The 2016 presidential election was hardly the first in which American Jews voted overwhelmingly for the losing candidate. Nevertheless, it is difficult to think of an incoming president who has caused more commotion in US Jewish circles than Donald J. Trump.
Invoking the litany of how often Jews have been out of electoral sync with their compatriots brings them small comfort.
Although 80% of Jews voted for Democrat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, the country elected Republican Richard Nixon. In 1972, 65% of Jews cast their ballots for Democrat George McGovern, but Nixon was re-elected.
In 1980, a plurality of 45% voted to reelect Democrat Jimmy Carter, but Republican Ronald Reagan captured the White House (along with 39% of the Jewish vote).
Likewise, in 1984, 67% of Jews favored Democrat Walter Mondale, yet America preferred four more years of Reagan. In 1988, 64% supported Democrat Michael Dukakis ‒ however Republican George H. W. Bush won, pulling 35% of the Jewish vote.
In 2000, an overwhelming 79% of US Jews wanted Democrat Al Gore, but the country at large went for George W. Bush. And, in 2004, 76% of Jews voted for Democrat John Kerry, but George W. Bush won again.
The Jewish community took the defeats of their favored candidates in its stride.
This time around, while Trump captured more votes in the Electoral College than Hillary R. Clinton, she actually won 2.7 million more popular votes than he did. The 71% of US Jews who preferred the defeated Clinton voted with the majority, but it’s the 24% who backed the Republican who get to savor victory.
Many Jewish voters viewed Trump as a disquieting package of populism, crassness, demagoguery, bullying, and misogyny.
A candidate who appealed both to Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam and white-conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was necessarily anathema to the mainstream Jewish community, including many who traditionally vote Republican.
It is true that 51% of American Jews identify with the Democratic Party, but the community is more politically heterogeneous than is assumed. While the 51% identify as broadly liberal, 47% label themselves centrist or conservative, according to a 2016 American Jewish Committee survey.
FOR JEWISH intellectuals, opposition to Trump wasn’t simply a matter of political preference. It was not simply about making a tough choice between two flawed, unpopular, and untrustworthy candidates. Nor did the Jewish divide fall neatly along liberal- conservative lines ‒ witness the number of neoconservative Jewish intellectuals who refused to embrace Trump, among them Bill Kristol of The Weekly Standard
, Bret Stephens of The Wall Street Journal
editor John Podhoretz.
Clearly then, Trump is a special case ‒ a semantic and factual shapeshifter who seemingly channels former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan’s quip: “I know you think you understand what you thought I said but I’m not sure you realize that what you heard is not what I meant.”
At the grassroots level, Jews who voted for Trump connected to him on their own particular frequency. They did not take him literally, but they did take him seriously, to paraphrase Salena Zito of The Atlantic.
This may help explain why few seem terribly upset that Trump now says he does not want to hurt Hillary Clinton after threatening to put her in jail. He no longer wants to torture captured Islamist terrorists. He may be walking back his claim that man-made global warming is a Chinese hoax. And though he spent years leading a campaign to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency, he says after meeting him that, actually, he “liked him a lot.”
During the campaign, he said he didn’t know enough about former KKK leader David Duke to dissociate from his support.
Having permitted ultra-right-wingers to believe that he related to them, he now says he’d never consider hiring “a racist or altright” individual in his administration. And he deplored outright a white-nationalist conference held in Washington, in November.
While intense dislike for Clinton was surely a factor, Jews who voted Trump also intuited they were helping Israel. In deciding what to do in the voting booth, foreign policy is usually not high on the list of Jewish voters’ priorities. Anyhow, most US Jews think the US-Israel relationship is good, according to the AJC survey. And, bear in mind that most American Jews have never been to Israel. It’s a safe bet that the 24% who voted Trump have visited the Jewish state and are less upbeat about the US-Israel relationship.
Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center ‒ 9% of US Jews identify as Orthodox ‒ surmises that Trump probably won a majority of Orthodox voters. His hunch is confirmed by the exit polls, which showed Trump winning 50% of the Orthodox world.
In Brooklyn’s predominantly ultra- Orthodox and staunchly pro-Israel Borough Park neighborhood, Trump won more than 68% of the ballots. By contrast, Trump did not carry Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where anti-Zionist Satmar Hasidim backed Clinton, nor did he succeed in Monroe County, home to the township of Kiryas Joel where the sect’s upstate faction is located.
To those who had qualms about Trump’s trustworthiness on Jewish concerns heading into the election, supporters pointed to his observant Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to his Jewish lawyers and associates, to his long history of doing business with Jews; and also recalled that the GOP standard-bearer was once an Israel Day Parade marshal.
And yet, Trump’s future stance on Jews and Israel can only be a matter of conjecture given that, as a private citizen, he has no policy trail.
Trump hit all the right notes in a March 2016 speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). He promised to move the American Embassy “to the eternal capital of the Jewish people, Jerusalem.” He pledged never to allow a peace agreement to be imposed by the United Nations. “When I become president, the days of treating Israel like a second-class citizen will end on day one,” he said.
But a month earlier, he’d told a town hall event hosted by MSNBC that he wanted to be seen as “neutral” in Mideast peace-making.
AND, BACK in December 2015, at a forum of candidates seeking the GOP nomination at the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump implied that he didn’t know whether Israel was genuinely committed to peace. Moreover, in a December 3, 2015 interview with the Associated Press he said, “I have a real question as to whether or not both sides” want peace. He added, “A lot will have to do with Israel and whether or not Israel wants to make the deal ‒ whether or not Israel’s willing to sacrifice certain things.”
Whatever doubts they may have harbored about Trump, his Jewish supporters were convinced that Clinton and Sen. Tim Kaine ‒ especially given his close ties to J Street ‒ would lean hard on Israel. They worried a Clinton win would embolden Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to green-light a French-initiated UN Security Council resolution that would recognize “Palestine” and compel an Israeli pullback more or less to the 1949 armistice lines.
To appreciate why 24% of the community took the anybody-but-Clinton path, it’s worth recalling how frazzled Obama left many Jews ‒ and not just hawks.
In his first 100 days, he ramped up Palestinian expectations with the appointment of the high-profile former senator George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy.
Already during his election campaign, candidate Obama had basically discarded the 1967-plus formula enunciated by president George W. Bush in his April 14, 2004 memo to premier Ariel Sharon. That communiqué had recognized “new realities on the ground,” specifically settlement blocs, and said it would be unrealistic for final status negotiations to result in a return to the armistice lines of 1949.
Less than three months after entering the White House, in March 2009, Obama demanded a West Bank and east Jerusalem settlement freeze. That obliged Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to adopt the president’s stipulation, and so a settlement freeze became a prerequisite for negotiations. That basically resulted in the suspension of peace talks for the entire Obama administration.
Beyond Obama’s first 100 days, in June 2009 he went to Cairo and characterized the Palestinian situation as “intolerable.” He implied that Israel’s legitimacy hinged on Jewish suffering during the Holocaust rather than the Jewish bond to the Land of Israel over a span of 2,000 years.
Now, Trump’s ascendency has whiplashed the organized Jewish community. The venerable mainstream groups are frankly alarmed over Trump. The more ideological liberal groups, such as the Union of Reform Judaism, the National Council of Jewish Women, Americans for Peace Now, Jewish Women International, and J Street are in uproar.
Groups that had heretofore been marginalized feel vindicated and are crowing.
Zionist Organization of America president Mort Klein tells The New York Jewish Week
he fully expects Trump will move the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Trump’s announcement that he will nominate bankruptcy lawyer David Friedman to be his ambassador to Israel is more good news for those on the right.
Many on the US right anticipate that the Trump administration will put the “peace process” on the back burner ‒ a good thing if you view it as demanding tangible territorial concessions from Israel in exchange for ephemeral pledges from the Palestinian Arabs. Klein is ideologically close to John Bolton, the former US United Nations ambassador and a neoconservative hawk, who has been angling to be named deputy secretary of state.
Carol Greenwald, who has been active with “Jews Choose Trump” since it was founded, says she fully expects the new president to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, stop portraying Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria as illegitimate, and cease referring to the West Bank as occupied.
Greenwald is also looking for the Trump administration to tear up the Iran nuclear deal and to veto any UN resolutions that try to impose a solution on Israel.
Meanwhile, 6,000 miles away, a Dialog poll conducted for the Ruderman Family Foundation in early December showed that 83% of Israelis expect Trump to be pro-Israel.
Some 45% say there is now a chance Israel and the Palestinians will sign a peace treaty. Most of those surveyed also seemed optimistic that Trump really will move the embassy to Jerusalem. An astonishing 58% thought it was either possible or likely that Trump will scrap the Iran nuclear deal. Likewise, an Israel Democracy Institute poll found that 50% of Israelis believe Trump will favor Israel over the Palestinian Arabs, though 46% think he’ll apply pressure to both sides.
THERE IS even optimism that Trump could radically rethink the framework for solving the conflict. Prof. Hillel Frisch, speaking at a forum in November sponsored by the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, argued that the incoming Trump administration presented a unique opportunity for Israel to bury the two-state solution, “which only exacerbates the conflict,” and replace it with a robust role for Jordan.
Frisch says Trump’s arrival on the scene as someone “who owes nothing to the political establishment” combined with the continued weakening of the European Union, which has been “the prime mover of the two-state solution,” presents Israel with an exceptional opening. Therefore, Trump needs to be pressed to embrace a peace plan that would give Jordan overall responsibility for security, economy and foreign affairs in the West Bank.
According to Frisch, the new administration’s window of opportunity will be flung open when the octogenarian Mahmoud Abbas leaves the scene. Jordan could then become part of any discussion over who will succeed him, and indeed what will succeed the Palestinian Authority.
Official Israel, on the other hand, has been taking a wait-and-see attitude pending Trump’s move into the White House.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who also serves as foreign minister) has tried to rein in expectations that there will be practically no daylight between Israeli and Trump administration policies. Indeed, after Agriculture Minister Uri Ariel of the Bayit Yehudi Party wrote to Trump’s chief strategist Stephen Bannon to thank him for his support of Israel, the prime minister ordered his cabinet ministers to stop speculating about Trump.
In December 2016, Netanyahu told the dovish Saban Forum in Washington that Israel remained committed to preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and that he was looking forward to speaking to Trump “about what to do about this bad deal.”
Alluding to his June 2009 Bar-Ilan speech and to his June 2015 address to the Herzliya Conference, Netanyahu told Chaim Saban that he remains committed to the two-state solution. In those earlier policymaking addresses, Netanyahu had said he accepted the idea of “a demilitarized Palestinian state that recognizes the Jewish State.”
Asked if he would encourage Trump ‒ who has flirted with neo-isolationism ‒ to keep the US engaged in the international arena, Netanyahu replied that would hardly be necessary.
And, indeed, in a post-election interview with The New York Times
, the president- elect said, “I would love to be able to be the one that made peace with Israel and the Palestinians. I would love that; that would be such a great achievement. Because nobody’s been able to do it.”
He even suggested that Kushner could have a role in negotiating such a deal.
In “The Art of the Deal,” Trump advised deal makers to “use your leverage.” It’s hard to imagine Trump not demanding a huge quid pro quo from Israel in exchange for moving the embassy and appointing an ambassador who is unabashedly supportive of the settlement enterprise.
So this may be a case of “be careful what you wish for, lest it come true.”
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beytenu Party, said he sees Trump’s arrival as an opportunity to revive the 1967-plus formula. For Liberman, having Trump’s support for bolstering settlement blocs may be worth sacrificing construction elsewhere in Judea and Samaria.
Whether Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of ExxonMobil and Trump’s choice for secretary of state, is open to 1967-plus is unknown.
That Tillerson comes with a strong recommendation from fellow Texan James Baker, the secretary of state under president George H.W. Bush, might raise concerns.
In 1991, Baker infamously allowed, “Fuck the Jews, they didn’t vote for us anyway.”
Tillerson also has the backing of former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and Robert Gates, the former defense secretary.
All three are associated with firms that consult for ExxonMobil.
MEANWHILE, NETANYAHU offered Trump every platitude in a CBS “60 Minutes” interview on December 11: “I know Donald Trump. I know him very well. And I think his attitude, his support for Israel is clear. He feels very warmly about the Jewish state, about the Jewish people and about Jewish people. There’s no question about that.”
In practice, the prime minister and Liberman have signaled that the Israeli government is biding its time trying to keep expectations on an even keel until Trump and Tillerson ‒ assuming he is confirmed ‒ take office.
For progressive US Jewish leaders, a wait-and-see approach is not an option.
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, is worried the new administration might back away from the two-state solution. “During the campaign, President-elect Trump said he would like to use his skills as a negotiator to help find an end to the conflict. I hope that he will in accordance with the two-state principle.”
Pesner tells The Jerusalem Report that the Reform movement will also be closely watching Trump’s decisions on immigration, health care, LGBT rights, and women’s rights.
“I urge President-elect Trump to reject the xenophobia and hate that some of his supporters have championed, and seek to be a president for all the people, as he has said he wants to be.”
Over at the Anti-Defamation League, CEO Jonathan Greenblatt has been upfront in his criticism of Trump’s appointment of Breitbart News co-founder Bannon as his top White House strategist.
Regarding Israel, though, Greenblatt tells The Report he was “very hopeful” Trump and Netanyahu will work together well. “We don’t expect major initiatives in the first 100 days. And that likely is a good thing.”
With Israel’s right-wing in mind, Greenblatt does say, “We are also keeping a watchful eye on those who might see this as an opportunity to push the new president away from promoting a two-state solution, which we believe is essential to a Jewish and democratic state of Israel.”
The Orthodox Union’s Diament tells The Report he also does not anticipate any dramatic moves during the first 100 days, “unless Jared Kushner really does want to be the Middle East Envoy ‒ which I suspect he does not.” Diament does think, however, that Trump will follow through on his criticism of the Iran nuclear deal.
Everyone agrees that domestic issues will be Trump’s main focus. For Diament, the foremost domestic issue is the cost of Jewish education. During the campaign, Trump backed “school choice,” which could mean reallocating federal education dollars in a way that allows parents to choose the schools their children attend.
Diament was heartened by Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos, a school-choice advocate, to be his education secretary. Her policies could help financially strapped parents who want to send their youngsters to Jewish day schools.
GREENWALD OF “Jews for Trump” tells The Report
she is looking for the new president to reverse the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare); appoint conservative judges to the Supreme Court; revoke “business killing regulations”; and “rein in the idiocy” at the Environmental Protection Agency regarding “unscientific theories of climate change.”
Prof. Yehudah Mirsky of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department at Brandeis University tells The Report
that “as with everything Trump, his sheer unpredictability means anything can happen.”
During Trump’s first 100 days, Mirsky will be looking, most of all, at how a Trump administration handles basic civil liberties, “which I think are genuinely threatened by the election of someone who campaigned like an unrepentant strongman and wouldbe fascist.”
Pesner sounds a similar alarm. “This election brought anti-Semitism, racism, xenophobia and misogyny to the foreground of American politics and it is up to all of us ‒ including the president-elect ‒ to push that hate out of the mainstream of our civic life,” he says.
But Greenwald totally discounts worries that the extreme right will hitch its wagon to a Trump presidency. They are an “infinitesimally” small factor on the American political scene, she says. “The groups I fear are the alt-left who are taking over the Democratic Party, people like Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota.” She says the real danger is extreme left-wing ideas seeping into the mainstream.
Given that Trump can be counted upon to be unpredictable and that he seems to respond to criticism by ferociously attacking his critics, establishment Jewish leaders will have to weigh whether to take an adversarial approach because of something he says or to keep their powder dry until his actual polices become apparent.
But Pesner argues that words do matter.
“We can only take the president-elect at his word. When he calls for increased surveillance of mosques, mass deportation of immigrants and closing the door to refugees, when he and his advisers propose a Muslim registry, we do take that seriously and we are ready to challenge those policies, if that is the path they choose to follow.”
The ADL’s Greenblatt has spoken of being ready to register as a Muslim should Muslim citizens be asked to register with the government. “Jews know what it means to be identified and tagged, to be registered and pulled aside. It evokes very deep emotions in the Jewish community,” he has said.
David Harris of the American Jewish Committee has sought to take a more measured approach, but even he is on record as saying that “singling out any ethnic or faith group to register with the government is both morally repugnant and unconstitutional.”
Owing to Trump’s semantic gyrations, it is not at all clear that he actually wants a database of all Muslims. His blurry statements include the tweet: “I didn’t suggest a database ‒ a reporter did.”
Diament advises liberal Jewish leaders to follow Obama’s lead. “He set the right tone ‒ of respect for the election’s outcome, for the office of the presidency and the American tradition of the peaceful transition of power.”
But Mirsky thinks the community should pursue a dual approach.
“On the one hand, we have to maintain very high vigilance as Trump has shown himself to be astonishingly cynical and devious, with no moral compass or boundaries.
On the other hand, rather than reflexively oppose any and every appointment and move, we should try to examine each on their merits.”
Greenblatt pledges that he will carefully observe what the new president does, offer guidance when he disagrees and speak out when necessary. He tells The Report the ADL will be focused on ensuring that Trump’s pledge to be president for all Americans is brought to fruition. The ADL chief says he wants to make sure that “the bigotry that was unleashed here in the US during the campaign will be rejected unambiguously by the president and all public figures. A great America is a respectful America,” he says.
Like many machers, Greenblatt is cognizant of the gaping divisions within the community. “We should be responsible and careful with each other; the Jewish community is very polarized right now. The divisiveness is destructive. We need to remind ourselves of our shared interests and rediscover a spirit of tolerance and respect.”
Yet, witness what happened when Malcolm Hoenlein, who has piloted the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations since 1986, co-hosted a pre-Hanukka party in early December (along with the Azerbaijani Embassy) at the newly opened Trump International Hotel not far from the White House. The choice of venue led Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, to lash out, calling the decision “tone deaf” bordering on “naked sycophancy.”
Hoenlein appears to take such criticism in stride. His long-held dictum seems especially apt for the new Trump era: “People have to be very careful. Jewish power is like a muscle. If you exercise it right, you build it up; if you abuse it, you destroy it.” Follow Elliot Jager on Twitter #JagerFile