Fear Is the Driving Factor as U.S. Jews Go to the Polls

The vast majority of Jewish Americans are set to vote for Democratic candidates Tuesday, prioritizing the dangers of anti-Semitism at home over Israel’s special relationship with President Donald Trump

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
San Francisco
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People demonstrating at a Stand Against Hate rally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 2017.
People demonstrating at a Stand Against Hate rally in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 2017.Credit: Jessica Kourkounis/Getty Images/
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
San Francisco

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SAN FRANCISCO – Even before the polls opened across the United States on Tuesday, it was clear to all that the midterm elections have been unlike anything the country has seen before.

Haaretz Podcast: After Pittsburgh, will U.S. Jews punish Trump in the Midterms?

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Early voting rates have been sky-high and the national media is laser-focused on a contest that is less about the Senate and congressional races than it is a referendum on one man: President Donald Trump.

For Israel and American Jews, Tuesday’s midterms are also an unprecedented event. Never before in U.S. history has the perceived fate and well-being of the Jewish people been such a partisan issue – one that clearly divides between those who fear most for Israel’s security, and those who believe the current president and his supporters present a clear and present danger to Jewish America.

On both sides, the stakes are being articulated as nothing less than life or death as America still reels from the most deadly anti-Semitic attack in its history.

The party lines for American-Jewish voters are unmistakable: Voters who support the Israeli government and agree with the messages of its leaders are far more likely to support Republican candidates, in the hope of bolstering Trump’s presidency, despite their concerns about anti-Semitism at home.

Others, including those who care deeply about and advocate for the Jewish state, feel the poisonous atmosphere of the past two years under Trump – culminating in the devastation of the Pittsburgh mass shooting – has made supporting the GOP impossible to fathom.

In Israel, the Trump administration is widely perceived as a champion and protector. It has moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; staunchly defended Israel at the United Nations; hit agencies perceived as hostile to Israel in the pocketbook; and allowed Israel to act with complete latitude against Palestinian demonstrators in Gaza and retaliate to missile attacks from Hamas without calling for “proportionality” or “moderation.”

But Trump’s reimposition of sanctions on Iran threw a spotlight on the way in which he has truly won over Israeli hearts and minds: Dismantling the crown jewel of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, the Iran nuclear deal.

The strategic advantage of greater support for the Israeli government by an emboldened Trump was reflected in the vocal defense and praise of the president by Israeli officials who showed up to comfort victims of the Pittsburgh massacre the week before the midterms: Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who personally accompanied Trump on his condolence call; New York Consul General Dani Dayan; and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett.

Most prominently, it is obvious which party Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be casting his ballot for if he was able to vote. Exultant over the reinstatement of sanctions on Monday, he characterized Trump’s move as the “fruit” of his own personal battle against the Iran deal.

Middle East experts warn that a Democratic victory in the midterms that gives it control of the House of Representatives (even without the Senate) will remove Trump’s freedom to make such unilateral moves in the future without bipartisan support.

Rose Cathleen Bagin at her home in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, where a mass shooter murdered 11 Jewish worshippers at the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018. Credit: Allen G. Breed,AP

Still, polls show that the vast majority of American-Jewish voters, including many who are intensely devoted to Israel’s well-being, are putting America First – or, more specifically, American Jews First – by voting for Democratic candidates.

Some are liberal progressive Democrats who, under any circumstances, would be voting based on issues like health care and abortion rather than foreign policy.

But there are also Jewish centrists and even Jewish conservatives who may have previously chosen George W. Bush, John McCain and Mitt Romney, along with dependable pro-Israel Republican legislators for whom Trump’s dog-whistling to a racist base crossed a red line – if not before, then certainly after Jewish blood was shed in Pittsburgh.

Appearing on “Real Time with Bill Maher” last Friday, New York Times op-ed staff editor Bari Weiss described the raw nerves of “many Jews” who “have liked many of Trump’s policies on Israel” but can no longer countenance his affinity for white supremacist conspiracy theories.

Bari Weiss | Real Time with Bill MaherCredit: HBO

“I hope this week that American Jews have woken up to the price of that bargain,” she said. “They have traded policies that they like for the values that have sustained the Jewish people – and, frankly, this country – forever: Welcoming the stranger; dignity for all human beings; equality under the law; respect for dissent; love of truth. These are the things we are losing under this president – and no policy is worth that price.”

In the Republican donor class, these sentiments have been reflected in the withdrawal of party support from billionaires like Seth Klarman and Leslie Wexner.

For these Jews, even before Pittsburgh the writing was literally on the wall – in the form of anti-Semitic graffiti. The rise in verbal and physical violence against Jews and Jewish institutions in the Trump era has been alarming. It hasn’t helped that several prominent pro-Trump Republican congressmen – most prominently Iowa Rep. Steve King – are visibly friendly with white supremacists. Or that a handful of official GOP congressional candidates are anti-Semitic, promulgate conspiracy theories and deny the Holocaust – one has actually been a uniform-wearing member of the American Nazi Party. A number of Republican campaigns have also featured anti-Semitic tropes.

Like so much else in the Trump era, the choice of the American-Jewish voter in these midterms seems to come down to fear: Trepidation over Israel losing the rock-solid White House support it now enjoys versus apprehension over the future of American Jews and other minorities should the Trump phenomenon strengthen and grow.

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