There was precious little that could have compelled Susan Hershberg Adelman to vote against a Democrat in Tuesday’s mid-term elections. To her mind, President Donald Trump has earned continued support in Congress by being the “most pro-Israel president we’ve ever had.”
But last week, when Republican congressional hopeful Lena Epstein, who is Jewish, brought in a Messianic rabbi to lead a prayer at a campaign event featuring Vice President Mike Pence for those massacred at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life, Adelman wished she hadn’t already sent in her absentee ballot. Epstein, Trump’s 2016 Michigan co-chair, is locked in a tight race with Democrat Haley Stevens for a House seat held by retiring Republican Dave Trott.
“That was just stupid, stupid, stupid,” said Adelman, 77, a retired pediatric surgeon and author promoting her book “After Saturday Comes Sunday” at a book fair hosted by the Jewish Community Center of Greater Detroit. “If that had happened and I hadn’t voted yet, I would have thought seriously about it. It was truly stupid.”
That political flub – which Epstein defended by calling critics “religiously intolerant” — is a rare example of the quaint old all-politics-is-local adage in a cycle when both parties have worked to ensure the midterm elections feels like a national referendum on the Trump administration. Outside of the Epstein incident, most Jewish voters here sounded on Tuesday like suburban voters just about anywhere – either disgusted by Trump’s nationalist policies and controversial remarks or happy to shrug off his rough edges to embrace his economic and foreign policies.
“Nothing about this man should be OK with Jewish people who know their history, who know what scapegoating and vilification of immigrants has gotten us over the millennia,” said Robert Cohen, 44, as he left the One Stop Kosher Market in Southfield, the hub of Orthodox Jewish life in the region. “I used to vote based on each individual candidate’s qualifications, but this year there is no way I could let any Republican think that what they are doing is OK with me.”
Besides Epstein, prominent Jewish candidates for Congress include Democrats Andy Levin, seeking to replace his father, and former Obama aide Elissa Slotkin, gunning to unseat Rep. Mike Bishop in another suburban-rural district north of Ann Arbor.
“I’d never vote for someone just because they were Jewish, but Elissa Slotkin seems like a smart young woman and her being Jewish certainly doesn’t hurt her with me,” said Jess Burke, 68, after voting for her in Plymouth. “But mostly, I like her because she doesn’t like Trump.”
Rachel Zacks, a 28-year-old Uber and Lyft driver, said she was not working on Tuesday so she could be available to drive senior citizens to the polls for free. Zacks lives in Ann Arbor, where a Democratic U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell has no significant opponent, and she found it frustrating that “there’s not that much for me on my ballot to really stick it to the Trumpers.” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, also a Democrat, is running for re-election but her opponent has lagged badly in every poll.
Zacks blames Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric and refusal to aggressively denounce white nationalism for fostering the environment that led a gunman to commit the Pittsburgh massacre. Electing more Democrats – especially a diverse slate that includes people of a variety of races and faiths – will show the world that Americans reject that thinking. Specifically, she said, as a Jew she’s excited about Rashida Tlaib, who is poised to become one of the first two Muslim women in Congress.
“What a message that would send!” Zacks said. “If Democrats do well in Michigan, we’ll have a Muslima in Congress, a woman in the governor’s mansion, a lesbian as attorney general. How cool would that be?”
Such a view is “nothing but politically correct ignorance,” groused Chaim Epstein, 82, citing Tlaib’s inconsistent positions on Israel. Tlaib lost the endorsement of the progressive Jewish lobby J Street shortly after her primary win in August after saying she opposes a two-state solution for the Palestinian question. She later said she supports whatever brings peace, but the incident alienated her.
“A lot of these Democrats think that supporting the rainbow, one of every color or what-not, is always a good thing but they should be thinking about what these people will do when they’re in power,” said Epstein after voting at Congregation B’Nai Moshe in Bloomfield Hills. “People like Rashida Tlaib aren’t going to be friends of Jews or Christians or anyone else but her own people.”
Republicans like Epstein and Adelman also reject the notion that the Pittsburgh massacre was the result of anything other than garden-variety hatred of Jews.
“Did Trump create anti-Semitism?” she asked. “We haven’t had anti-Semitism for the last 2,000 years? That is unbelievably stupid. How does Trump empower those people? They’re anti-Semites. Just like Hitler and all those people killed the Jews.”
Yet Gail Hines, 69, a retired pharmaceuticals executive, refused to let Trump or his supporters off the hook.
“Anyone who is supporting anything to do with Donald Trump – and especially a Jew – should think twice about voting Republicans,” Hines said. “Regardless of whether he’s an anti-Semite or not, he encourages or doesn’t discourage people from that opinion.”
Steve Friess is an Ann Arbor-based freelance journalist whose work appears regularly in The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic and many others. He tweets at @SteveFriess.
Messianic Jews, Pittsburgh Shooting, Political Correctness: Michigan Jews Vote