Opinion

Quiet and Fearful: Inside the Orthodox Jewish anti-Trump Movement

There's a growing Orthodox Jewish resistance to Trump. But 'coming out' as anti-Trump has a high cost – which is why many choose to stay silent.

Elad Nehorai
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A demonstrator holds up a sign during a rally held by the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to mark a National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees, New York, February 12, 2017.
Americans in Israel are fighting Trump's assault on our persons, our institutions, our democracy and our norms. HIAS rally marking the National Day of Jewish Action for Refugees, NY. Feb 12, 2017.Credit: Julie Jacobson/AP
Elad Nehorai

It started slowly at first, the messages from the Orthodox Jewish anti-Trumpers. Like me, they were shocked at their communities. Shocked that they would be supportive, or even grudgingly accepting, of such a man who went so against their values and what they thought their communities valued as well.

But when they saw me writing about it, they saw me living out the nightmares that many of them feared: how so many in our world turned on me. Suddenly I was my own community’s enemy. They saw how I expressed the pain of being an anti-Trump Orthodox Jew, especially one who identifies with the “pro-Israel” camp. They saw comment after comment telling me I was an enemy of the Jewish people or a dumb liberal or worse.

They, fellow anti-Trumpers, wanted me to know they were out there too. That they were scared to live out what I was going through, but that they were thankful someone was voicing what was in their hearts.

And the more I wrote publicly, the more they wrote me privately:

If I thought I could eat lunch in this town again, I'd write about how I'm feeling in a formal piece, but I cannot. I can't because I sit at Shabbos tables and have fingers wagged in my face, calling me a "Lib" and telling me I don't love Israel because I didn't want Trump, about the blood on Hillary's hands, that I'm being ridiculous for letting a few slurs by the leader of the free world bother me.

I have never felt so much of an outsider in the frum community as I do today. I tried to stay off social media, but I keep – foolishly – looking for voices of reason. People I thought were kind and educated and godly are posting things like "the Libs are protesting because they didn't win a participation trophy," etc. As if we've all gone back into the sandbox. And they are insistent that today is the beginning of our redemption, while all I can see is dust and fog.

Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump shout at Trump protesters in a demonstration area near Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S. November 20, 2016.
Supporters of U.S. President-elect Donald Trump shout at Trump protesters in a demonstration area near Trump Tower in the Manhattan borough of New York, U.S. November 20, 2016.Credit: Mark Kauzlarich, Reuters

She was one of the first. And that was just part of the painful email she wrote me. It was the first indication to me that, perhaps, this quiet resistance was worth writing about too.

It was not until this election, and the flood of messages from Orthodox anti-Trump people, that I understood just how deeply politics can mix in with religious identity. Conservative ideology has become so entwined with Orthodoxy that many people treat those of us who are vocally anti-Trump as not even being religious anymore. Because the Jewish world seems to be so conveniently separated between the Republican Orthodox and the Democratic Reform, Conservative and secular, people tend to assume some sort of identity change has happened on a religious level when someone with a kippah and a beard speaks for things like social justice. The message is that the liberals got to us and it couldn’t possibly be our Jewish identity has informed our political stance.

Another woman emailed me:

I have been written-off for “having bought into the liberal agenda” – as apparently being anti-ridiculous rhetoric like that of Trump makes one a liberal, and cause to write individuals off. I find this amnesia to our own past to be so alarming. And frustrating that my political alignments have made me an outlier until I "return to the alt-right mentality."

Since identity is so deeply connected to politics, people like me who are anti-Trump often feel demonized by our very communities in a way that goes deeper than just disagreement. A demonization that goes to the core of who we are.

Another woman messaged me about her own feeling of ostracization that led her to no longer attending synagogue services, not least as a result of her rabbi’s wife initiating an aggressive Facebook interaction attacking her anti-Trump views. Baalei teshuva (those who have become Orthodox later in life) especially seem to be shaken to their cores:

I became a BT in college after traveling to Israel ...However, since Trump announced his candidacy last year I spent shabbosim [Fridays and Saturdays] in horror as family after family came out in support of him. Families and rabbis I became close to over the years broke my heart with their harsh words and racism. However, I let my feelings go to preserve these relationships, figuring that after the election it would all feel like a bad dream & we'd all come to our senses.

I [am] in shock and horror about this country, and the reality that much more people supported the racism, xenophobia, sexism, etc than I allowed myself to imagine. I am still lost and confused about what this means going forward. I do think I still fundamentally agree that Torah is true, but cannot imagine myself existing within an observant community anymore.

I see these people who feel so alone and confused in their communities and I cannot help but feel sympathy for their pain. The feeling of disorientation and confusion at suddenly feeling like a stranger among those we supposedly share values with is clearly causing many to isolate themselves, either through a pained silence or – more rarely, and with immediate consequences – by speaking out.

But it is also the fact that this dissatisfaction is so widespread that gives me hope. The messages I have shared are a small taste of the anti-Trump Orthodox Jewish movement. Unfortunately, especially in the Haredi world, the urge to be silent can be overwhelming. It is why it appears that there are so many supporters of Trump and so few against him: because theirs is an assumed political and religious narrative that has infected our world.

For every message in which people tell me they’ve spoken out, I have about ten telling me they are too afraid to do so. And so the illusion is created both for the anti-Trump and the pro-Trump Orthodox Jews: we all buy the narrative because we all contribute to it.

This uniformity is not only unhealthy – it is a lie. It is an illusion that serves to create a fake peace, one that is dependent on people falling in line instead of being true to their relationship with God. I cannot imagine anything less religious.

Ultimately, then, the hidden voices are the ones that will lead to more than just their personal commitment to their inner truth. It will be about a larger and deeper movement that is in the wings, waiting to be unleashed: that of the transformation of the narrative of what it means to be Orthodox and religious. Where the narrative will turn from one that happens to be uniform to one that is diverse and vibrant. One where we are not trying to fit in, but trying to stand out.

That can only happen when more people speak out about the issues that matter so deeply to them that they feel ostracized or disconnected from their communities when they don’t. When they value themselves, the community will be forced to value them, too.

Even more importantly, the more that this transforms our community, the more it will build bridges to other ones. To have such a disconnect between liberal Jewish communities and the socially conservative and Orthodox ones has created a gulf that, at this point, seems irreparable. Building a vibrant political discourse, then, is the first step in repairing that breach. It is only through rebuilding ourselves that we can rebuild the world.

And so, for all the pain and confusion of the election of this madman, and all the innocent people who will be left wounded in its wake, we can find a glimmer of light: that we can use this pain to rebuild who we are as American Jews. 

First, in our individual willingness to be who we are truly meant to be. 

Secondly, in the transformation of our communities through connecting our voices and valuing them. 

And finally, in repairing the world itself through those connections. May it happen today.

Elad Nehorai is the founder and editor-in-chief of Hevria, a publication for creative Jews, and the blogger behind Pop Chassid. Follow him on Twitter: @PopChassid

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