Jewish voters divided and energized by Trump

Whatever the results of the 2020 presidential elections, the voting behavior of American Jews shows both continuities and change under the presidency of Donald Trump, according to reports. In his blog Spiritual Politics (October 22, 2020), Mark Silk reports that Jewish voting patterns have changed little since 2016, even as President Trump made his support of Israel an important part of his campaign. In that year, Jewish voters chose Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by 71 percent to 24 percent. Current surveys find that 75 percent say they’ll vote for Joe Biden and 22 percent for Trump, according to a survey released this week by the American Jewish Committee. Silk notes a similar pattern in the swing states of Florida and Pennsylvania, where Jews make up 3-4% of the voting population.

Trump’s moving of the American Embassy to Jerusalem, his abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal, and his notably pro-Israel peace plan was partly based on the hope for a modest shift in his favor among Jewish voters. But Silk adds that the lack of response to such initiatives shows that for “American Jews, Israel is not a partisan issue.” He cites the AJC survey as showing that while 59 percent of respondents say that being connected to Israel is “very important” or “somewhat important” to their identity, Israel drew less than five percent support on a listing of “the most important issue” in the campaign. Silk concludes that it may be the case that Trump’s pro-Israel behavior might have attracted some Jewish electoral support. In the AJC survey, 42 percent said Trump would be better at strengthening U.S.-Israel ties than Biden (though 54 percent thought Biden would be better.) Yet the growth in anti-Semitic rhetoric and violence on the right has shocked the American Jewish community and they perceive as too tolerant of his far-right supporters.

The embrace of Republicanism by much of the Orthodox community has only intensified in the last four years, according to an article in the Jewish online magazine, the Tablet (October 12, 2020). While Orthodox Jewish voting patterns four years ago were not uniformly for Trump, affection for the president “almost seems to be expected among Orthodox Jews. Most Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities were already voting deeply red in 2016, but now support for Trump, and the excusing of his deeply immoral behavior and other shortcomings, have grown typical of modern Orthodox communities as well. The trend toward voting more Republican was several decades old, but there is something new afoot: a cultural norm, in some synagogues an expectation, that anyone with common sense is a Trump supporter,” writes Joshua Shanes. There are Trump skeptics in Orthodox synagogues, particularly in New York, and in liberal college towns, but Shanes finds only one such synagogue where he lives in Greater Chicago. He adds, “Across the country, I fear my experience is typical. Indeed, it feels to me like what we are seeing is the evangelicalization of Orthodox Judaism…”

Modern orthodoxy has shifted to the right in recent years while ultra-Orthodoxy has become more engaged in society, suggesting that these old divisions are collapsing. Shanes argues that “both camps of Orthodoxy have followed parts of evangelical Christianity in coalescing around an ethnonationalist identity, one that views the political right and its ultranationalist worldview, in America and in Israel, as a religious foundation united against the threat of the cultural left. For these swaths of the Orthodox world, support for Trump and the right generally is no longer a political choice separate from Torah. For many, Orthodoxy has fused with a Christianity that is now less a faith tradition than a nationalist civil religion, deeply connected with the Republican Party in general and now Donald Trump in particular.” The alliance with evangelicals has led to stricter stands against abortion and immigration than has been the case for much of historical Judaism and it has turned these nationalistic Jews to non-Jewish concerns, such as gun rights. In such coalitions, “Haredi Jews who were once anti-Zionist, or non-Zionist, have united with evangelicals and the modern Orthodox to support a territorial maximalism in Israel,” Shanes adds.

(The Tablet,