By Allison Kaplan Sommer
WASHINGTON (Haaretz) — The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations will co-host a Hanukkah party with the Azeri embassy at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC on December 14.
Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the umbrella body, said that the embassy of Azerbaijan had rented the location because of its proximity to the White House, where US President Barack Obama’s final Hanukkah Party will be taking place the same evening.
Not all of the members of the Conference of Presidents are pleased with the choice of venue, the leader of the umbrella group’s largest member organization reacted with outrage.
“This decision is tone deaf at best, naked sycophancy at worst,” Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, told Haaretz. “Especially while the president-elect himself is still working through the implications of holding the nation’s highest office while presiding over a company with widespread holdings, it would have been far preferable to choose one of the approximately 3,000 other possible locations in downtown Washington. If the Conference is having that much trouble finding a non-political location, the URJ’s conference staff would be delighted to help.”
The Conference of Presidents, made up of the leadership of over 50 Jewish organizations, is a consensus body representing the organized Jewish community to the executive branch and describes itself as being the “voice of organized American Jewry.” An invitation for the joint event, obtained Friday by JTA, said it will celebrate “freedom and diversity.”
The Trump International has become the focal point of controversy, and a symbol of potential conflicts of interest regarding the future president’s extensive business holdings. There have been reports suggesting that foreign diplomats are booking rooms and hosting events around Trump’s inauguration next month in order to curry favor with the president-elect.
But the luxury hotel isn’t only in the ethics spotlight because of its location between the White House and the US Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue. The building is located in the nation’s Old Post Office Pavilion and Trump’s company, which he owns with his children, hold a 60-year lease on the property from the government’s General Services Administration, making him both an owner of the hotel and a tenant of the government.
According to Politico, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a letter to the GSA saying the hotel lease “is a clear and very real conflict that will be triggered the moment Mr. Trump is sworn in as President of the United States,” demanding that “concrete steps” be taken to address it.
Trump has said he will shut himself off from his businesses, although he has not said whether his adult children, who are co-owners of the hotel, will do the same. He plans to outline how he will separate his business and government affairs on December 15 at a press conference.
There is also the question of why an American Jewish organization would be partnering with the embassy of Azerbaijan, a Muslim nation, to mark a Jewish holiday. Presumably, the reason is the increasingly close relationship between Israel and the government of the Asian nation in recent years, both of whom view Iran as a threat, highlighted recently when Azerbaijan sent a firefighting plane to Israel last month as fires swept the country.
Azerbaijan is one of Israel’s chief oil suppliers, and, according to foreign reports, Israel has become a key supplier of arms to Azerbaijan, selling nearly $5 billion worth of weapons over the past four years. Reports of Israel’s sale of drones to the nation have raised criticism within Israel that weapons sales could be fueling the conflict in the Armenian separatist enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. Last April, Armenia officially protested following the Azeri army’s use of an Israeli-made suicide drone to attack an Armenian convoy during renewed fighting in the disputed territory. In 2012, Foreign Policy quoted US sources as saying that Israel had been granted access to air bases in Azerbaijan on Iran’s northern border, which Israel officials subsequently denied.
The Azeri government spends millions lobbying Washington to further its interests and improve its image. It is regularly condemned by international NGOs. Over the past year, it has “sentenced leading human rights defenders, political activists and journalists to long prison terms in politically motivated, unfair trials,” according to Human Rights Watch, while “dozens more face harassment, have been imprisoned, are under criminal investigation, face travel bans, or have fled.” Amnesty International says that human rights monitors have been barred and expelled from the country as “reports of torture and other ill-treatment persist.”
If all had gone according to plan, the Azeri capital of Baku would be featuring a Trump International Hotel of its own. The Associated Press detailed in June how the massive building project, announced with fanfare in 2014, has been on hold for “economic reasons.” Trump’s local business partner in the project was Anar Mammadov, the son of an Azeri minister suspected by US diplomats of corruption and money laundering for the Iranian military.
— Allison Kaplan Sommer