Opinion

How Trump Split the Jewish Vote

More Jews voted for Clinton than any other major religious group in America. But not all Jews. Has the political chasm between pro-Trump Orthodoxy and the liberal Jewish majority become unbridgeable?

A Jewish voter enters the East Midwood Jewish Center polling station to cast a ballot in the American presidential election, Brooklyn, New York City, U.S., November 8, 2016.
Angela Weiss, AFP

Even on the eve of this week’s American election there were signs that the voting pattern of American Jews established in the last few votes would be repeated in 2016. The overwhelming majority would vote for the Democratic, progressive candidate, as they had for generations. They were motivated by the reasoning that those who concern themselves with the welfare of the most vulnerable in the society are worthy of support from a people that has known what it means to be among the most vulnerable; to add to that, Jews generally are among the most liberal of American voters.  

Indeed, as exit polls demonstrated, over 71% of all Jews voted for Clinton, a proportion even higher by a couple of percentage points than the 69% who voted for U.S. President Obama in 2012.  

Jewish votes were actually in tune with others of a similar social, geographic and educational backgrounds around them, perhaps even a bit more supportive of the Democratic candidate. Those key characteristics are that they see themselves as cosmopolitan rather than parochial; they live in large metropolitan areas; have international sympathies and hold college degrees (an area where Jews are over-represented compared to the general population). They are concentrated in areas where this set of features characterizes the general population as well: the urban Northeast, California and the Broward, Palm Beach, and Miami Dade counties of Florida. Indeed, compared with other major religious groups in America, Jews were more likely to vote for Clinton.

Given Donald Trump’s victory, most Jews (like those who voted like them) will now wonder if they truly inhabit the same country as those who voted for the winner, a candidate who Jewish voters concluded was totally unacceptable, morally and politically, and in terms of his experience for the job. The fact that many who harbor virulent anti-Semitic sentiments endorsed the winner can only add to Jewish concerns about finding themselves on the losing side.

In contrast to this majority, Orthodox Jews, who as a group (excluding the declining so-called modern-Orthodox segment) tend to have fewer adherents who are university-educated, who eschew cosmopolitanism and tend to be more insular, get their news and opinions from their own inside sources, are often economically disadvantaged, and share a socially conservative worldview closer to that shared by evangelicals than to the rest of American Jewry, would vote overwhelmingly for the Republican and more right wing candidate. 

A video released on the eve of the election of Ivanka Trump and her husband paying a visit to the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the endorsements of Trump by Orthodox affiliated newspapers like The Jewish Press and the Long Island Jewish World, and even the repeated reports of Orthodox Jews claiming Trump was better for Israel (along with reports that many of them living as ex-pats in Israel voted as a majority for him) suggested that even though Trump was a man whose values seemed diametrically opposed to Orthodox Judaism and attracted anti-Semites among his vocal supporters, implied the Orthodox would embrace his candidacy – like their evangelical counterparts.  

Indeed, in their voting patterns, political outlook and social values, Orthodox Jews turn out to be more like evangelicals than like their liberal Jews. And like many on the right, it turns out they were not ready to vote for a woman for the highest post in the land, let alone one who was a liberal Democrat. So far had Orthodoxy slid to the right that even what was once a liberal redoubt like Manhattan’s Ramaz Yeshiva reported that in a mock poll, Trump had been the clear winner with over two-thirds of the vote.

Orthodox animosity toward Obama oozed onto his secretary of state, where it mixed easily with a difficulty accepting the idea that a woman could be the ultimate leader. After all, in the Orthodox community nearly all powerful leadership positions are held by men. Although one poll suggested that only 39% of the Orthodox voted for Trump (I suspect the figure is too low), that was still significantly above the 21% and 25% among Reform and Conservative Jews. One might suppose that the progressive wing of Modern Orthodoxy and the urging by the two Satmar Rebbes, leaders of the largest Hasidic group in America, that their followers vote for Hillary contributed in a some way to keeping the figure from being higher. 

But whatever the number, one fact is undeniable: among Jews who voted for Trump, the largest group was Orthodox.

No doubt, as more precise figures of the Jewish vote emerge in the days ahead, nuance will and should be added to the picture that I have sketched here. But one fact is indisputable: the divide between the Orthodox and all other American Jews in their voting patterns was confirmed in the 2016 elections no less than was the divide in America as a whole. Whether anyone can heal either of these divisions is the real question that must now take up our attention.

Samuel Heilman holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York.