Opinion

Trump Didn't Win Over Orthodox Jews. Fear of the Left Pushed Them

In an election that divided the modern Orthodox community, Clinton vs Trump came down to this: Was the fear of an anti-religious, anti-Israel Left more palpable than the fear of the anti-Semitic Right?

In this March 20, 2013, file photo, President Barack Obama and Israeli President Shimon Peres, left, are photographed through a window and the crowd as they are greeted by children waving Israeli and American flags upon their arrival at the Peres' residence in Jerusalem.
Carolyn Kaster, AP Photo

While Donald Trump easily won enough electoral votes to be declared president-elect, Hillary Clinton won the Jewish vote by a huge margin. This should come as no surprise since, as a whole, the Jewish community is more liberal than any other voting bloc in America. But what may be surprising to many is the political division of the Orthodox community, a divide that gives rise to questions that the entire Jewish community would do well to consider.

According to Samuel Heilman (“How Trump Split the Jewish Vote”), “exit polls revealed that over 71% of Jewish voters cast ballots for Clinton [more] than those who voted for President Obama in 2012. Although one poll suggested that only 39% of Orthodox voters decided in favor of Trump, this is still significantly higher than the 21% and 25% of Reform and Conservative Jews, respectively, and moreover, I suspect the figure is low”.

Anecdotal evidence for how Orthodox Jews voted is clear, and it traces a discernible pattern. I live in a New York community that is on the “modern” side of Modern Orthodox, where people followed—or perhaps even set—the general trend among Jewish voters: heavily for Clinton and strongly against Trump.

This was not simply a product of the more liberal religious views common to the area; the Orthodox Jews in my neighborhood were particularly turned off by Trump’s language and the moral character he exhibited. Even a well-known rabbi on the far right of Modern Orthodoxy, a member of the Beit Din of America, told his synagogue that he simply could not abide Trump’s horrific words from the infamous “locker room” tape with Billy Bush.

Indeed, many Orthodox Jews invest a great deal of money—in some cases well over $100,000 a year—to send their children to faith schools in the expectation that the values they learn at home will be reinforced in a more social setting, but these values stand in direct contradiction to those voiced publicly by Trump on a daily basis during the campaign. Moreover, many of these Jews have been rightly alarmed by the rise of the anti-Semitic Right that formed a strong base of support for Trump’s campaign, despite the presence of so many Jews in Trump’s own family.

However, there were significant differences of opinion among modern Orthodox Jews, a small demographic in U.S. Jewish terms, and even within a small geographic area. Many among the Modern Orthodox Jews in my neighborhood felt differently about Trump than those who belong to a similar community just across the Hudson River, whose members are only slightly more to the right on the political spectrum. While perhaps equally turned off by Trump’s language and the accusations against him, the Modern Orthodox Jews in this community were more afraid of the Left coming to power than any baggage that Trump might bring with him to the White House. Their fears stem from two issues that speak particularly strongly to the Modern Orthodox, religious Zionist community.

First, there is a general perception that the Left is out to destroy tradition, and that, even though Clinton might be a centrist, a victory by the Democrats would empower the anti-religious movement in the U.S. As seen most powerfully on college campuses and in Europe, the fear is that this movement might ultimately harm the Orthodox community’s ability and comfort to conduct their religious lives according to their own conscience. This translates into real-life questions, such as, “Will our eruv (the symbolic boundary allowing objects to be carried on Shabbat) be attacked as a religious imposition on the broader community?” Or, “Will our rabbi have to perform a wedding that he opposes for religious reasons?” For many, this fear of an anti-Jewish, anti-religious Left was even more palpable than the fear of the anti-Semitic Right. No doubt this feeling was even more pervasive in many ultra-religious, yeshivish, and chasidish communities.

The second reason that Modern Orthodox Jews in particular might choose to support Trump over Clinton concerns Israel. More than any other Jewish community, the Modern Orthodox community is connected to Israel, both in a passion for Religious Zionism and because many of them have family members living there, fighting in the Israel army; Israel is a constant presence in the lives of these American Jews. During the campaign, Trump said many contradictory things about how he would treat Israel and the Palestinians as President. That the U.S. should be neutral was among them. It is not surprising, then, that for those most connected to Israel and Zionism, their support for Trump wasn’t really a choice between Trump and Clinton on their specific policy positions on Israel per se, but, rather, it was the fear of the anti-Israel Left.

We can argue who is worse, the anti-Semites on the Right or the anti-Semites on the Left, but the hard Left has a near-monopoly on anti-Israel activity. Senator Jesse Helms was probably the last right-wing leader to speak out against Israel; his conversion to a pro-Israel position took place in the mid-1980s. And while many leading Democrats support Israel today, the only anti-Israel voices in American politics—those who delegitimize the very existence of a Jewish state by claiming, for example, that Israel is an apartheid state or even suggesting a moral equivalency between Israel and the Nazis—come from the Left. These include the BDS movement, Jewish Voices for Peace, Black Lives Matter (which tragically got involved in anti-Israel statements), and many other groups and movements.

American Modern Orthodox Jews who prioritize protecting Israel have seen too many clips of abusive demonstrations against Israel and pro-Israel organizations and speakers, such as former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, on the campuses of America’s great universities and elsewhere. In effect, they have been primed to join the Trump Revolution against the Left because they believe it will help protect Israel. Despite the fact that a Trump presidency might actually make the situation on college campuses even worse for Israel through greater identification of Israel with the Right, and even if Clinton does not support such groups, for many Modern Orthodox Jews, a vote for Trump was a protest vote against the anti-Israel forces of the Left.

Moreover, for many Modern Orthodox Jews, the knowledge that two of their own will have such close ties to the President—Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, are both Modern Orthodox—is a comfort and an indication that the issues important to them are safe with Trump as President.

In this election cycle, Modern Orthodox Jews had to balance their desire for ethical and moral leadership with a real fear of the radical Left. Many Modern Orthodox Jews were aligned with majority of the broader Jewish community and cast their ballots for Clinton. Many others made the choice to vote against the harm that the Left could potentially bring to two critical aspects of their lives: the religion-friendly environment necessary for an observant life and their beloved Jewish state.

Regardless of their choice, Modern Orthodox Jews do not see this as a case of particularism vs. universalism. They honestly feel that the kind of Jewish, religious friendly America they and their parents have built and the consistently pro-Israel stance of successive administrations is as good for America as they are for Jews and Israel. They want to be an integral part of American culture and to be active participants in the issues facing the nation and the world.

As someone involved in training the Modern Orthodox rabbis of the future, I would never tell anyone how to vote or which fear to choose to answer. I would, though, ask of our future religious leaders to make sure, whichever way they decide, that they continue to speak out both for an ethical, moral America, and for the reaffirmation of America’s commitment to Israel’s safety and security.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin is President of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, a leading Modern Orthodox rabbinical school in America. For 18 years, he served as the spiritual leader of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, a Modern Orthodox synagogue in Chicago.