Do Jewish conservatives still have a home in the post-Trump Republican Party?
WASHINGTON (JTA) — Five months ago Rabbi Alan Sherman appeared in a political ad draped in a prayer shawl and blowing a shofar ”as a wake-up call to all Jews, to wake up and vote for Donald Trump.”
Trump lost. And his bid to overturn the election, culminating in a deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and an ongoing reckoning within the Republican Party, has led to Sherman’s own wake-up call.
He no longer supports Trump. If the former president runs again, Sherman said he will change his registration to Independent.
“When I was in the Army for 28 years, I swore allegiance to this country through the Constitution, but I didn’t swear any loyalty to Donald Trump,” Sherman, a retired chaplain, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “He’s going to try to be very influential in the Republican Party, which is completely turned upside down, and the Republican Party is going to have to decide who they are.”
The Republican Party’s identity crisis is taking central stage this week as party leaders weigh what to do about Marjorie Taylor Greene, the new Georgia congresswoman who helped incite the insurrection and has advanced a variety of conspiracy theories, including anti-Semitic ones. Last week’s revelation that two years ago she peddled the theory that the Rothschild family started California’s devastating forest fires using lasers from space has drawn particular ire from Jewish groups.
The Republican Jewish Coalition, which produced last year’s TV ad starring Sherman, condemned Greene and said it was working with party leaders on “next steps” around her position in the House.
Whatever Republican leaders decide, the party’s Jewish members will have to consider the post-election tumult as they make their own choices about what they do next. A range of interviews with politically conservative Jews suggested that they are still in the throes of that decision.
Speaking to JTA in the wake of Trump’s election loss, his supporters proposed a number of paths forward: Move to Israel. Become Orthodox. Change the Republican Party from within. Start a third party. Wait until Trump’s rehabilitation. Preserve Trump’s foreign policy but jettison Trump himself.
Jewish Republicans found themselves torn throughout Trump’s presidency. Trump embraced the agenda of the Israeli government to a greater degree than any of his predecessors. But he also inspired explicit displays of anti-Semitism, evident in the symbology borne by some Capitol insurrectionists. His lie about that powered the insurrection — about a stolen election — has been taken up by extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and those who subscribe to the QAnon conspiracy theory, which is laced with anti-Semitic overtones.
Jewish conservatives describe a dizzying four-month arc from Trumpian high to low, from the normalization agreements that Trump brokered between Israel and several Arab countries to the deadly insurrection Trump incited in January, and its inclusion of anti-Semitic symbols, including a rioter wearing a “Camp Auschwitz” T-shirt.
Fred Zeidman, a major donor to Republicans who supported Trump last year after being skeptical of him in 2016, said candidates who embrace Trump’s claims of a fraudulent election won’t get his money.
“What [Trump] did for Israel is unprecedented, and that’s always been our priority,” he said, adding however that now it’s time for Republicans to work with Joe Biden, the actual president. “If you don’t help find the solution, you’re part of the problem.”
Trump’s Israel policies led Bethany Mandel, a writer for a number of conservative publications, to say in a Haaretz op-ed on election eve that she had changed her mind about her qualms in 2016, when she vocally opposed Trump.
“Just on Israel alone, one cannot pretend that the president has done anything less than move mountains,” she wrote on Nov. 2. Moreover, Mandel said, her fears four years ago of a white supremacist resurgence under Trump “weren’t just off-base, they were hyperbolic nonsense.”
Now Mandel is distraught and said she realizes the tradeoff had been too costly.
“There’s a feeling among a lot of Republicans that ultimately they got a really good package with Trump, and they were willing to offset with some terrible tweets, and I think that that was a reasonable position to hold until a cop was killed at the Capitol,” she said. “It’s not a fair trade.”
Mandel said that on social media she sees Jewish conservatives downplaying the riot, and senses that some feel that coverage of the insurrection is overwrought.
“I’ve seen a lot of denialism about what happened,” she said.
But Mandel said other fellow Jewish conservatives feel conflicted in the wake of the past few weeks. She described a recent conversation with a friend who was set to run as a Republican in a local election, but who was having second thoughts because of the turmoil. She advised him to drop out of the race for now, but to stay involved so he could bring in moderates to counter the Trumpists.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be successful,” she said. “It’s a lot easier to be excited about a stolen election and a conspiracy and all of these things than to support moderate fiscal policy.”
Eric Cantor, the Jewish Republican who nearly became House speaker before being ousted in 2014 in a primary by a right-wing challenger, said Friday in a Washington Post op-ed that the Republican failure to confront the far right predated Trump. Republican leaders needed to tell the base when pandering politicians trafficked in lies.
“You might just find that leveling with your constituents and getting to do big things is more rewarding than spewing a guaranteed applause line at a rally,” he wrote.
Even as some major donors like Zeidman are steering clear of Trump and the Republicans who took up his election lie, Republicans running for office fear that his grassroots influence will remain potent. A conventional wisdom taking hold is that a politician can’t win a primary without Trump and won’t win a general election with him.
For foreign policy conservatives, the challenge is reconciling Trump’s Israel policy, which they welcomed, with his depredations.
The Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a hawkish pro-Israel think tank, was blunt in a monograph completed just after the Jan. 6 insurrection on transitioning foreign policy from Trump to Biden.
The deadly raid on the Capitol was a “national disgrace,” the monograph begins. “And it would not have happened without the encouragement of the president of the United States, Donald Trump.”
But that’s not the whole story.
“There are important [foreign policy] wins to process,” the monograph said.
Jonathan Schanzer, a Foundation for Defense of Democracies vice president who tracked terrorism financing in the George W. Bush administration, is still processing the insurrection.
“I don’t understand, there’s no clear ideological barriers or boundaries for what’s going on here,” he said in an interview.
“Right now I don’t know where Trumpism stands. In terms of the direction of the party, will there be an attempt to resurrect Trumpism, either through Trump or some other figure, or will there be a determination that it is time to move in a different direction?”
Schanzer said a figure like Nikki Haley could emerge as a unifying leader. Haley, Trump’s first U.N. ambassador who campaigned for his reelection, has been critical of his role post-election, telling the Republican National Committee the day after the riot that his behavior since November “will be harshly judged by history.” (More recently, she told Fox News host Laura Ingraham that Trump deserved “a break” and advised Democrats to “move on.”)
“Obviously she served under Trump,” Schanzer said. “But I think she does seem to represent also a more traditional approach to American foreign policy and perhaps even Republicanism here at home.”
For Matthew Brodsky, a senior fellow at the Gold Institute for International Strategy, a hawkish think tank, Trump’s foreign policy was enough to keep him on board — even after the riots.
“I tend to compartmentalize,” Brodsky said. “I tend to vote based on foreign policy. So for me it was a no-brainer — the foreign policy that Trump had was in just about every single area actually far better” than that of his predecessors.
That still holds, he said.
“The Abraham Accords is going to be the biggest, longest-lasting positive legacy from the Trump administration,” Brodsky said of the normalization agreements Trump brokered. “When it comes to the issue of the people raiding the Capitol, I don’t see that as a ‘me’ issue.”
Still, Brodsky said, Trump’s divisive presidency accelerated a process of polarization in place long before his election and sharpened an existing crisis for Jewish-American conservatives. Brodsky described a gulf between the liberal Jewish majority who he said “don’t care about Israel” and conservative Jews for whom Israel’s security is central.
Jewish Democrats in polls say they are pro-Israel, and a number of Jewish Democrats in Congress often take the lead in advancing pro-Israel legislation. But there remain sharp differences over issues that Jewish conservatives say are the sine qua non of being pro-Israel, including rejecting the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and not contradicting Israel’s governments when it comes to settlement policy.
It’s a gulf, Brodsky said, that is spurring some Jewish conservatives, in the wake of Trump’s loss, to seriously consider moving to Israel.
He is not among them, but Brodsky described their argument: “If I’m going to be rooting for the success or failure of a country, or wanting to play a part in that fabric, it might as well be in the one country that happens to be the home for Jews.”
While Brodsky is staying put, he also wonders about his place in the American Jewish community, at least when it comes to choosing a synagogue. The Reform movement fell in long ago with a vague “tikkun olam,” or social justice, interpretation of Jewish practice, he said, and now so has the Conservative movement — the one to which he belongs.
Still, Brodsky does not see himself becoming Orthodox, even though most Orthodox Jews said they supported Trump last year.
“I feel as if my choices have narrowed,” he said.
Sherman said establishment Jewish Republicans, like the Republican Jewish Coalition, are a beacon of hope.
“I don’t think they’re going to follow Trump down the dangerous path,” he said of the RJC and the Jewish Republican establishment. “I think they’re going to follow the mainstream Republicans like myself.”
The RJC did not defend Trump’s election claims, but also did not recognize Biden as president until Jan. 7, a day after the insurrectionists tried to stop Congress from certifying the former vice president’s victory. Its usually voluble director, Matt Brooks, did not return multiple requests for an interview.
Bryan Leib, a congressional candidate in Philadelphia in 2018 who lost a longshot race, was an outspoken supporter of Trump’s unfounded rigging claims on social media.
“There was a lot of election fraud and there’s still a lot of unanswered questions that I’m never going to have the answers,” he said in an interview.
Dozens of courts, including those with Republican and Trump-appointed judges, have thrown out the claims.
Now, like dozens of Republicans in Congress who backed the fraud assertions, Leib said it’s time to move on toward reconciliation. He does not blame Trump for inciting the riot and said that Trump will come to be seen as a statesman.
“As the temperature comes down, people are going to start to champion what the president has done,” Leib said. “I really think that Trump is going to get a Nobel Peace Prize for the Abraham Accords and, should that happen, I really think people are going to take another look at him.”
Jonathan Greenberg, a rabbi and a former Midwest political director for AIPAC, quit the GOP in 2016 after running for local office as a Republican a few years earlier. Greenberg said he saw in Trump’s rise a straying from the principles of personal responsibility that attracted him to conservatism.
“I was always very proud to be a ‘Never Trumper’ based primarily on his behavior,” he said, referring to the cadre of conservatives who opposed the businessman and reality star’s political rise. “And I was always very proud that it was Jewish conservatives who led that movement.”
For Greenberg, the way forward involves a period of accountability and the creation of a third party.
“Earning our way back starts with our own personal behavior and then extends outward from there to believing that discernible set of principles and crafting policies around those principles,” he said.
Greenberg acknowledges the lock that the two parties have on the system but also points to the turbulence of the era. The Republican Party, notably, was forged out of pre-Civil War tensions.
“I don’t believe that a third party would be necessarily a problem or a disaster, it would probably be not great for the first couple of cycles,” he said. “But we’re in the middle of a major realignment in America anyway. And I think it’s incumbent on those of us who believe in free markets, small government and robust foreign policy and all the other things in the conservative playbook, it’s incumbent on those of us who believe in those things to put our best foot forward.”
The Republican Party, Greenberg said, may be too far gone for him.
“You know, I’m not going to be forced into sitting in coalition with people who scare the hell out of me,” he said.
Sherman, too, is revising his alliances. Last year, the rabbi joined a Palm Beach, Florida, club that brought together Jewish and Christian Republicans. He quit after the election when the club urged members to give to a fund that ostensibly would pay for legal challenges based on Trump’s false claims that he had won the election.
“A portion of this ‘legal defense fund’ will go to Trump personally since he is in big debt,” Sherman wrote in a Nov. 15 letter resigning from the Judeo/Christian Republican Club. “This rebellion is dangerous and I want no part of it.”
Sherman does not see himself going back to the Democrats, whom he left years ago in part because he sees the party as tolerating a radical anti-Israel wing. He said he doesn’t know where he will fit in.
“It is just one example of what’s happening across the country,” Sherman said of the turn his club took. “It’s not an aberration.”