this year that took over the 24-hour news cycle. Between speeches from Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, John Kasich, Paul Ryan and yes, even Donald Trump, it might have been reasonable to take a break during the video presentation on Jacobson.
But was this the most prescient presentation of the policy conference? Cohen asked the assembly at the Washington Convention Center: “How is history made? By chance, by luck, through bravery or action? Before there was such a thing as pro-Israel legislation, before there were position papers or parlor meetings, or a policy conference, before there was AIPAC, before there was the State of Israel, one man changed the course of history.”
Jacobson had been army buddies, business partners and Kansas City compatriots with President Truman for decades, when Weizmann, the then-head of the Zionist Organization, came to Washington, in an effort to gain America’s recognition of the Jewish state. It was Jacobson who hopped on a plane after a middle-of-the-night phone call, walked into the president’s office, and convinced Truman to agree to speak to Weizmann after America’s organized Jewish communal organizations had failed in their efforts. America’s subsequent recognition of Israel was a cornerstone of its founding.
“You never know who is going to be the next Eddie Jacobson.You never know who’s going to be the next Mr. Greenblatt,” said Dr. Ben Chouake, national president of NORPAC, a pro-Israel lobbying and advocacy group of which Greenblatt is a part. “Dr. Ben,” as he is known, told The Jewish Link that it was his parents’ generation that was tasked with the initial establishment of the Jewish state, but it’s the role of this generation to not squander its good fortune. “Sometimes you are in the right place at the right time and it makes all the difference in the world. Our job is to use the great resources and great forum that have been given to us,” he said.
Dr. Ben explained that there are two distinct parts to NORPAC’s work. The first part is raising large amounts of money to distribute to candidates. The second part is bringing hundreds of people to Washington annually to advocate for Israel on a “grassroots level.” It is not a side benefit that “after our training sessions and talking points bulletins, participants are knowledgeable and can continue to have an intelligent dialogue with others on these issues.”
So while a key portion of NORPAC’s mission is to organize and use funding groups that work directly to interface with and contribute directly to congressional campaigns, what Dr. Ben believes has the most influence is the training of people like Greenblatt, and others, who not only advocate for Israel in Congress, but are also up on the issues enough to represent Israel in their workplace, in local politics or in the community at large.
Greenblatt attended a few of these types of events when he was in college and he feels they are essential. “You troop along, you meet the congressman. I think they are very effective if you meet the right people, if you or the people in the room with you are good advocates. I encouraged my kids to do it,” he said.
Greenblatt added that this past summer he also took his children to do an advocacy program in Israel, run through StandWithUs, during one of literally dozens of trips Greenblatt has made to Israel since his first visit at age 16. “One afternoon, the whole family (which includes six children in elementary- and high school-age groups) spent two hours with StandWithUs for my kids to learn about Israel advocacy. I think it’s important to train them young, and I wasn’t trained young. They have to know that if they don’t advocate for Israel, where is it going to be? There’s just too much hate against Israel today,” he said.
He shared his very acute awareness that his influence may or may not have the power to alter the course of history. Greenblatt jokingly placed himself on a type of second tier, noting that Mr. Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka Trump are Mr. Trump’s primary Jewish voices for Israel. But the American
presidency is so large, and the import it carries for Israel is so great, he shared that he has also been told his role could be as important as Esther, the queen of Persia. Greenblatt’s wife, Dr. Naomi Greenblatt, a psychiatrist, shared her sense that that their vision as parents is at the forefront as he has taken on this role. “We have made tremendous efforts to encourage our children to pursue leadership roles and to seize opportunities when offered. This tremendous appointment offered to my husband puts everything we have tried to teach them into real life modeling. My husband’s commitment to advocate and advise on behalf of the State of Israel in this role is inspiring, as is the achdut (unity) that we have witnessed from the community at large,” she told The Jewish Link.
Greenblatt said that his lack of formal policy expertise mirrors that of Mr. Trump, and that, in some ways, it’s part of their plan for success in Washington. “I don’t mind if you say I haven’t been a policy expert over my lifetime. That’s true. But that doesn’t mean I can’t do a great job or pull together a team, so we have the right group of people, the right minds, to give Donald all the advice he needs. He’s the guy who is going to take all this input, from experts and non-experts alike, and propose things that hopefully will work,” he said.
“That’s the beauty of how Donald thinks. Sure, we could hire a bunch of experts and I am not diminishing the role of experts. There are great experts and less-than-great experts. But, I mean, where are we today? Is Israel any better off? Is there peace? Is there a deal with Gaza, that helped us? Lots of experts have been involved, and, no disrespect to them, but we don’t yet have peace,” said Greenblatt.
“I am not saying I will do better than them,” Greenblatt said of the Washington establishment. “I will do whatever research I need to give him advice along with my co-adviser [David M. Friedman of the Kasowitz Law Firm]. [We] are going to build up a committee of advisers, which will be made up of a mixture of experts, and non-experts, lay leaders, passionate people. You get to the right result when you don’t only include experts,” he opined.
Greenblatt also shared his perspective as the Jewish adviser who was figuratively standing next to Trump the day after Trump addressed AIPAC, when Lillian Pinkus, AIPAC’s president, condemned his speech in strong, even tearful terms. She was referring to one word Trump uttered: “Yay,” after noting this was President Barack Obama’s last year in office. She doubly condemned the audience’s 30 seconds of applause that followed Trump’s statement. “There are people in our AIPAC family who were deeply hurt last night, and for that we are deeply sorry. We are disappointed that so many people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone,” she said.
While noting that he does not think Mr. Trump would be likely to hold a grudge when there is a serious topic such as Israel on the table, he felt that a serious error of judgment had been made.
“It was wrong of AIPAC to do that. I would not have made that decision if I were them.”
Greenblatt qualified his comments by noting that the Republican nomination was, in March, still very much up in the air. “When they issued the apology, you remember, there were a lot of other candidates on the stage. And then, very quickly, he won. I am not sure they anticipated that. But it’s a question they should have asked themselves,” said Greenblatt.
Greenblatt said he thinks that any deep-thinking person who sees the reality of what Israel is and what it has been through since its founding is a supporter of Israel, as is Trump. However, Trump’s experience as a strong negotiator, which is a shared trait between himself and the others with whom he works, is key to Trump’s game plan, and while that may be foreign to Washington insiders, it is not to be discounted.
“What we do for a living is work out transactions,” Greenblatt said, noting that he has worked with Trump for two decades. “You need negotiating skills, you need to listen to the other side, you have to try to piece together everything to try to address as many issues as you can, with both sides satisfied that a fair and appropriate deal has been struck. Not everyone is happy all the time. I am not diminishing the concept of a peace deal or a U.S.-Israel relationship; they are complicated and there are lots of layers, but people like Donald, who are skilled negotiators, and people on his team who have worked on transactions large and small over the course of their careers, are well suited to these things.”
Greenblatt added that he doesn’t mean that the people in Washington now aren’t well-suited to the job. “I am not going to say that someone who has policy experience isn’t good. That would be silly. But similarly, they should not be saying that people like Donald, who have no Washington experience, aren’t good, because I think Donald would be phenomenal. He’s pragmatic, he thinks outside the box, he sees how Washington is broken, and this could apply to Israeli-Palestinian relationships; pick your topic as far as what he’s going to try to accomplish when he’s in the White House, but he will do things differently. He’s not a politician, he’s successfully run a huge business for close to four decades,” he said.
Greenblatt added that he feels lucky to be able to play whatever role he is destined to play in the campaign, and even in a future Trump White House, should that become a reality. “Whatever Hashem has destined for me, whether small or large, I feel very fortunate to be in this position. I hope I do a good job. And I will seek out advice from lots of people as I have been doing over the past months. Really they’ve been coming to me for the moment, but I will keep looking and seeking.”
“Deep down Donald understands the importance of Israel,” added Greenblatt. “I would be surprised if I ever had to couch a request for Israel through my own needs, as opposed to how he will see it through his own eyes, through his own heart.”
Dr. Ben, for his part, feels confident that Greenblatt’s representation of the Jewish, pro-Israel perspective in the Trump camp is profound, important and is something the community can count on. “I know that Jason will do everything in his power to make things happen. I am very proud of him. It’s wonderful. This is a real Kiddush Hashem,” said Chouake.
An abridged version of this article was published by our partners at JNS.org.
By Elizabeth Kratz