Way before Jared Kushner became internationally famous by moving into the White House to work for his father-in-law Donald Trump, those of us who live in New Jersey knew the family was an amazing story of immigrant success.
Jared Kushner’s paternal grandparents, Holocaust survivors Joseph and Rae Kushner, came to the United States in 1949 as impoverished Eastern European refugees and begat a family whose office buildings, apartment complexes and philanthropic efforts are important parts of the business and social landscapes in New Jersey and elsewhere.
Yes, there are scandals and feuds besetting parts of the family, and Jared’s father Charles racked up some prison time. But the family’s rise from refugees to titans is an example of what can happen when people are admitted into this country, work hard and prosper.
I got curious about the Kushner history after Jared invoked his immigrant forbears in his recent speech at the new U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. “I keep a photo of them on my desk” in the White House, he said.
As a grandson of Jewish Eastern European immigrants myself — my late father and Kushner’s late grandmother even had the same birth name, Slonimsky, but spelled it differently — I was impressed that Kushner remembers his roots and discusses his origins publicly.
But I wondered how — or if — Kushner could reconcile his father-in-law’s “keep ’em out” immigration philosophy with the story of his paternal grandparents, who spent 3 1/2 years in a displaced persons camp in Italy before being admitted to the U.S. In a 1982 interview given by the late Rae Kushner to a Holocaust research center, Jared’s grandmother talks about how wrong she felt it was for the U.S. to let people like her and her husband languish in displaced persons camps for years awaiting permission to enter the country.
I was especially taken by this portion: “The day after we got married [in Budapest, Hungary], we smuggled ourselves over the border into Italy,” Rae Kushner said. “This was our honeymoon. In Italy, we sat in a displaced persons camp. It was like being in the ghetto again. … Nobody wanted to take us in. So for 3 1/2 years we waited until we finally got a visa to come to the United States.”
Later on, she says that, “For the Jews, the doors were closed. We never understood that. Even President Roosevelt kept the doors closed. Why?”
The answer, of course, can be found by looking at some less-than-inspiring U.S. history. The Immigration Act of 1924 set stringent limits on the number of people the U.S. would admit from Poland (where Joseph and Rae Kushner were from) and other Eastern European countries. Franklin Roosevelt didn’t seek to make exceptions to those rules — perhaps because, in addition to the immigration quotas, there was a nasty outfit called the America First Committee. Its prominent members included Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator, and its supporters included Father Charles Coughlin, the anti-Semite who gained huge popularity as “the Radio Priest from Royal Oak, Michigan.” The committee tried to keep the U.S. out of World War II and blamed American Jews for supposedly pushing Roosevelt to have our country enter the hostilities. The committee folded after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, but its influence lingered.
It all added up to huge impediments for Jewish refugees to enter the United States. I wanted to know how Kushner reconciles his family immigration history with his father-in-law’s immigration policies. I also wanted to find out if Kushner knew the history of “America First,” which my children, who are members of Kushner’s generation, said they hadn’t heard about until I mentioned it to them recently.
So I sent the White House press office an email outlining some of the major elements in this column, asking for comment or a conversation. I never heard back.
Perhaps Kushner opposes large parts of his father-in-law’s immigration program, and has been opposing it privately. But it’s also possible that Kushner has no problem reconciling his family history with Trump’s policies. Rae Kushner was an eloquent, plainspoken critic of U.S. immigration policies. Her grandson Jared’s public silence speaks volumes, too, in its own way.
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