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The Orthodox Vote for Trump

Why Donald Trump—despite his unsettling, nativist rhetoric and policies—is likely to gather a majority of the Orthodox Jewish vote

Armin Rosen
September 27, 2016
Pool/Getty Images
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) speaks as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, September 26, 2016. Pool/Getty Images
Pool/Getty Images
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) speaks as Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton listens during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, September 26, 2016. Pool/Getty Images

Donald Trump is a malevolent figure for many American Jews. The Republican candidate’s allegedly anti-Semitic cast of supporters, coupled with his nativist rhetoric and policies have seemingly unsettled the country’s cosmopolitan, left-leaning Jewish community. But at least one group of Jews will still vote for him in sizable numbers and, if history is any guide, a disproportionate number of Jewish voters for Trump are likely to be Orthodox, a sizable constituency that does not appear to share their coreligionists’ sense of anxiety or horror at the possibility of a Trump presidency.

For starters, Pew’s 2013 Portrait of Jewish Americans found that 56 percent of Orthodox Jews identified with the Republican party, while only 36 percent leaned Democrat. And, according to an AJC poll from earlier this month, Trump enjoys 19 percent support among American Jews, a number comparable to the share of the Jewish vote for George W. Bush in the 2000 election. Taken together, these polls hint that for many Orthodox voters, concern over Trump is unlikely to override a pre-existing tendency to vote for Republican candidates. Additionally, a September poll of Yeshiva University students found 37 percent support for Trump, compared to 27 percent for Clinton.

It’s not that Trump is especially popular among the community compared to past Republican presidential hopefuls. “Trump’s not doing better than expected among Orthodox Republicans,” said Steven M. Cohen, a professor at Hebrew Union College, a consultant on the Pew study, and one of the foremost demographers of the American Jewish community. “Their political identity is in supporting Trump the same way that liberal Democrats among Jews are supporting Secretary Clinton.”

And yet, the Trump campaign has made inroads with Orthodox Jews without having much of an organized effort targeting them. Richard H. Roberts, the vice-chair of Trump’s Israel Advisory Committee, claimed that there is “overwhelming support for Trump in the Orthodox community,” but said that he is “not aware of any targeting of the Orthodox Jewish community by the campaign” when asked about specific outreach efforts. David Algaze, a Queens-based Orthodox rabbi, told me that he is the co-chair of a “rabbis for Trump”-type group, but it is yet to announce its membership publicly. The pro-Trump side also doesn’t seem to have an equivalent of Rabbi Menachem Genack, the Clinton-supporting Yeshiva University professor and CEO of the Orthodox Union—there’s no one of his visibility or prominence making the case for Trump within the community in any kind of a coordinated fashion.

Even so, support for Trump becomes proportionally more frequent on the more religious end of the observance spectrum, suggesting that Orthodox voters are less likely to be repelled by someone who an ideologically diverse range of American Jews consider to be an enabler of anti-Semitism, among other bigotries. Ben Shapiro, an anti-Trump political conservative and himself an observant Jew, has drawn connections between Trump’s policies, rhetoric, and the anti-Semitism of some of his supporters. The estimates vary—one Orthodox source consulted for this story says that he expects Trump to win 70 precent of the vote in the Brooklyn orthodox stronghold of Borough Park, while another doubts that the Republican will get more than a third of the Orthodox vote, an estimate roughly in line with the Yeshiva University student poll—but a significant percentage of the Orthodox are still going to vote for him.

The Orthodox represent 10 percent of the U. S. Jewish population, and the Modern Orthodox account for only 3-4 percent, according to the 2013 Pew study. But because of their institutional strength and a rising political profile, the community’s impact is greater than that number suggests. As Cohen explained, the Modern Orthodox in particular view themselves as “having an important [position] in holding Jews together,” occupying the space between the two polar opposites that flank them on the religious spectrum. “They stand at a crossroads between the heavily sectarian ultra-Orthodox, and the highly inter-marrying non-orthodox,” Cohen said.

The fact that such a crucial group is so apparently out of step with American Jewish attitudes on the presidential election is proof that one of defining divisions in American politics has firmly established itself within the Jewish community as well. In the country’s fractious political climate—marked by intense partisan divisions along fundamental fault-lines of identity and values—even a Republican with little apparent religiosity and allegedly poor impulse control can count on the support of a critical mass of religious people, Jews included.

* * *

Despite having an Orthodox Jewish daughter and son in-law, Trump was not necessarily Orthodox Republicans’ first choice. During the April New York primary,Texas Senator Ted Cruz’s best showing in the entire state was in Borough Park, one of the centers of Orthodox Judaism in Brooklyn. Voters interpreted Cruz’s attacks on Trump’s “New York values” as a general slander against the Empire State, which Trump ended up winning handily. But Borough Park, convinced by Cruz’s pro-Israel bona fides, and perhaps wary of Trump’s long record of alleged personal improprieties, backed Cruz, who won the neighborhood with 56 percent of the vote, compared to 37 percent for Trump. Even after Trump emerged as the nominee, doubts remained. “Trump is a little bit of a different kind of Republican than the orthodox community is used to,” said Joseph Frager, a New York-based medical doctor and political commentator. Trump’s candidacy, he said, is “not a slam-dunk with the Orthodox Jewish community.”

Even enthusiastic supporters of Trump are aware of his shortcomings. Yitzchok Feldheim, a Lakewood, New Jersey-based rabbi who spends much of the year traveling to college campuses to speak to Jewish student groups, explained Trump’s appeal in almost mystical terms. In his view, the Republican candidate is a needed corrective to contemporary liberalism’s vision of “a world without any beauty and any pride and any happiness.” Trump, in his view, is “fighting a battle that we have felt for a long time,” namely the conflict between traditional Jewish life and the spiritual emptiness, and perhaps the inevitable meaninglessness, of the world that he believes the modern-day, Clinton-supporting left envisions. Yet Feldheim realizes that Trump is an imperfect messenger. “He’s not the hero that we want, he’s the one we deserve,” he explained. “I wish we deserved this gallant, noble, refined spokesperson. But you know what, that guy would probably be laughed off his white horse.”

Other Orthodox political observers and supporters of Trump say the candidate’s following in the community in rooted in less elevated factors. Yossi Gestetner—a political analyst and co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council who facilitated an April meeting between Trump and figures from New York-based Jewish media organizations—credits Trump for his willingness to publicly meet with orthodox Jews, something he alleges Trump’s Democratic opponent has not done as openly. “I am not a Trump supporter per se, but at this time I favor Donald over Hillary,” said Gestetner. “Trump has proudly met with visibly Jewish people this campaign season and given exclusive interviews to Jewish-audience publications too while Hillary largely—if not fully—avoids this community. That’s a reason for concern to many voters.”

As more than one person reminded me, Orthodox Jews travel to Israel more often than their conservative and reform coreligionists, and are likely to prioritize a strong pro-Israel stance above other issues. (According to the Pew study, 77 percent of Orthodox Jews and 86% of modern Orthodox Jews have traveled to Israel, compared to 43 percent among American Jews in general. Additionally, Trump supporters in Israel have set up an a sophisticated campaign infrastructure aimed at reaching eligible voters who live in the Jewish state, an effort that includes field offices in major Israeli cities, as well as a settlement in the West Bank. Abe Katsman, the counsel for Republicans Overseas Israel, told us me that he hasn’t observed a similar outreach push among Israel-based Clinton supporters.

But above all, Trump benefits from the Republicans’ success in associating their party with religion, and from the social and political polarization that turned religiosity into a indicator of partisan support. “The idea that there’s a fear of God—we call it Yerat Shemayim in Hebrew—that resonates heavily in the Republican party more so than in the Democratic party,” says Frager. “In general the Republican Party sticks to the same traditional values that the Orthodox Jewish community sticks to.”
Algaze made this point is starker terms: “I think we Jews who follow our tradition more strictly are freer. We are not subject to the brainwashing of the media or liberal philosophies that make us change our point of view.”

Eve Stiglitz, a Yeshiva University graduate, the founder of Jews Choose Trump, and the Jewish womens’ representative in the National Diversity Coalition for Trump believes that Orthodox support for the candidate sums up the differing political values of more and less-observant American Jews. In her view, Orthodox Jews “put Judaism before their liberalism, whereas more secular Jews who are not as connected to Judaism or to Israel put liberalism before their Judaism.”

As Stiglitz implies, greater Orthodox backing for Trump exposes fundamental differences between community and other American Jewish groups, which are less observant, stagnant in demographic growth, less invested in Israel, and far likelier to marry out of the faith. But somewhat paradoxically, Trump support also shows how similar Orthodox Jews are to the broader American electorate, and how in step they are with larger American social trends. Orthodox Jews will vote in comparatively larger numbers for Trump because of a level of religiosity and a connection to Israel different from that of the majority of American Jews. But they’re also going to vote for Trump for less particularly Jewish reasons.

In presidential elections since at least the early 1990s, the Republican candidate has enjoyed an advantage among weekly churchgoers, with Romney getting 60 percent of that vote in 2012, a number not dramatically out of step with those 56 percent of Orthodox Jews who told Pew they leaned Republican in 2013. As Cohen’s phrasing suggests, within the egalitarian churn of American democracy, the link between religiosity and conservative voting is an interfaith phenomenon, with church and synagogue pointing towards the same political biases. American politics doesn’t divide people based on faith, but based on whether they take religion more or less seriously as an organizing principle in their own lives.

As Steven Cohen noted, religiosity is one of the most reliable signs of support for Republicans, regardless of religion. “Probably the biggest predictor of political identity in America is not income as people frequently think, but churchgoing,” Cohen said. “Orthodox Jews go to their church a lot more than other Jews.”

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.