The Real Reason Orthodox Jews Love Trump (Hint: It’s Not Israel)
A recent poll conducted by the Orthodox publication Ami Magazine found that support for President Trump in the Orthodox community has skyrocketed. Though just 54% of Orthodox Jews voted for Trump in 2016, Ami found that Trump has an 89% approval rating among the Orthodox. On fighting anti-Semitism, over 92 percent said Orthodox Jews trusted the president and Republicans over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 11, 2019
These numbers might surprise you if you aren’t Orthodox. In fact, the polling of all American Jews shows almost the opposite: 76% of Jews recently polled by the American Jewish Committee had an unfavorable rating of the President, and 73% disapprove of how he is handling anti-Semitism.
What accounts for this huge gap?
It would be tempting to explain the erosion of support among Orthodox Jewish voters for the Democratic Party on the perceived receding support for Israel. After all, 80% of those polled by Ami Magazine saw in Trump the American president who had “accomplished the most for Israel,” which is a big priority for Orthodox Jews. While on its face this would explain some loss of the vote share in the community, it doesn’t explain its absolute obliteration. While people do consider U.S. policy on Israel when voting, American Jews are Americans first. Their political positions revolve around American issues, and for the most part are not single issue voters. Additionally, support for the Israeli government amongst Orthodox Jews is not as high as an outsider would expect it to be. If the loss of Jewish votes did in fact reflect a reaction to the lack of support for Israel by the Democrats, this dip would actually be more pronounced amongst liberal Jews.
In fact, support for Trump among the Orthodox is less about Trump and more about another trend: growing support for Republicans among the Orthodox. And that support is directly tied to issues of church and state. Specifically, Orthodox Jews are responding to attempts by a secular government to meddle in what they believe should be private, religious affairs.
Though woefully underreported, one of the most controversial developments affecting parochial schools of all religions has been the unprecedented attempt by the State of New York to meddle with the curricula in private schools. The state has attempted to dictate mandatory quotas of time dedicated to secular studies in schools that receive any kind of public support. And as our community views it, the hours of secular study that are being demanded by state officials are so excessive that they would render the school’s ability to teach religious subjects basically impossible.
There are simply not enough hours in an average school day to satisfy the requirements of the religious students who would be impacted, as we see it, and so far, these efforts have fortunately been stymied. But the battle is still ongoing, and Orthodox and Haredi parents across New York State remain worried about what the future holds for their children.
This ongoing saga has naturally created a sense of suspicion in the community vis a vis the secular, Democratic administration and officials who seek to interfere in our children’s schooling. But this story is merely one example among many.
The New York State school saga is a microcosm of a gradual if significant attitudinal change towards religion and the right to practice it freely, which I believe accounts for a big part of the shift in the Orthodox vote.
Religious freedom has, for the most part, been a given in this country. The creed of “separation between church and state” has not just been an empty slogan; it has been understood by politicians and legislators on both sides of the political aisle as the backbone of our free society.
But in recent years, there have been an ever increasing number of instances where a public outcry against religious freedom shows how much it has been devalued. And court rulings that follow these incidents seem to indicate that this once unassailable right is on very shaky footing.
Take, for example, the Christian bakery owner asked to bake and decorate a cake for a gay wedding. Due to his religious beliefs, the baker felt he could not accommodate the gay couple’s request, but he was sued for discrimination, and a Colorado Supreme Court found in the couple’s favor.
It’s true that this man was a Christian and not an Orthodox Jew. It’s also true that the Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the Colorado Supreme Court had violated the baker’s rights. But the spectacle of a secular court ruling against a religious person’s beliefs sent a chill through my community, especially given that the Supreme Court found the commission had shown “clear hostility” towards the baker, and implied religious beliefs “are less than fully welcome in Colorado’s business community”. These are hardly words that would alleviate the angst felt by people from all religions.
There have been other stories too, of Christians forced to comply with secular edicts that they view as contrary to their beliefs that the Orthodox community watched with growing unease. There was the Little Sisters of the Poor, an order of Catholic nuns sued by the Department of Justice because they declined to provide contraceptives. There are the doctors being sued for refusing to perform abortions, or gender reassignment surgeries.
Examples like these are the things that keep Orthodox Jews up at night. While Jewish law doesn’t prohibit serving gay couples, many interpretations of Jewish law in the Orthodox community believe it forbids showing approval for such acts, and catering a gay wedding would indeed fall into that category. If religious freedom goes by the wayside, Orthodox rabbis worry they may be forced to perform same sex weddings, and doctors will be forced to perform abortions even if those things conflict with their religion.
Combine the disdain for religious freedom and the increasingly zealous, almost religious, persecution of any disagreement on the left, and it would almost feel like self sabotage for Orthodox Jews not to vote Republican. After all, it’s the Republicans who are standing up for the right of religious people to practice their religions.
The GOP has their its major deficiencies, chief among them a disturbing affiliation with the Alt Right. And yet, to us, these simply do not impact our lives as much, or as deeply.
Jewish voters will always vote their principles and interests first, no matter how flawed the candidate or party. For Orthodox Jews, we will protect our right to practice our religion first and foremost. After 2,000 years of that being denied us, you have to admit, it makes a lot of sense.
Rabbi Eliezer Brand is a talmudic researcher and teacher. He resides in Brooklyn with his wife son and two daughters.