WASHINGTON – In these troubled times, pragmatists can’t afford to take a day off.
Growing up in south Philadelphia, my Orthodox Jewish grandmother insisted that our family observe Shabbat – the Jewish day of rest – and join her in a traditional meal every Friday night. I didn’t need much of an excuse to evade those meals or skip out of synagogue to listen to a Phillies game over the radio.
But Shabbat is a very serious matter for more observant Jews. That includes First Daughter Ivanka Trump, who converted to the faith and her husband Jared Kushner, a senior White House advisor. The couple, reputed to exercise a moderating influence on President Trump, turn off their phones and don’t participate in state business from sundown Friday to Saturday night—as Orthodox Judaism requires.
For the good of the nation, it’s time for the couple to carve out some exceptions.
Perhaps not coincidentally, increasingly President Trump’s most questionable and controversial actions occur during Shabbat – the latest being a series of tweets the President posted this past Saturday morning in which Trump accused former President Barack Obama of tapping his phones at Trump Tower.
It’s a pattern that’s repeated itself from the beginning. Trump’s visit to CIA headquarters for what former CIA director John Brennan called a “despicable display of self-aggrandizement” came on January 21, his first Saturday in office. Then, late Friday, January 27 came the ill-conceived Muslim ban and the White House statement on the Holocaust that somehow managed to omit mention of the Jewish people. The executive action naming White House chief strategist Steve Bannon to the National Security Council as well as the President’s tense call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull came on Saturday, January 28. Trump’s controversial dinner with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – in which the two leaders discussed a North Korea ballistic missile test while seated in the open-air dining room of Trump Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida – happened on Saturday, February 13.
Whether there is a link between the glamorous couple’s absence and the more contentious moments of the Trump White House, it’s clear Kushner and the President’s oldest daughter exercise influence on the President, much of which has been positive. The couple reportedly helped quash a proposed anti-LGBT executive order. Kushner has worked as a quiet diplomat; he arranged a meeting between President Trump and Mexican President Nieto and was reportedly “furious” when it fell through over payment for the border wall.
When Kushner and his wife are gone, that allows Bannon – the former chief of Breitbart News, which he claimed to have turned into the “platform of the alt-right” – to fill the vacuum. It leaves the White House without someone who can cut through the many competing views. Put simply, when the Jews are away, Bannon can play.
The power couple are far from the only observant Jews to serve in an important governmental position, and the example of others show how they might balance Shabbat and their White House responsibilities. Dov Zakheim, who served at the Department of Defense under the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, expounded at length about when the principle of pikuach nefesh (the overriding importance of preserving human life) allows national security officials to work during Shabbat. Senator Joseph Lieberman still voted and took important policy actions during Shabbat. Jack Lew, who served in many positions under Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton and most recently as President Obama’s final Treasury Secretary, observed Shabbat when possible but answered calls and drove to the White House when necessary.
These precedents give Trump and Kushner broad latitude to interpret the requirement of Shabbat and pikuach nefesh – and they should use it. After all, how often was Jack Lew’s presence on a Saturday phone call or Lieberman’s vote on the Senate floor strictly a matter of life and death? Given the actions the President has taken during Shabbat thus far, and given Bannon’s motivations, it’s reasonable to conclude the couple’s presence could be a matter of national security.
Ivanka and her husband should especially consider taking advantage of an innovation that could let them have it both ways. Israel’s Zomet Institute has invented a phone that allows users to place calls without completing an electric circuit – thus circumventing the Shabbat restriction on operating machinery. Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Nagel started using it last year and has urged other defense officials to obtain the phone. The First Daughter and Son-in-Law should seriously consider whether this technology could allow them to make and receive secure calls to and from the White House during Shabbat.
Or maybe Ivanka could just slip her dad’s Android phone into her pocket when she leaves on Friday.