Fearing for America’s Democracy, Jewish Women Battle to ‘Flip Congress’ in Midterms

Knocking on doors, working phone banks and organizing rides to the polls are just some ways Jewish women’s groups seek to slow Trump’s momentum

Women gather in Susan Wagner's New York apartment to write postcards to voters in states where Democrats might flip Republican seats in Congress, October 2018.
Courtesy Susan Wagner

BOSTON – Martha Hausman flew 1,000 miles south of her Boston-area home to go door-to-door in the deep red state of Alabama where, for the first time, a Democratic woman hopes to unseat a long-time Republican incumbent. Hausman’s motivation: fear for the future of American democracy.

“The current situation is intolerable,” said Hausman, a 56-year-old lawyer. “And any little drip drop into the bucket of hopefully changing the direction this country is going, and helping to put some justice and balance in government, I’ll do. It might come to nothing, but I just can’t sit here.”

Hausman is one of a wave of Jewish women – and non-Jewish women – turning their fury against the country’s direction under U.S. President Donald Trump. They’re combating his rhetoric and polices on immigration, gun control, reproductive choice and global warming by striving to get out the vote for Tuesday’s midterm elections. The storm over the Senate’s approval of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh pushed some of them harder for change.

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Then came the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, the deadliest attack on Jews in American history. It even further galvanized progressive Jews who see Trump as complicit in the rise of hate and violence around the country.

“Trump’s stoking of hate and anti-Semitism is also on my list of reasons to get out the vote,” Hausman said.

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Trump likes to brag about the support he received from women voters in November 2016, but while 47 percent of white women overall voted for him, a much smaller percentage of Jewish women did, according to exit polls. And 71 percent of Jews voted for Hillary Clinton, with 24 percent choosing Trump.

Ahead of her trip down south, Hausman had been phoning Alabama Democratic voters, encouraging them to get out and vote. For her as for some other women interviewed for this article, lurking in the background is a sense that Americans are living in times dire enough to suggest their country is sliding toward authoritarianism.

“I spent my childhood in camp and Hebrew school having conversations, ‘Can it happen here?’ Hausman told Haaretz. “We all said, ‘No, the Holocaust or some kind of fascism can’t happen here, we have democracy, we have checks and balances, but actually I’ve learned recently that democracy is really fragile.”

From her New York office, Nancy Kaufman, head of the National Council of Jewish Women, has been helping mobilize activists around the country for the midterms.

“There’s lots happening across country and we are really pushing because this is a critical election; there’s a challenge to our democracy,” Kaufman said, citing what she describes as attempts at voter suppression after the 2013 Supreme Court ruling that gutted portions of the Voting Rights Act.

“I am seeing a surge of participation driven by the feeling among our 90,000 members that they cannot sit idly by,” she said.

A photo from activists in the progressive Jewish organization Bend the Arc.
caesarthumbs / Instagram

One of her group’s main priorities since 2016 has been increasing Americans’ civic engagement, which includes making voter registration more accessible. Another is a renewed focus on reproductive health rights. The organization is nonpartisan, so its efforts revolve around getting out the vote.

In the midterms, the organization is focusing on key states including Florida, Ohio, Texas and Pennsylvania, mostly via phone banking, organizing rides to the polls and distributing absentee ballots. But it’s also organizing in Michigan, for example, against gerrymandering laws, and they are organizing in Florida as part of a Jewish coalition around Amendment 4/Second Chances, which could restore voting rights to 1.4 million people.

“Midterms have a notoriously low turnout usually, but everything is riding on this” to restore the balance of power in America, Kaufman said.

Dire and urgent

Stosh Cotler, head of the progressive Jewish organization Bend the Arc, says women in general have mobilized for the midterms in unprecedented numbers. The #MeToo movement, she says, has been part of making politics feel personal.

She says her organization is mounting the largest electoral campaign in the midterms among Jewish organizations, targeting 12 districts currently represented by Republicans.

Bend the Arc’s volunteers, over half of whom Cotler estimates are women, are knocking on doors, working phone banks and texting voters to turn out. Bend the Arc has a political action committee that seeks to raise $500,000 for progressive candidates.

“There are so many things that feel dire and urgent, and Jewish women are go-getters. We have historically and continue to participate in significant numbers disproportionate to our percentage in the population in joining to help fuel social movements,” she said, noting Jewish women’s historical role in labor organizing, the suffrage movement and the later women’s movements, as well as LGBT rights efforts.

Cindy Rowe is another Jewish woman leading a Jewish political organization mobilized for the midterms. She heads the Boston-based Jewish Alliance for Law and Social Action.

Since 2016 her organization has been targeting its resources to flip the Republicans’ majority in the House of Representatives. It usually lobbies for progressive issues in Massachusetts, but this election its members are raising funds, doing phone banking and texting for races in other states.

They’re using #stopthemeshugas for organizing online; meshugas is Yiddish for craziness. Rowe says women fear losing their hard-won rights in the workplace and regarding reproductive choice.

“Women have been watching what’s going on in the last two years in this country – how this administration is trying to .... roll back all the progress we have made in the courts,” she said. “The change in cultural values has been so disheartening.”

Jewish women gather in a sukkah to write postcards to send to voters, October 2018.
Ellen Bender / Facebook

The women she sees volunteering in high numbers are also women in their 60s and 70s who were part of the original women’s rights movement.

“There’s a women’s wave that’s trying to create the blue wave going across the country, and I think a large part of that will be attributable to women of all generations who have come out to fight,” Rowe said. “I can’t remember a midterm election that brought out this kind of passion.”

Republican Jewish women pitch in

Again, 24 percent of American Jewish voters chose Trump in 2016. Marilyn Parmet, president of the Republican Club of the Northern Palm Beaches in Florida, is an avid Trump supporter. She dismisses criticism of the president, including his rhetoric. “That’s how all politicians speak today,” she said.

She has been especially active campaigning in Florida for the Republican gubernatorial candidate, Rep. Ron DeSantis, who is running against Andrew Gillum, the mayor of Tallahassee. DeSantis has made Israel-related issues, especially the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, part of his campaign in an effort to portray Gillum as hostile to Israel.

Parmet says it’s key that the close business relations between Florida and Israel continue; she says Gillum has been associated with groups she says have questioned Israel’s legitimacy.

“We have a candidate, Andrew Gillum, who has proudly stood with the BDS movement,” she wrote in an email.

“This threatens to boycott, divest and sanction Israel. The state of Florida has strong economic ties to Israel and would be punished by the possibility of Gillum as the head of our state,” she added.

“We have thousands of Jewish children in colleges across Florida. The current state on campus for Jewish children is tenuous. The BDS movement has made it very difficult for some Jewish students.”

Gillum denies he’s anti-Israel or pro-BDS and says his opponent uses such allegations to deflect attention from charges he uses racist and xenophobic messaging in his campaign.

Parmet, a former social worker who was once a Democrat, said she became disillusioned with the Democrats under Bill Clinton, whose policies she found too left-leaning.

Power of the postcard

Susan Wagner, 60, a retired attorney who lives in Manhattan, has been hosting and attending postcard-writing efforts to get voters to vote Democrat in key races. These efforts follow the lead of the grassroots organization Postcards to Voters.

“The postcards are hand-done, very colorful and, we hope, persuasive,” she wrote in an email. “It is all the rage now. Groups of women get together over coffee or wine, meet similarly minded people, exchange political information, information about kids, restaurants, shows, museums, much like knitting circles.”

Wagner says it was clear she had to contribute in some way – as an American and as a Jewish American. “Every generation has its moment when the world as they know it just changes on them overnight: for my grandparents, the Depression; for my parents, Wold War II; for the generation before me, the Vietnam War; for mine, Donald Trump. He is demolishing everything I hold dear and sacred about Democracy,” she added.

“As a Jew I strongly believe there are Jewish values that echo in this world: fairness; compassion; welcoming the stranger; honesty; intellectual pursuits; being able to see the multi layers of a problem; the necessity to be a model for virtue and respect for others. The understanding of what is perverse sexual behavior; the true respect for family. All of these values are being shattered by Trump and those that allow him to do it. It’s like Abraham taking the sledgehammer to the idol, except it is Trump taking the sledgehammer to a beautiful stone with each of these values etched into it.”

In Fort Wayne, Indiana, women’s movement veteran Harriet Miller, 81, is again campaigning in her deeply red state for Democrats.

“I’m a Jewish lesbian feminist and I feel very threatened. Everywhere you turn, my people are vulnerable,” said Miller, a former executive director of the Fort Wayne Women’s Bureau.

She and her partner were among the plaintiffs in an ACLU case that went to federal court challenging Vice President Mike Pence’s opposition to same-sex marriage. “Our claim to fame is suing and winning against Pence.”

Through the years she has protested for the Equal Rights Amendment, reproductive choice and gay marriage. “We thought we were making progress, but now it’s like the worst nightmare,” she said. “And listening to the Kavanaugh hearings was just horrific.”

Miller summed up the task at hand: “Our mission now is to reclaim the Congress and the Senate.” Otherwise, she said, using an expletive, America is done for.