‘Whatever God dishes out:’ Orthodox Jews resigned to Biden — now or in December
Almost 80% of Americans say Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump in the presidential election, according to a Reuters poll. That includes more than half of Republicans.
The Orthdox reaction is equal parts deep skepticism and realpolitik. While some join Trump in casting doubt on the results, most major Orthodox groups are ready to recognize, if not embrace, the winner.
The Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, the two leading Orthodox advocacy organizations, are calling Biden “President-elect.”
“On behalf of the rabbinical and lay leadership of Agudath Israel of America, I am pleased to extend our warm congratulations on your election last week,” wrote Rabbi David Zwiebel of the Agudath to the Biden-Harris transition team on Nov. 9.
These groups serve Orthodox interests, like funding for religious schools. But they’re also non-profit, non-partisan organizations — pragmatists whose policy goals trump all.
“If Biden’s election is certified, you’re not going to see massive resistance on the part of Orthodox Jews,” said Seth Barron, an expert in New York City politics at the Manhattan Institute. “There will be a transactional relationship.”
These official announcements mask more skepticism at ground level.
“There’s a widespread feeling that there was massive fraud committed against Trump,” said Dr. Richard Roberts, a philanthropist, political donor and community leader in Lakewood, N.J. who made his fortune in the pharmaceutical industry. “It’s the most common topic around the community,”
His community and others in the New York area are not, however, enraged in the same way as other fervent Trump supporters. There’s skepticism, disappointment and trepidation. But there’s also a broad consensus that the final result must be accepted for both spiritual and practical reasons.
“In deep red states, people are taking it personally, and that’s where the more conspiratorial stuff comes out,” said Barron.
The Orthodox constitute a small but growing segment of American Jewry — about 600,000 people, or 10%. Most live in the northeast, especially New York and New Jersey, and tended to vote Republican even before Trump was elected in 2016. His administration has only intensified their support for him, said Michael Fragin, a businessman and Republican political strategist who’s also the volunteer deputy mayor of Lawrence, a village on Long Island.
To be sure, a minority of the Orthodox world does echo Trump’s base in the intensity of their adoration, and their receptivity to conspiracy theories.
The High Holiday season in mid-October saw several passionate public displays of support for the president in the Brooklyn neighborhood of Borough Park, for example.
At one of them, participants turned a religious ritual —a prayer for rain — into a Trump event, complete with flags. That rally turned violent when participants accused a spectator of being a snitch, as did another. That time, a journalist was attacked.
After the election, those feelings persist.
— president- Elect Sheya Landa (@LandaSheya) November 9, 2020
But there hasn’t been a repeat of the pre-election rallies, and that’s significant, Barron said.
“IT WOULD HAVE BEEN ENOUGH”
Trump’s moves on behalf of Israel — such as moving the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and helping to normalize relations between Israel and two Gulf states — are a big part of the reason they bemoan his loss.
Indeed, a rewritten version of the Passover song “Dayenu” that casts Trump’s achievements in the mold of the God of Moses is circulating on Hasidic WhatsApp groups: “Had he only reduced funding to the Palestinians and not cut off funding to UNRWA, it would have been enough.”
This deep appreciation is about more than Israel, however. There’s also a religious component, a feeling of connection with Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism and visited the grave of a beloved rabbi in Queens before both elections.
On the domestic front, Orthodox Jews have hailed the Trump administration’s embrace of what they call “school choice:” a program of passing laws, tweaking the tax code and appointing cabinet members and judges in order to extend government support for private schools, including religious ones.
“Trump, Pence and de Vos have been the most pro-school-choice administration ever, more than even other Republican administrations,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center, referring to Betsy DeVos, Education Secretary.
The community is also still grateful for Trump’s decision to commute the 27-year prison sentence of Sholom Rubashkin, the former CEO of the country’s largest kosher meat processing plant, convicted on fraud charges in 2009.
“He broke the norms, fighting for them,” Fragin said, summing up the community’s feeling about Trump. Anyone would be a step down from him.
“WHATEVER GOD DISHES OUT”
Then again, Orthodox Jews will work with anyone who is fairly elected.
Like the other lobbying organizations collectively known as “K Street” because many are located there in Washington, D.C., the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel are calling Biden “President-elect.”
Before the election, the Orthodox Union communicated with both campaigns, Diament said. They had Zoom forums with Biden surrogates and with Trump surrogates.
Now, they’re “engaging with the Biden folks in the transition process.”
What’s more, some in the community say it could be worse. Biden isn’t Trump, but he’s not New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, or New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, either.
New York City Jews have complained throughout the coronavirus pandemic about scapegoating by the mayor and unequal treatment at the hands of the governor, whose health restrictions sometimes made it impossible to conduct normal Jewish ritual life.
In some Orthodox neighborhoods, the red wave was at least partly a protest vote against those two.
“I believe people were exercising their deeply-held constitutional right to protest in the most honorable of ways, at the ballot box,” said Chaskel Bennett, a co-founder of the Flatbush Jewish Community Council. “After all, isn’t that exactly what we want from our democracy?”
Another point in Biden’s favor: He’s not Obama.
During that administration, Biden seemed like a better friend to Israel than his boss; he played the “good cop,” as JTA’s politics reporter Ron Kampeas wrote recently.
“There is an assumption that Biden is on the right side of the issue,” Barron said.
Also, some of Trump’s achievements on Israel seem durable, Fragin said. He said he thinks the embassy is in Jerusalem to stay, for example.
The Iran deal is a worry, on the other hand. Trump cancelled the agreement, under which the Obama administration lifted sanctions on Iran in order to monitor and limit its nuclear capabilities.
Roberts and others are worried that a Biden administration will resuscitate it. Biden himself isn’t the threat, Roberts said. It’s Democrats in the progressive wing of the party, who Roberts considers “radical.”
He could see them making such moves as propping up Iran, healing its economy so that it can fund violence against Israel.
“Iran is a real concern,” Roberts said. “But whatever God dishes out for us, we will move forward.”