When Jared Kushner was 17 years old, he stood where a million Jews had been murdered and listened to Israel’s prime minister stress the country’s importance. “The
Holocaust could have been prevented. We know it could not have taken
place had the Jewish state been established a few years earlier,” the
prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu,
said in 1998, standing amid the ruins of an Auschwitz-Birkenau
crematory. He had just led Mr. Kushner and thousands of other teenagers
waving Israeli flags in a procession through the camp’s gates and past
the barracks. As part of the commemoration, the group would soon leave Poland and fly to Israel, to complete the journey from slaughter to Zionist rebirth.
then, Mr. Kushner was a high school basketball player, a Billy Joel
fan, a quiz team manager and no one’s guess to become a negotiating
partner with Mr. Netanyahu. But unlike other students on the trip, he
knew the prime minister, who was friendly with his father, a real estate
developer and donor to Israeli causes. Mr. Netanyahu had even stayed at
the Kushners’ home in New Jersey, sleeping in Jared’s bedroom. (The
teenager moved to the basement that night.) On
Wednesday, when the Israeli prime minister visits the White House, Mr.
Netanyahu and Mr. Kushner will reunite on far different terms from
before — and yet their meeting will be imbued with some of the shared
ideas of those old encounters. Mr. Netanyahu is on his second stint as
prime minister; Mr. Kushner, now 36, is President Trump’s son-in-law and
a leading adviser on Middle Eastern affairs with a formidable
assignment. Mr. Trump has said that Mr. Kushner will try to “do peace,”
which the president has called “the ultimate deal.”
Kushner, on something of a crash course in diplomacy, has been speaking
with Arab leaders in recent weeks. But he is a mystery to most Middle
Eastern officials. He has no experience in government or international
affairs. His up-close exposure to the Arab world amounts to trips to a
handful of Persian Gulf countries and one star-studded jaunt to Jordan.
though Mr. Kushner has visited Israel since childhood, and more
recently to do business, he is little known there. Though he holds
strong views about the state of Israel, he has not been outspoken about
them, save for editorials in The New York Observer, the newspaper he
owns. His thinking on sensitive matters like settlements is not well
wasn’t a political discussion for him; it was his family, his life, his
people,” said Hirschy Zarchi, rabbi at the Chabad House at Harvard,
where Mr. Kushner was an undergraduate.
Rather than diplomatic experience, Mr. Kushner has ties to Israel that are personal and religious. His
visit to Auschwitz was stark, but its themes were not new to him. His
grandmother survived the Holocaust by crawling through a homemade tunnel
in Poland. His grandfather escaped the massacres by hiding in a hole
for years. An Orthodox Jew, Mr. Kushner was instructed to protect
Israel, remember the genocide and assure the survival of the Jewish
people, those close to him say.
was educated at Jewish schools where second graders were expected to
draw maps of Israel from memory and the West Bank was often referred to
by its biblical names, Judea and Samaria, a practice that emphasizes
Jewish claims to the land. His family used its real estate fortune to
donate millions of dollars to American Jewish and Israeli hospitals,
schools and other institutions, including a few in settlements,
according to public records. In his classes, Palestinians
were regarded at a distance, in part as security threats who committed
acts of terrorism — including one that killed a sister of a classmate of
Mr. Trump ran for president, his son-in-law’s stances on Israel helped
shape the campaign. Mr. Kushner helped script a speech to the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee and consulted with Netanyahu officials
behind the scenes. When he brought the candidate and the prime minister
together for a meeting, he invited his father, Charles Kushner, to join
in part to the younger Mr. Kushner, Mr. Netanyahu will arrive at a
White House that has already adopted many of the prime minister’s
perspectives on the region. Now Mr. Kushner is helping Mr. Trump and Mr.
Netanyahu craft a strategy
to recruit Sunni Muslim countries that oppose Iran to help foster an
Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The approach is a long shot:
Negotiations are dead. The Israeli right is pushing for more settlement
in the West Bank as talk among Palestinians turns to a single state in
which they have equal rights.
Barghouti, a Palestinian leader who was involved in peace talks both
with Israelis and internally, said Palestinians were skeptical of Mr.
Kushner, and Mr. Trump’s team generally, seeing them as close only to
the Israeli side. As part of its philanthropy, Mr. Kushner’s family has
made donations to the Beit El settlement, which Mr. Barghouti finds
need somebody who is really impartial,” Mr. Bargouti said, pointing out
that it is unclear whether Mr. Kushner has ever visited a Palestinian
area (the White House would not say). “There is no indication he is
interested in hearing from the other side.”
a White House spokeswoman, Mr. Kushner declined to respond or be
interviewed. But others said his life had given him cause to believe in
the improbable. His grandparents survived against all odds, then came to
America and made the kind of money of which most people can only dream.
Mr. Kushner plunged into his father-in-law’s presidential campaign with
no experience and helped him win.
is a region that has resisted solutions from people with vast résumés,”
said Ken Kurson, editor of The New York Observer, suggesting that his
friend and boss may do better. “For 60-plus years we’ve been sending the
best diplomats in the world, and it’s yielded zero results.”
Faith and Family
Kushner’s religious upbringing may have been intense, but his high
school yearbook message was laid-back, with an ode to his broken-in
sneakers. He was a “6 ft. 2 inch basketball and hockey player who just
loves to be comfortable,” the message said, noting that he also liked to
deliver frozen yogurt and Slurpees to his siblings.
was little mention of Jewish identity beyond his Hebrew name, Yoel
Chaim. But that was Mr. Kushner, classmates said in recent interviews:
easygoing and polite, a decent student but not a standout, not
particularly engaged in religious questions or the urgent political
matters of the day. He did not participate in the high school club
devoted to criticizing coverage of Israel in The New York Times. Many of
his peers spent a year after graduation studying religious texts in
Israel; he did not.
his family was busy building a world to replace the one it had lost:
schools, organizations, synagogues, campuses. The Kushners’ Judaism and
support of Israel were one and the same, friends said: about ensuring
major Jewish institutions of Mr. Kushner’s life — school and synagogue —
emphasized the connection between religion and Zionism. “In the modern
Orthodox community, the state of Israel has an important place in
identity, as a religious ideal, not only a political reality,” said Elie
Weinstock, rabbi at Kehilath Jeshurun, the Manhattan synagogue Mr.
his elementary school, the Hebrew Youth Academy in Livingston, N.J., it
was impossible to walk the halls “without seeing the flags of Israel
and Israeli historical figures and how the kids celebrate Israeli
holidays,” said Stephen Flatow, whose daughter Ilana was in Mr.
eighth grade, their class was stunned by the killing of Ilana’s older
sister, Alisa, in a bus bombing in the Gaza Strip. The school community
“couldn’t fathom how a young man can load himself up with dynamite and
blow himself up in a van and have his parents celebrating his death,”
Mr. Flatow said. A few years later, the school was renamed for Jared
Kushner’s grandfather, Joseph, and when a new building opened, the
family dedicated the flagpole that flies the Israeli flag to Alisa’s
high school at the Frisch School in northern New Jersey, where Mr.
Kushner spent long days attending mandatory prayers (morning and
afternoon) and studying in English, Hebrew and Aramaic (the language of
the Talmud), every year of his education was interwoven with events in
Israel. In 1995, when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated,
teachers and students mourned together. In 1996, a recent graduate named
was killed in another bus bombing, sending shock waves through the
school again. In 1997, about the time Mr. Kushner was on a six-week
summer trip to Israel, a double suicide bomb in the main Jerusalem
market killed more than a dozen people.
classmates say the environment Mr. Kushner lived in could feel
apolitical, because most everyone shared similar views, and Palestinian
perspectives were barely considered. Some teachers told students that
“Palestinian” was a made-up identity, a label assigned for political
reasons. There was little discussion of what it was like to live under
occupation, several classmates of Mr. Kushner’s recalled. Many rabbis
and teachers seemed comfortable with settlements, and some students said
they never learned that Israel’s borders were a highly contested topic.
was such an assumption that Jews deserve to have this place, that it
was theirs for thousands of years by biblical fiat,” said Eli Schleifer,
who graduated the year before Mr. Kushner. “There was such a strange
blindness to the complexity of the situation.”
1999, Mr. Kushner left New Jersey for Harvard, where he no longer wore a
skullcap to classes, but continued to follow rules of Orthodox Jewish
life. Jordan Reid Strauch, a friend of Mr. Kushner’s, could not recall
his mentioning Israel. Soon the second intifada, or Palestinian
uprising, was setting off criticism of Israel on campus and then
responses from students who defended the country, but Mr. Kushner kept
his head down.
he spent time at the Chabad House, where Rabbi Zarchi was struck by how
Mr. Kushner “never felt the need to apologize for his differences, his
religious commitments,” he said.
Kushner sometimes expressed his views during long Sabbath meals at the
house. “He certainty believed that a strong and secure Israel was in
America and the world’s best interest,” Rabbi Zarchi said. He didn’t
believe that Israel needed “the approval of Europe, the United Nations
or even Washington or London,” the rabbi continued.
Mr. Kushner was at Harvard, Mr. Netanyahu once again visited his
father, speaking at his office, kicking a soccer ball at one of the
schools that carried the family name and sitting down for a tabbouleh
lunch with students including Jared’s younger brother, Joshua.
Netanyahu’s visits helped lead to an unexpected outcome: Charles
Kushner’s brother, Murray, sued him for misusing the family company’s
funds by paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in speaking fees to the
Israeli leader, among other high-profile figures. The suit was
eventually settled, but it set off investigations and misdeeds
by Charles Kushner that eventually led to a two-year prison sentence
for tax evasion, witness-tampering and making illegal campaign
A few years later, Charles Kushner and Mr. Netanyahu still seemed close: When the Israeli media obtained Mr. Netanyahu’s partly handwritten list of wealthy Americans most likely to help fund his party’s primary elections, Mr. Kushner was near the top.
A Formidable Task
June in Washington, Yousef al-Otaiba, the ambassador of the United Arab
Emirates, received an unexpected request from his friend Thomas Barrack
Jr., a Lebanese-American businessman and Trump fund-raiser: Would he
meet with Jared Kushner?
“What struck me in our first meeting is that he asked a lot of questions and listened,” Mr. Otaiba
said. Since then, the two have been in close touch, with Mr. Kushner
playing the student, asking Mr. Otaiba for his impressions of shifting
forces in the Middle East, Syria, Iran, extremism, relationships.
Kushner had become a force in his family’s real estate business, and a
member of a synagogue known for a brand of religious Zionism similar to
the one he was raised with. He took out loans for the real estate business from Israel’s Bank Hapoalim and almost bought a major Israeli insurance company called Phoenix.
he had been raised a Democrat, Mr. Kushner endorsed Mitt Romney in the
2012 presidential race, in part because of disappointment with President
Barack Obama on Israel. “Rather than strengthen the nation’s
relationship with Israel as the Arab world imploded, Mr. Obama treated
Jerusalem as less a friend than a burden,” the Observer endorsement read, using language similar to what Mr. Trump would eventually say.
Mr. Kushner has given up his life in New York for a government ID card
and a groaning portfolio. Many foreign policy experts wait their entire
careers for a White House job, but Mr. Kushner is fielding inquiries
from foreign leaders even as he is still learning to navigate the
subject. He is far from the first American Jew with strong ties to
Israel to wade into Middle Eastern diplomacy — Rahm Emanuel, the former
White House chief of staff, is the son of a former Jewish paramilitary
fighter — but the others were Washington professionals or seasoned
his first weeks in the White House, Mr. Kushner has had exchanges with
officials from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and elsewhere, and greeted
King Abdullah II of Jordan, whom he met several years ago on a trip to that country.
is unclear what shape Mr. Kushner’s role will take, especially as
figures like Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and others in the
foreign policy apparatus become engaged in Middle Eastern diplomacy.
Some observers see Mr. Kushner as a welcome counter to an unpredictable
president and to firebrands like Stephen K. Bannon, the White House
strategist, and David M. Friedman, the ambassador designate to Israel.
Kushner “could be a moderate voice,” said Dan Gillerman, Israel’s
former ambassador to the United Nations, who got to know Mr. Kushner in
New York. “The strange thing is, that 36-year-old kid may end up being
the grown-up in the room.”
years after his teenage encounters with Mr. Netanyahu, he may also be
in a position to help the Israeli leader, who is facing multiple
corruption investigations and ever-stronger challenges from the right.
Mr. Kushner’s task is formidable. Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Trump want to
set in motion a chain of events that could block Iran, redefine Israel’s
relationship with the Arab world and create Israeli-Palestinian peace —
“the deal that can’t be made,” as Mr. Trump has said.
prime minister is coming into the meeting with the hope to forge a
common policy with the president, and Jared’s role is critical in that,”
said Ron Dermer, the ambassador of Israel, with whom Mr. Kushner has
been in close contact. “He’s someone who, in my interactions with him,
has really been able to deliver.”
Ian Fisher and Isabel Kershner contributed reporting.