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Ends to a Means

Why weren’t Haredi Jews troubled by Trump’s conspiracy-mongering?

by
Shaul Magid
February 16, 2021
Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Many months after the presidential election, it is quite clear that Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, support for President Trump was strong. The Satmar enclave of Kiryas Joel in Orange County, New York, voted 99% for Trump in 2020. In Haredi sections of Borough Park, Brooklyn, the numbers were about 90% for Trump. The story of Haredi support for Trump, or Haredi Trumpism, is very complex, and no one theory suffices to capture this phenomenon. Some have focused on Trump’s polices toward Israel, while others point to his advocacy of certain Haredi causes; for example, he granted clemency to Shlomo Rubashkin, former CEO of the Agriprocessors slaughterhouse, who had been convicted on 86 counts of fraud, money laundering, etc., and sentenced to 27 years in prison. Others say this is an example of Haredi Americanization, even a new kind of Hasidic American nationalism. It is understandable that many in that community would overlook Trump’s rather obvious moral failings if his presidency benefited them. For most of the 20th century, Haredi Jews, like many other American ethnic groups, acted transactionally in relation to politics; political leaders were never expected to be paragons of righteousness.

But what about the conspiracism that undergirded Trump’s presidency—from the Obama “birtherism” to his wink and nod to QAnon? Why wasn’t that a problem, especially in a culture that reveres the Yiddishe kup, the good Jewish head? I want to suggest that conspiracism may be less of a problem for traditional adherents of Judaism and Christianity than to those more liberal religionists who occupy a post-secular world. Conspiracy theories, even if they are not yours, may be less alarming when your own religious belief system shares certain structural principles with them.

QAnon is perhaps today the most widespread conspiracism. Recent discussions of QAnon argue that it is an emerging “hyper-real” religion, a form of religious apocalypticism, a belief that the reality we see conceals a subterranean plan where a demonic force threatens our society—and a “chosen one,” in this case Trump, will emerge to uncover the “deep state” and save us from destruction. For anyone conversant in Jewish and Christian messianism, this is not an unfamiliar story. QAnon’s stories of child sex-trafficking and other nefarious acts simply fill in the demonic nature of the powers and principalities that corrupt the world.

The details of this mad delusion needn’t concern us here—what is more interesting, for me, are the structural similarities to messianic eschatologies in both Judaism and Christianity that continue to inform its adherents, especially evangelicals and Haredim. Haredim know little about QAnon. But the structural notion of conspiracism more generally is not foreign to them. In fact, it is embedded in the system of their religious beliefs. God appears to a tribe of ex-slaves in the Sinai desert led by an ex-Egyptian aristocrat, chooses them among all peoples, and then hands them tablets of the law that they must follow. And one day in the future, maybe soon, God will bring them back from exile for a bloody global conflagration to fulfill their destiny in their homeland. Or try this: Jesus is crucified and buried, and then his disciples discover three days later that his grave is empty, and he appears to them as an apparition telling them that he will return. The Mormons would say this: Joseph Smith, while praying in the woods one night in 1823, found golden plates, a secret message from God, that became The Book of Mormon.

We could go on. These claims are believed by millions of people. Yet none of them are inherently more believable than QAnon’s claim of a demonic deep state.

This is not to say that these religions inspire the same actions as the kind of conspiracies that we find today, which helped prepare the ground for the tumult at the Capitol—although they sometimes do. The Maccabees did storm the Jerusalem Temple in a bloody insurrection to take it back from Seleucids in 164 BCE. And Jewish groups did stage an unsuccessful insurrection against Rome in 66 CE that finally ended with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. And many Christians believed in blood libel accusations that Jews used Christian blood to make matzo for Passover. Judaism and Christianity both have certain inclinations toward what scholars call an “apocalyptic epistemology,” a belief that the fulfillment of prophecy will result in the upending of society as we know it. Much of this epistemology is embedded in these religions’ messianic ideologies; part of the appeal of these religions concerns theodicy, how to explain why suffering comes upon those who believe themselves righteous—including through the promise of vindication and restoration. And many of those messianic ideologies were born during a time of great social upheaval. QAnon makes similar claims about today’s America as purportedly run secretly by an ultra-left “cabal” intent on undermining America’s (white) heritage. It is no coincidence that this all happened at a time of a global pandemic as well as a time when white America is slowly losing its majority status.

The histories of Judaism and Christianity are littered with messianic claimants and calculations of the end time that don’t pan out. But the belief in the inevitable end time is not abandoned. In most cases, religious communities self-correct to absorb the failure of prophecy while maintaining covenantal coherence. Religions survive in part by explaining such failures within their internal system of beliefs. Rabbinic Judaism is one self-correction: The Temple was destroyed, but this was God’s plan. The Second Coming another: Jesus will return. Some forms of Judaism and Christianity try to do away with apocalyptic epistemology by naturalizing it, claiming that the hoped-for end will be natural and peaceful.

But those naturalizing tendencies often do not take root for long. Apocalyptic thinking reemerges in moments of crisis. False messianism is often the form it takes, an addiction that is hard to shake.

For many of its early architects, Zionism was “messianic” in the naturalized sense. At the time, Jews were often deemed “abnormal” because were a people without a land, and Zionism sought to reestablish Jewish sovereignty in a homeland as part of a process of normalization. While that project had enormous success, apocalyptic tendencies in the tradition very quickly began to rise to the surface, especially in times of turmoil and change, yielding the expectation that the secular state would soon reveal the divine hand that will yield a messianic age. Or that God used sinners (secular Zionists) to do God’s redemptive work. This thinking was informed by the Jewish mystical tradition, which is driven by a transformative theology that often feeds apocalyptic thinking. Things are not what they seem.

And of course this apocalypticism is seen in dispensationalist Christianity as well, which is why the symmetry between Jewish Zionist messianism and Christian Zionist dispensationalism is a natural fit. It is no accident that evangelical John Hagee gave the invocation at the U.S. Embassy’s move to Jerusalem. As Trump said afterward, “I did this for the evangelicals.” On one (Zionist) Christian reading, the Jews may think they are exercising their right of self-determination, but they are really pawns, paving the way for the return of Christ (including the predicted end-time destruction of those Jews who refuse to accept Christ). But (Jewish) Zionists don’t care, because for them it is the Christians who are the pawns in the story of their own heroic redemption. Each is conspiratorial in its own way. And they can do business together.

Haredim may not all be Zionists—most are not—but they are increasingly pro-Israel, and they view Israel as an important part of their religious identity, for complex reasons. But setting aside the Israel question, Haredi support for Trump retains some of that underlying feeling of an unseen plan unfolding in unconventional ways. False messianism has plagued Judaism for its entire history. And each time, the rising messianic figure was never a conventional righteous person, but always someone who seemed the opposite. The 17th-century false messiah Sabbatai Zevi was not a righteous scholar but a largely unknown, strange, and psychologically troubled figure of questionable learning and pedigree—whose audacious claim of messianic prophecy stirred almost an entire Jewish population. In the very time between his first messianic proclamation in 1648 and his abrupt conversion to Islam in 1666, much of the Jewish world believed him to be the messiah and prepared for a collective return to Palestine. After his conversion to Islam, many were traumatized, and a smaller group of followers developed an ideology whereby his conversion was part of his messianic vocation. He seemed like he was now a Muslim, but the conversion was, well, “fake news.” Some converted with him; others remained Jewish but became clandestine Sabbatean followers (they called themselves “the believers,” maminim); and some radical circles determined the time was ripe for sinning as a final act of redemptive behavior. What looked like a sin was really a mitzvah. Many returned to their traditional lives. And yet movements like Hasidism, now a part of normative Judaism and a foundation of Haredi Judaism, emerged in part through Sabbatean influence.

Meanwhile, for QAnon Trump is a kind of messianic savior who will cleanse the country from the evil of the deep state; for some of his followers, he is better understood as a pre-messianic leader who will usher in the return of Christ. Signs at the siege upon the Capitol read “Jesus is my savior,” “Trump is my president.” The juxtaposition was not accidental. I have been told by Haredim that Trump is like Cyrus the Great or the conqueror Alexander. In Jewish lore, Cyrus liberated the Jews from the Babylonian exile and facilitated the rebuilding of the Second Jerusalem Temple. He was viewed as a great gentile leader who helped Jews fulfill their covenantal destiny. Why Trump is viewed by some Haredi Trumpists as a modern-day Cyrus is not wholly clear. Moving the American Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem is hardly Cyrus-like in scope. Nevertheless, Haredim have come to believe that Trump is a transitional gentile leader who will change the course of the country in their favor and will alter Jewish history.

Conspiratorial rhetoric may have moved many Haredim from transactional political actors to citizens who viewed Trump as a kind of Cyrus figure. Reagan was arguably better for the Haredim than Trump, but he never inspired the same kind of enthusiasm. The support for Reagan never reached that level; his support stayed largely in the realm of the transactional.

This is not false messianism. But I am suggesting that there is good reason why this conspiratorial thinking has not been as dissonant for Haredim as it is for many other Jews. Trump’s use of conspiratorial thinking has become absorbed in some way in the Haredi world even though most Haredim don’t know, or care to know, anything about Q. The more traditional Jewish belief structure comprises elements that, while not conspiratorial per se, function under similar assumptions: reality is not what it seems; things could change very quickly; a sovereign (God) is running the world; there is a plan which is often unseen; a savior will arise to lead the battle against evil. And conspiracy theories, like religions, are not falsifiable.

If QAnon is an emerging religion, as Bradley Onishi has suggested, Haredi Jews will not be a part of it. They have their own apocalyptic epistemology built into Judaism itself—one that often lies dormant but is never extinguished. Times like this rekindle its flame, and inspire action, as a response to a precarious moment. A pandemic has ravaged Haredi communities, and an odd gentile political leader, with an Orthodox Jewish child, who stokes fears of “us versus them,” and shows fidelity to Israel, has arisen. Not quite messianism. But close. One of the things conspiracism does is question what it means to “know” something. It introduces epistemic confusion. It destabilizes the real by claiming the real is hiding the truth. This is not new to certain forms of Jewish belief. In Jewish apocalyptic thinking, such confusion lies at its the very core of its understanding of knowledge. To question the “real” and offer an alternative narrative is deeply embedded in Jewish thinking. The “real” might tell you that Jews are an inconsequential people, and that God has abandoned them. But the truth is that they are chosen. Denying that is heresy: “fake news.”

With thanks to all the participants in the Hasidic Research Group

Shaul Magid, a Tablet contributing editor, is the Distinguished Fellow of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College and Kogod Senior Research Fellow at The Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. His latest books are Piety and Rebellion: Essays in Hasidism and The Bible, the Talmud, and the New Testament: Elijah Zvi Soloveitchik’s Commentary to the Gospels.

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