“A mensch with chutzpah.”
These were the yiddishisms that Republican Jewish Coalition board member Abbie Friedman deployed when he introduced Donald Trump at the group’s candidates forum last December. It was, in part, an effort to ease the palpable discomfort of wealthy RJC donors with the brash billionaire who would be president.
The problem, though, is that for many Jewish Republican voters, the New York billionaire’s ratio of chutzpah to mensch leans too heavily to the former, leading them to throw their support behind other, more conventional contenders. Still, the GOP front-runner, now preparing for the official kickoff of primary season, has succeeded in charming some Jewish voters with his outsized personality and trademark bluntness.
Jewish Trump supporters have their own Facebook page, a Twitter account and even a rabbi. One rabbi. Many of these supporters and sympathizers seem to be drawn to the candidate more for his swagger and his image of business success than for what he is saying and proposing to do if elected president. Most important, they relish the prospect that he will bring this spirit to the presidential race to ensure that the Democrats don’t win another four years in the White House.
“I’m a NFH — Not for Hillary,” said Joan Rubin, a Jewish Chicago native who spends her winters in Florida. “I don’t know who will win the nomination, but I will definitely vote for Donald Trump if he’s nominated. We can’t have what happened in the past seven years continue.”
Almost across-the-board, mainstream national Jewish groups have denounced Trump for his call to indefinitely ban entry of all Muslims to America, and his suggestion that authorities should close mosques judged to be extremist. They view Trump’s move as an affront to American Jewry’s own history, which included the government’s exclusion of their European brethren when they sought to flee Nazism. But even before Trump’s Islamophobic comments, his soaring popularity in pre-primary polls raised concern within the Republican Jewish establishment, which has traditionally sought to back candidates closer to the political center.
Trump backers generally tend to be less educated and to earn less than average Republicans, while American Jews, in general, fall into neither of these categories.
Some Jewish supporters of Trump still feel uneasy identifying publicly as being in the Donald camp. “I don’t need people asking questions,” said a Florida Jewish resident who strongly supports Trump but asked not to be named. She argued that the media has distorted Trump’s message and therefore expressing public support for him is considered socially unacceptable in her circles. She expressed full support for Trump’s call to ban Muslim entry to America, arguing that Muslim immigrants have shown no willingness to assimilate into society and that the local Muslim community has not sufficiently condemned terrorist attacks carried out by violent Islamists. “Trump’s the only one forcing the press to report things they don’t want to report,” she said.
But not everyone is embarrassed about going on the record. Trump recently got an unexpected endorsement from the legendary Jewish comedian Jerry Lewis. “I think he’s great,” Lewis said in an interview with Raymond Arroyo on “The World Over.” “He’s a showman, and we’ve never had a showman in the president’s chair,” the octogenarian comic explained.
Jewish backers of Trump interviewed by the Forward sought to distinguish between the outspoken candidate’s achievement-driven personality, which they find attractive, and some of his positions, especially those relating to women and ethnic minorities, which they find unappealing.
“In the beginning I was very, very excited with Donald Trump. I admire his business ability and I think he is an amazing man,” Rubin said. “But I was shocked by some of the things he said.” But these comments did not make Trump any less of a legitimate candidate in Rubin’s eyes. She initially thought that Chris Christie would poll more strongly and that Jeb Bush (“He’s so nebbish, I can’t believe it”) would be a top-tier candidate. Trump, now in the lead, is just as good for Jewish voters, she said, as long as he defeats Hillary Clinton.
Some GOP candidates, mainly Bush, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, have already built bridges to the Jewish community, cultivating donors and arranging meetings with community leaders.
In contrast, in his RJC address, Trump voiced doubt about Israel’s commitment to achieving peace with the Palestinians and was booed after he refused to say whether Jerusalem should serve as the undivided capital of Israel, a priority for many in America’s pro-Israel lobby.
“Do me a favor, just relax,” he told one of the people booing, in a trademark display of his accent on the chutzpah side of the ledger.
Trump also seemed to suggest that the wealthy Jewish donors in front of him sought to put a puppet in the White House. “You’re not going to support me even though you know I’m the best thing that could happen to Israel,” Trump said. “I know why you’re not going to support me — because I don’t want your money. You want to control your own politician.”
This approach has done little to build more bridges for Trump into the Jewish world. But one Trump enthusiast, Rabbi Bernhard Rosenberg of Edison, New Jersey, tried to change this reality, setting up a “Rabbis for Trump” Facebook group, only to learn he was the sole rabbi in the group. Rosenberg changed the name to the singular form, and now he runs the “Rabbi for Trump” page.
“Cruz already had his following of rabbis, and I didn’t see a lot of effort with regard to Trump,” Rosenberg told the Forward. “Politically, it’s not right to put all your eggs in one basket.”
Rosenberg, who is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El in Edison, chose Trump because of his “personality, character and vigor to make change in this country.” He dismissed Trump’s use of offensive language toward women, Mexican immigrants and even to Jewish listeners as “his sense of humor,” which is “part of his personality.” If Trump gets elected, Rosenberg added, he’ll have to “tone it down a bit.”
As for Trump’s call to ban entry of Muslims to America, Rosenberg thinks it “didn’t come out correctly.” But he agrees with the need to halt absorption of refugees “until we know exactly what’s going on with the Muslim community coming from outside.”
For other Jewish backers of Trump, the call to ban Muslims was a breaking point.
Joel Leyden, a journalist and international media consultant, was drawn to Trump’s success story. “The man is successful; he knows business, knows how to negotiate and has a daughter who is an Orthodox Jew. I put it together, and it sounds very good,” said Leyden, who divides his time between the United States and Israel. “His personality is very Israeli,” Leyden observed. “He’s very confident, just like Israelis are, and you need to be confident in the Middle East. If you’re not, they’ll treat you like a rag.”
Leyden used his digital marketing expertise to set up a Trump outreach campaign in New Hampshire with its own Facebook page. Separately, he also launched a “Jews 4 Trump” Facebook page and a Twitter account.
“Then he comes up with this proposed ban on Muslims,” Leyden said of Trump’s December 7 statement. “That really turned me off big time.”
Leyden asked the campaign for clarifications, and when those weren’t sufficient he raised his concerns on the New Hampshire Facebook page he had created, only to have the Trump campaign try to shut down the page. Leyden said he is now “moving away” from the Trump campaign and looking toward Cruz as his candidate. But the “Jews 4 Trump” page will remain active in the hope that the candidate will change his views on banning Muslims from entering the United States and state that he supports the unity of Jerusalem.
“There were many Jews who were initially turned off by Trump’s bombastic nature, and others were turned on by it but later became turned off because of the ban on Muslims,” he said.
Jonathan Gould, a New York entrepreneur, expressed the dilemma facing voters who see value in Trump’s anti-establishment posture while rejecting his policy on many other issues.
“I feel Donald Trump’s anti-Washington stance is worth continuing to hear even when it’s contrary to core Jewish values along the way,” he said. “Our country’s suffering from the lack of an effective government assaults my Jewish sensibilities.”
Nathan Guttman, staff writer, is the Forward’s Washington bureau chief. He joined the staff in 2006 after serving for five years as Washington correspondent for the Israeli dailies Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post. In Israel, he was the features editor for Ha’aretz and chief editor of Channel 1 TV evening news. He was born in Canada and grew up in Israel. He is a graduate of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.