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Explaining Orthodox Jews’ growing support for the Trump presidency

David Henkin, professor of history | November 9, 2017

(This is cross-posted from the site, Public Books, where it appeared as the 24th installment of The Big Picture, a public symposium on what’s at stake in Trump’s America, co-organized by Public Books and NYU’s Institute for Public Knowledge.)

Exit polls conducted during the 2016 election yielded a fact about the political allegiances of American Jews that was at once totally unsurprising and potentially misleading: over 70 percent of respondents who identified as Jewish cast ballots for Hillary Clinton. For all the attention heaped upon the prospect of Ivanka Trump as the nation’s first Jewish First Daughter, her father fared worse among Jews than among Latinos. With the exception of Muslims — who were a specific target of Donald Trump’s bigoted rhetoric — no other self-ascribed religious group, including voters identifying as Catholic, Mormon, evangelical, or “no religion,” broke as decisively for either candidate as Jews did for Clinton.

Donald Trump

President Donald Trump

In some respects this is an old story. American Jews, in the aggregate, remain a pillar of the Democratic Party. Even as other ethnic groups hailing from southern, central, and eastern Europe have peeled away from the New Deal coalition over the past 50 years, the vast majority of American Jewry have persisted as Democrats. What this larger narrative of persistence conceals, however, is the sharp contrast between most American Jews and a growing, highly visible minority who affiliate as Orthodox.

While more than two-thirds of self-identified Jews in the United States voted Democratic in 2016, a similar (albeit smaller) proportion of Orthodox Jews went Republican. And as stark as this contrast appears in polling data, it has been amplified in public splits between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jewish organizations, whose responses to historically transdenominational issues like Holocaust remembrance, anti-Semitism, and annual conversations with the White House have diverged along partisan lines.

Ongoing romance with the Republican Party

The romance between American Orthodox Jewry and the Republican Party is not new. For several decades, Orthodox voters have bucked the larger trends among their coreligionists. In fact, both George W. Bush, in 2004, and Mitt Romney, in 2012, outperformed Trump among the Orthodox. Still, the phenomenon seems particularly unsettling under the current regime.

For one thing, Trump’s support among Orthodox Jews appears to have grown since the election, even as it ebbs among most of the larger blocs in his coalition (including evangelical Protestants). For another, no president in American history has been so publicly associated with anti-Semitism.

The spectacle of proud Jews, including those who advocate violence in the defense of Jewish peoplehood and self-determination, rallying around a president who attracts and retweets neo-Nazis – a president who pointedly refuses to grant the special odium that Jews have worked so hard to secure for Jew-hatred, anti-Semitic stereotypes, threats to Jewish synagogues and cemeteries, and even the Holocaust – requires some serious accounting. Why have the Orthodox become so comfortable with right-wing politics in the United States that a white-nationalist rally and attack in Charlottesville, Virginia, barely registers with them and Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka can present as allies?

In the larger scheme of the current political crisis, this puzzle might legitimately seem insignificant. Numerically, Orthodox Jews are not a major source of electoral power. They make up about 10 to 12 percent of America’s Jewish population of roughly 5–6 million, they cluster in reliably blue states, and many of them are too young to vote. But their political allegiance troubles me, mostly because it illuminates some important and disturbing developments in the history of identity and politics during my lifetime, but also because I am implicated. By most measures, I too count as an Orthodox Jew.

Because many factors have contributed to the drift of Orthodox Jews into the Republican fold, numerous plausible explanations circulate. Israeli politics surely plays an outsize role. Orthodox Jews, excluding some anti-Zionist Hasidim, tend to support right-wing governments in Israel, and so do Republicans. And the disastrous decision of both AIPAC and Modern Orthodox leadership to cast the 2015 Iran deal as an existential threat to the Jewish state wound up further demonizing the Democrats and shattering the illusion of a bipartisan consensus on how to support Israel. Right-wing parties in the United States and Israel have been mutually enabling, crafting a version of Zionism that now provides a litmus test on support for Jewish interests, a cover against charges of anti-Semitism, and an alternative to human-rights discourse as a political response to the Holocaust.

Israeli politics and a hatred for Clinton

Still, Israeli politics explain only part of Trump’s Jewish appeal. Virulent hatred among the Orthodox for Hillary Clinton, despite her right-wing positions on Israel, transcended any ideological justification, and certainly reflected deep discomfort with the prospect of a powerful woman leading the nation – discomfort anticipated in the scandalous decision of several ultra-Orthodox publications to eliminate Clinton, then secretary of state, from the famous image of the White House Situation Room during the 2011 military raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound. Strikingly, the fact that Trump has more and louder Orthodox support now than he did on Election Day, despite his tabling of campaign promises to scrap the Iran deal and move the US embassy to Jerusalem, and despite the disappearance of Clinton as the political alternative, casts doubt on the sufficiency of either Israel or sexism as an explanation.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

Discussions of the 2016 election as a watershed moment for American Orthodox Jewry ignore the fact that Republicans had already won Orthodox hearts and minds well before Trump’s candidacy. The question remains why Trump became a credible spokesman for whatever drew the Orthodox to the Republican Party in the first place, and why he has become even more credible since the election.

In part, the larger phenomenon of Orthodox Republicanism reflects rising affluence. With the admission of larger numbers of Orthodox Jews into professional schools and their success in fields such as real estate and finance, Orthodox Jews increasingly occupy tax brackets from which they were largely absent 50 years ago. As a result, Modern Orthodox communities, in my experience, include many who favor Republican economic policies, which may account for why they’ve historically voted for conventionally conservative Republicans (such as Romney, in 2012) in greater proportions than they did for Trump, whose positions on fiscal policy have never been consistent, or why many of them opposed Trump in the primaries but still preferred him in November. Yet economic conservatism and class interest hardly explain why Orthodox radiologists and stockbrokers might be likelier to support Trump than radiologists and stockbrokers who attend Conservative synagogues.

Commentators point as well to the affinity between Orthodox Jewish and evangelical Christian positions on a wide range of concerns, from gay marriage to women’s rights to school vouchers. Undoubtedly, the prominence of those issues in Republican politics has combined with a growing Islamophobia to cement a once-unlikely alliance—a pattern that finds parallels in the cases of other socially conservative religious communities, such as Mormons and Catholics, who have found common political cause with their long-standing enemies in the evangelical Protestant fold since the 1970s. Whereas Reform Jews used to take the lead in seeking common ground with Protestants, Orthodox Jews are now the ones most likely to brandish the adjective Judeo-Christian in American politics. Still, Trump would seem an unlikely beneficiary of this historic shift in Orthodox Jewish attitudes toward Christianity.

In my own experiences in and around Orthodox schools, synagogues, and communities over the past 50 years, regressive tax policies and Moral Majority cultural critiques remain popular. But as with Zionism and Israeli politics, those issues don’t fully capture the complex current political allegiances of Orthodox Jews, whose drift in identity has been a response to a much broader realignment in American partisan politics. Orthodox Jews have turned from the Democrats to the Republicans over the past 50 years primarily because the two parties have redefined themselves around the politics of race and ethnicity.

A realignment starting with 1965 Voting Rights Act

Like so many other parts of this history, the realignment can be dated to the 1960s – to 1965, in fact. That year Congress passed two pieces of legislation that marked a turn away from racial definitions of citizenship. The Voting Rights Act promised aggressive action to enforce the 15th Amendment and allow African Americans to vote. A few months later, President Johnson signed another landmark civil rights bill, the Hart-Celler Act, which ended the system of ethnic quotas that had defined the nation’s restrictive immigration policies since the 1920s. More than anything else, these two laws laid the foundation for a tectonic shift in American politics.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Democratic coalition had always depended on accepting the realities of segregation. So long as Democrats outside the South weren’t attacking Jim Crow or empowering black sharecroppers, Southern Democrats supported the New Deal and the South as a whole remained reliably Democratic, as it had been since before the Civil War. A number of developments in the years after Roosevelt’s death, notably Brown v. Board of Education, rocked the boat, but as late as the early 1960s, Democrats still dominated the states that had seceded in 1861.

More subtly, the New Deal coalition developed and thrived during a period of closed borders. By restricting the flow of newcomers, the immigration regime introduced during the 1920s wound up helping trade unions by diminishing the labor supply. Unions – a vital part of FDR’s base – enjoyed enhanced bargaining power and could therefore command the political allegiance of their membership. White workers from the southern- and eastern-European immigrant groups whose members had migrated a generation or two earlier, and whose entry into the country was now being restricted, benefited from union membership and from New Deal labor policies. They also saw no reason to blame the Democrats for closing the borders, which had after all taken place under Republican administrations. The descendants of southern and eastern Europeans regarded the Republicans as the party of native-born WASPs who wished to exclude them from country clubs, elite colleges, and civic life.

The events of 1965 promised to undercut this complex coalition of interests. Once Congress had committed the federal government to protecting black suffrage in the South, white Southerners began to rethink their allegiances. Already by 1968, the fracture in the Democratic Party was apparent, exposed—against the backdrop of a surging anti-war movement – by Alabama Governor George Wallace’s demagogic, segregationist candidacy. Republicans seized this opportunity, appealing first to white Southerners but also to the descendants of pre-1920s immigrant groups, who might now, invoking a sharpened understanding of whiteness, ally with one another as proud Americans against racial minorities – both those already in the country and those now eligible to migrate into the United States with their extended families.

A successful sea change for Republicans

Appealing to racially conservative white Democrats was Richard Nixon’s principal political strategy – and it succeeded. By targeting busing, affirmative action, and the counterculture, Nixon pried many white voters from the Democrats and permanently changed the political landscape. Watergate and a devastating economic crisis temporarily loosened the GOP’s grip on the White House, but Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 confirmed a political sea change that had been in the works for 15 years.

The ill-fitting piece in this realignment puzzle was of course the Jews, who, almost alone among non-Protestant European immigrant groups, had maintained their Democratic loyalty. Nixon had in fact foreseen the troubles he would have pitching white nationalism and traditional Christian values to Jews, whom he fully expected to ally with black Americans. So, he wrote them off. In a famous 1971 strategy meeting, Nixon described for his closest political advisers the coalition that would assure his reelection: it would comprise “Silent Majority, blue-collar Catholics, Poles, Italians, Irish. No promise with Jews and Negroes.”

But all along, the new Republican message stood a better chance of resonating with certain Jews—not the cosmopolitan ones who marched for freedom and flooded the college campuses that had opened significantly to them over the past generation, but poorer Jews, less oriented toward university education and more ambivalent about the political gains and claims of African Americans, who were likelier to be their neighbors in the areas where they resided.

Crucially, this period between 1965 and 1972 saw the emergence of the Jewish Defense League, founded in New York in 1968, which modeled itself after the Black Panthers but typically saw black people as the local enemies against whom Jews needed to defend themselves. The JDL, along with Chabad outreach programs and the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, participated in this moment of white ethnic revivalism, and their politics reflected and epitomized the white ethnic realignment. Most American Jews did not answer their call, but those who did were (or became) disproportionately Orthodox.

Trump’s Orthodox supporters are the descendants (literally, in many cases) of Jews to whom the white nationalism of the post-1965 Republican Party was already resonating 30 or 40 years ago in debates about affirmative action, segregation, colonialism, and law enforcement. And they are the heirs to that legacy.

No path back to the ’30s

Liberal postmortems of the 2016 election bemoan the Democrats’ failure to retain various groups of white voters, and presumably Orthodox Jews belong in that autopsy report. By becoming the party of multiculturalism and sexual liberation and cosmopolitan sophistication, the argument goes, Democrats have abandoned religious voters and lost touch with the common economic concerns that used to unite Americans of different faiths and cultures. But this view is historically uninformed. Facile exhortations, like those of Mark Lilla, that the Democrats eschew “identity liberalism” in order to return to the politics of FDR ignore the way that 1965 irreversibly altered the landscape both morally and demographically. There is no path back to the politics of the 1930s.

Democrats did not choose to be the party of multiculturalism. But once they fatefully decided to support racial equality in the 1960s, and once the Republicans responded with white identity politics framed in the language of social conservatism, Democrats had (and continue to have) little choice but to rely on a strategy of championing the political rights of racial minorities and immigrants. Like almost every other voting bloc in our current party system, Jews are taking positions on one or another side of this fault line of identity politics.on issues of racism and xenophobia.

The day after Yom Kippur this year, Orthodox Trump resisters (many of them mobilized by a private Facebook group calling itself Torah Trumps Hate) figured prominently in the March for Racial Justice, tramping across the Brooklyn Bridge with kippot, tzitzit, hair coverings, and other badges of identity, chanting the slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement. Affirming the dignity, humanity, and equality of African Americans remains the most historically pointed response to what the Republican Party has come to represent during my lifetime. And in Orthodox Jewish communities, as in so many other places, those can be fighting words.

 

Comment to “Explaining Orthodox Jews’ growing support for the Trump presidency

  1. My experience concurs with what you present in this piece. My parent’s congregation was Conservative, but leaned Orthodox, and one of my earliest memories about developing an awareness of politics was when the gist of the High Holiday sermon, when the chapels were overflowing, during the 1980 US presidential campaign, was “Don’t vote for Carter. Reagan is better for Israel, and therefore good for the Jews.”

    This from a rabbi who I had thought, and still do mostly, was a wise and sincere servant of the community. How could he be so wrong on this topic? And why would he violate the practice/custom of not using the pulpit for partisan advocacy over this race?

    There did indeed seem to be more to it than a natural affinity between right-wing parties in Israel and the US. I think the importance of race and affiliation/identity did play a big role. This same rabbi cautioned the congregation to remember that this is a Christian nation despite all protestations to the contrary or any number of prefixed “Judeo-“s to our collective adjectival phrases. We are not _really_ part of the mainstream society, he insisted, and aligning ourselves with other group even farther out of the mainstream, especially racial minorities, would only make swimming tougher. The duty to look after one’s own took on an ugly countenance, IMHO.

    Flash forward, and countenances don’t get much uglier than what we have leading us today. Trumpism drags us farther into the mud of ethical imbecility and myopia. For every finger pointed at those Others, there are three pointing back at ourselves and being ignored or worse yet actively denied. The cleanup begins at home, nez pas?

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