Today is Holocaust remembrance day, and it’s a good opportunity to explore the Jewish connection between Donald Trump and Mike Pence that precedes their political connection. The president and vice president have long, close ties to an extended Jewish family– the Hasten/Kushner clan– that has a deep experience of the Holocaust and intimate connections to Benjamin Netanyahu, the rightwing Israeli prime minister.
This is a story replete with history and genealogy and Jewish politics, and one that helps explain why American Jewish leadership is so rightwing on Israel.
A month ago, Mike Pence spoke to AIPAC, the leading Israel lobby group, and the first name he mentioned was Hart Hasten:
My relationship with AIPAC spans more than a quarter of a century. It began with a mentoring role of Indiana’s Hart Hasten in my life back in 1988 as a first-time candidate for Congress.
Hart Hasten is a quiet legend of American and Israeli political life. Born in a Polish shtetl in 1931, Hasten barely escaped the Nazis in a wagon that his worried father had had the prescience to engage in June 1941. Days later Hasten’s grandfather and cousin were executed in the center of the village. Many of his relatives died in the camps. But Hasten’s family survived in Kazakhstan and later several DP camps in Austria and Poland.
From the time they were teenagers, Hart Hasten and his older brother Mark resolved that Jews must never be so helpless again. “Never again” became Hart’s philosophy, as he wrote in a 2003 memoir, and that meant guns and political power:
The Torah’s parchment offers precious little protection against missile, bullets and bombs. We are obligated to protect ourselves, by military means, from what has been shown time and again to be a hostile and often savage world…
To make sure that the words “Never Again!” resonate with truth, we must achieve strength in the research laboratory, in the university, and at the negotiating table. We must be clever, and we must be capable of forging alliances with strong partners who will offer protection when we are threatened.
Both boys joined Betar, the rightwing militant Zionist movement. Mark served in the Irgun and was aboard the ill-fated Altalena with Menachem Begin.
The brothers ultimately made it penniless to the midwest in their 20s, and with the sense that their youth had been stolen, clawed their way into American business life. Hart was a manager for Bemis, Mark was an industrial engineer for General Mills (he invented Bugles and Pringles). The brothers set out as partners in Indianapolis; and the nursing home business led to commercial real estate and banking– and great wealth.
The Hastens were also connected to the rightwing in Israel. They despised the socialist Labor politicians, and after Likud came to power, they got a cable television contract in Be’ersheva because of their close ties to the government. A forceful, outgoing man, Hart Hasten was a close friend and adviser to Begin and Ariel Sharon. He regularly brought Israeli leaders to U.S. fundraisers for Israel bonds, Irgun pensions, and Jewish day schools. He chewed out everyone from Moshe Dayan in his own house to Ronald Reagan in the White House (during the Saudi AWACs flap). He ordered Netanyahu around (and took a dim view of Netanyahu’s second wife stealing an artifact from a Betar archeological site).
When it came to Israel lobbying, the brothers divvied up Indiana politics. Mark cultivated Democrats — Evan and Birch Bayh. While Hart cultivated Dan Quayle and Mike Pence.
The orthodox Jewish school the brothers helped found became briefly controversial during the 2016 presidential race. Times of Israel:
[T]he Hasten Hebrew Academy… does not take a political stance on Pence. Heavily funded by local benefactor and Pence friend Hart Hasten, its website once featured a photo of the pupils’ field trip to the governor’s mansion for a Hanukkah party.
“However, since he has become such a polarizing political figure, we took it off the site. The school does not have an official side of politics since the diversity of Jews and Jewish opinions here are so broad and coexist peacefully,” The Times of Israel was told.
Now let’s turn to Trump.
The Hastens are related by marriage to another orthodox Jewish family of Holocaust survivors: the Kushner family of New Jersey.
Hart Hasten’s second child, Bernard, is married to Laurie Laulicht. Laurie is a first cousin of Jared Kushner, the son-in-law and adviser of Donald Trump. Jared Kushner and Laurie Hasten’s shared grandparents were Holocaust survivors. And Laurie Hasten’s father Murray is also the son of Holocaust survivors, not to mention a former lawyer for the Warren Commission; and a leader in orthodox Jewish education in New York.
The Kushner family came out of the same experience as the Hastens– barely surviving the Nazis, DP camps, then coming to the States and amassing great wealth and influence. From Town and Country:
[Jared Kushner’s] grandparents had helped to “create a tight-knit community of Holocaust survivors known as the Builders” after they immigrated to the United States in 1949. Jared Kushner’s grandmother, Rae had escaped prosecution in what is now Belarus by tunneling out to the woods, where a community of Jews had armed themselves. The story of this group would eventually be made into the Hollywood film Defiance. Rae later married Yossel (Joseph) Kushner, another survivor. The couple spent three and a half years in a displaced-persons camp in Italy waiting for a visa to the United States.
Among the values the Kushner and Hasten families share are: support for Jewish education, opposition to Jewish assimilation, and devotion to Israeli rightwing leaders.
The only times Hart Hasten is critical of Israel is when it doesn’t use enough force against Palestinians, or threatens to give up “Jewish land”. He raised money to pay the pensions of the Jewish terrorists who forced Britain to leave Palestine, and teased Begin about blowing up the King David when they met there for breakfast; but he demonizes Palestinians who turn to violence as a scourge that the U.S. and Israel must work together to eliminate.
In his memoir, Hart Hasten recalls Passover at the Fontainebleu in Miami Beach in 2001, when Benjamin Netanyahu called his friend Charles Kushner– Jared Kushner’s father– to meet for breakfast to plot his political future. At that time Kushner was funding the rise of Jim McGreevey to become New Jersey governor.
Charlie, knowing of my friendship with Bibi, asked me to join them.
The following morning, Simona [Hasten’s wife] and I met up with Charlie and his wife, Seryl, at their table and a few moments later, Bibi and his third wife, Sara, arrived. My son and daughter-in-law, Bernard and Laurie, stopped by for a while as well. After we had exchanged the requisite pleasantries, Bibi soon got to work expounding on his political vision and his need for support from American Jews, such as Charlie and me, who presumably shared that vision. I decided to speak up.
“You know, Bibi, if you really wanted to become prime minister again, then you made a terrible mistake…”
“I did not make any mistake,” he whispered. Then, speaking up: “You’re a Sharon supporter, I know that.” I agreed that I was a supporter of all the Likud prime ministers.
Hart Hasten and Charlie Kushner are kingmakers. I don’t know what role Hart Hasten played when Charlie’s son helped Donald Trump choose Mike Pence as vice president, but it’s a good bet the relatives talked.
There are two cultural and political lessons from this story. One is that Donald Trump and Mike Pence share a Jewish mishpocheh, or family. Whatever anyone says about anti-semitism in the Trump administration, both men have worked closely with powerful Jews over many years, from the same extended family. As Hart wrote: “We must be clever, and we must be capable of forging alliances with strong partners who will offer protection when we are threatened.”
The second lesson is about the force of the Holocaust inside the Jewish community. Hart and Mark Hasten derived political prestige in the American Jewish community because other Jews granted it to them. Jews deferred to the terrible backstory these men had in Europe, and said, They know the right answer to Jewish history. We see that deference in the fact that the liberal Zionist group Americans for Peace Now stayed associated with AIPAC even as Hart Hasten and other AIPAC leaders were routinely defending Israeli massacres to American audiences, and as AIPAC cheered on Trump. We see that deference in the fact that Jeremy Ben-Ami of J Street brags on his father being in the Irgun, the Jewish terrorist force in the days of Israel’s creation that Mark was a member of, and that Hart reveres.
These people had their reasons for arriving at a militant understanding of the ends of Jewish history. Through their deeds, they have given us ample reason to challenge those beliefs.