Opinion

Orthodox Jews Are Now Trump’s Truest Believers

In one group of voters, Donald Trump is actually gaining ground: Among Orthodox Jews. The stark contrast with the anti-Trump liberal Jewish majority means American Jews' left-right split may now be the most extreme of any U.S. demographic

President Donald Trump is introduced to speak to U.S. military troops at Naval Air Station Sigonella, Italy. May 27, 2017
AP/ Evan Vucci

After eight months in office, President Donald Trump remains deep under water in opinion polls. Having begun his presidency with historically low approval ratings, those numbers have continued to go down as a succession of bitter controversies have even eroded the support of his faithful base.

That is, except for a small segment of the slightly more than one-third of Americans who continue to back Trump no matter what he says or does: Orthodox Jews.

Hidden amid a number of sobering findings in the latest American Jewish Committee survey of Jewish opinion was one startling fact. In November 2016, exit polls showed that although Orthodox support for Trump was much higher than among other Jews, only a minority - 39 percent - was willing to admit that they had voted for him. But if the AJC poll is to be believed, Trump has actually gained ground among Orthodox Jews.

While 77 percent of all American Jews polled now disapprove of Trump’s performance, 71 percent of those who identify as Orthodox disagree. While recent polls show support for Trump has slightly eroded - from a 63 to 56 percent - among evangelicals, his strongest demographic support group, backing for the president among Orthodox Jews has gone up in the last year.

What is it that Orthodox Jews like about Trump when other Jews, not to mention most of the rest of the country, are increasingly hostile to him?

While issues like Israel play a role in these results, the answer may go deeper than things like the appointment of an Orthodox Jewish backer of settlements as ambassador to the Jewish state, or lingering resentment toward President Obama.

An Israeli settler fixes an Israeli flag on the roof of a building in Hebron, sparking violent clashes amid a disputed claim of ownership, witnesses said. January 21, 2016
AFP / HAZEM BADER

The same culture war splits and resentment of liberal elites that have led to Trump’s rise elsewhere can do more to explain Orthodox attitudes than the fact that he is on better terms with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than was Obama.

The pull of partisanship in 2017 America is far greater than is generally acknowledged. Common ground between Democrats and Republicans as well as liberals and conservatives is shrinking to a vanishing point. Americans don’t merely differ on candidates and the issues. They also don’t even watch, listen or read the same media, and thus often treat divergent views as lacking legitimacy and stemming from bad faith, rather than merely a difference of opinion.

While ignoring and/or dismissing opposing opinions is a bipartisan trait these days, the Trump base is particularly distrustful of liberal elites and a mainstream media they think judges his flaws and mistakes more harshly than those of his predecessor. They see criticism of the president as always stemming from partisan motives, rather than as a normal reaction to an intemperate leader who often speaks and tweets in a brutal fashion without regard for truth.

Analysts have seen Jewish support for Republicans in recent decades as primarily the function of a willingness to prioritize Israel, while it is just one among many policy concerns for Democrats.

While Trump appears less interested in pressuring Israel’s government than was Obama, Orthodox attitudes may also be reflective of diverging views about anti-Semitism and other issues.

Liberal Jews saw Trump’s dog whistling to the far right during the campaign as indicative of his tolerance of anti-Semitism, irrespective of his Jewish family ties. Yet anger over Charlottesville didn’t impact the Orthodox in no small measure because they are more focused on anti-Semitism from the left, and are likely to distrust any media narrative about the president.

Participants in the March for Racial Justice in New York City, U.S. October 1, 2017
STEPHANIE KEITH/REUTERS

That may mean that even if Trump decides to float a peace plan with the Palestinians that will anger an Orthodox community sympathetic to the settler movement, the factors that are driving them to the right may still be enough to keep most of them in Trump’s camp.

A common theme I’ve heard from Orthodox and politically conservative Jews in recent years is a belief that they now have more in common with Evangelicals and other non-Jewish conservatives than with fellow Jews who are liberal. This is a function of the way both the Orthodox and the non-Orthodox are moving in opposite directions on key social issues like gay rights, abortion, vouchers for private and parochial schools, as well as on matters of observance.

While the Orthodox still make up only nine percent of U.S. Jews (according to the AJC poll), every demographic survey of the last two decades points to a trend of massive Orthodox growth and the ongoing demographic collapse of the non-Orthodox.

That’s a dismaying thought with ominous implications for the future for liberal and centrist Jews who can’t understand why the Orthodox are indifferent to their concerns about Trump and right-wing anti-Semitism.

At a time when Americans are more divided than at any point in living memory, the polling on Trump shows the left-right split among Jews may be even more extreme as that of any demographic group in the country.

Though disagreements among Jews over candidates or issues have occurred before, the visceral nature of the debate about Trump and the way the denominations are lining up on opposite sides of that ideological chasm may truly be unprecedented.

Jonathan S. Tobin is opinion editor of JNS.org and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin