Wisconsin's Small Jewish Community Could Be Just Enough to Send Biden to the White House

With the city of Kenosha dominating headlines following the police shooting of Jacob Blake and subsequent unrest, just 20,000 votes could make all the difference in November

Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer
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beth hillel temple
The entrance to Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha, Wisconsin, ahead of President Trump's visit to the city on TuesdayCredit: Beth Hillel temple
Allison Kaplan Sommer
Allison Kaplan Sommer

Colorful signs decorating the front of Beth Hillel Temple in Kenosha sent a healing and calming message on the eve of President Donald Trump’s controversial stop to the wounded and shaken Wisconsin city on Tuesday, following more than a week of unrest there.

“Love your neighbor as yourself” read one sign. “Seek the peace of the city,” proclaimed another. In the hours before Trump’s arrival, congregants posted the signs on the walls of the stately building housing the Reform synagogue, whose windows had been boarded up to protect it from the violence that has rocked Kenosha in recent days.

“I think we’re still in shock from what’s happened here,” said Rabbi Dena Feingold, Beth Hillel’s spiritual leader, in a phone interview with Haaretz. “What has happened in our community and to our community feels unbelievable.”

Kenosha’s ordeal began on August 23 when a police officer shot an unarmed black man, Jacob Blake, seven times in the back, severely wounding and paralyzing him in front of his three children.

What began as peaceful protests against police brutality following the incident quickly turned into violent looting, resulting in large-scale destruction in downtown Kenosha: bricks and firecrackers were thrown, and over 30 fires ignited, destroying several structures.

The situation escalated further after 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse – part of a self-styled militia with ties – shot three protesters in the Kenosha streets with a semiautomatic weapon, killing two of them. He has since been charged with first degree homicide.

Trump’s visit was made in the face of opposition by the city’s mayor and the state’s governor, both Democrats – and neither of whom greeted him Tuesday. It highlighted how bitterly divided and partisan the politics of this swing state was even before it became the latest nexus of this summer’s racial unrest.

Graffiti attack

Protesters yelling at Trump supporters during a demonstration in front of the Kenosha Courthouse in Wisconsin on September 1, 2020. Credit: AFP

Rabbi Feingold spent the hours Trump was in the city with the local interfaith clergy group in which she’s active. The group first attended an event held by the Blake family – a gathering to counterprogram the Trump visit – at the spot where Jacob Blake had been shot. “After that, we proceeded to a park in a historic square where many of our religious congregations are located, and held a prayer vigil,” she said. “We felt we wanted to create a holy space in the middle of town, a contrast to the tension and noise and arguing between groups – a reset to provide a sense of calm and purpose going forward, based on our holy values,” she explained.

The synagogue has not been immune to the unrest. While the building itself was undamaged, the words “Free Palestine” were graffitied on the synagogue’s driveway during the protests, next to the Israeli flag that flies next to the U.S. one – an act that was caught on videotape.

Feingold struck a forgiving tone regarding the graffiti, which was removed “as quickly as possible.” She was a lot more concerned, she said, “about the loss of life that the Black community experiences on a regular basis because of systemic racism, because of the violence directed at them, than I am about whatever damage or costs are incurred for us because of” the graffiti.

“It’s never pleasant to have your building desecrated with spray paint, and we’re proud to fly the flag. I don’t think antisemitism is a part of this story – and I don’t think writing “Free Palestine” is antisemitic. If it had been a swastika, that would have been different,” she said.

Among the right-wing militias Rittenhouse was reportedly part of, “there was no overt messaging that had anything to do with antisemitism,” she added. The groups claimed they were in Kenosha “to protect institutions,” but as their ties to white supremacy have become clear, Feingold said she finds it “a very frightening phenomenon.”

Following Blake’s shooting and launch of the protests, the synagogue and the state’s Jewish community issued carefully worded statements, balancing calls for racial justice with condemnations of violence.

“As we go through a period of self-reckoning concerning systemic racism in America, we call upon local law enforcement to take an account of its policies and procedures,” the synagogue’s statement read. It also condemned “the acts of vandalism that damaged public buildings and private property and businesses in Kenosha” near the synagogue.

A similar statement was issued by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, expressing “regret” for “the many acts of vandalism and destruction to Kenosha’s public institutions and businesses,” while declaring that “today and every day, we stand with the Black community to fight hate and injustice. The toxic effects of racism and violence are felt most acutely by our Black community, and its insidious effects harms all of us.”

US President Donald Trump speaking to the press in Kenosha, Wisconsin on September 1, 2020, as John Rode, the former owner of Rode's Camera Shop, looks on holding a sign.Credit: AFP

Instant lightning rod

Navigating partisanship is hardly new for Wisconsin’s Jews (the community numbers between 20,000 to 40,000, depending on who’s counting), in a state whose deeply divided politics has sparked some of the country’s most intense partisan battles.

Highly progressive enclaves around Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay – where the majority of the state’s Jews reside – sit alongside right-wing Republican strongholds. These brought Republican Scott Walker to power as governor in 2011, before he was unseated by Tony Evers in 2018.

Currently, the clashes between the Democratic governor and solidly Republican legislature have led pundits to declare Wisconsin’s government dysfunctional, while Republicans angered by Evers’ COVID-19 policies and handling of Kenosha have launched a recall effort against him.

The president’s visit served as an instant lightning rod that highlighted the state’s divisions. Republicans in the legislature and law enforcement leaders welcomed and embraced Trump; Democrats, meanwhile, assailed him for “taking advantage” of their distress to hammer home his law and order campaign message, while refraining both from visiting Blake’s family nor clearly denouncing Rittenhouse’s actions.

Instead, Trump met with law enforcement, declared the Blake protests “domestic terror” and walked through the ruins of destroyed businesses in Kenosha – images that were immediately amplified by his campaign. Biden is set to hold his own visit to Kenosha on Thursday, and unlike Trump, he has scheduled a meeting with the Blake family. He also spoke to Blake's father over the phone after the incident.

Last week, Trump’s departing counselor Kellyanne Conway theorized that this summer’s racially fueled clashes would help Trump’s reelection efforts. “The more chaos and anarchy and vandalism and violence reigns, the better it is for the very clear choice on who’s best on public safety and law and order,” Conway told the Washington Post.

Jews may be a fraction of a percentage of the state’s population – less than 1 percent – but the community has produced several prominent political leaders. These include Dena Feingold’s brother, Russ Feingold, who for 18 years was one of the state’s two Jewish senators.

Because Wisconsin has been such an evenly divided and hotly contested battleground state in recent presidential races, the proportionally small number of Jewish voters isn’t as negligible as it might be elsewhere.

“Elections in Wisconsin are decided at the margins – and so every vote matters,” said Daniel Kohl, a Jewish Democrat who ran for Congress in 2018 in a GOP district that included Milwaukee’s outer northern suburbs.

Trump won his surprise victory in Wisconsin by a razor-thin margin of 0.77 percent, garnering him the state’s 10 crucial electoral votes – the first time the state went Republican in a presidential race since 1988.

Overall, Trump secured 47.22 percent of the vote against Hillary Clinton’s 46.45 percent. A gap of some 20,000 votes – just eight-tenths of a percentage point – separated the two. In Kenosha County, the margin was slimmer still: Trump won by three-tenths of a percentage point, the smallest margin of any county in the state.

A protester scuffling with a Trump supporter, right, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on September 1, 2020, amid ongoing demonstrations after the shooting by police of Jacob Blake.Credit: AFP

Polls taken over the course of the summer show a much more comfortable lead for Joe Biden, leading Trump between 5 to 6 percentage points. In a new poll released Tuesday, after the Kenosha unrest, Biden was running even stronger, topping Trump by 9 percentage points (52 percent to 43 percent).

But similar polling favored Clinton in the summer of 2016, and so Wisconsin Democratic activists – many members of the Jewish community among them – have been hard at work on behalf of the Democratic nominee with voter registration and access work, with the goal of flipping the state from red to blue in November.

“Donald Trump is distasteful to Jewish voters for creating an atmosphere of hate and violating all the core values – standing up for social justice, embracing the stranger, elevating truth – that our community stands for,” Kohl said.

‘Profoundly troubled’

In the past, when Jews moved to Wisconsin from other states for work or study, most initially felt they had moved to a highly progressive place, said Jonathan Pollack, an instructor in history at Madison Area Technical College. “But if and when you get out of Madison and the suburbs of Milwaukee, you realize that, in many ways, it’s a deeply conservative state,” he explained.

A protester to U.S. President Donald Trump wearing a protective mask with a sign outside Civic Center Park in Kenosha, Wisconsin, September 1, 2020Credit: KAMIL KRZACZYNSKI/REUTERS

“I think a lot of people, Jewish and otherwise, are nervous about what has happened in Kenosha and what it means for Wisconsin,” he said. “We’re in the national spotlight again – and it’s not a flattering look. A lot of Jews are profoundly troubled by what Trump’s doing, whether he’s merely flirting or in a full-on embrace with white supremacy.”

According to Pollack, very few local Jews are likely to say “Trump may be loose-lipped and shoot from the hip, but he’s good for Israel. You’ll only find that at a Shabbat lunch in our very small Orthodox community.”

The vast majority, he noted, support Biden and the Democrats, and many are politically active on their behalf. “Here in Madison, our synagogues have really rallied – working with Black Lives Matter and African-American groups,” he said.

Linda Frank, a leader in the newly formed state chapter of the National Democratic Council of America, lives in the Milwaukee suburb of Bayside and has been volunteering in a phone bank to get out the vote in both the presidential race and statewide.

Wisconsin faces the challenge of “a very gerrymandered, Republican set of districts” created during Walker’s time as governor, she explained. And one of the keys to countering Trump’s strength in the rural part of the state – which led to his 2016 victory – is to get out the Black vote in the cities.

Racial unrest has long been a hallmark of Wisconsin politics, Frank said. Its major cities have been segregated for decades and increasingly poor as jobs move to the suburbs. She said she has heard the desperation and hopelessness in those voices while working the phones.

“I just think it’s disgraceful and dangerous” that Trump decided to visit Kenosha and fan the flames, Frank said. She added that she was particularly furious that the president “lied about our state response” to the violence there. Although Gov. Evers quickly authorized the deployment of National Guard troops to Kenosha when events escalated, Trump tweeted on the eve of his visit that “if I didn’t INSIST on having the National Guard activate and go into Kenosha Wisconsin, there would be no Kenosha right now.”

Shaina Bacharach, 69, a retired rabbi in Green Bay, also found it “deeply upsetting” that Trump was “stirring up trouble to serve his own interests.”

She added: “His visit cost Kenosha money that it doesn’t have. They have enough on their hands. He should have given the community the space to heal.”

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