DURING THE solemn days from Rosh Hashana to Yom Kippur when Jews are encouraged to take account of their lives, rabbis on their pulpits notably tiptoed into this year’s presidential election quagmire.
Although they cannot endorse a candidate in sermons because of the nonprofit tax status of their religious institutions, many rabbis fervently emphasized the need for more civil dialogue during the pre-election days.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Washington-based Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism reported a higher demand for this year’s webinars explaining what rabbis can and cannot say from the pulpit.
“There was a lot of concern about rhetoric.
We wanted to help rabbis navigate the difficult waters this year.” The reason for the higher demand was simple.
“This election is unlike other elections because of (Donald J.) Trump,” states Kenneth D. Wald, professor of political science at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. “Even voters who say that they won’t vote, ultimately will.” For one thing, the Democratic Party knows that it must get the minority voters to the polls because that’s where Hillary Clinton’s strength lies.
And, as Samuel J. Abrams, professor of politics and social sciences at Sarah Lawrence College and a research fellow at the Hoover Institute at Stanford University, is quick to point out, the American Jewish voter is no different. “The Jewish community is just not as exceptional as we once were,” he says.
Although Jews are still the most Democratic- voting white ethnic group in the country, Abrams says the growing percentage of them who are Orthodox means a shift to the right for the community as a whole. “The [Orthodox] religious community is just like other religious groups, and they vote Republican.”
Still, according to Steven Bayme, director of the William Petschek Contemporary Jewish Life Department at the American Jewish Committee (AJC), because of Trump even the Orthodox vote this time around won’t be as solidly Republican.
AJC’s 2016 survey of American-Jewish Opinion, conducted by the research company SSRS, indicates that only about 50 percent of Orthodox Jews will vote Republican this year, compared to 70 percent who voted for Republican presidential candidate John Mc- Cain eight years ago. “There’s significant discontent with Trump,” Bayme tells The Jerusalem Report. “Many see him as the antithesis of Jewish values.”
But Trump is not alone in provoking dissatisfaction among voters. The political discontent also encompasses Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton.
Based on the AJC’s survey, Bayme foresees 15 percent of Orthodox Jews not voting at all this year, which he calls “unprecedented.”
Among Jews as a whole, 10 percent may not go to the polls, which Bayme says is high.
Not everyone agrees, however, that Jews will sit this one out.
“The extent to which most American Jews see Trump as a clear and present threat to the American republic means we’ll come out to vote,” says Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, which doesn’t endorse candidates.
The overall percentage of Jews expected to vote for Clinton is expected to be a minimum 65 percent, according to Bayme, which – if that number holds to Election Day – would actually be down from the 67-70 percent, who voted for President Barack Obama in his 2012 reelection bid and the 74-78 percent of the Jewish vote the president captured in 2008.
But, Kenneth Waltzer, professor emeritus at Michigan State University, believes the slight decline in Jewish vote going to Democrats in the last election will disappear this year. “Trump is ruining the Republican incursion and making the Republican Party an iffy choice [for Jews this year],” he says, predicting the percentage of Jews voting for the Democratic nominee will be in the mid- 70s.
“There were some political and demographic reasons to think the Republicans were making some headway in the Jewish vote the last three elections, but Trump disrupts all of that,” says Waltzer. “It may not be because of the Republican Party, but it is all due to Trump. Jews will find reasons not to vote for Trump.”
INDEED, MANY political observers believe voters aren’t necessarily making their choices this year based on the perceived policies of the political parties – including many Republican establishment figures. Former president George H.W. Bush and presidential candidate Mitt Romney have indicated they won’t be voting for their party’s nominee. And, among notable Jewish Republican intellectuals and activists, William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, New York Times columnist David Brooks, philanthropist Paul Singer, and Eliot A. Cohen, who worked in both Bush administrations, have stated they cannot vote Republican this year because Trump is at the top of the ticket.
One prominent exception is Dennis Prager, the syndicated radio talk show host and noted Jewish conservative who, as he says, “vociferously opposed Trump in writing and on my national radio show throughout the nomination process.” Furthermore, a September article in The Atlantic by Conor Friedersdorf quoted Prager as saying, “I am contemptuous of much of what he does, I don’t trust what he says and I have no reason to believe he holds conservative values… In addition to meanness, immaturity, and personal insecurity… Trump either is not very intelligent or lacks intelligent judgment.”
“But,” he told The Report in an email, “I wrote and said from the beginning that if he should get the nomination, I would vote for him. Whatever his flaws, he has not done damage to America; Hillary Clinton has.”
Unlike most, these elections have not just been a passion of the so-called elite, but have permeated everyday American life. How that will play out in the actual votes is, like always, guesswork.
Steven M. Cohen, research professor at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion and director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at Stanford University, contends that pollsters trying to ascertain the future choice of a voter need look no further than their political affiliation.
“After we know someone’s identity as a Democrat or Republican, learning anything else about the person hardly improves our ability to accurately predict his or her intended vote,” he says, telling The Report, “Republican Jews support Trump.”
However, Florida professor Wald speculates that the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), which each election cycle claims it will attract a higher percentage of Jewish voters to the Republican candidate, is probably spending less on Jewish outreach this election.
Abram said that if he were advising the RJC, he would tell them not to spend a penny to tempt Jewish voters to cross over. The RJC did not respond to repeated requests from The Report for comment.
Anecdotes indicate this year might not provide fertile ground to the RJC. Three Jewish voters – who all know each other and have homes in both Florida and Connecticut – exemplify the turmoil many American Jews are experiencing this year.
Sara Gootblatt, a retired educator, lives with her husband on New York City’s Upper West Side, although she also has homes in Florida and Connecticut. She describes living in a “bubble composed of secular and progressive voters. No one is voting for Trump.”
In fact, she says, at a book club on the day she spoke to The Report, all the discussion was about the election. “How can this be happening in our country?” Gootblatt, a lifelong Democrat, has decided to vote in swing state Florida where her vote might have more impact. She says she feels sorry for Republican Jews this year because she believes they are caught in a bind.
“I have a nephew who is Republican and for whom Israel is the biggest issue. But he can’t vote for Trump. I have a son who is now Lubavitch, most of whom will vote for Trump, but he’s married to a woman from South America, so he won’t,” she says, highlighting Trump’s inflammatory comments about Hispanics and immigrants.
Her neighbor in Connecticut and Florida Jay Gould, who says he’s voted Democratic in the past, intends to vote Republican this year, despite acknowledging that most of his friends are affluent, well-educated liberal Jews who strongly favor Clinton. “I dislike both candidates but it’s a matter of whom I dislike more. Trump is unclear, emotional and unsophisticated, but I consider Hillary’s flaws to be greater. I’d rather have someone untested than someone known.”
In past elections, retiree Allen Sausen considered himself to be an independent, “although I probably lean more toward Republican.”
This year, he says, he’s undecided.
“It’s very frustrating. I’d like to see new blood, but Trump is off the wall and unreliable,” he says, adding, just days before the raunchy 2005 audiotape of Trump was released that “probably nothing will happen in the next few weeks to help me make my decision.”
Jewish donors, on the other hand, decided this year to hold onto their money or contribute it to Republican congressional candidates rather than to the Republican presidential nominee.
Florida professor Wald says that in the last election 70 percent of Jewish political donations went to the Democratic ticket. This year, it’s estimated that this percentage will skyrocket to about 95 percent.
THE FACT that Trump heads the Republican ticket has propelled some Jewish organizations to get more involved in this year’s election. Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice launched a campaign called “We’ve seen this before” to stop Trump from becoming president.
“This is a unity campaign that draws on the universal values of the Jewish community, and we are calling on all American Jews to stand together against the violent white supremacy that Donald Trump’s campaign represents and has unleashed,” writes Max Socol, a national organizer for Bend the Arc.
Author Samuel G. Freedman says, “Any vote for Trump is a shanda [disgrace in Yiddish].
This isn’t [Mitt] Romney or George W. Bush. It’s not about liberal Jews like me. The issue here is that every single person who votes for Trump is either bigoted or willing to put a man full of hate into the White House.”
Reports of Trump support coming from avowed anti-Semitic, racist and anti-immigrant groups or individuals like David Duke, a Holocaust denier and former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, have been underlined by anti-Semitic taunts on Twitter directed at Jews or perceived Jewish journalists, who have written negative articles about Trump.
Given those swirling racist attacks, Freedman says it would be a “communal embarrassment if a higher percentage of Jews vote for Trump than blacks or Hispanics.”
Pesner, of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, points to a further complication impacting Jewish support for Trump.
“Somewhere between 10 percent and 20 percent of Jews are now considered ‘of color,’” he says, if one includes African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, conversion, adoption and intermarriage. “We’re not just talking about racial inequities … There’s a nostalgia for the civil rights movement,” he says, noting that both the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act were drafted in his office. “This is personal to the Reform Movement.”
In addition to the perceived bigotry coming from Trump supporters, Pesner notes that this will be the first election since the courts have upheld voter-suppression laws in some states. He estimates that eight million votes won’t be counted this year due to voter-suppression laws.
“JEWS TEND not to be single-issue voters,” he says. “They look at the ethical approach: Will the candidate be good for America and the vulnerable among us?” Perhaps with the exception of the Orthodox vote, Israel is a non-issue this election. If anything, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his outreach to American evangelical voters are being blamed for fertilizing the ground for a candidate like Trump.
“Netanyahu made a strategic alliance with the right wing of American Jewish people, the Republican apparatus and the Christian right, all circumventing the Jewish community,” says Freedman. “Considering how radical Trump is, only 5 percent of Jews should vote for him. I hold Netanyahu accountable.
He made the Democratic Party into an enemy by putting his efforts into the Republican right wing.”
Not surprisingly, talk-show host Prager takes issue with Freedman’s contention.
“That Republicans – both in Congress and the general population – are far more pro- Israel than Democrats means little to most American Jews,” he writes to The Report.
“The days of American Jews united in valuing Israel and being preoccupied with its security are over. Most American Jews are more concerned with global warming, income inequality, transgender rights, equal pay for women, the Supreme Court and fighting American ‘racism’ than they are with Israel.”
The bottom line? As Abrams states, “I wouldn’t bet 5 dollars on the outcome of this election. It’s such a violently crazy world right now.”