Southern Jews in Trump’s Stronghold: A Tribe Divided
Like so many in the American Jewish community, Rabbi Elizabeth Bahar of Temple B’nai Sholom in Huntsville, Alabama, was “very surprised” and deeply disappointed by the presidential election result November 8, 2016.
But not by the results in her home state.
“I knew Trump was going to win Alabama,” Bahar said.
In fact, Alabama is one of the Trumpiest of red states, where the Republican candidate defeated Hillary Clinton by 62%–34.5%. Consequently, her own election preference notwithstanding, Bahar quickly turned her thoughts toward breaking down walls of separation after the divisive campaign.
On November 13, Bahar organized a B’nai Sholom event featuring a couple hundred people from different faiths, races, sexual orientations and, yes, political parties parading around her synagogue and invoking the image of Joshua at Jericho. They called for a shattering of barriers. For Bahar, the highlight was Republican State Rep. Phil Williams and Democratic State Rep. Laura Hall shaking hands and hugging.
“They both rose to the occasion to demonstrate what leadership should be,” Bahar said, “working together for the benefit of everyone they serve.”
But Bahar wasn’t thinking of just the need to demolish walls between Jews and a surrounding community of non-Jewish Trump Southerners. Unlike the heavily Democratic Jewish communities of the North, where Republicans are as rare as spotted owls, the Democrat/Republican divide in the South cleaves Jewish communities as well.
In a Jewish community with many Trump supporters, she said, “there are a lot of people who are still struggling.” No less than the country as a whole, “we have to be able to come together.”
That’s not to say that the voting pattern of the South’s Jews matches that of those around them. As Stuart Rockoff, executive director of the Mississippi Humanities Council, put it, “Jews in the South are more Democratic than other Southern whites but less Democratic than Jews nationally.”
To a large extent, that has been the story of Jewish voting patterns for many decades — even back when the only real choices at the ballot box were between different segregationists, and the question was often which one was more pragmatic.
“In the Deep South, it was one-party rule, and Jews tended to support the more pragmatic moderates, ”Rockoff said. “Certainly segregationists, but not the violent race-baiters.”
Nowadays, the choices are better. The region’s mores have changed a lot, at least in its larger towns and university centers, which is where Southern Jews today mostly live. Jews in these areas can express the full spectrum of their political views without isolating themselves from the surrounding population.
That’s a big change from demographic realities a couple of generations ago. When Jews originally settled in the South in the mid-to-late 19th century, many made their homes in the region’s countless small and medium-sized towns. Across the region, these towns boasted Jewish merchants who started as peddlers and worked their way to storefronts, serving nearby farms and bustling river ports.
Generally, Southern Jews worked hard so that their children could go off to college, only to find that many of the children did not want to return to the small town and run the family store. Instead of merchants they became doctors, lawyers and other professionals, moving to larger cities for job prospects — and a much better chance at finding a Jewish spouse.
Places like Atlanta and Charlotte, North Carolina, became magnets, with communities like Memphis and Nashville in Tennessee, Birmingham, Alabama and New Orleans absorbing Jewish transplants from rural areas.
The Wal-Mart effect, meanwhile, steadily diminished the small-town family stores where many Southern Jews once made a living. It used to be said that on Rosh Hashanah you could roll a bowling ball down Broad Street in Selma, Alabama, and not hit anyone because of the preponderance of Jewish stores closed for the day; now the community numbers but a handful. Just last year, synagogues in Pine Bluff and McGehee, Arkansas, held their final services.
Today, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Tennessee — the states where this trend has been most prominent — contain roughly 50,000 Jews altogether. That’s less for this whole region than the Jewish population in 18 individual U.S. cities. In the South itself, Atlanta, with about 140,000 Jews, is vastly larger than those smaller communities, and South Florida, with its huge population of northern transplants, isn’t viewed as Southern at all.
University towns, with their more liberal populations, are pretty much the only small communities enjoying Jewish population growth in these states. Auburn was the most recent Alabama town to establish a synagogue, in 1989. In the past couple of years, a Jewish community has been organized in William Faulkner’s hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, now home to the University of Mississippi. These are areas where it’s generally easier for Democrats to find others who share their views.
Urban areas often have Democratic concentrations, as well. In the bigger cities that have large or majority African-American populations, it is more likely for Democrats to be elected locally. In Jefferson County, where Birmingham is the biggest city, nine Democrats, all African-American women, were elected in this year’s county judicial races. Large cities, such as the Atlanta and Charlotte areas, voted 2–1 for Clinton.
This broad change in where Southern Jews live has given the more liberal among them support for coming out openly with their views. It was an openness on view in Birmingham, among other places, as recently as January 21. Members of the Jewish community there were a visible presence in the local anti-Trump protest march for the rights of women, gay men and lesbians, immigrants and minorities — part of the string of such marches that took place nationally. The Birmingham march, which drew over 5,000, was spearheaded by Dalia Abrams, a member of the Jewish community.
In Tuscaloosa, Alabama, home to the University of Alabama, attorney Joel Sogol said, “it’s a little easier” to be an outspoken Democrat than in many other places in the South. Sogol, who has been highly visible in battles to protect the separation between religion and state — not a popular stance in the South — noted, “Most of the people I socialize with share my political views.”
Or, as Rabbi Barry Block of Congregation B’nai Israel, in Little Rock, Arkansas, put it, “I do not feel alone as a Democrat in Little Rock, because Little Rock is a blue island in a red state.” Today, about two-thirds of Arkansas’s Jewish community is in Little Rock.
Again, none of this should lead to confusion about the political profile of Southern Jews. It’s far from the lopsided Democratic tilt of Northern Jews. Due to their small numbers, reliable polling data on Southern Jews are non-existent. But Richard Friedman, executive director of the Birmingham Jewish Federation, said that, based on his conversations in the community over the past three presidential election cycles, “the Birmingham Jewish community is probably split 50-50.”
Meanwhile, in Shreveport, Louisiana, Rabbi Jana De Benedetti of B’nai Zion, the town’s Reform congregation, said her congregation “is predominantly Republican.”
Given this spread of support, it’s not surprising that when Southern Jewish communities produce a political star, he or she is just as likely to be Republican as a Democrat. The election of Tennessee’s new congressman, Rep. David Kustoff, in 2016 doubles the number of Jewish Republicans now in Congress from the previous session — from one to two. (The other is Lee Zeldin of New York.) Prior to that, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia, another Southern state, was Congress’s lone Republican Jew until his defeat in a 2014 primary race.
Nationally, Jewish support for Republicans is seen as coming largely from the Orthodox community. But in the Deep South, Orthodox congregations are few and far between, and Reform congregations predominate. Just a handful of communities have Conservative congregations.
This confronts rabbis of the Reform movement, which stresses activism for social justice, with a delicate balancing act when they take Southern pulpits. Their congregations are often more politically divided than the communities they come from, and they themselves are often more left wing than their congregants. It’s also not like a congregant can just go pray at another synagogue if the rabbi’s politics pushes her buttons. In many Southern towns, the local synagogue is the only one for miles around. As a result, rabbis often get warnings not to be too political.
“The rabbi was expected to maintain a lower profile and not make waves,” said Rabbi Harold Robinson, who served as spiritual leader of a congregation in Shreveport from 1998 to 2006. Robinson, a retired rear admiral who commanded 600 chaplains in the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard, attended the 2016 Democratic convention as a supporter of Clinton. He noted that when he served congregations in Indiana and Massachusetts, he was expected to speak out. But in the South, he said, “there is more caution and anxiety… about being ‘the other.’”
Still, it’s not like hostility from non-Jews is anything common. In the surrounding non-Jewish community, evangelical Christianity is a huge influence, and support for Israel, especially among white evangelicals and some black churches, is overwhelming. This has led to an alliance with these mostly politically and religiously conservative Christians that has become somewhat more comfortable over the years. Events by Christians United for Israel are common, along with interfaith grassroots groups like North Alabama Friends of Israel, or the Alabama-Israel Task Force. Alabama routinely boasts of being the first state to support a Jewish state in Israel, through a unanimous resolution in 1943, five years before Israel’s independence.
Republican amity toward Jews is notable. Mississippi’s Republican governor, Phil Bryant, held a Hanukkah candle lighting at the Governor’s Mansion in Jackson last year on December 29, shortly after returning from the state’s third annual trade mission to Israel.
That, however, doesn’t necessarily absolve a Republican politician of his stands on other issues. During his first term, Alabama Governor Fob James held an Israel Independence Day celebration at the Governor’s Mansion in 1981. His 1995 inauguration for his second term featured a shofar blast, recitation of the Ten Commandments in Hebrew by an Orthodox rabbi from Jerusalem, and the singing of “Hatikvah” by his cousin, accompanied by the Montgomery Symphony Orchestra.
Nevertheless, James, an Episcopalian, had very little support from the Jewish community, because of his outspoken stances in support of public school prayer, his opposition to abortion rights, and his hostility toward the teaching of evolution as settled science in the public schools. Then there was his support for the “Ten Commandments Judge” Roy Moore, who would later be expelled as the Alabama Supreme Court chief justice for refusing an order to remove his 5,300-pound granite Ten Commandments monument from the state judicial building.
Laura King of Huntsville, Alabama, is a past president of the Network of Independent Communities of the Jewish Federations of North America and self-described “deplorable” who backs Trump. She voiced impatience with this Jewish political behavior. Many Democrats, she said, “are more afraid of Christians than terrorists.”
Linda Verin, who has advised numerous Democratic candidates in Alabama, said many even traditional Democrats in the South were angry with then president Barack Obama over his policies on Israel. But she noted that for Jewish Republicans in the area, Israel is perhaps the top issue, while for Democrats it’s “in the top five.”
“Sometimes I’m challenged by Jewish people: ‘How can you be a Democrat?’ Well, you can’t agree with everything,” Verin said.
The relative conservatism of Jewish communities in the South often surprises transplants. Sogol, who hails originally from Milwaukee, noted that he was to the left of most elected Democrats in Alabama. “Those Democrats would have been Republicans anywhere else,” he said.
Verin, a Chicago native who moved to Birmingham in the 1980s, said, “I never thought of myself as a rabid Democrat, but here people point to me as ‘the Democrat.’”
Elizabeth Rappaport Shannon, who grew up in Birmingham and recently returned to the city, said she found being a liberal in Alabama “frustrating.” So she became a board member of the Alabama American Civil Liberties Union “to try to make a difference.”
Many Jewish Democrats follow a similar path, with Jewish community members taking leadership roles in interfaith and interracial coalitions, or working with the highly active, liberally-oriented National Council of Jewish Women chapter in New Orleans, or with area Hadassah chapters.
“If I had stayed in Wisconsin, I would never have been able to accomplish nor contribute what I have in this state,” Sogol said. “Being blue in a Red Sea is not all bad.”
Rockoff said he hasn’t seen a sense of panic or vulnerability among Southern Jews to the extent that many in the North or West are experiencing since Trump’s victory. Despite the South being Trump territory, anti-Semitic incidents of the sort that have surged elsewhere have been rare.
Rockoff’s message for those who are terrified about the next four years: “Y’all need to meet more Republicans.”
Larry Brook is editor of Southern Jewish Life Magazine, based in Birmingham, Alabama. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org