Pre-election visit to Jewish Pennsylvania: Community intensely polarized

Florida and Ohio often come to mind as the states that decide the elections, but in 2020, many see Pennsylvania as the single likeliest tipping point.

The Oval Office (photo credit: FLICKR)
The Oval Office
(photo credit: FLICKR)
PHILADELPHIA – One of the yards on the outskirts of the city had a sign: “Make sure everyone you know has a plan to vote.” It seems like many voters have this slogan in mind, as the elections are already underway. It was shortly after 5 pm on Tuesday, 21 days before the election, as a steady stream of voters kept entering the small office at Philadelphia’s city hall to cast their ballot. Occasionally, a voter would come out after casting a ballot and take a selfie with the “I Voted” sticker. Beth and Paul Shea, both attorneys from Philadelphia, were among those who voted early.
“I don’t want to go into a polling place with other people,” said Beth. “I’m 64, and I just don’t want to take that risk. I knew there was a way to do it ahead of time and I made sure it happened.”
“I think Biden has a better chance in Pennsylvania,” said Paul. “I think he’s better organized and he’s not taking Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan for granted as Hillary Clinton did. She thought she was going to win this without having to work for it.”
Jill Zipin (L) and Ellen Brookstein. (Omri Nahmias)Jill Zipin (L) and Ellen Brookstein. (Omri Nahmias)
Steve, a doctor from Philadelphia, said that it took him “about 30 seconds” to cast his ballot. “I think that it is important to preserve social distancing as much as possible,” he said. “So if we can do our part to offload the number of people going out on election day, I think that will help a lot. I’m hoping that myself and a lot of other people are out here voting early, [when] lines aren’t too crazy.”
Florida and Ohio often come to mind as the states that decide the elections, but in 2020, both FiveThirtyEight and The Economist presidential model see Pennsylvania as the single likeliest tipping point. And with a significant Jewish population, both Jewish Democrats and Republicans are moving to the final stage of the election cycle and trying to mobilize voters in a time of a deadly pandemic. These efforts are taking place mostly online, with very few events in-person.
Brett Goldman is a founding member of Democratic Jewish Outreach Pennsylvania (DJOP), who works as head of government affairs at an ag-tech firm, and lives in Philadelphia. In a conversation outside City Hall, Goldman noted that he has been involved in politics for over 15 years, but this election cycle “is definitely the strangest” he ever experienced. The main reason, he says, is the pandemic.
He noted that usually, during this part of the election, the grassroots supporters would move ‘get out the vote’ mode. “Normally there would be an army of volunteers knocking on doors everywhere in the state to remind people to vote on election day. But this year it’s quite different. It’s taken all of that in-person groundwork and made it virtual. Nothing is ever going to replace the good old in-person engagement and meeting other voters.”
Goldman says that he is worried about the polarization among Jewish Democrats and Jewish Republicans. “It’s super polarized right now. And I think part of the reason why it’s super polarized is that the majority of people right now in the US have nothing better to do than sit home on Facebook and talk about politics.”
“The Jewish community is intensely polarized and we’re intensely polarized during a situation where we have rising antisemitism,” he continued. “We shouldn’t be polarized because there are way larger problems at foot. And we can’t get distracted by that. I hope that after this election, we come back together and I’m sure we will.
“I'm supporting Biden because I think his plan and actions thus far for handling COVID-19 are much more sound than what we have now, and he's taking that threat seriously,” Goldman continued, “and I genuinely believe he wants to surround himself with competent experts and civil servants alike, and listen to their advice when provided.
TWENTY MILES AWAY, in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, Philip Rosenzweig invited a few fellow Jewish Republicans to his office to discuss the upcoming election efforts. Rosenzweig is the chairman of the Republican Committee of Lower Merion and Narberth, which encompasses the first 14 towns of the Eastern Main Line of Philadelphia. He is also a co-founding partner of a law firm.
He says that the Jewish vote in the area is significant. “The counties surrounding Philadelphia have approximately 200,000 Jewish households of about 450,000 people. This is the third-largest suburban Jewish population in the US.”
“There are very few in-person events because of COVID,” he continued. “Our get-out-the-vote efforts are phone banks, email, direct mail, and local committee outreach. We have online speakers and events, but they are typically specific candidate based.”
Like Goldman, Rosenzweig says that there is a clear division between Jewish Republicans and Democrats. “I’ve been involved in politics for more than 20 years, and I have never experienced the divides that this country is experiencing, that have led to people who have been friends for decades, not speaking to each other,” he said during a conversation in his office. “It has led to siblings not speaking to each other. It has led to various family members either unable to speak to each other or unable to talk about politics.”
“That is a reflection of the current vitriolic times in which we’re living,” he continued. “And I’m not blaming either side for that. I just think it is a new phenomenon in this country, and I am in many respects, shocked that it’s occurring because there is no dialogue, there’s no real debate. People are talking at each other, not to each other. And it is very much a matter of people thinking the other is wrong, morally, ethically, as opposed to just a different point of view. We are in a very dark place in this country because of that. I do not think it will be over when this election is over.”
Rosenzweig added that he believes that on election night, the results from Pennsylvania would surprise the pollsters. “There are 160,000 new Republican registrations in Pennsylvania that did not exist before. The Democrats have lost registration in Pennsylvania by between 90 and 95,000. Independents have also picked up,” he said. One thing that could swing the state in Biden’s favor, he said, is a large turnout among African-Americans in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. “But the early indications are that turnout is not going to be as robust as the Democrats want it to be,” he added.
Andrew Geisler, an owner of a steel company from Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, said that Trump’s policies in the Middle East were successful. “Israel has always been outcast as the black sheep of the Middle East,” he said, “and now it’s starting to build some respect, and people are starting to take notice. People say, Oh, well, it’s not a peace deal. Okay, it is not a peace deal. I don’t care what you call it. At least [Israel and Arab countries] are sitting down, they’re having a conversation. Things are happening, and people are noticing that Iran is a bad actor. And that’s really what [Trump] has created. Is he worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize? I don’t care. I don’t know, but something’s moving in another direction.”
Betsy Rentz (in the center) with fellow Republican women. (Christina Fink)Betsy Rentz (in the center) with fellow Republican women. (Christina Fink)
David Rentz, a retired businessman, and Betsy Rentz, a former special education teacher, said they are supporting Trump’s policies, even though they are sometimes frustrated with his personality.
“I am very proud of the relationship that Israel and the United States have right now and what Donald Trump has done to accelerate that connection with all the policies that he has instituted,” said Betsy. “And it’s something that as Israel advocates, the safety of the Jewish people is our primary focus. Donald Trump has passed policies that have been everything that we have been advocating for and fighting for our whole lives. Whether it’s moving the embassy to Jerusalem, recognizing the Golan Heights’ sovereignty, stopping paying the Palestinian authority for ‘pay to slay,’ getting out of the Iran deal. That was huge.”
She added that she was disappointed to see that the President isn’t getting a larger share of the Jewish vote. “I did phone banking, mostly in Arizona, and was shocked at the Jewish response, by all kinds of things that they would say about this administration and didn’t really care about all the wonderful things that have happened for the Jewish people, the anti-BDS Executive Order. [Their priorities] are protecting every other minority group first, not acknowledging the antisemitism that their own kids are experiencing in colleges.”
“No matter what Trump does, the Democrats always have a problem,” said David. “When he moved the embassy to Jerusalem, they were upset. That was passed on Clinton’s years, he was a Democrat, but no one’s done it. They just won’t give him a chance. I think that Trump’s personality is terrible, but I think his policies are really, really good.”
“Will we come together? The country is so diametrically opposed and so split that it’s going to take a generation to bring people back together because there are too many bad memories,” he added. “It’s just not going to happen. This is something that’s going to be an evolution, not a revolution.”
IN HORSHAM, a 25 minutes drive eastbound, Jill Zipin, the chairperson of DJOP, is leading the phone banking operation for Jewish Democrats. Some 70 people volunteer to call voters twice a week, and all coordination is done on Zoom, with no in-person meetings.
“Pennsylvania was lost in 2016 by 44,000 votes,” she says in a conversation outside her house. Zipin noted that Pennsylvania has one of the largest Jewish populations in the United States. “The vast majority live in this area, and the remainder live in the Pittsburgh area or scattered throughout the state. Jews vote in very high numbers in the United States, higher than any other group in the US. We come out, we turn out, we vote.”
“Democratic values are best reflected in Jewish values,” she continued. “We care about the immigrant. We care about the minority because we know what it’s like to be a minority. We care about justice because we know what it’s like to be persecuted.”
“Because of the pandemic, more people actually answer the phone because they’re a little more eager to engage with people,” she added.
“I know every election people say this is the most important election of our lifetime, but this literally is the most important election of our lifetime, Zipin said. “This goes beyond parties. American democracy is at risk. Donald Trump has destroyed our democratic norms.”
Ellen Brookstein, the co-chair of the upper Dublin democratic committee, said that volunteers get a “turf” of some 75 homes of potential voters in their area. And while a face-to-face conversation is not taking place, the volunteers leave letters or flyers with relevant information, such as the location of the nearest polling station. “And then you go by and you try not to engage with people because of COVID and you stick it under their doormat, or maybe inside their screen door,” she added.
One of the purposes of phone banking, she said, is to make sure that voters have a plan to vote. “Did they request a ballot? Do they plan to request a ballot? Are they registered to vote? If they’re not going to vote by mail, do they know where they’re polling places?”
Zipin also addressed the Jewish community’s polarization and said that it is a symptom of US politics’s polarization. “You always had around roughly 25 to 30% of the Jewish community has been Republican. So there’s been no great sea change in the numbers of Republican views of Jews versus democratic Jews. Generally, politics have become more divisive and that is reflective in the Jewish community as well. But the hard numbers of who is a Democrat and who is a Republican have not changed.”
Zipin said that over 90% of Jewish Democrats support Israel, and that Jewish Democrats care about the economy, about Medicare, about immigration, and they care about gun violence. “The Republican Jewish Coalition is incorrect,” she added. “They'd like to put forward the narrative that Jews are becoming Republican when that is not, in fact, the case. Jews have always found a home in the democratic party because it best reflects our values.”
She also addressed the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran and said that Israel and the United States are less safe as result of Trump's decision to withdraw from the deal. "We no longer have control or say over what's happening with Iran and their nuclear weapons. The purpose was to control Iran's nuclear weapons. We know Iran is a bad actor. The deal wasn't about controlling all the other bad actions they take, but the Iran deal was the best way to keep Israel and the United States safe.”