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Jared Kushner's 28-year-old protégé is his right-hand man in the White House

April 05,2017 17:24

Both Ivy League-educated lawyers, they have matching dispositions and similar worldviews influenced by their Jewish schooling and deep ties to Israel, according to several of Berkowitz's friends who spoke with Business Insider. Berkowitz reflects a ...and more »



Avi Berkowitz and Donald
Trump in Trump Tower on Election Day.
Avi Berkowitz/Twitter

Avi Berkowitz was an undergrad at Queens College when he met
Jared Kushner during a game of pick-up basketball at a Passover
celebration in Phoenix, Arizona.

Kushner, then a young real-estate mogul from New Jersey,
took a liking to Berkowitz, who, like Kushner, was raised
in an Orthodox Jewish home in the New York City
suburbs.

At the time, neither could have predicted that a few years later,
Kushner, now a senior adviser to his father-in-law, President
Donald Trump, would be one of the most powerful people in
the country and Berkowitz his right-hand man.

Berkowitz, 28, is in many ways Kushner's protégé, following
him to Kushner Companies, then to Trump's campaign, and
now to the West Wing. Both Ivy League-educated lawyers, they
have matching dispositions and similar worldviews influenced by
their Jewish schooling and deep ties to Israel, according to
several of Berkowitz's friends who spoke with Business Insider.
Berkowitz reflects a larger trend in a White House staffed
by friends and family of a president who prizes loyalty and
deprioritizes political experience.

Through a White House representative, Berkowitz declined to be
interviewed for this story.

The Road to the White House

Berkowitz was not known for harboring particularly strong
political beliefs before he joined Trump's campaign. A
friend of Berkowitz's who met him in Israel and later roomed
with him at Harvard Law School told Business Insider that
the two rarely had explicitly political discussions.

"I'm not sure how much mindfulness I paid to
his
political
stances," said the former
roommate, who requested anonymity because of the political nature
of Berkowitz's new role. "I'm sure we did have conversations that
would expose me to his views on
political
issues, and I just never sort of formulated or thought
about his overall
political
views."

Berkowitz didn't join any of the law school's conservative
student organizations or journals. Instead, he spent his free
time working as a teaching assistant in
several undergraduate government classes, including,
notably, the Road to the White House.

But during Berkowitz's second year at Harvard, the law
school became embroiled in politically charged controversy.
Tensions came to a head after the school woke up on a
November morning in 2015 to find slivers of black tape over
the framed portraits of every black tenured law professor.

Student activists, largely minorities, began a monthslong
occupation of the law school's student center in February
2016, demanding, among other things, the school
replace its shield, which depicted the coat of arms
of Isaac Royall Jr., a slave owner and early Harvard
benefactor. The law school retired its shield in March
2016.

In the spring of 2016, around the time Kushner asked
Berkowitz to join Trump's campaign, Berkowitz
began writing about campus issues for
the New York Observer, the weekly
newspaper
Kushner bought in 2006. 

Berkowitz didn't take a strong position on the vandalism or
the removal of the school shield, but he suggested in
an op-ed that labeling the black-tape
incident a hate crime, as many did, was an overreaction — a
testament to the left's exaggerated political correctness.
He
 also accused liberal student
activists of stifling dissent, censoring conservatives on
campus.

Berkowitz's opinions surprised some who knew him,
including Colin Ross, a Harvard classmate who told Business
Insider that Berkowitz's writing, and his decision to join
Trump's campaign, 
came "kind of out of
nowhere."

Ross said that while it was difficult to avoid
developing opinions about campus politics, the majority of
students attempted to stay out of what was often a
contentious debate.

"I think both sides had the impression that they were kind of
under fire," he said. "There was no one who was
casually speaking out on those things."

But Jonathan Gartner, a former president of the Jewish Law
Students Association, said he didn't think of Berkowitz as
ideological.

"He was pragmatic about what his political views were," Gartner
told Business Insider. "He was the type of person who was able to
see other people's sides, who was able to have a thought-out
discussion."

Like Kushner, who is known for his calm,
understated demeanor in a volatile and often
impolite political climate, Berkowitz isn't easily
provoked.

"He's the definition of calm, cool, and collected," Rabbi Johnny
Ouzzan, who lived and studied with Berkowitz at a religious
school in Israel, told Business Insider. "He doesn't really
express frustration, even if he has reason to."

Religion and politics

While he's an outspoken free-speech advocate when the
speech fits his politics, Berkowitz was quick to condemn
that which offended him personally, including
when a fellow law student asked Tzipi Livni,
the former Israeli foreign minister, why she was
"so
smelly" at a Harvard-sponsored discussion on
Israeli-Palestinian relations in April 2016.

In an
open letter, leaders of the Jewish Law
Students Association
called the question "blatantly
anti-Semitic."

The student apologized,
claiming his goal was to call attention
to Livni's complicity in
alleged war crimes against Palestinians. He said he did not
realize the word "smelly" had anti-Semitic
connotations.

Berkowitz responded in an
Observer op-ed, saying that "recent anti-Israel
sentiment on college campuses has emboldened students to conflate
protest with hate speech."

In July, Kushner wrote his own
Observer op-ed concerning allegations of
anti-Semitism. This time, it was Trump who was being accused of
promoting anti-Jewish sentiment after he
tweeted an image of Hillary Clinton, the Democratic
presidential nominee, surrounded by cash and a six-sided star
emblazoned with "most corrupt candidate ever!"

Trump's son-in-law defended him against what
he characterized as an overreaction by the "speech
police." He said Trump's staunch support of Israel disproved the
claim that he was anti-Semitic.

"If even the slightest infraction against what the speech
police have deemed correct speech is instantly shouted down with
taunts of 'racist' then what is left to condemn the actual
racists?" Kushner wrote.

Berkowitz and Kushner have similar approaches to Israel. Both men
have deep ties to the country.

Kushner's family has donated millions of dollars to Israeli
institutions, including schools and hospitals, some located in
settlements, and has a longstanding relationship with Israeli
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Growing up, Kushner attended Jewish schools and was taught
to "protect Israel, remember the genocide, and assure the
survival of the Jewish people," The New York Times
reported recently. The report cited
people close to him who said Kushner's Judaism
and support of Israel were inextricably intertwined.

While Kushner's political stances are often not well understood,
his approach to Israel has remained consistent and central to his
politics. He is widely credited with shaping Trump's
policy toward Israel, and the president has assigned him the
monumental task of brokering peace between Israel
and Palestine.

Israel and Judaism have played similarly central roles in
Berkowitz's life. His family is also tied to
powerful Jewish leaders. Berkowitz's cousin, Howard
Friedman, was the first Orthodox president of the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee, the most influential pro-Israel
lobbying group in the US.

Growing up in Lawrence, Long Island, an affluent, largely
Jewish town 45 minutes from Manhattan, Berkowitz
was educated at a local Orthodox day school. After high
school, he spent two years studying religious texts at
Yeshiva Kol Torah in Jerusalem, a prestigious Israeli
Orthodox seminary. Berkowitz came back to the US
in 2009 to attend Ner Israel Rabbinical College in
Baltimore, where he started his undergrad
studies before transferring to Queens College.

In Israel, Berkowitz was taught to understand the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict in religious terms, a worldview
that Ouzzan said "definitely" informed Berkowitz's politics.

Of the West Bank and other Palestinian territories, Ouzzan
said, "These are lands that religious Jews believe were part
of the whole of Israel that was given to the Jewish people,
starting with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob going back to the times
of the Bible.

"There's a lot of emotional connection that we as a people
feel for those lands," he added.

For many American Orthodox Jews, US policy toward Israel heavily
influences their political allegiances. Ouzzan said many in
the Orthodox community turned to Trump for relief from years
of tense relations between President Barack Obama and Netanyahu.

"Many people just didn't feel like Obama had Israel's
back," Ouzzan said. "The way he put demands on Israel, the
Iran deal, the request to cease settlement
construction."

Berkowitz on the set of
"Trump Tower Live."
Avi
Berkwitz/Facebook

From 'Trump Tower Live' to the White House 

After graduating from law school in June, Berkowitz put his
legal career on hold again — this time deferring an offer for an
associate position at a white-shoe law firm — after Kushner
asked him to join the campaign full-time.

As the campaign's assistant
director of data analytics, Berkowitz ran "Trump
Tower Live," the campaign's pre- and
post-presidential-debate talk show that became a
nightly Facebook Live discussion in the weeks leading up to
the election.

The broadcast was a low-tech production in the style of a
cable news talk show, featuring campaign aides and Trump
surrogates discussing the issues of the day. Like Trump's Twitter
account, the live show was designed to bring the campaign's
talking points straight to voters, "bypassing the left-wing
media," Boris Epshteyn, a cohost and former Trump
aide, told
viewers.

According to Berkowitz, the show was meant to reach a
younger demographic that consumes news almost entirely on
social media and nonlegacy news sites.

"Younger people don't watch CNN. They just don't,"
Berkowitz told
The Times in October. "This is how they get information. This
is the best way to bring it to them. And we're happy to do that."

Berkowitz worked closely with Right Side Broadcasting Network, a
conservative media startup that helped him with the logistics of
livestreaming Trump rallies and, after the election, Trump's
"thank you" tour events.

Officially a special assistant to the president and
assistant to the senior adviser, Berkowitz is Kushner's
right-hand man in the White House. Hope Hicks, a White House
spokeswoman, told Business Insider that Berkowitz's role was
primarily administrative and involved assisting Kushner with
daily logistics like getting coffee or coordinating
meetings.

But Berkowitz has been a part of some of the most
high-profile moments of Kushner's time on the transition
team and in the White House. According to a report last week
in the
Times, Kushner sent Berkowitz to
meet with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak,
in December 2016. Kislyak talked with Berkowitz
about arranging a meeting with Sergey
Gorkov, the head of a state-owned bank that was under
sanctions imposed by the Obama administration. Berkowitz's
meeting and Kushner's subsequent sit-down with Gorkov
were previously unreported. 

The Senate Intelligence Committee
is planning to question Kushner about his communications with
Russian officials as part of its broader investigation
into Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Earlier this year, Trump's former national security
adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned when
it became clear he had discussed sanctions
with Kislyak and misrepresented those
conversations to Vice President Mike Pence. In March,
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself
from overseeing Russia-related
investigations following reports that Sessions
met with Kislyak during
the campaign — meetings he did not disclose to
Congress. 

Berkowitz with Michael
Flynn, Trump's first national security
adviser.
Avi
Berkowitz/Facebook

'A chance to explore his talents'

While Berkowitz's friends aren't surprised by his success,
they're not all supportive of his decision to work for
Trump. 

Berkowitz's Harvard roommate said he didn't have a strong
reaction to the news that his friend had joined the campaign. "I
wasn't disappointed, I wasn't proud," he said. 

Ouzzan, who last saw Berkowitz at a mutual friend's
wedding in Brooklyn before the election last fall, is
enthusiastic about the opportunity Berkowitz has. 

"At that time no one really thought that Trump had a
chance ... a lot of people were like, 'OK, that's nice, good
luck, Avrahmi,'" Ouzzan said.

He added: "Now that he became president, if that means Avi gets a
chance to explore his talents and go somewhere in the
administration, for us, as his friends, that's very
exciting." 

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