Why are so many Orthodox Jews voting for Trump? - analysis

Enthusiasm for Trump amongst Orthodox communities and leaders is high and vocal.

A MAN wears a Trump kippah while waiting for Trump to address the Republican Jewish Coalition 2019 Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
A MAN wears a Trump kippah while waiting for Trump to address the Republican Jewish Coalition 2019 Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas.
With the US presidential election just days away, incumbent President Donald Trump has many ardent, fervent and zealous supporters, most prominent among them Christian Evangelicals and working-class whites, who he is hoping will sweep him to victory.
But another group which, although a good deal smaller, is also passionate and outspoken in its support for Trump is Orthodox Jews, both ultra-Orthodox (haredi) as well as substantial segments of the modern-Orthodox community.
An American Jewish Committee survey published in October showed that 75% of American Jews say they are voting for Biden, with just 22% planning to vote for Trump, along with a Pew Research survey finding 70% of Jews voting for Biden and just 27% for the president.
How US Jews identify religiously can also, to a great extent, show how they will vote in the presidential election, with the AJC poll showing that 74% of Orthodox Jews support Trump, compared to between 20% to 23% of non-Orthodox Jews.
A poll conducted for Ami Magazine had Orthodox support for Trump even higher, with 83% of US Orthodox Jews saying they were voting for the president, compared to only 13% for Biden.
And enthusiasm for Trump among Orthodox communities and leaders is high and vocal.
In a high-profile expression of support for Trump last week, some of the most senior ultra-Orthodox rabbis in the world lavished the president with praise, including the grand rabbis of Satmar, Vinitz, Bobov and Munkacs, as well as numerous other senior haredi rabbis.
One noticeable feature of recent ultra-Orthodox protests in New York City against new COVID-19 regulations on houses of worship was the widespread support demonstrated by protesters for the president.
In addition, the modern-Orthodox community, both in the US along with their religious-Zionist counterparts in Israel, has also become a significant pool of support for the Republican president.
In the US, the Young Israel network of modern-Orthodox synagogues has in recent years taken a sharp turn towards Trump and the Republicans, with its senior officials in the association issuing firm declarative expressions of support for the president.
For some, this Orthodox support is puzzling. Jewish ethical conduct as espoused by the Talmud, famed rabbis such as Nachmanides, and the 19th century Mussar movement emphasize humility, kindness and compassion, not traits that the president is renowned for.
The backing of some of hassidic grand rabbis, who embrace, teach and live by these principles, appears to be strikingly incongruous.
Trump has a notorious propensity for insulting his political opponents, as individuals or groups, and for politically divisive rhetoric; a proclivity, as demonstrated by non-partisan trackers such as PolitiFact, to tell falsehoods; a record of infidelity towards at least two of his wives, including alleged affairs with two porn stars; and there are at least 19 women who have accused him of sexual assault, according to USA Today.
Indeed, the president’s behavior and the nature of his personal life has led some Orthodox rabbis to break away from the heavy support of their sector towards Trump and publicly criticize him for his moral failings in recent days.
Rabbi Moshe Lichtenstein, one of the deans of the prestigious Har Etzion yeshiva in Alon Shvut, said in an interview with Makor Rishon that Trump’s supporters in Israel are not considering “the moral damage that he inflicts on the United States.”
And Rabbi Barry Kornblau, a dissident from the Young Israel movement, recently wrote an opinion piece where he said that Trump’s “unparalleled greed, hedonistic lifestyle, narcissism, dishonesty, abusive behavior, misogyny and corruption disgrace the office once held by Washington and Lincoln.”
How is it then, that despite his record, Trump has won the overwhelming support of the Orthodox community?
PROF ADAM FERZIGER of the Department of Jewish History and Contemporary Jewry at Bar Ilan University, says that US Jews’ “deep identification” with the civic values and political norms of America is actually a departure from how Jewish communities have engaged with their non-Jewish political surroundings.
Traditionally, argues Ferziger, the Jewish approach to relations with the ruling powers was far more “pragmatic” and “interest-oriented,” a position he says was maintained by Orthodox communities longer than others.
“If this is what is being expressed by the Orthodox, then Trump is simply the King in power and no one expects a ‘Trump-ashverosh’ to be a zaddik [righteous man] or even a decent human being,” says Ferziger, in a reference to Ahasuerus, the boorish Persian king of the Biblical Purim story.
Essentially, the Orthodox approach is one in which policies and the specific good of the community are the main factor in determining political support, and the consideration of issues outside of those parameters is deemed largely irrelevant.
This is illustrated well in the letter of support by the hassidic rabbis, the backdrop of which was Trump’s comments in May that houses of worship be allowed to remain open despite the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ferziger says that this kind of transactional relationship characterizes in particular the ultra-Orthodox community.
The fact that the modern Orthodox community in the US is more split over its support in the presidential race reflects the fact that it is closer than the ultra-Orthodox to traditional American political norms.
But for the modern-Orthodox, another factor that comes into play is Trump’s strongly favorable policies towards Israel.
The moving of the US embassy to Jerusalem; recognition of the Golan Heights as being under Israeli sovereignty; recognition of Israeli legal rights in the West Bank settlements; withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement which was much opposed by the Israeli government; the drafting of peace proposals which were very favorable to Israel; and the forging of normalization deals between Israel and three Arab states are cited frequently by modern Orthodox proponents of Trump as a reason to keep supporting him.
Ferziger says that this slew of pro-Israel policies has been a big factor in the heavy support among the modern Orthodox community for Trump.
RABBI SHLOMO RISKIN, a prominent and highly respected modern Orthodox rabbi from the religiously liberal wing of the sector who lives in the Efrat settlement which he helped establish in the 1980s, reflects much of this sentiment.
The rabbi, originally from the US, told The Jerusalem Post that he remains “an avid supporter of President Trump,” that he sent off an absentee ballot for Trump “very proudly” last month, and spoke approvingly of the president’s domestic and foreign policy, especially his policies towards Israel.
“His policies have been wonderful from a Jewish and an American point of view,” continued the rabbi, citing approvingly the withdrawal from the Iran deal, the peace deals with the Arab states, the Trump peace plan, and the change the president has brought in the international community’s general attitude towards the Jewish state.
“It’s an historic change in attitude, especially as we see more and more Arab nations coming to the side of Israel in a process of normalization – that’s magnificent; that can bring real peace for the first time.
“What President Trump has done has benefited Israel at the deepest and most profound level. There has been sea-change in the attitude of the State Department and the way America looks at Israel, Israel’s rights and its capital city, which is crucial.”
As to the concerns expressed about Trump’s moral character and actions, Riskin said explicitly that although he might wish Trump’s behavior was better, this would not form the basis of his attitude to a politician.
“Of course I would like the president to be a wonderful example of ethical conduct… [but] when I go to vote for a president I want to know about his policies,” although he said that unethical acts which might have ramifications on government policy should be fully investigated.
“In general I think these things belong in the private sphere and I don’t think people should look too deeply at the private lives of individuals and judge them; I don’t think that’s what Jewish law wants.”
Riskin also pointed to allegations made against Biden’s son, Hunter – and by extension Biden himself – of inappropriate ties to companies backed by the Chinese government, as evidence that there are morality concerns over many politicians.
Riskin’s perspective appears to reflect precisely the attitudes of many of Trump’s Orthodox admirers back in the US; a heavy focus on the pragmatics of policy as it relates to the Jewish people and the Jewish state and a determination to ignore the president’s personal behavior and rhetoric.
Trump has embraced Orthodox support, most recently tweeting his thanks to the hassidic grand rabbis for their letter, but also surrounding himself with Orthodox advisers, such as his son-in-law Jared Kushner, US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman, his longstanding lawyer, assistant to the president Avi Berkowitz, and many more.
In return for this embrace, the Orthodox community has embraced Trump, regardless of his shortcomings, precisely because he has embraced them and their agenda.