For anyone who has reported on the strange rise of Donald Trump, the scene outside the Hilton Midtown in New York on the night of his election was a familiar one: bros in red caps chanting “USA!” and “Lock her up”, American flags waving and high fives all round. The atmosphere was loud, chauvinist and just a little bit nasty.
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But amid the patriotic fervor was an unexpected sight: several Israeli flags. Groups of religious Jews had gathered to celebrate the occasion. There were Lubavitchers there in black hats (their movement supported Trump), yeshiva students and right-wing Zionist knitted-kippah wearers.
I asked them why they had come. Didn’t they have concerns about the wave of online anti-Semitism unleashed by Trump’s campaign? What about his endorsement from the openly anti-Semitic KKK Wizard David Duke?
I described his last campaign advert, in which pictures of George Soros, Janet Yellen and Lloyd Blankfein were displayed as the narrator spoke of “global special interests,” an anti-Semitic dog whistle so loud it could be heard from the fever swamps of Louisiana to the golf clubs of Orange County.
They didn’t seem very bothered. “Soros sold his family out to escape the Holocaust,” one of them said. “The Democrats hate Israel,” they told me.
Trump himself doesn’t seem anti-Semitic, minus the odd typically crass comment. But the stench of anti-Semitism has never been far from the Trump movement, and he has persistently failed to address or condemn it.
His campaign director and now White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon, is chairman of Breitbart, a news platform where members of the ‘alt-right’ have been known to peddle white supremacism, misogyny, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, usually in the form of tropes about global finance and shadowy corporate influence.
There were chants of “JEW-S-A” at Trump rallies. Jewish reporters were plagued with vile online abuse. This all happened in America, the goldene medinah, which at times in recent months felt more like France or Hungary. Of course America is still a country where Jews flourish perhaps more than at any time in history, anywhere in the world. But thanks to the Trump campaign the mood has darkened just a little.
Yet despite this, 24 percent of American Jewish voters didn’t seem to mind and backed him anyway.
For a Republican, these numbers aren’t bad. Trump’s Jewish support is lower than the 30 percent Romney managed in 2012, when relations between President Barack Obama, Israel and parts of the American Jewish community were at a low ebb. But it’s the same as George W. Bush got in 2004, higher than John McCain in 2008 (22 percent) and much higher than Bob Dole in 1996 (16 percent).
So why did so many Jews stick by Trump, despite the fact his campaign revealed the dark heart of American anti-Semitism?
Some of this 24 percent are just tribally conservative and would never vote for the Democrats. But others, including some the voters I met on election night, appear to believe that the Trumpian world view accords with their interests, not least their views on Israel.
Just this week, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council of America took out a full page advert in The New York Times, congratulating Trump on his victory, lauding him for pro-Israel comments he has made in the past and pleading with him to maintain his support for the Jewish state against attempts to delegitimize it at the UN. They obviously see him as potentially receptive to their viewpoint.
The Jewish voters who supported Trump don’t seem to mind a bit of anti-Semitism thrown at liberal Jewish journalists, because they don’t like liberal Jewish journalists.
For them, mutterings of online Jew hatred are a small price to pay perhaps for a president who will almost certainly be no friend to the Arabs.
In some ways this is comparable to the not insignificant tranche of Jewish voters in France who back Marine Le Pen’s National Front, despite the party’s history of anti-Semitism. For these voters their enemy’s enemy is their friend. They stand behind Le Pen because they believe she will take the fight to France’s Israel-hating Muslims.
In America, one can easily imagine what Trump’s attitude to the often anti-Zionist campus activists and Black Lives Matter movement be. And what will “Muslim ban” President Trump do to promote Palestinian rights? Zilch. Reports of jubilation over Trump’s election from within Israel’s West Bank settlements tell their own story.
It’s too early to say how Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will interact, but they’re almost bound to get on better than Bibi and Obama. In fact they may have quite a lot in common: democratic leaders with autocratic impulses, a troubled relationship with the free media, disdain for liberal indulgences. They are both cut from strongman cloth.
Of course American Jews, much like British Jews, don’t vote solely on the basis of Israel. Not even close. But many of them do care about it deeply. And some of them see Trump as a considerable improvement on Obama not just on this issue but on his wider approach to world affairs.
When they look at Trump they don’t see Hitler, nor even Mussolini. They see in him a tough New Yorker who won’t be bullied by Islam-appeasing bleeding heart liberals. Someone who will stand up to ISIS and let Bibi get on with keeping Israel safe. They are reassured by the presence of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, a close adviser and Orthodox Jew.
Of course they may well be right. Given their world view, a vote for Trump is not nonsensical. But history teaches us that whenever nativism and xenophobia flourish, it tends to be bad for the Jews. That when the white Christian nation turns tribal, it doesn’t tend to include the Semites in its gang.
A quarter of American Jews have made a pact with Donald Trump, hoping he will stay on their side. Only time will tell if it is a Faustian one.
Josh Glancy is a British foreign correspondent based in New York. Follow him on Twitter: @joshglancy