Tribalism Fuels Orthodox Jews' Support for Trump

They risk becoming the Jewish version of the 'Alt-Right,' a community that champions its own ethnic interests even when the result is outright bigotry.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands as he arrives to a campaign rally at Xfinity Arena of Everett, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, in Everett, Wash.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands as he arrives to a campaign rally at Xfinity Arena of Everett, Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016, in Everett, Wash. Evan Vucci / AP

Last week, the firm GBA Strategies polled Jews in Florida about the presidential race. In a two-way contest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Jews favored Clinton by 41 points. That’s not surprising. Jews have voted Democratic in every presidential election for close to a century, usually by large margins. 

By contrast, Orthodox Jews - who constitute six percent of Florida’s Jewish population - favored Trump by 44 points. At one level, that’s not surprising either. Orthodox Jews generally favor the Republican Party. What’s intriguing is that the Orthodox overwhelmingly supported even this Republican nominee, a nominee rejected by many of America’s most high-profile Republican Jews. Bill Kristol, David Brooks, David Frum, Robert Kagan, Jonah Goldberg, Max Boot, Bret Stephens, Dan Senor and Jennifer Rubin all find Trump repugnant. Yet most Orthodox Jews, at least in Florida, don’t.

The reason, I suspect, is that the same cleavage that is the dividing the Republican Party more generally is dividing Republican Jews. Ideological Republicans are mostly anti-Trump. Tribal Republicans are mostly pro-Trump. The relatively secular Jewish conservatives who appear in op-ed pages and on television mostly fall into category number one. The Orthodox mostly fall into category number two.

Among Republicans at large, this split played itself out throughout the primaries. Ideological Republicans supported candidates who promised to reduce government’s role in the economy. The white, working class Republicans who backed Trump, by contrast, were more tribal. They didn’t demand smaller government; they demanded bigger government for themselves and smaller government for those outside the tribe. Jeb Bush, Scott Walker, Marco Rubio and Chris Christie spoke in universalistic terms about how their plans to cut taxation and regulation would benefit everyone. Trump more often spoke in the language of us versus them. Again and again, for instance, he declared that, “Illegal immigrants get treated better than many of our vets — it’s a disgrace.” 

It was the same on trade and immigration. Ideological conservatives argued that globalization benefitted America as a whole. The tribal conservatives who favored Trump replied that while globalization might benefit rich people and the poor immigrants who cleaned their houses, it was wrecking the communities where they lived. 

Something similar is now happening with Jews. Ideological Jewish Republicans like Bill Kristol believe that Jews benefit from the application of conservative principles. But they care about the principles in their own right. Orthodox Jews are more tribal. They believe that Trump is better for Jews than Hillary Clinton, who they don’t trust on Israel. Beyond that, his fidelity to conservative principle doesn’t concern them much.

Take Trump’s proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States. Overwhelmingly, high-profile Jewish conservatives have denounced it as violating a principle they cherish: religious non-discrimination. Brooks has called it “bigotry.” The Washington Post’s Charles Krauthammer has called it “deeply bigoted” and “indefensible.” Former Mitt Romney advisor Dan Senor has called it “reprehensible.” But according to Jim Gerstein, who conducted the Florida poll, 46 percent of Florida’s Orthodox Jews favor the ban, compared with only 48 percent who oppose it. (By contrast, the ban is backed by only 19 percent of Florida Jews overall). 

The reason is because many Orthodox Jews evaluate the ban less through the prism of ideological principle and more through the prism of communal self-interest. If Muslims comprise anti-Semitic terrorist groups like ISIS, Hezbollah and Hamas, and generally oppose American support for Israel, why let them into the country? 

The tribalism of Orthodox Jews also explains why they’re less offended than more secular Jewish conservatives by Trump’s deviation from the standard, hawkish GOP line on NATO and Russia. For the Orthodox, it’s enough that Trump is hawkish on Israel. Three politically connected Orthodox Jews also told me that people in their communities often favorably cite Ivanka Trump’s conversion to Judaism. Ideologically, the fact that Trump’s daughter is Jewish shouldn’t matter. But if you look at politics tribally, it puts Trump on the Jewish side. 

Orthodox Jewish tribalism isn’t surprising. As the sociologist Theodore Sasson has noted, “Orthodox Jews have tended to stress the elements of Judaism that emphasize particularism rather than universalism.” In many contexts, that’s entirely defensible. It’s precisely because of their particularism, or tribalism, that Orthodox Jews play an outsized role in American Jewish communal life. It’s because of their tribalism that Orthodox Jews overwhelmingly send their children to Jewish day schools that give them the intellectual foundation to live committed Jewish lives. I admire these commitments, which is why I have spent much of my life attending Orthodox synagogues.

The problem comes when Orthodox Jews apply this tribal lens to American politics. In early twentieth century Europe, when Jews were a vulnerable and menaced community, it may have been legitimate to ask of politicians only: “Are they good for the Jews?” But in the United States in 2016, Jews—including Orthodox Jews—enjoy not only equality but privilege and power. With that should come an obligation to think more universally, to defend principles that guarantee the rights of others. If Orthodox Jews don’t defend those principles, they risk becoming the Jewish version of the “Alt-Right,” a community that champions its own ethnic interests even when the result is outright bigotry. 

American Orthodoxy is, of course, not monolithic. Fifty Orthodox rabbis recently denounced Trump. Not surprisingly, many are associated with “Open Orthodoxy,” a movement that seeks to reconcile Jewish law with greater equality for women and a greater intellectual openness to the outside world. If you can summon empathy for Jewish women who are treated like second-class citizens in shul, you can summon empathy for Muslim Americans who Trump would make second-class citizens in their own country. If you look for truth and beauty in non-Jewish texts, it’s easier to reject a candidate who speaks in such false and ugly ways about America’s most vulnerable non-Jewish people. 

The Orthodox rabbis who challenged Trump for violating the “fundamental principle of our religion that every human being is created in the image of God and should be treated as equal, as unique, and as a person of infinite value and dignity” are among the Jewish heroes of this awful 2016 campaign. Within their communities, many took tremendous abuse for their stand. Yet in taking it, they offered a model of a different kind of Orthodox Jewish community, one that embraces its moral obligations to its fellow citizens, and especially to the most demonized and vulnerable among them, like American Muslims, who most desperately need our solidarity and love.