Jason Greenblatt is going to speak at a benefit to raise money for the not-yet-begun Northern New Jersey Holocaust Memorial and Education Center in Teaneck, where he and his family live. (See box.)
Mr. Greenblatt is a logical speaker for two biographical reasons — he is the son of Holocaust escapees and survivors, and he is President Donald J. Trump’s former special envoy to the Middle East; his qualifications for that job came as a result of his 19 years as a lawyer in the Trump Organization. By the time that Mr. Trump was elected president, Mr. Greenblatt was the organization’s chief legal adviser.
During his three years at the White House, Mr. Greenblatt worked with the president’s son-in-law, senior White House adviser Jared Kushner, on a peace plan that he said is finished but to his regret has not yet been made public.
At a recent interview at his large, well-appointed house, Mr. Greenblatt — a trim, polite, deliberate-seeming man, who speaks softly, carefully, and in full, well-considered sentences — talked about both the memorial and the peace plan, as well as his time in the White House.
First, the memorial.
“It’s very exciting to me that the township would allow this garden of human understanding to be built on the town green,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “I feel very blessed to live in a town like Teaneck. I’ve raised six kids here” — 21-year-old triplets and three younger ones — “and I see that Teaneck is unique to my knowledge in its diversity of ethnicities, religions, levels of observance, and race. You can see it all over — at the soccer field, the baseball field, or just walking through town.
“When you add the Holocaust memorial and the education center — education is always an important component — it will allow us to avoid future holocausts.” The site also includes a memorial to enslaved Americans; the entire memorial is meant as an antidote to anti-Semitism, racism, and senseless hatreds of all kinds.
“And it’s a great resource for people from the neighboring towns,” Mr. Greenblatt added; it’s a good thing to have large Holocaust museums and resource centers in big cities, like the ones in Washington and New York, he said, but it’s also good — maybe even better — to have more easily accessible ones closer to home.
Mr. Greenblatt’s own family’s Holocaust escape stories aren’t clear, because his parents were children then, and their memories were clouded, but they are compelling. Both of his parents, Max Greenblatt and Vera Lefkovits Greenblatt, were born in Hungary, he said. His father and his family somehow got visas from a German diplomat, Jason Greenblatt reported; “my father says he was on the last legal train out of Hungary.” His mother and her family “were on a train on the way to a concentration camp when a bridge just in front of them was blown up, and they were rerouted to a labor camp.” The family left Hungary around the time of its revolution, in 1956, and is scattered around the world.
Over the summer, the Greenblatts went to Debrecen, the small Hungarian town where the Lefkovitses had lived. “We even got to go to her apartment,” he said. “A basketball star lived there.” Oh, so the family was rich? No, he said hastily — “It is a small apartment. It’s not fancy. Just amazing. “And my youngest daughter, Vera — she’s named after her grandmother — got to run up and down the staircase there.”
Vera Greenblatt died 17 years ago, and Max Greenblatt lives with Jason and the rest of the family in Teaneck.
Mr. Greenblatt plans to talk about his experiences as a real-estate-lawyer-turned-Middle-East-hopping-senior-diplomat at the benefit.
His main takeaway from those experiences, Mr. Greenblatt said, “is that we” — that is, just about everyone, from the diplomats with whom he negotiated to the ordinary people he talked to as he walked the streets of Dubai or Riyadh — “are so alike. Human connections, getting along, helping each other, making the world a better place. I am optimistic that something historic is happening in the region that we have to seize on and make sure it keeps happening.”
What did he see and learn to get him to this epiphany?
“I think that things have changed in the Middle East, and I think that my experiences can give us some lessons at home about the importance of dialogue and education and reaching out to others. We have so much more in common than what sets us apart.
“I learned that everyone wants to end these two conflicts, the Arab-Israeli and the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts,” Mr. Greenblatt continued. “Those two conflicts are intricately tied together and extraordinarily complex. But things are changing.
“When I started, three years ago,” Israel’s neighbors “were talking about their ties in Israel, but they very much were whispering about it. Nothing was public. But by the time I left, three years later, that had changed. The Israeli national anthem was sung in Abu Dhabi.” It was at a judo competition, he added. “And Israel will have a public booth at Expo 2020 in Dubai.”
What about Iran? On Friday morning, the day after the United States assassinated Iran’s Major General Qasem Soleimani by drone in Baghdad, “I think the time has come to recognize that Iran is a danger in the Middle East and the world,” Mr. Greenblatt said; we can no longer “deal with danger by pretending Iran is going to become a normal actor on the world stage.”
He is sure that President Trump made a logical decision based on “an interagency process that I have never seen not followed,” he added. Despite a large part of the American public assuming that the decision was made impetuously, “I am sure that they” — the administration — “have considered all the pluses and minuses.”
As an example of the Trump administration’s adherence to process, although “I can only speak to the U.S. Israel efforts” — that was his portfolio — Mr. Greenblatt talked about the American embassy’s move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. “I know that there was a process when the president made his historic announcement about the embassy,” he said. The embassy had remained in Tel Aviv for decades, despite a sequence of American presidents saying that it should be in Jerusalem. In fact, in 1995 the United States Congress passed a resolution demanding its move to Israel’s capital. But although president after president promised that move during his election campaign, facts each learned after his inauguration made that move seem unwise.
But to those people who wanted the embassy in Jerusalem, as symbolic of Israel’s right to live as a normal nation surrounded by other normal nations, the move was game-changing.
“I can understand why some prior presidents made promises and then did not follow through,” Mr. Greenblatt said about the embassy move. But his president did, and “here we are, two years later, and I think his decision is correct.” So do most Israeli Jews and American Orthodox Jews, although the rest of the American Jewish community has a far more mixed opinion about the embassy move. (Opinion about Donald Trump himself is similarly divided; he’s popular in Israel and much of the Orthodox world, polls tell us, but toxically unpopular in most although far from all of the more liberal reaches of the Jewish community.)
Mr. Greenblatt talked about Saudi Arabia, a country where he has spent a great deal of time in the last three years. “I think that Mohammad bin Salman,” the country’s crown prince, “is a visionary for his country,” he said. “I think that he has a tremendous dream, and a plan to bring Saudi Arabia forward. I have been amazed at the progress he made. You can feel the changes that have happened there. We need to be patient. We need to work closely with him to bring them forward. He has great dreams and hopes for his people, and I have hope too.”
What about Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist who lived in the United States, was a contributing columnist at the Washington Post, and was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Turkey in 2018? His gruesome murder, which involved his body being cut into pieces with the bone saw that one of the assassins had brought into the embassy while Mr. Khashoggi’s fiancée waited outside, was committed by Saudis. “The CIA concluded that Prince Mohammed, who oversees even minor issues in Saudi Arabia, had most likely ordered the killing, and the Senate passed a resolution holding him personally responsible for the crime,” the New York Times said in 2019.
Mr. Greenblatt, like Mr. Trump, takes issue with that conclusion. MBS, as bin Salman generally is called, “took responsibility for what happened, in that he was the country’s leader and it was on him,” Mr. Greenblatt said.
Last month, a Saudi court sentenced five men to death and three others to prison for the murder and dismemberment. The judge found the killing to have been a last-minute decision by rogue agents (who happened to travel with bone saws). That judgment has been discounted by large segments of Western politicians, pundits, and journalists, but Mr. Greenblatt demurs. While “I don’t have the inside baseball as to what happened, I think that the media portrayed it in a way that is inaccurate,” he said. “I don’t think that anybody really knows the answer. We are talking about classified information, so anybody who reached out to journalists and leaked it is very suspect.
“I think that collectively we don’t know what happened. I think that the classified information is read only by a certain level of people. I think that MBS did his best to acknowledge that as the leader, he is responsible for what happens.
“I don’t know if he had anything to do with it”— Khashoggi’s murder — “personally, and the statement from the CIA isn’t clear. So who knows?”
Mr. Greenblatt recalls his first trip to Saudi Arabia, in May 2016, before the president’s own first trip there. “The president was flying in on Shabbat, and there was no reason for me to fly then,” Mr. Greenblatt, who is Orthodox, said. “So I landed on Friday morning, and I had a very lonely Shabbat — rice cakes and peanut butter for Shabbat dinner.” But he learned that he and the Saudis had much in common. Both have a religion whose rules give structure and meaning to their lives. “We have dietary restrictions, we pray, we have other similarities,” he said. “I had no problems saying ‘I am a Jew’ to them. I’ve never had any problems with my dietary restrictions; everyone, including the Palestinian authority, were incredibly respectful of my dietary needs.”
He felt comfortable walking around Arab countries as a Jew, he said. He doesn’t wear a kippah at work, even in the United States, so he did not have to worry about being identified as a Jew on the street, but he was comfortable telling people. And he was right, he added. He was recognized as a Jew and was met with respect.
On more recent trips to Saudi Arabia, he recalls “wandering around by myself, and watching the traffic go by, and seeing women drivers. It seemed so very routine.”
When he decided to leave the White House, Mr. Greenblatt said, he was showered with messages from people he’d met. He was particularly touched by one from a 25-year-old Palestinian man; he keeps the note folded in his pocket, and he took it out and read it. The young man had come to the apartment he’d rented in Israel for Shabbat dinner, and had been struck, as Mr. Greenblatt had been, by their similarities, which he detailed on paper. “We had honest, fruitful, and candid conversations,” Mr. Greenblatt said.
If he is disappointed by anything, he said, it is that the peace plan couldn’t be released before he left the White House. “I think they are constantly calculating when is the best time, but with elections in Israel and Iran heating up makes the timing tough.” The plan is 60 pages, Mr. Greenblatt said; “the devil is in the details, for both sides, but this is a well-thought-out, well-baked, very lengthy plan that should allow people to sit and say that it is worth the debate, that it is good enough to be worth the discussion.”
The plan is a result of the work he and Mr. Kushner began in 2017, “meeting with people and listening to them. We went all over the region; we didn’t talk just to Israelis and Palestinians, and we didn’t talk only to leaders but also to ordinary Palestinians and Israelis all across the spectrum and the region.
Although hobbled by being unable to talk about the content of the plan until it is released, Mr. Greenblatt is free to talk about its format, which he thinks will make a difference.
“We put out an implementable solution, with Israel’s security always in the forefront,” he said.
“What had been done in the past was one- to three-sentence political points. That didn’t work. “So we created this 60-page document, so that ordinary people can sit at their kitchen tables and read it and say to themselves ‘Now we know what it means to solve these issues.’ As opposed to a one-line solution, we baked in a multipage solution.”
For example, he said, “it’s not just Palestinians who were uprooted. There was a similar number of uprooted Jews, and very few people talk about it. And while there are Palestinians still living in refugee camps, they are not refugees. We want better lives for them.
“We very much took the approach that you have to state hard truths. We stayed away from phrases like ‘two-state solution.’ We are not against it, but we don’t know what it means.”
He, Mr. Kushner, and David Friedman, the United States ambassador to Israel, “were the chief architects, but we had help from the State Department, the National Security Council, and missions throughout the Middle East and the embassy in Jerusalem,” Mr. Greenblatt said. “We couldn’t have done our job without these skilled diplomats.”
He is sure that as soon as the plan comes out it will be debated passionately — “nobody could put forth a plan that everybody would embrace — but that it would lead to negotiations. “It is not just a vague statement,” he said. But it remains unreleased.
When this family man is asked about the president’s language, its crudity and cruelty, he refuses to engage. “I am not a politician,” he said. “I approach things the way I approach them. I have seen that language from across the aisle” — he wouldn’t specify from whom. “We are in a very divisive society. I try to keep my head away from the political and just work toward resolutions.
“I have never followed other people’s Tweets from the White House,” he added. His own tweets are grammatical and anodyne; when he retweets Mr. Trump’s, he seems to choose the less inflammatory, more seemingly committee-written ones.
Does he think that his experience as the child of immigrants brings anything to bear on the way immigrants are treated in the United States now? No, he said. He doesn’t. “It is really in a way apples and oranges. The case with the Holocaust was that six million Jews were targeted and annihilated. I don’t see that with any groups now. I don’t speak for the president, but this” — Mr. Trump’s approach to immigrants — “has always been very much about the rest of the world not chipping in on what we always have done ourselves.”
What about the rise in anti-Semitism in the United States — it’s real, he said. And what about the idea that the hatred that Mr. Trump has brought to the surface and seemingly legitimized has something to do with it? Not so much, he said. “It is unclear where the anti-Semitism is coming from, the left or the right. People try to blame one person or another or other groups. We should all focus on the fact that it is growing and not point fingers about it.” In other words, there are not-so-fine people on both sides.
He “detects no anti-Semitism in the Arab world on the leadership level,” he said. There was an enormous respect for me as an observant Jew. And I got the same kind of respect from everyone I met. I faced no anti-Semitism at all. I am sure that it exists, but I think that with more interaction we will reduce it.
“There always have been haters but we can fight hate together.”
What is Mr. Greenblatt going to do now? He’s not sure. He left the government to spend more time with his family, he said; it was hard having his wife and six children in Teaneck while he was either in Washington or somewhere in the Middle East. And he’s not going back to the Trump Organization, he said, without elaboration. “I would like to keep a foot in the door in trying to help with peace, but I also have to make a living. I’m now having lots of meetings.
“As amazing as it was to serve the country — I would never look back for a second except to say thank God for being blessed with the opportunity — after three years it was time to come home.”
Who: Jason Greenblatt
What: Will discuss “Insights into Middle East Diplomacy and the Rise of Anti-Semitism Through the Eyes of a Son of Survivors”
When: On Sunday, January 12, at 7:30 p.m.
Where: At Congregation Keter Torah, 600 Roemer Ave., Teaneck
Why: To benefit the capital campaign of the Northern New Jersey Holocaust Memorial and Education Center’s centerpiece sculpture project
How much: Admission is free; $36 donation is suggested.
And also: State Senate Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg and Holocaust survivor Norbert Strauss will be honored
For more information: Go to nnjholocaustmemorial.org or call (201) 692-8600.