When presidential power was transferred for the first time in the fledgling United States after the election of 1800, the new president, Thomas Jefferson, sought to embrace his opponents, the Federalists.
“Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle,” he famously said at his inauguration. “We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.”
There were no such conciliatory words at his inauguration in January 2017 from Donald Trump, who had just won a vicious election in which most Americans had voted for somebody else.
In a speech the Los Angeles Times called “pugnacious in tone, pitch black in colour,” the new president essentially continued his discordant election campaign by lambasting the “American carnage” overseen by his predecessor, Barack Obama.
“From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land,” he said. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.” The phrase worried many Jews, in the US and elsewhere, with its unfortunate historical association with the America First Committee, an isolationist movement that opposed US entry into the Second World War, led by aviator Charles Lindbergh and including more than a few pro-Nazis and antisemites in its ranks.
On the other hand, some pointed out that Trump was the first US president with Jewish grandchildren. Ivanka, Donald Trump’s daughter from his first marriage, and her Orthodox husband Jared Kushner were not just remarkable because they keep a kosher diet and observe Shabbat (although they did ask for rabbinic dispensation several times to allow them to travel with her father). Both were given significant and ill-defined roles in government as advisers to the president.
Ivanka used her role as an unpaid federal employee to pursue reforms relating to a host of women’s economic issues, including equal pay, greater child tax credits and affordable child-care. Jared, meanwhile, established himself as one of Trump’s closest confidants with a hefty job title — Senior Adviser to the President — to match.
Kushner was granted a swathe of foreign policy responsibilities, including the formidable task of brokering peace between Israel and the Palestinians. He made repeated trips to the Middle East in 2017 but his much-vaunted peace plan had not materialised by the end of the year and rumours abounded that he was falling out of favour with the President.
Kushner is bound up in the scandal over alleged collusion with Russia during the contest in which Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. The president’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned and is now co-operating with prosecutors after admitting he lied about meeting Russian officials before the new president took office.
There was tragedy this year as well as scandal. When a white nationalist and alleged Nazi sympathiser deliberately drove his car into a crowd demonstrating against fascism, killing one person and injuring 19 others,Trump appeared to suggest that both sides carried equal blame.
From a Jewish perspective, the outstanding event of the year came at the end, when he announced his landmark policy shift on Jerusalem.
At face value, his words on December 6 were quite straightforward: “Israel is a sovereign nation, with the right like every other sovereign nation to determine its own capital. Acknowledging this is a fact is a necessary condition for achieving peace.”
Then he added: “Therefore I have determined that it is time to officially recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.”
It sparked delight in Trump’s evangelical voter base and for many, but by no means all Jews around the world. For other world leaders, such as Theresa May, it was “unhelpful” when Jerusalem’s final status has yet to be agreed and it earned Trump a rebuke from Muslim countries and from the United Nations Security Council, in a vote in which Britain voted against the US. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, described the Security Council’s vote as an insult that would not be forgotten. So far only Guatemala has followed the US’s lead.
The move typified the first year of the Trump White House: aggressive, divisive and insular. There are three years of Donald Trump yet to come.
Michael Daventry is the JC’s Foreign Editor