Opinion |

What Fuels ultra-Orthodox Jews' Unsettling Fervor for Donald Trump

The violent conflict in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods over compliance with COVID-19 regulations reveals far more about the community’s retreat from an inclusive American democracy – into Trumpism

Avraham Bronstein
Avraham Bronstein
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Orthodox Jews waving Trump flags in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, October 7, 2020.
Orthodox Jews waving Trump flags in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, October 7, 2020.Credit: YUKI IWAMURA/ REUTERS
Avraham Bronstein
Avraham Bronstein

Recently, two outspoken figures within the American ultra-Orthodox community clashed publicly about whether it was legitimate to target and intimidate a fellow member of their community for the ‘offense’ of advocating compliance with New York City and State COVID-19 restrictions.

Borough Park shock-jock and agitator Heshy Tischler and Shlomo Rechnitz, the influential ultra-Orthodox nursing home magnate and philanthropist, may be diametrically opposed to each other, but their rhetoric actually shares a common theme: a tacit rejection of American democracy.

The language of their recent conflict reflects a turn towards a disturbing paradigm supported and encouraged more broadly by President Donald Trump, which will only contribute to the further isolation of the U.S. Orthodox community – and, ironically, to its further retreat into Trumpism.

Heshy Tischler (left) dances with a supporter during a demonstration against new coronavirus rules in Brooklyn, New York City, October 07, 2020.Credit: SPENCER PLATT - AFP

The story starts with Tischler’s charge that ultra-Orthodox journalist Jacob Kornbluh was an "evil snitch" and "moser" (informer, or traitor).

The charge of "moser" was more than an ugly slur. Within the Jewish legal tradition, shaped by centuries of persecution, a moser, one who collaborates with a hostile government by snitching on fellow Jews, is an active threat to their targets and the community in general.

Generations of rabbis are clear that a would-be moser must be stopped by any means necessary – including vigilante violence. It is no wonder that Kornbluh was physically attacked while covering the continuing demonstrations and that an angry mob surrounded his apartment building as news spread of Tischler’s arrest for inciting the mob violence against Kornbluh.

Most contemporary rabbinic authorities believe that the category of "moser" is already anachronistic in the West: the age-old prohibition against reporting crimes committed by a fellow Jew to non-Jewish authorities certainly does not apply in America, a country marked by norms and fealty to the rule of law. In America, they feel, there is no fear that a crime committed by a Jew could be the spark for a state-sponsored pogrom against the Jewish collective.

But for Tischler and his supporters, the difference between America and Czarist Russia is only in degree. Thus he feels confident in his vulgar assertions of discrimination by Mayor Bill de Blasio and Governor Andrew Cuomo. He declares their efforts to enforce coronavirus regulations in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods are motivated by antisemitism and not by public health considerations.

American governments can also be hostile, in his view, and the Jewish community must respond with self-defense, including weeding out collaborators.

Last week, Rechnitz, speaking for the "silent majority" of his community, published a sharp response to Tischler. Rechnitz wrote that Tischler, whom he described as a "self appointed, power hungry, inciter and demagogue," was threatening the health of the community by "directly" causing antisemitism as he whipped up the crowd to "scream personal obscenities at the governmental authorities."

Ironically, despite his stark objection to Tischler, Rechnitz (born and bred in Los Angeles) echoes his basic perspective: Jews should never feel at home in America.

In his view, the Brooklyn demonstrations and non-compliance with COVID-19 social distancing and mask-wearing protocols will drive up antisemitism (which is inherent, or "natural" to non-Jews) because such public shows of disobedience will anger Jews’ "hosts" in America. "They" will come to see "us" as bad guests, even as public health risks.

Rechnitz’s analysis is chilling: "This is not our Country. We are merely guests in America, where after more than a thousand years, we finally have the zechus (privilege) to live in a Country without tight Jewish ghettos."

Notably, he does not argue that Kornbluh is not a moser. Instead, he argues that Tischler is the greater danger.

In sharp contrast, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the towering 20th century Modern Orthodox rabbinic authority, argued that the very idea of a moser in America is categorically impossible. For Soloveitchik, the moser category is only possible when there is a distinct “us” and "them." In America, there is no "them": as a representative democracy, there are only different formulations of "us."

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather in the Borough Park neighborhood of Brooklyn to protest against COVID-19 restrictions in New York. October 7, 2020.Credit: YUKI IWAMURA/ REUTERS

Soloveitchik held a bold faith in the ability of American democracy to account for, and to respond to, the diversity of its citizenry. His opinion dovetails today with those who organize and advocate around "identity politics."

According to the feminist scholar and activist Barbara Smith, who helped coin the term, "identity politics" is about different groups speaking from their own unique experience, creating broad coalitions to work together for social justice. Such an arrangement can only hold together in an expansive, responsive democracy, within which each constituent community truly feels represented and no groups are marginalized.

In other words, the understanding of America as all "us" and not "them" that leads Soloveitchik to reject the very idea of a moser in America flows, almost ironically, from a deep appreciation of the depth of diversity of authentic American experiences and constituent communities.

This conception stands in direct opposition to the Trump mantra of "one nation, one people, under one God, saluting one flag." While superficially a statement of unity, it is actually about excluding and separating people with different experiences or backgrounds. It is Trump’s way of saying that you are either with him and his followers, or you are not fully American.

It is disappointing but not surprising to see Trump and MAGA flags waving at Tischler’s late-night rallies where hundreds of people shout moser while assaulting journalists and public health advocates. But it is also not surprising that, despite popular opposition to Tischler’s confrontational movement, the ultra-Orthodox community will overwhelmingly vote Trump in three weeks (around 74 percent, according to a recent poll).

It is not hard to draw the conclusion that Trump sees Jews as outsiders in his America. That is perhaps most evident when, in speaking to American Jewish audiences, he serially describes Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu as "your Prime Minister," and refers to Israel as "your country."

Trump’s language appears to emulate other ethno-nationalist leaders he admires, such as Vladimir Putin or Viktor Orban, who may performatively protect Jews in their respective countries, but not as "real" Russians or Hungarians, and in the case of Orban, campaign on antisemitic tropes. Disturbingly, in the ultra-Orthodox community, this perspective seems to resonate.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters carrying pro-Trump signs gather to denounce a localized lockdown due to a spike in COVID-19 cases, Borough Park, New York City, October 07, 2020Credit: SPENCER PLATT - AFP

Seeing the world in stark "us" vs. "them" terms underscores a basic lack of commitment to American democracy itself, which is at the core of Trumpism. As Holocaust scholar Timothy Snyder warns, encouraging the breakdown of the social contract and inciting ever-sharper ethnic and class conflicts are crucial elements of Trump’s constant, albeit unsteady, march towards ethno-nationalist authoritarianism.

It is no coincidence that the Trump administration has overseen a sharp increase in racial tensions, racist and antisemitic attacks, and the further Republican dismantling of the social safety net – even before the pandemic began. All this makes the work of building the sort of diverse and inclusive democracy celebrated by Soloveitchik and advocated by Smith that much harder.

Tischer’s incitement and Rechnitz’ response both feed this dynamic of alienation from other American communities, which poisons relations with fellow Jews as well. Remember when David Friedman wrote that supporters of the liberal Zionist organization J-Street were "worse than kapos"? Trump then appointed Friedman U.S. Ambassador to Israel. The president mirrors Friedman’s language, smearing Democrat-voting Jews as "disloyal."

It’s understandable how a community feeling threatened might instinctively circle the wagons, especially an ultra-Orthodox community whose insularity is a point of both pride and principle.

But the further American society devolves into a series of conflicts between competing factions, the more America resembles the historical settings where the Jewish community actually did have to defend itself from the threat of the moser.

History may never repeat, but it often rhymes. Our Jewish community has centuries of experience with Trump-like, non-democratic approaches. Typically, we do not come away well.

Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY. Twitter: @AvBronstein



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