Clinton or Trump? Optimism or National Disaster? Florida Jews Split on View of Country

Jewish voters expect to have an impact in the swing state, but opinions within the community reflect the polarization seen across the country as a result of presidential campaigns.

The Forward
Nathan Guttman
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U.S. Republican nominee Donald Trump poses with members of the audience after the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, October 9, 2016.
U.S. Republican nominee Donald Trump poses with members of the audience after the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, October 9, 2016.Credit: Saul Loeb, AFP
The Forward
Nathan Guttman

Zeev Libskin and Murray Roter, both in their 80s, made their way through the packed South Florida Expo Center until finally getting as close as possible to the stage. Shortly after, Donald Trump took that stage, energizing the two Jewish retirees and thousands others in a 40-minute speech that featured a healthy dose of media bashing and a forceful rebuttal of the sexual misconduct allegations that had surfaced.

“Everything is going wrong in this country,” said Roter, one of a handful of participants at the October 13 rally wearing a kippa. “The economy is going wrong, the large government is wrong, foreign affairs is wrong, our friendship with Israel is wrong. I can go on and on and on.”

“We want to see the United States stand up for itself,” added Libskin, trying to shout over the loudspeakers carrying Rudy Giuliani’s warm-up speech.

Trump’s address that day was later widely criticized in the media as evoking anti-Semitic themes, leading to a call by the Anti-Defamation League to “avoid rhetoric and tropes that historically have been used against Jews.”

But for Trump’s Jewish supporters at the event, these claims couldn’t have sounded any further from reality. “Anti-Semitism? That’s a Democratic word,” said Roter. “Republicans are more for the Jews than anyone in the Democratic Party.”

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and vice presidential candidate U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine greet supporters during a campaign rally, Miami, Florida, July 23, 2016.Credit: Justin Sullivan, AFP

The quick exchange on the sidelines of a massive Trump rally demonstrates to a great extent one of the deep divides of this election cycle. Jewish Republicans and Jewish Democrats find very little they can agree upon. Jewish voters here divide into two camps with different concerns, different priorities and different facts to back up their divergent world views. They live together in this ultimate swing state — and have no common ground.

“The scariest thing for me is to think of him being in charge,” said Rochelle Litt of Palm Beach Gardens, a staunch Clinton supporter and activist. “With his temperament and the way he can make a rash decision, I’m really worried.” Where Trump supporters fear the country is declining, Clinton’s Jewish backers think it’s going in the right direction. And when Democrats cry foul over Trump’s behavior, Republicans raise their eyebrows in astonishment.

This polarization has triggered some unpleasant moments at synagogue and around the pool, as political conversations have become just too loaded — especially for Jewish Trump supporters, the minority voice in the community. “We were on a bus on the way to see My Fair Lady,” recalled Max Deutch who lives in Century Village, a retirement community in Boca Raton, “I was talking about how Hillary Clinton became a millionaire and this lady says I don’t want to talk politics here. It’s because they don’t have answers.”

Rallying for Trump

But at Trump’s election rally, Jewish Republicans could finally feel at home.

Deutch showed up with his “Proud Republican״ T-shirt featuring a huge Star of David on the front. The woman next to him carried a “Jews Choose Trump” homemade sign and “Hebrews for Trump” stickers. “I liked his speech. He relates to the crowd,” Deutch, who heads Century Village’s Republican club, later said. His neighbor Hilda, who asked to be identified only by her first name, was impressed with the energy at the event. “The enthusiasm, it was palpable,” she said.

All the way at the front of the hall stood Sid Dinerstein, a staple of Florida Jewish Republican politics. A former chair of Palm Beach County’s Republican party, Dinerstein shares Donald Trump’s view of current day America: a country that has lost its direction, spiraling downwards after of years of liberal control. “The things we’ve built, the schools, the communities, they’ve just been ripped apart over the years,” he said. “The Democratic Party became the anti-American party, culminating in Barack Obama’s fundamental transformation.”

Similar descriptions are often voiced by Trump supporters. They hold a bleak view of America’s future, fueled by a sense that modern day prosperity has passed them by.

But Dinerstein is anything but disenfranchised. The interview takes place in his shiny Mercedes, parked in the fairgrounds' VIP section reserved for party machers — Yiddish for movers and shakers — and donors attending the rally. Dinerstein, a successful New Jersey businessman who moved south and now devotes his time to political and communal activism, says he is not worried about himself, but for the future of his children and grandchildren. He is surrounded by fellow affluent Jewish Republicans who believe in Trump. In fact, Dinerstein has a Jewish friend and fellow Trump supporter who’s also a member of the golf club at Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s South Florida mansion, and the two plan to attend an election night party there.

But he has little hope of swaying the masses of Jewish voters to see the light.

“We got all we’re going to get,” he said, noting that the Jewish Republican vote will not break the ceiling of 20-30%. “The Democratic Party is a religion and when you are Jewish, the Democratic Party is your religion.” Dinerstein is disappointed with the Republican Jewish Coalition’s lack of active support for Trump, which he feels could help in Florida’s battleground. “They’re in Washington, so they’ve been co-opted,” he said of the group. “You can’t be uncomfortable with Trump. He can say things that are beyond stupid, vulgar and inappropriate, but try asking a Democrat if there is anything Bill Clinton ever said that they are embarrassed about and they’ll say no.”

A poll conducted in August by Democratic pollster Jim Gerstein found that 66% of Florida’s Jews intend to vote for Clinton, and only 23% for Trump. The only Jewish demography Trump was winning were Orthodox Jews, who favored him by a 66% to 23% margin. This, in a sense, confirms Dinerstein’s assessment. Jewish Floridians will be hard to move to the Republican side of the aisle.

Dark Clouds in Sunny Boca

Palm Beach County, according to a recent study published by the Steinhardt Social Research Institute at Brandeis University, is one of the few regions in America where the Jewish vote could actually play a significant role. With nearly 210,000 people, Jews make up 15% of the county’s adult population in a state that was decided in 2012 by fewer than 75,000 votes.

Many of these Jewish Floridians are retirees who moved to the Sunshine State after spending most of their lives in the Northeast. In Century Village, ground zero of Jewish retirement communities, politics is always in the air, especially as election season approaches.

Sitting at Hilda’s tidy apartment, three Jewish Republicans gather to discuss politics a day after Trump’s speech at nearby West Palm Beach. They are all retirees, all were Democrats some time in their past and all get their news primarily from Fox News. And all, needless to say, feel America is in grave danger.

“That’s why Donald Trump is resonating,” weighs in Michael Krakawer, a retired trial lawyer from New York. “It’s not because he’s a saint, it’s not because he could star in the Count of Monte Christo. It’s because he’s speaking about what’s really going on in this nation.” Karakawer, like his colleagues gathered on the living room sofa, sees a weakness that has taken over the country under Obama. “Look at the colleges — they’re afraid to have anything said because its libel to hurt their little feelings,” he says, calling those students “girly men.”

They are concerned about Muslim immigrants arriving without proper vetting (“They bring in UPS planes filled with these peoples,” said Deutch, “all of a sudden they’re dumped in here.”) and about the economy, jobs and the rising insurance premiums under Obamacare. But mostly, all shared a strong dislike to the Clintons, both Hillary and former president Bill, her husband. “I see Hillary as a person with no firm beliefs,” Krakawer said.

Allegations of Trump’s sexual misconduct, which had dominated the news cycle, were dismissed as a non-issue in this Century Village living room. “All of these allegations are older,” said Hilda. “I believe that this election experience has really shaped him in a different way than he has ever been before.”

She added that Trump is not a politician and therefore does not know “how to handle these kinds of things.” And, if anything, these incidents, she believes, are part of an old version of Trump, one that is no longer relevant. “A measure of a man is whether he evolves,” she said, “and I think he is evolving.”

For these Jewish Trump supporters, as is the case with many other backers of the Republican candidate, questions about his treatment of women are no more than an orchestrated attempt by Clinton and her enablers in the media. They see Bill Clinton as the real sex offender and Trump’s explanation of “locker room talk” rings true to them.

The claims of racism and anti-Semitism surrounding the campaign also fail to make any impression on these diehard Jewish Trump supporters. Al Sharpton is viewed by them as a greater danger than David Duke, and Trump, they stress, has never sought the endorsement or backing of any racist element.

Getting Out Hillary’s Jewish Vote

But for Democrats, the October 13 West Palm Beach rally, with its talk of secret meetings and international banks, was a clear sign that anti-Semitism pervades the Trump campaign.

Rep. Ted Deutch, a Jewish Democrat who represents a Southern Florida congressional district, believes it is “important for the [Jewish] community to take this Palm Beach County speech and put it in a broader context” which, he claims, “plays right into classic anti-Semitism.” According to the Florida congressman, Trump “is trafficking in some of the worst anti-Semitic memes and dog whistles.”

Deutch has been at the forefront of the Democratic effort to win over Jewish votes for Clinton in Florida, which, he acknowledges, will be a very close state.

Other Jewish Democratic activists are also out in full force in Southern Florida, trying to make sure that the three to one advantage Clinton enjoys among Florida Jews, actually translates into voting by November 8.

Rochelle Litt is one of them. She’s been volunteering for Democratic campaigns since Obama’s reelection campaign and has just hosted a meeting of Jewish Women for Clinton at her home in an upscale Palm Beach Gardens gated community. The dining room table was still covered with Hebrew Clinton pins and “Jews for Hillary” yard signs the next day. The meeting was meant to prepare volunteers for their outreach efforts in this heavily Jewish populated county. “Most of the Jewish women and men I talk to, what they care about is are their children going to be as well off as they are,” she said.

Litt, a pharmacist who moved from Philadelphia with her husband, a physician, said the issue of Israel does not necessarily come up as a priority in conversation with Jewish Democrats. “Everyone understands the importance of Israel, but also that if America is not strong we cannot help Israel,” she said. Litt, who is active in AIPAC, acknowledged that Obama’s relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu was rocky, and she said Jewish voters know it will be different with a Clinton presidency. “Hillary’s relationship with him and with Israel is different and a lot of it goes back to Bill Clinton and the foundation he laid with Israeli leaders,” said Litt. “I don’t think [Israelis] can imagine what they’d get from a Donald Trump presidency.”

Litt had her own moment in the political spotlight this summer, when she attended the Democratic convention as a Florida delegate. Standing in the front row wearing Mickey Mouse ears she brought (after all, Florida is the Disney state,) Litt captured the attention of TV crews and her image was broadcast nationally. Soon to follow was a call from the Smithsonian Institute asking for the Mickey Mouse ears for their collection. Litt donated them gladly.

At her conservative synagogue and in the local Jewish community however, not all has been as welcoming. Litt said she tries to see “less often” some people “because they can blindly defend the things [Trump] says and does.”

Jewish Democrats are well aware of the fact that they have the majority of the community on their side. But they fear voter complacency may tilt the scale in this already tight race. This is what brought out two dozen volunteers to the Clinton campaign regional office on a recent Sunday morning. The office, in a Boca Raton strip mall, sits next to a gun shop, and for every Hillary sign in the window, the gun shop’s owner made sure to post a Trump-Pence sign, including all over his car, parked prominently out front.

Inside, a campaign staffer is going through the packet of instructions for volunteers who will soon head out to canvass the homes of voters who have indicated they support Clinton. “You guys are responsible for Florida, the 1% state,” she said, referring to how tight the race could get. “Go for it.” Jeffery and Barbara Rosenbaum are there to do exactly that. They recently moved from California and in Florida they feel that “our effort can make a difference.” The Rosenbaums' message to voters at the door is simple: Go out to vote, these are crucial elections.

Hope at Hillel

Jewish Republicans and Democrats differ on their views of Donald Trump, their thoughts about Hillary Clinton and the issues they care about. But the biggest divide is between pessimists and optimists. Where the Trump supporters see stagnation, the Jews supporting Clinton see progress. For every Republican describing a nation heading the wrong way, there is a Democrat looking at a brighter future.

And nowhere is this divide more noticeable than with Jewish students.

At a communal Shabbat dinner at University of Miami’s Hillel, Trump supporters were hard to find. The students, eager to discuss politics, Judaism and their future plans, were all on board with Clinton.

Their issue list is as varied as the majors they chose - from LGBT rights to climate change, Israel, Black Lives Matter and anything in between. Obamacare, one student conceded, isn’t a very important issue for most 21-year-olds.

The debate among these Jewish students has centered for a while primarily on the race between Clinton and Bernie Sanders. “It was hard for me to come out as a Hillary supporter on Facebook,” said Samantha Schneider, who is majoring in architecture. Most of her friends were in the Sanders camp. But all came around eventually to back Clinton.

She carries voter registration forms in her backpack, just in case an unregistered Floridian student comes by, and cares deeply about Israel. “Clinton may be a little harsh with Israel and I won’t support that,” Schneider said, “but she is the candidate I trust.” Others list Israel lower down on their priority list and show less sympathy to the Netanyahu government. “It’s important, but not that important,” said Alec Rodriguez, who is originally from Miami and is studying environmental engineering. “I’m not concerned that Hillary will not support Israel.”

Whatever their views on other issues, all seemed to reject the notion that America is heading in the wrong direction. “Not at all,” said Tyler Katz. As a music major, he may be concerned about job prospects, but Katz, as many of his colleagues gathered around the Shabbat table, showed no sign of despair. “On social issues things are better, the economy is improving slowly,” he said, “the country is getting better.”

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