How Republicans Tried To Flip the Jewish Vote — and Created Donald Trump
On the Shabbat morning of June 19, 1943, in a tiny upstairs shtibl in the East Bronx, my Uncle Seymour became a bar mitzvah. My grandmother had given the rabbi very specific instructions for the occasion. As Seymour walked through the congregation, bearing the Torah scrolls, the rabbi followed right behind him, holding aloft a portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. It was an almost literal enactment of the almost literal worship that American Jews had for FDR, the New Deal social compact he developed, and the political coalition that would preserve it for decades to come.
On the night of March 21, in a packed convention center in Washington, D.C., thousands of members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee rose in raucous applause for Donald Trump. While Trump was the front-runner for the Republican nomination, and as such a seemingly logical person to address AIPAC, he was also a candidate who had endorsed the use of torture, proposed the deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants, characterized Mexicans emigres as rapists, declared he would build a wall along the southern border and make Mexico pay for it, proposed a ban on admitting Muslim immigrants and refugees, mocked a disabled reporter covering a rally, insulted women for their physical appearance, and threatened even fellow Republicans with a riot if he were denied the party’s nomination.
Our temptation, even now that he is about to be formally nominated at the Republican convention, is to think of Trump as an anomaly — an awful anomaly, but an anomaly nonetheless. A different temptation is to comfort ourselves and compliment ourselves by focusing on those admirable rabbis at the AIPAC conference who came together against hate, who boycotted Trump’s speech and held a prayer service. I do salute them, but the painful, indeed tragic reality is that not only is Trump the logical outcome of a 60-year trend in Republican politics to play on racial and ethnic hatred, but as such, he’s even more specifically the predictable result of a decades-long effort by political conservatives, both Jewish and gentile, to flip the Jewish vote or at least a significant portion of it from Democratic to Republican.
When you’re asked to check many of your cherished beliefs at the political door — meaning support for church-state separation, for racial and gender equality, for gay and lesbian rights, for immigration reform, for the legitimate role of labor unions in the workplace, for governmental role in providing the social safety net — and when you are asked to exchange them all for a very skewed, particular definition of supporting Israel and Zionism, then you shouldn’t be surprised that what you get is Trump. Had Trump not captured the nomination, it would have gone to Ted Cruz, who espoused many of the very same positions and looked less extreme only in comparison to reckless, inciting Trump.
One of the prevailing delusions of this dispiriting moment in history is that the deep divides that have opened within American Jewry and also between American Jews and many Israeli Jews result solely or primarily from the toxic relationship between President Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or, more specifically, from their mutually bitter campaign about the Iran nuclear deal. One of AIPAC’s main agendas in its March 2016 policy conference was to try to reassemble unified, bipartisan support for Israel. One can only wish them good luck with that errand. Obama and Netanyahu and the Iran deal are just vivid, relatively contemporary examples, front-of-mind examples, of political processes with deeper, longer roots. They have come to fruition now, but those seeds were planted decades ago.
My grandmother, Rose Hatkin, was far from the only American Jew who viewed Roosevelt nearly as a deity and the New Deal as a kind of secular religion. Yet, Jews being Democrats was actually a relatively new phenomenon. In 1920, more American Jews voted for the Socialist Party than for the Democratic Party. In 1924, Al Smith, one of my personal political heroes, became the first Catholic to make a serious run at the presidency and was denied the nomination of his party at a convention that almost physically came to blows over the issue of whether or not to rebuke the Ku Klux Klan. With the Democratic Party’s inability to do so, Smith lost the nomination. William Jennings Bryan — an admirable politician on economic issues, but a vehement nativist —said to Smith’s supporters in the convention hall, “You do not represent the future of our country.”
Of course, Bryan was totally wrong, because in Smith’s 1928 campaign for the presidency as the Democratic nominee, he began assembling Jewish and Catholic immigrants into what would come to be the New Deal coalition. Even as Smith was routed at the polls, even as he endured more religious bigotry than any presidential candidate before or since, he brought the majority of American Jews into the Democratic Party, setting the stage for Roosevelt’s four elections. Over those elections, from 1932 through 1944, American Jews voted anywhere from 82% to 90% in the Democratic column. In the presidential elections since then, there have been swings of 10 to 20 percentage points in any given race. Yet the vast majority of American Jews have remained loyal Democrats. In any given presidential election, American Jews voted for the Democratic candidate by 21 to 34 points more than the overall electorate, and on issues they skewed more liberal, as well.
This political identity remained intact even as Jews rose in economic standing. If the standard view of materialism in politics had held, then as we became more affluent we should have become more conservative. But it didn’t happen. Even though we became the most prosperous sector of the white population in this country, we didn’t vote with our tax bracket. As Milton Himmelfarb famously put it, “Jews earn like Episcopalians and vote like Puerto Ricans.”
The one glaring exception took place in the 1980 election, a three-way race between Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and John Anderson. The Democratic incumbent, Carter, had in the very recent past negotiated the Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt, which would have seemed to ensure him widespread Jewish support. But the revelation that his ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young, had held secret meetings with the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was then not recognized by the United States, led to a backlash against Carter by many Jewish voters. Their aversion may have also reflected the fact that Carter was the first visible evangelical Christian candidate in modern American political history. In any case, in that 1980 election, American Jews gave only 45% of their vote to Carter. Reagan took 36%, a very high share of it.
There was another relevant trend during the Reagan administration of the 1980s, which was the increasing visibility, prominence and power of the neoconservatives. Since then, and particularly during the Iraq War, the term “neocon” became a very freighted piece of slang that often served as a coded way of referring to Jews in high government circles; as such, it evoked the bigoted canards about Jews stealthily running the government, if not the world. But “neoconservative” had a very specific and legitimate definition at the outset. It referred to a group of ancestral Democrats who remained devoted for a time to New Deal economics but also were very ardent Cold Warriors and, later, critics of the welfare state. Some of them, like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson, were not Jewish, but many of them were: Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Midge Decter, Richard Perle, Max Kampelman. It was Kristol who famously cracked wise that a conservative was a liberal who’d gotten mugged by reality. These first-generation neoconservatives were very much part of the brain trust of the Reagan years, some of them in government but most of them out of it.
The generation right behind them also began to play a major role in conservative politics. Some, like William Kristol and John Podhoretz, were literally children of the founders; others were metaphorically so — Elliot Abrams, Paul Wolfowitz, Seth Lipsky (the founding editor of the English Forward). The involvement of a cohort of politically conservative, Republican-aligned Jewish intellectuals, combined with the substantial Jewish vote for Reagan in both 1980 and 1984, helped to feed a belief that Jews could be permanently or at least for the foreseeable future won over to conservatism and to the Republican Party. At that time, Israel per se was not even the main wedge issue. Affirmative action was a wedge issue. Welfare was a wedge issue. But overall, the 1980s were still a period of truly bipartisan support for Israel.
One might rightly wonder why the Republicans would even care so much about making inroads among Jewish voters. Jews form 2% of the nation’s population, a minor voting bloc. But here are some truths that have to do with the pursuit of the Jewish vote. First of all, Jews vote at a very high rate — as high as 90% of registered voters in a presidential election, according to some estimates. Second, Jews donate to political candidates in very large amounts. Third, Jews are clustered into several of the half-dozen so-called “battleground states,” the ones that have held the balance in many elections since 1992. There are 636,000 Jews in Florida, 100,000 Jews in Ohio, 92,000 in Colorado, 77,000 in Virginia, 74,000 in Nevada. If you can move 10% or 20% of the Jewish vote in those states to Republican from Democrat, considering how tightly contested those states are in most years and how close the overall electoral map is in most presidential years, you can win an election just by turning a portion of the Jewish vote.
Remember that Ohio alone provided the margin of victory for George W. Bush in 2004 and for Barack Obama in 2012. Bush won Florida by 537 votes in 2000. That’s why the Jewish vote matters so much for political professionals, the people who live by the maxim “Fifty percent plus one.”
The other element that whetted the appetite of Republicans for a Jewish realignment is the changing internal demography of the American Jewish population. Historically, the preponderance of Jews came to this country in a major wave from Eastern Europe between 1880 and 1924. A disproportionate share of them had already thrown off religious observance. They had moved from the shtetls into industrial cities, the Kievs and Vilnas and Bialystocks. Even before coming to America, they had begun to align with one or another of the isms: Zionism, socialism, communism, anarchism, Bundism or just plain individualism. Even religious Jews, by the mere act of immigrating, were willing to put that religious identity at risk in the crucible of this polyglot country. It became routine and reflexive to think of American Jews as an extensively secular, overwhelmingly non-Orthodox, liberal-leaning population, and to assume that the archetype would never change. But nothing is unchanging. Everything is a moving target all the time.
By 2011, the birth rate of American Jews offered some very revealing statistics. The rate overall for American Jewish women had fallen below two children. Yet for Modern Orthodox families, the average was 3.3 children. For Haredi families it was 6.6 children and for Hasidic families, 7.9. Meanwhile, as the Pew Research Center found recently, the intermarriage rate has risen to 58% overall; among non-Orthodox Jews it exceeds 70%. Those two realities — an increasing Orthodox birthrate and an increasing non-Orthodox intermarriage rate — are very much changing the shape of the American Jewish electorate. If you want to see if Jews are going to increasingly vote Republican in the future, look at the Jewish wedding announcements and the birth announcements in your local newspaper. Project forward 20 years from those two statistics, and you’ll see what the balance between Democrat and Republican is liable to be within the American Jewish community.
The polity is shifting in a way that is going to put a lot of the Jewish vote up for grabs. The demographic change may not by itself push Jews from liberal or moderate to conservative or from Democrat to Republican, but it will make such a realignment more possible than it’s ever been. And that prospective realignment has a significant application in terms of Zionism.
I often say that if Zionism hadn’t existed, American Jews would have invented it for themselves. In its original incarnation, Zionism was uniquely suited to the nature of American Jewish life. Zionism was not religious, and most American Jews either were not religious or were not especially religious. Zionism shared with liberal and leftist movements a commitment to redistributive income and social equality, a goal that spoke to American Jewry of the 1920s, ’20s, and ’30s. Zionism assured American Jews that with their political influence and financial clout, unique in the Diaspora, they could serve Zionism in ways other than or in addition to making aliyah. So, for nearly a half-century, Zionism appealed to the heartland of the American Jewish community, those Jews who were unaffiliated, secular and in the Conservative movement. Until World War II and the Shoah, the Reform movement rejected Zionism as a form of dual loyalty, saying that America is the Promised Land. Most of the Orthodox, meanwhile, believed there could not be Zion until the Messiah came. All the more so in the first 20 years after statehood, Zionism said to a decisive majority of American Jews that your liberalism on domestic issues is completely congruent with your support of Israel — Mapai-era socialist, collectivist Israel. That Israel offered a shining example of self-determination, of national sovereignty, of the worldwide movement of former imperial colonies taking control over their own political lives.
The Six Day War ensured Israel’s survival and security in a military sense, but wound up endangering them in a different way. In the wake of the lightning victory, and especially the capture of East Jerusalem and the West Bank territories known in the Torah as Judea and Samaria, the longtime Orthodox opposition to Zionism reversed itself. No individual more embodied the transformation than Tzvi Yehuda Kook, son of the great Avraham Kook, chief rabbi of Israel during the Mandate era. The elder Kook, it is true, was one of the rare Orthodox leaders to support Zionism, though he did not live to see the state established. Tzvi Yehuda went recklessly further, declaring that the Six Day War was proof that the divine hand was at work, that the messianic era was coming. When people in the Orthodox world said, “It’s not up to you to hurry time,” meaning to hurry the end of days, he retorted, “Time is hurrying us.”
Out of such teachings came a significant transformation in religious nationalism in Israel, and that transformation ultimately affected American Jewry, as well, particularly in the Modern Orthodox and centrist Orthodox communities. As the settlement project gathered momentum from the mid-1970s onward, many American Orthodox Jews aligned not only with a secular State of Israel in the material world, but also with the millenarian goal of reclaiming all the land of biblical Israel. The settlers presented themselves as the fulfillment of Zionism, just like the Yishuv’s pioneers creating facts on the ground overnight.
Gradually but inexorably, the nature of the American Jewish attachment to Israel began to change, to become more and more the province of the Orthodox. I do not begrudge the Orthodox their dominance. They didn’t steal Zionism from anyone. To a certain degree, non-Orthodox Jews have abdicated it. Regardless, the net effect is clear. Survey data tells us that Orthodox Jews in this country are twice as likely as Conservative Jews, four times as likely as Reform Jews, and eight times as likely as unaffiliated Jews to have a deep, ongoing relationship with Israel — meaning repeated visits, time spent studying there, friends and family living there. In particular, the “gap year” between graduating from high school and entering college, which often involves study at a yeshiva somewhere in the occupied territories, has bred a deeper affiliation with the Greater Israel of the settlement project.
In that alignment, America’s centrist and Modern Orthodox are the brethren of Israel’s religious nationalists. This attachment of American Jews to Israel in this very selective way has had tremendous — and, by my lights, catastrophic — consequences for Jewish unity in both America and Israel. In wave after wave of the past 30 years, the Zionist consensus between Jews in the United States and Israel has cracked. In the first intifada of the late 1980s, for the first time since statehood, prominent mainstream American Jews, from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg to Woody Allen, publicly criticized Israel. The first intifada also led to a moral and strategic awakening within Israel itself about how untenable an ongoing occupation would be. That realization led to the Oslo period. Yet the Oslo period, as we can now see in the fullness of time, drove the divide so deep that, of course, a pro-settlement radical assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, the prime minister who had signed the accords with Yasser Arafat.
In the Israel election less than a year after Rabin’s assassination, the American partisan divide began to map itself onto Israeli politics. Netanyahu, running against Shimon Peres, hired a Republican political consultant, Arthur Finkelstein, to advise his campaign. Finkelstein is an American Jew whose clients in this country included Jesse Helms of North Carolina, then one of the most right-wing senators on the national stage. Netanyahu’s campaign also saw him attracting financial support from a casino magnate, not very widely known at the time, named Sheldon Adelson. Netanyahu narrowly beat Peres in that race. Three years later, after he had an ongoing acrimonious relationship with the Clinton administration, Netanyahu ran against Ehud Barak. In that election, both candidates weaponized American consultants. Finkelstein again worked for Netanyahu, while James Carville and Stanley Greenberg from Bill Clinton’s 1992 team were hired by Barak.
The next set of events provided a deceptive interregnum in the intra-Jewish rift. With Barak’s victory in 1999, he made Israel’s most generous peace offers ever, first at Camp David and then at Taba. Arafat, for his part, either ordered or willingly co-opted the second intifada, which was less a popular uprising than a terror war against sovereign Israel. At a horrific price — exemplified in such atrocities as the suicide bombing of the Dolphinarium disco on the Tel Aviv boardwalk and the suicide bombing of a Passover Seder at a Netanya hotel —the existing tensions both within American Jewry and between American Jewry and Israeli Jewry were obscured.
I remember going with my children to the Salute to Israel Parade in 2002 after the bloodiest few months of the intifada, and walking into the largest and most broad-based turnout in a decade. In that year, at least, the parade wasn’t primarily an Orthodox affair. It really reflected American Jewry across the board. Meanwhile, despite Republican efforts dating back to the Regan administration, the Jewish vote was not being won over to the GOP. When I went out on a book tour of Jewish community centers in the fall of 2000 in the run-up to the Al Gore-George W. Bush election, almost every night an audience member would say that Bush would be terrible for Israel because he would be getting foreign-policy advice from James Baker, “that Arabist.” Even when President Bush was in office and trying to restrain the Israelis from taking strong counterstrikes to the terror war, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon compared Bush to Neville Chamberlain.
There is a concept from research into substance abuse and addiction called “ecstatic memory.” It refers to the way you remember things versus the way they actually were. For those concerned with unity between American and Israeli Jews, the near-agreement at Camp David and the violent backlash of the second intifada engendered a kind of ecstatic memory. The momentary common cause papered over the deep fissures that had been developing for decades. But with the ascent within a year of each other of Obama as president and Netanyahu as prime minister for the second time, the long-present fault lines reasserted themselves more widely and more deeply than ever before.
Anyone who closely follows the Israeli-American relationship can tally up the reasons for the rift and apportion the blame. Was it the fault of Obama’s Cairo speech? Was it because he didn’t follow up with a visit to Israel? Was it Netanyahu’s fault that Israel announced a housing start over the green line while Joe Biden was visiting Israel? Was it Obama’s fault for denying Netanyahu a photo-op during a White House visit? Was the problem that Netanyahu gave Obama a finger-wagging lecture about his geo-political naiveté in front of the cameras in another visit? Or maybe things went terminally sour when Netanyahu invited Mitt Romney to Jerusalem and all but officially endorsed him during the 2012 campaign? I don’t know.
One thing we do know, though, is that 85% percent of Israeli Jews favored Romney in that race. Meanwhile, despite Republican and Likud efforts to the contrary, the American Jewish vote for Obama went down only 4% from 2008 to 2012, from 74% to 70%. So something happened. What happened was that Netanyahu made a strategic decision to align Israel with the Republican Party and particularly to look at evangelical Christians as a replacement for liberal and moderate American Jews in terms of being reliable allies. These so-called Christian Zionists, unlike most American Jews, could be counted on to support the settlement enterprise. They supported it so fiercely, in fact, that the Rev. Pat Robertson attributed Sharon’s near-fatal stroke to divine retribution for having evacuated from Gaza.
Netanyahu’s decision has had major consequences on the Jewish community and on Jewish unity in this country. The American Jews on whom Netanyahu most relies are fixtures on the right. Ron Dermer — now Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. and previously the closest adviser to Netanyahu, sometimes called “Bibi’s brain” — grew up in Miami Beach in a very political family. Before he made aliyah, he cut his teeth as a young political operative working with Frank Luntz, helping the Republican pollster devise the Contract With America platform that Newt Gingrich used to win Republican control of the House of Representatives in 1994. Sheldon Adelson set up his own free newspaper in Israel, Israel Hayom, Israel Today, which has been the unofficial organ of the Netanyahu administration in Israel. Naftali Bennett, leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party and an important coalition partner for Netanyahu, had grown up in Atlanta. Even Netanyahu’s then-ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, proved to be something other than a political centrist. In his memoir “Ally,” which is primarily a bill of indictment against the Obama administration, Oren also gave a revealing and deeply felt account of his estrangement from American Jewry. The suburban New Jersey of his childhood was a place where he was harassed and the local synagogue desecrated; only in Israel did he grow Jewishly confident. As for those American Jews who did not make aliyah, he wrote that they’re all fixated on tikkun olam, repair of the world. And that fixation, he posited, has come at the expense of attachment to Israel.
As conservative American Jews were becoming vital elements of Netanyahu’s inner circle, the dormant Oslo process was giving way to a de facto one-state solution. Much blame can be laid on the Palestinian side; nothing in this essay is meant to elide the sad truth that, in Abba Eban’s famous phrase, the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity — with the peace offers from Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert, with sympathetic American presidents in George W. Bush and Barack Obama. But all that being so, it must also be said that as of 2016, the two-state solution is effectively over. The present Israeli government is the most extremist in the nation’s history, with the demagogic Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister, and a Knesset that includes Yehuda Glick, a provocateur from the Third Temple movement. This government is Netanyahu’s unwitting gift to the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign.
The terminal blows to Jewish unity came in the summer of 2015, with the vitriolic congressional debate over the Iran deal and with Netanyahu’s speech at Speaker John Boehner’s request to Congress. These events gave the clearest signs ever of a virtually official alliance among the Israeli prime minister, the Israeli government and the political opposition to President Obama. One can speculate whether that kind of behavior is the cause or the effect of Israel’s declining support from Democrats in opinion polls. There is a 30-point difference now between Democrats and Republicans on support for Israel in the Palestinian conflict. The surprise candidate of the Democratic presidential primaries, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a secular Jew who lived briefly in Israel, broke political protocol to embrace the Palestinian cause and name several Palestinian sympathizers to the Democratic convention’s platform committee. (In one interview, he also wildly exaggerated the number of Palestinian killed in Gaza during the 2014 war.)
To make another personal note, amid the Iran debate, one of my best Israeli friends said this to me about American Jewry: “You care more about gay marriage than Israel.” The statement may have been more pungent than he realized. Israel very correctly boasts about its record on LGBT tolerance, including in the military, as proof of what a civilized society it is in a lethally homophobic part of the world. Israel is a country that has a social compact that lets my friends and family there send their children to university free of cost and gives them universal, state-supported health care. Israel, even during this period of large-scale privatization of the economy, still has an accepted role for labor unions in public life. To my Israeli friend, I would say now that it’s not that I care more about gay marriage than I care about Israel, but I wonder why those two positions must be made irreconcilable. If that kind of tolerance, that kind of social compact, that kind of voice for working people remains central to the Israeli experience, then why are you asking me as an American Jewish voter to line up with a political movement in this country that opposes every single one of those things?
Not surprisingly, a poll conducted in the fall of 2015 by the American Jewish Committee found an ever more deeply divided American Jewish electorate. The survey showed that 49% of American Jews identified as Democrat, 32% as independent and 19% as Republican. The split is actually even starker. When the same poll asked respondents for their preference among the dozen presidential candidates then in the race, 59% collectively chose a Democrat and 41% collectively chose a Republican. That partisan margin among Jewish voters is the smallest in modern American history.
What exactly does that configuration mean for American Jewry, particularly in a political year dominated by Donald Trump?
One can say that Trump is an outlier, or one can say his style of white nationalism is the logical outcome of 60 years of Republican Party appeals to racial and ethnic hatred. This tawdry habit goes back to Barry Goldwater in 1964 running against the Civil Rights Act, running on the euphemism of “state’s rights.” It continues when Richard Nixon appropriates and slightly sanitizes George Wallace’s race-baiting appeal and calls it the “Southern strategy.” It proceeds with Ronald Regan opening his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where the three Civil Rights workers, two of them Jewish, were murdered. In the next phase, George H.W. Bush hires Lee Atwater as his evil genius to run the campaign that included the notorious Willie Horton commercial, playing on fears of black criminal predators. In the last president race, Romney uses racially coded language about that 47% of layabouts and deadbeats just hanging out on the dole. The rarity among Republican presidents and serious candidates has been those like Gerald Ford, George W. Bush and John McCain who refused to play the race card.
Barely below the surface, the “birther” movement, with Donald Trump one of its most vocal exponents, has been welcomed in the Republican electorate. Indeed, a large plurality, if not a majority, of Republican voters continue to believe that Obama is a Muslim. Anyone who listened regularly to right-wing talk radio — Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Glenn Beck — could not have been surprised by Trump’s recent torrent of bigoted comments or by his defense of them as being merely politically incorrect. On the radio shows and cable news shows and websites that motivate the Republican base, any expression of tolerance is mocked and any political compromise is derided. These media prepared the soil for a candidate like Trump.
So, if Trump is a monster, then he is the monster that his party created. To put it in Jewish terms, as one of my Columbia Journalism School colleagues, Alisa Solomon, put it, “Trump is the Republican golem.” Even during the #NeverTrump effort, such president and former Republican leaders as Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Rick Scott and Jeff Sessions lined up with him. Paul Ryan, as speaker of the House the highest Republican elected official, has continued to support Trump even while admitting that the candidate’s attacks on a judge of Mexican ancestry were racist. The ranks have closed in the Jewish world, too. Before Trump even received his invitation to the AIPAC conference, he won a majority of voters in the Florida primary who said that they think the United States isn’t supportive enough of Israel. The way the exit poll was broken down, it is unclear how many of those voters were Jews; some were probably evangelical Christians. But surely many of them were Jewish.
In May 2016, Adelson formally endorsed Trump and pledged to spend $90 million to help elect him, saying Trump “will be good for Israel.” Earlier in the campaign, Adelson had tipped off his preference by approvingly profiling Trump in the pages of Israel Hayom. He’s said: “He creates jobs. I create jobs. Who knows what’s the problem?” Trump’s tight circle of political advisers includes several Jews — Michael Cohen, Jason Greenblatt and Stephen Miller — and he has pointed to his daughter Ivanka Trump, who is a Jew by choice, and to her Modern Orthodox husband, Jared Kushner. Kushner, in fact, took a key role in drafting Trump’s speech to AIPAC. After the terrorist attack by Omar Mateen on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, Michael Oren offered campaign advice to Trump on an Israeli television show: Emphasize the shooter’s Muslim identity. (As if Trump hadn’t been avidly doing so already.)
The Jewish counterarguments to Trump are many: that his positions on immigration and religious tolerance defy American Jewish norms. That his base includes white supremacists and anti-Semites such as David Duke, whose support Trump rejected only begrudgingly and belatedly. That his recent tweet about Hillary Clinton’s reliance on big money used a Star of David image and was taken from an alt-right website. That he has spoken at times of being even-handed in brokering a deal between Israel and the Palestinians. For these reasons, among others, some conservative Jewish activists and intellectuals, such as Eliot Cohen, William Kristol, David Brooks, David Frum and Paul Singer have declared their implacable opposition to Trump. Yet the tide was running against them even when Trump appeared to be a blowhard long shot. In the American Jewish Committee’s survey in September 2015, the top-ranking Republican was Donald Trump.
In the language that a real estate mogul like Trump might use, now it is time to do the deal. In the remaining months of the presidential campaign, American Jews will be told they must vote for Trump or they will not be faithful Zionists and supporters of Israel. (Indeed, recent polling in Israel itself shows that Trump has more support there than Clinton for his supposed toughness on terrorism.)
In fact, the leveraging process began even before Trump had clinched the nomination. In early March 2015, Temple Beth Sholom in Las Vegas held a debate between Jeremy Ben-Ami, founder and president of the liberal Jewish lobby J Street, and Matt Brooks, executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition. The journalist who moderated, Jon Ralston, asked the then-speculative question of how the Republican Jewish Coalition would respond if Trump won the nomination: “Would you be uncomfortable with Trump?” To which Brooks responded, “Uncomfortable in what way? Uncomfortable in the way that if you look at Donald Trump compared to Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, he’s someone who’s clearly said he’s got what it takes to stand up to radical Islam? When you look at the contrast between any of the Republicans who are in the race, all of them have said they were going to rip up the Iran deal on day one, they were going to do whatever it takes to beat back the threat from the Islamic State group, and they call it for what it is, radical Islamic terrorism. All of them have stated their strong commitment to the U.S. pro-Israel agenda.”
The AIPAC speech was both disgraceful and decisive. The invitation legitimized Trump, offering him an opportunity to “look presidential.” That term, repeated in much of the media coverage of the speech, essentially meant that Trump could read a text adequately off a teleprompter rather than free-associating as he did in most of his rallies, and that he could intone some rote pro-Israel positions that his Jewish son-in-law had put into the script. Even so, Trump could not resist the ad-lib about Obama being “the worst thing that’s ever happened to Israel.” It received one of its greatest cheers of the night — this at a convention intended to restore a bipartisan consensus for Israel.
It is true, as I noted earlier, that about 75 rabbis, drawn from all the denominations, courageously walked out in protest. But 18,000 people stayed in their seats. And it is true that the morning after Trump’s speech, the new president of AIPAC, Lillian Pinkus, issued a public apology that so many “people applauded a sentiment that we neither agree with or condone.” One could well question the veracity of that assertion; even if it is taken at face value, AIPAC had tethered itself to Trump by having allowed him its pulpit in the first place. It is not sufficient to say, as some AIPAC members have, that AIPAC needs to be in a relationship with any person who might become president. Would AIPAC have offered its convention podium to George Wallace during the segregationist’s very serious presidential races in 1968 and 1972?
Even as of this writing, with Trump polling within five or six points of Clinton, many American Jews will persist in saying that such a bigoted demagogue could not capture many of our votes. But for anyone who thinks that American Jews could not support a racist, a misogynist, a proponent of conspiracy theories, an enabler of mob violence, a man seemingly anathema to the American Jewish value system, there are three words: Marine Le Pen. Marine Le Pen is the daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, longtime leader of the France’s National Front, a notoriously anti-Semitic and Holocaust-denying proto-Nazi party. Marine Le Pen, however, has proved to be quite a bit savvier than her father. She rebranded the National Front. Instead of wasting her time on the old rallying cry of Jew hatred, she oriented the party around a new one, Islamophobia. She offered to include Jews in the French alliance against the Muslim hordes. And she found willing Jewish listeners. Between the 2007 presidential election in France and the 2012 presidential election in France, she more than tripled her portion of the Jewish vote; it went from 4% to13.5%. So, yes, it can happen here.
In closing, I want to return to Al Smith and my Uncle Seymour. Al Smith appealed to American Jews in part because he was the one politician brave enough in his time to take on the Ku Klux Klan. Nearly a century later, we have an open question of how many American Jews will vote for a candidate who is favored by white supremacists like David Duke. My Uncle Seymour just turned 86. He needs dialysis. He’s just come out of the hospital with pneumonia. I’m very glad he’s alive, because I love him dearly. But I’m also so deeply sorry that this person who had the FDR banner carried at his bar mitzvah ceremony lived long enough to see this time of shame for American Jewry.
Samuel G. Freedman is a regular contributor to the Forward and is the author of eight books, including “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.” Follow him on Twitter @SamuelGFreedman