Anti-Semitism Came ‘Out of Sewer’ and 4 Other Ways the 2016 Election Shook Up Jewish Politics
In an election season that has rocked the nation, the Jewish community had its own share of rough and tumble, thrusting Jewish Americans into a new reality, one in which protection from bigotry is no longer taken for granted and communal political structures have been scrambled.
An excruciating 18-month long campaign has normalized moments such as the one last week when a Donald Trump supporter shouted full throat at reporters “Jew S.A,” or the awkward silence forced upon some Jewish Republicans because of Trump’s remarks and positions.
Here are five of the election trends that have changed American Jewry’s politics, perhaps for years to come:
Anti-Semitism Is Out of the Closet
From Auschwitz-themed tweets to Protocols of the Elders of Zion inspired speeches and campaign ads, anti-Jewish bigotry, which has been dormant for decades, has had its comeback under the auspices of a presidential campaign.
“I always knew that we did not eliminate anti-Semitism, but we knew they were in the sewers and that the covers were kept on,” said Abraham Foxman, the former head of the Anti-Defamation League who, for decades, has been America’s leading voice on countering anti-Semitism. “Now I worry – will it go back in the sewers? Will society reject it?”
After spending a lifetime fighting anti-Semitism. Foxman sees a fundamental change brought about by Trump – bigotry is no longer a taboo, anti-Semitism no longer has consequences.
“Comes Trump, and he realizes that there is an audience, and one by one he breaks the taboos we had a society,” Foxman said.
And while in the past expressions of anti-Jewish bigotry were met with broad rejection from American society and political establishment, the fact that many of these expressions are now coming from the side of Trump supporters has made it more of a partisan issue and more difficult to counter.
Orthodox Are New GOP Power Brokers
While old-time Republican elites were having a hard time adjusting to Trump, his ideas, and his people, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox activists and donors found a willing ally in the unconventional candidate.
“Other Jews haven’t quite yet realized that we are the tip of a large spear,” said Orthodox Republican activist Jeff Ballabon. “There’s a shift from the notion of Jewish vote as a minority-ethnic vote to seeing it as an identity vote.”
Orthodox donors have been a rising power in Republican politics even before Trump, but in the vacuum created by refusal of old time donors and RJC leaders to publicly back Trump, many Orthodox GOP backers found a new opening.
These feelings were mutual. Trump’s Jewish circle of advisers is much more attuned to Orthodox supporters than any of his predecessors. His son-in-law Jared Kushner and daughter Ivanka, who are arguably Trump’s closest advisers, are both Orthodox and even paid a visit to the grave of the Lubavicher Rebbe this past weekend. Both of Trump’s advisers on Israel are Orthodox, as is his Jewish outreach director. And when the schmoozing between politicians and Jewish donors shifts from the golf course to synagogue, it paves a way to the new kippah-wearing elite seeking to find its way in leadership positions.
The GOP Jewish Establishment Lost Control
Trump’s rise caught the class of mainstream Jewish Republican donors by surprise. For most, he was not the first, nor the second choice to lead the GOP’s presidential campaign. A few have since adjusted to a Trump candidacy, albeit in a reluctant manner. Some, like former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer went through an on again, off again, relationship with Trump before turning their back on him.
But most major donors and activists chose to sit out the race for the White House. They focused on congressional races and on attacking Hillary Clinton, but could not bring themselves to back Trump.
And when donations don’t make it to the campaign headquarters, the party’s presidential candidate doesn’t pay much attention to the donors. Jewish Republican bigwigs have found themselves largely on the sidelines during this election cycle, playing no major role (with the notable exception of casino mogul Sheldon Adelson).
Moving forward, establishment Jewish GOP leaders are in a wait-and-see position: If their party’s shifts back toward the centrist way they had supported, they could regain their status. But if Trump’s spirit is here to stay in the Republican Party, some of the Jewish backers who had been the backbone of GOP financing, could be sidelined for good.
Civility Is Gone
In his 10-year tenure at the helm of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), Rabbi Steve Gutow led an effort to harness the Jewish community behind the cause of civility in public life, of allowing a decent discourse to take place even when parties hold contradicting opinions. Now, he is watching the political system with deep concern. “These elections changed everything we know of and everything that holds us on course,” he said. “I felt sad that [Trump’s] incivility became more of a partisan debate than it should have been.”
Under the banner of fighting political correctness, Trump legitimized language and tone that were considered up to now out of boundaries. And while some have embraced the notion of “straight talk” as reclaiming their right to free speech, even when it is offensive and crude, Jewish communal officials noted that the protections offered by civility and political correctness have been in place primarily to help society’s minorities and oppressed groups, including American Jews.
Battle for the Jewish Vote? That’s So 2012.
Gone are the days of courting the Jewish vote. If these elections have taught the Jewish community anything, it is that despite the importance of Florida and its valuable Jewish electorate, the community is not a top priority for either party.
On the Republican side, Trump was late to set up a Jewish outreach operation, did almost no work engaging personally with Jewish donors and waited until the last week of the campaign to provide any kind of detailed policy on Israel.
And even on the Democratic side, where the campaign maintained an active Jewish outreach program and where top Jewish donors still make up Clinton’s inner circle, there was an initial reluctance to invest in wooing Jewish voters. Only after internal polling showed Clinton was underperforming among Jewish voters, the campaign dedicated funds for ads and meetings targeting the Jewish community.
While on the Republican side the low level of interest in Jewish voters stemmed mainly from Trump’s lack of previous ties with the community on a political level, the Clinton campaign assumed that given her rival, Donald Trump, who was largely disliked by Jewish voters, and in light of the fact she was seen as a stronger supporter of Israel than Obama, Jewish votes would flow back to the Democratic side without any effort.
The exit poll results Tuesday night will show whether Jewish voters needed more attention than they received in this election cycle.