What Should American Jews Make of Ivanka Trump?

She’s the Orthodox daughter of David Duke’s favorite candidate for president—and a perfect cipher for the anxiety of assimilation.

Ivanka Trump and a Star of David
Joe Raedle / Getty / Zak Bickel / The Atlantic

The biblical story of Esther is an imperfect allegory for the Trump family, but as for Ivanka, the comparison isn’t half bad.* Esther is a Jewish woman who conceals her identity when she becomes the bride of a powerful king. It is only when she reveals who she is that she can save the Jewish people from an evil adviser plotting their destruction.

Like Esther, Ivanka might appear to be nothing more than a pretty face until she shows that she’s the savviest person in the room. Like Esther, Ivanka has a familial, almost accidental position of influence with a powerful gentile political figure. And like Esther, Ivanka’s Jewishness is veiled: Something she describes as an important part of her identity and family life—she’s an Orthodox convert, but she rarely agrees to talk about her faith—is essentially invisible to those who don’t know it’s there.

Now, as Ivanka steps more into her public role as the daughter of a potential U.S. president, she faces the same dilemma as Esther: figuring out whether and what obligation she has to be a champion of her people—especially when it’s not clear what her people might want from her.

Unlike a neat tale of biblical-style good and evil, the roles in the Trump campaign are scrambled. Far from being a unified bloc, American Jews might have conflicting opinions about the greatest threat to their country in 2016, whether they’re more concerned about terrorism and the future of Israel or the intolerance for minority groups that has come out on the campaign trail.

Similarly, they might identify different villains in the story of Trump. The Republican nominee’s opponents might snicker that he makes a good Haman, or perhaps an incestuous version of the king. But to some, like the estimated 66 percent of Florida’s Orthodox Jewish voters who say they’re supporting Trump, he might seem like Mordechai, Esther’s wise cousin who finally brings order to the king’s decadent and unruly court.**

All of this makes Ivanka a figure of profound ambivalence for American Jews, and particularly the Orthodox. “There’s ambivalence: We want to distance ourselves from you, but we also want you to be looking out for our interests,”  said Lila Corwin Berman, a professor of history at Temple University. “And we also want to believe that if Trump gets into power, we’ll have someone with interests close to our heart close to that power center.”

Ivanka is tacitly expected to be a public advocate for Jewish identity and interests, and yet the community is deeply divided over the messages she delivers as a surrogate for her father’s campaign—ones that many reject outright. While American Jews have a strong instinct toward privacy in hashing out internal conflicts, many also seem to yearn, in some small way, for Ivanka to be their Esther—an embedded representative who can, in the end, step in and save them from ruin.

* * *

When she married Kushner in 2009, Ivanka joined a distinctive Jewish world. It’s very New York: Upper East Side, private schools, lots of wealth and connections. Jerry Kestenbaum, a longtime member of their synagogue—Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, also known as KJ—said it’s not out of place to have the likes of a presidential candidate’s daughter and son-in-law show up on Saturday mornings. “Our congregation has a lot of people like that,” he said. He could list them from memory. “Michael Mukasey, who was the attorney general, is a regular participant in our community. … Senator Lieberman is very wired into our community even though he’s not a regular participant there. It’s a congregation that is pretty comfortable with their members being in key positions."

KJ is affiliated with the small, somewhat-disparate Modern Orthodox movement, which accounts for roughly 3 percent of the American Jewish population. It’s more ritually traditional than many other parts of Judaism; Ivanka has said in interviews that she and her husband keep a kosher home and observe the rules of Shabbat, including not working or using electronics, which is typical of that community. While more than two-thirds of American Jews tend to vote Democratic, according to Pew, the Orthodox are a bit more politically conservative: In a 2013 survey, 57 percent said they lean Republican, including both Modern and other Orthodox Jews. People in that group are also more likely than those in any other Jewish movement to say the United States is not supportive enough of Israel; in the Pew survey, more than half said that was true.

This summer, the New York Modern Orthodox scene faced twin controversies concerning Ivanka Trump and the rabbi who oversaw her conversion, Haskel Lookstein. In June, Israel’s rabbinical courts rejected Lookstein’s authority to oversee Jewish conversions. Then, in July, Lookstein agreed, at Ivanka’s invitation, to give a blessing at the Republican National Convention, which brought on protests and counter-protests within the community.

When Israel’s courts were critiquing the rabbi, “the Orthodox community in the United States was overwhelmingly in support of Rabbi Lookstein’s ability to perform conversions,” said Zev Eleff, the chief academic officer at Hebrew Theological College and author of a history of Modern Orthodox Jews. An attack on one of their own was met with unified resistance; Lookstein, they said, should be able to represent them to the world.

But when he appeared to get involved with Trump, the community split with anger. “To embrace Trump and Trumpism goes against all we’ve been taught,” wrote Jacob Savage—an alumnus of the Jewish private school, Ramaz, which is closely tied to KJ—in a Change.org petition. “As graduates of Ramaz, and as current or former members of the Modern Orthodox community, this is a shanda”—Yiddish for shame or scandal—“beyond the pale.”

“Jews, of all people, should know that when you embrace a xenophobic movement … we’re not far behind.”

The petition got hundreds of supporters. But there was also pushback. Someone writing under the name “Friends of Rabbi Lookstein” sent an anonymous email to Savage’s parents. “Do you really condone your son’s reprehensible behavior?” the person wrote. “Is this the education that you spent so much to provide? To ridicule Holocaust victims … as a young and failed writer?”

“Definitely enjoy the ‘young and failed’ part,” Savage wrote to me in an email.

Kestenbaum, the longtime KJ member, launched a counter-petition. “You have a lifetime track record of seeing all aspects of a situation and using your judgment in a way that creates a Kiddush Hashem,” or a sanctification of God’s name, he wrote to Lookstein on Change.org, winning about one-eighth of the supporters that Savage did. “We trust you to do the same again this time.”

While these dueling petitions were mostly evidence of juicy internecine fight, they inadvertently illustrated a broader Jewish ambivalence about Ivanka. One of the most prominent Jewish women in America is a close adviser on a campaign that has attracted the admiration of neo-Nazis and anti-Semites. Trump has passively cheered on anti-Semitic trolls, appointed a man accused of denying the Holocaust as one of his advisers, and tweeted graphics that incorporate anti-Semitic imagery. It’s understandably difficult for Jews to embrace a candidate who told a room full of Jewish Republicans that he’s a “negotiator like you folks,” and who has been reluctant to condemn white supremacists in interviews. And that’s setting aside his inflammatory comments about Muslims and Mexicans, along with the endless insults hurled at every imaginable group.

“I think Jews, of all people, should know that when you embrace a xenophobic movement, even if in that moment Jews aren’t on the top of that list, we’re not far behind,” said Savage in an interview. “In the moment, I felt a deep sense that we should know better.”

The other instinct—Kestenbaum’s—is one of privacy: Perhaps being involved with Ivanka and the Trump campaign shouldn’t be read as a reflection on the Jewish people at all. Political disagreements are fine, but people should keep their religious community out of it. “This type of a public, ad hominem attack—even if it weren’t on the rabbi—it’s like an invasive species: It doesn’t belong in our community,” he told me. A similar argument could be made about Ivanka: She should be able to be privately Jewish, and it’s not appropriate to use her religious affiliation as a point of critique.

“My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite.”

What’s curious is that neither letter stated a view on Ivanka’s responsibility for her father’s campaign and the ensuing drama in the KJ community. She’s the obvious link between Lookstein and the RNC; KJ was still represented at the convention, only by one of its members, rather than its rabbi. Neither side sought to disavow or defend the daughter of the Republican nominee; they were silent about her position in their community, and what her new role in politics says to the world about Judaism. Even those who felt moved enough to call out a revered rabbi were stumped on what to say about their fellow Jew.

Throughout the campaign season, Ivanka and her husband have only occasionally been called to account for the anti-Semitism of the Trump campaign. In July, Kushner wrote an editorial for the paper he owns, the Observer, rebutting a staffer’s article that directly criticized him for enabling vitriol and attacks against Jews. “My father-in-law is not an anti-Semite,” Kushner wrote. Trump “is an incredibly loving and tolerant person who has embraced my family and our Judaism since I began dating my wife.”

There’s something uncomfortable about a Jewish adviser to a presidential campaign being personally held accountable for its wrongdoings; all political operatives should be held equally responsible for their alleged involvement with bigotry. Yet, even in this case, it was Kushner who was singled out to defend his family. Ivanka hasn’t spoken out about her Judaism or its connection to politics at all. “Except for some boilerplate stuff about how much she loves Judaism, I haven’t heard [Ivanka] speak on any Jewish issues or on Jewish ethics or anything other than Judaism as a lifestyle brand,” Savage pointed out. (Her representatives declined an interview request for this article.)

It’s not that Orthodox Jews aren’t worried about Trump, including those who travel in Ivanka and Jared’s comparatively conservative world. “I’m a member of the Rabbinical Council of America,” said Eleff, referring to the clerical organization associated with the Modern Orthodox movement in the U.S. “As a member of that community, I know its leaders are terribly disturbed by those images [of a Jewish journalist portrayed in a concentration camp] and by white-supremacist people who do support the Trump campaign.” A few dozen Orthodox rabbis recently signed a statement in protest of Trump, arguing that his rhetoric is “morally offensive” and that his policy proposals “violate fundamental religious norms.” Yet, at least publicly, it’s not clear that these worries have reached their obvious point of connection to the campaign: the candidate’s daughter.

More broadly, it seems like American Jews don’t quite know how to make sense of Ivanka. On one hand, Jewish media outlets write about about her constantly. She presents “this way to try to talk about Trump, who’s really confusing to everybody, and especially to Jews, and especially to observant Jews,” said Corwin Berman. “Here’s this accomplished, beautiful, blond woman who converted to be one of us—and not just one of us, but really one of us: She converted through an Orthodox conversion.”

This is a somewhat unusual choice. Many Americans who marry Jews end up in a situation more like that of Ivanka’s Democratic counterpart, Chelsea Clinton, who chose not to convert when she wedded her husband, Marc Mezvinsky. But Ivanka embraced Judaism.

Now, she’s getting the full experience of what it’s like to be an American Jew with mixed heritage—people feel free to subtly question her authenticity as a Jew. She’s often treated as “other” in Jewish press stories—there’s a “kind of obsessive need to label her as a convert,” Corwin Berman said. Many in the Orthodox community might be uncomfortable with calling out her status as a convert; a provision in Jewish law specifically forbids Jews from treating converts differently than they would other Jews. For most people, though, that probably doesn’t matter. “I don’t think that every time in the Jewish press it’s noted that she’s a convert, people are like, ‘Oof, this is a breach of halachic standard,’” Corwin Berman said.

Ivanka is a perfect cipher for the collective anxiety of American Jews.

In an election in which few Americans seem enthusiastic about their choices for president, this seems to have become the question for many groups: Which candidate, in a field of bad candidates, is more likely to hold our interests in their heart? Conservative evangelical Christians seem to have made that calculation with Donald Trump, hoping he’ll put a pro-life justice on the Supreme Court. Perhaps many Orthodox Jews are making a similar trade, daring to trust Trump when he asserts that “there’s nobody more pro-Israel than I am.”

Of all the unlikely things conservative evangelicals and Orthodox Jews might share this election besides Donald Trump, the other is the metaphor of Esther. Sarah Palin has found resonance in the story of the Persian Empire-era Jewess, perhaps also seeing herself as a figure whose role is to speak out in a time of crisis. Pastors have drawn on Esther in sermons about her moral uprightness, and popular adaptations of her story have portrayed her as a Christ-like figure, ready to die for who she was and what she believed.

That’s a radical interpretation of what Esther’s story means, and probably one with which most Jews would disagree. But Esther’s story is all about interpretation: what it meant that she hid her identity, and what her obligation was to her people; whether the lesson is that morally righteous people speak truth to power no matter what, or that they assimilate and bide their time, perhaps never publicly exposing an agenda.

And so it is with Ivanka. She is a perfect cipher for the collective anxiety of American Jews; in one person, she is a dilemma of assimilation and authenticity and moral responsibility. While some Jews may find it easy to write off Trump, it’s more complicated to write off his daughter. No matter what happens in November, Ivanka will be part of American political history—and Jewish history. Perhaps, like Esther, she will prove herself a champion of her people. Or perhaps, also like Esther, she will continue the cultural dance of Jews in diaspora: to be hidden in plain sight.

* This article originally claimed that Donald Trump compared his daughter, Ivanka, to Esther while on the campaign trail. This quote was in fact sourced from a false report by the Jewish News Service, which published the quote as a prank for Purim. We regret the error.

** This article previously stated that Mordechai was Esther’s uncle. We regret the error.