Debate | Is Trump good or bad for the Jews?
The U.S. presidential election has divided Jews as it has the whole country. While recent surveys show that some three-quarters of Jewish voters support former Vice President Joe Biden, as they have largely backed Democrats for the last century, a sizable portion of our communities are siding with the incumbent Republican President Donald Trump.
With the election six days away and millions of Americans casting ballots, we asked two of our writers, Eli Steinberg and Joel Swanson, to debate an essential question: Is President Trump good for the Jews?
Joel Swanson: This week, the American Jewish Committee released a groundbreaking survey about antisemitism in America. The results were sobering: 82% of Jews think antisemitism has increased in the past five years. Nearly half of us feel less secure than we did a year ago. And seven out of 10 U.S. Jews think the Republican Party has a serious antisemitism problem, compared to only four out of ten who think that about the Democratic Party. And fully three-quarters of American Jews think the far-right poses a “very serious” or “moderately serious” threat to Jewish safety in the United States today, compared to only one-third who feel that way about the far-left.
So the facts are these: We’re living at a time when we have a United States president who dog whistles to white supremacist groups during nationally televised debates, energizing these groups through remarks that the Anti-Defamation League says “provide rhetorical aid and comfort to these groups.”
So my first point is this: If Trump is really good for the Jews, why is he opposed by the vast majority of American Jews, who also think that he and his party bear personal responsibility for dramatically rising antisemitism in the country?
Eli Steinberg: The question which lies before us is whether re-electing Donald Trump is good for Jews, not whether most Jews will be supporting him in the upcoming election. We can agree that they will not be voting Trump. The question is why, and the answer is that for most Jews, the issues most important to them have nothing to do with Judaism at all, as a 2012 Public Religion Research Institute found. 66% of Jews said the economy and income inequality were their top priorities. What’s more, 46% of Jews defined their actual Jewish identity as a commitment to social justice and equality, double those who defined their Jewishness in terms of religious observance (17%), cultural heritage and tradition (6%), or a general set of values (3%) combined.
So there needs to be a clear distinction here: Are we discussing whether Trump is good for progressives who happen to be ethnically Jewish? Or are we going to take a hard look at which one of the two tickets before us is better for Jews qua Jews? That is the question we are debating.
And on that, there is no question.
President Trump has made religious liberty a consistent priority, whereas his challenger, Joe Biden, has taken the opposite path, promising to go back to court with the nuns of the Little Sisters of the Poor to force them to do something they say will violate their sincerely held beliefs. And his VP pick, Kamala Harris, sponsored a law to water down the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, essentially putting the government in charge of determining what legitimate exercise of religion is.
So which one of the two is good for the Jews?
It seems the heart of our disagreement here lies in two questions: What are Jewish values, and should we evaluate “Jewish values” in a normative, prescriptive sense, based on what they should be, or should we just look at what Jewish values among the overwhelming majority of American Jews actually are?
Because the fact is, data consistently shows that the overwhelming majority of American Jews do not define “Jewish values” in terms of halakhah or adherence to Jewish law. A major Pew poll found that only 19% of American Jews think that “observing Jewish law” is essential to being Jewish. But those values of “leading an ethical and moral life” and “working for justice and equality” that you so dismiss are essential to the way a lot more American Jews define our Jewishness. And here is where most of us disagree with President Trump so strongly.
I’m sure you would respond that those aren’t really “Jewish values” per se; that they’re just a way for ethnic Jews who no longer follow Jewish law to smuggle their own left-leaning politics into an ostensibly Jewish cultural framework. But here is where we fundamentally disagree: There’s a lot more to Jewish history and culture than just Jewish law and Jewish Orthopraxy.
In fact, most American Jews see Jewishness as an expression of a people’s culture and history as much as a “religion,” which is why fully two-thirds of us believe you can be Jewish without believing in God, and why growing numbers of millennial Jews describe ourselves as culturally but not religiously Jewish.
But, for those many American Jews who might identify with Jewish culture and history but not necessarily formal religious practice, I would argue that our overwhelming rejection of President Trump is no less rooted in an understanding of Jewish culture, history, and identity than is the Orthodox Jewish embrace of President Trump, even if it is a very different understanding of what “Jewishness” means. The single value that the largest number of American Jews cite as essential to being Jewish is “remembering the Holocaust.”
And there’s a reason why so many young Jews cite our collective memory of the trauma of persecution and the Holocaust as motivation to fight against the Trump administration’s cruel family separation and immigration policies. (And, by the way, polls show that the single issue that unites the largest number of American Jews politically, 78% of us, is opposition to the Trump administration’s family separation policies.)
Are those not “Jewish values” also?
So I think the question before us is this: What does it mean for a value to be “Jewish,” and might the overwhelming majority of American Jews who reject President Trump, also be voting based on the fact that, when the President of the United States shows support for violent far-right movements, it reminds us of lessons we take from Jewish history?
I think what we are doing here is conflating the why with the what. You seem to be focused on the former instead of the latter.
There is undoubtedly a long list of justifications people might invoke as they oppose Trump, many of which you cite above. Many of these are justifications which, as you point out, are shared by many progressive Jews.
But a fundamental Jewish value — in fact, the most fundamental — is that might does not make right. Truth is not the province of, nor is it determined by, the majority alone. If it were, there would not be a Jewish nation to speak of at all. And do we think that stereotypes of Jews become real in the Middle East because 74% of people there believe them to be?
As a Haredi Jew, I am quite used to the minority within a minority status I’ve been assigned. I embrace it. Because I believe that truth, informed by 3,000 years of tradition in the Torah as transmitted from Sinai, is on my side. But that is not what we are debating here.
I ask you, is it good for the Jews when a President — any President — sees government as the ultimate decider on what we, as Jews, are or are not allowed to do? Is it good for Jews when a President is determined to put religious institutions on unequal — and even weaker — footing than those which are not?
I think our fundamental disagreement here is about whether there is some sort of “objective” standpoint from which to judge what is best for “the Jews” as a community that goes beyond the facts of what the majority of us actually believe. You seem to think there is. But I would argue that ignoring the viewpoint of the vast, overwhelming majority of American Jews is actually less Jewish than listening to that majority voice and heeding it. I would point out that there is a long tradition of truth being determined by the majority in Jewish tradition, so much so that there’s the famous story in the Talmud of a majority of rabbis overruling God on a matter of rabbinic law.
But that principle aside, I would argue that the ultimate danger is dismissing the concerns of the majority of American Jews about President Trump in the name of some abstract principle that most of us do not believe in. Because the simple facts are these: Eight out of 10 American Jews think antisemitism in the United States has increased in the past five years, which is exactly the time frame during which Trump has been a major figure on the political scene. And more than half of American Jews think Trump and his party bear responsibility for that well-documented rise.
President Trump has openly signaled his support for the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory, which polls shows fully half of his supporters now believe in, and which experts on far-right extremism say is becoming increasingly antisemitic.
Is it any wonder that that 60% of American Jews believe Trump “bears at least some responsibility” for rising antisemitic violence, and that survivors of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting feel that “Trump is definitely courting right-wing militias?”
Doesn’t the greatest danger lie in dismissing our community’s concrete concerns for our immediate safety in the name of some supposed higher abstract principle of “truth”?
Eli Steinberg: We seem to agree about what we disagree, if about nothing else: I believe Judaism inherently means something, while you contend being Jewish means nothing beyond what people want it to mean.
I certainly don’t dismiss the concerns they have for American Jewry’s safety, or for the safety of any Jew. That safety has been a real concern for visibly Orthodox Jews like myself living in so-called “blue states” of New York and New Jersey, where we’ve been experiencing violence and other sorts of bigotry and discrimination most overtly and consistently. We know all too well that antisemitism transcends political ideology, finding ways to manifest on both the right and the left.
So the question remains what it was when we began this exercise: Is Donald Trump good for Jews? If one assigns meaning to Judaism beyond progressive dogma, the answer is clearly yes.
He has indisputably made Jews around the world more safe physically through his work on the Abraham Accords, the normalization agreements which Israel has signed with an ever-growing number of Arab states. He has made it much safer for Jews to, in the words of George Washington to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, “continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” He’s done this by positioning himself as a champion of those of us who have had our rights trampled on, and who are the ones actively being discriminated against.
It’s from this vantage point of someone who has an acute feeling of what it means to be stigmatized and attacked for being Jewish that I can say that Donald Trump is undoubtedly good for the Jews.
Joel Swanson: I find it interesting that you begin your description of how President Trump has supposedly made American Jews safer with the Abraham Accords, which by definition concern Israeli and not American Jews. There’s a reason why President Trump believes American Jews are basically displaced Israelis and should be loyal to Israel first and foremost. There’s also a reason why the overwhelming majority of American Jews do not prioritize Israel, a country where we intentionally choose not to live, when we cast our votes.
But that leads me to my final point, with which I’ll close. You seem to think, implicitly, that Orthodox Jewish opinions on President Trump should count for more than the American Jewish majority, because of adherence to Jewish law. I just fundamentally reject that premise, but I do not believe that means that Jewish identity means nothing for non-Orthodox Jews at all. After all, the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history was not against Orthodox Jews, but against a Conservative synagogue, and it was motivated by the shooter’s fears that Jews are secretly pulling the strings behind immigration to the U.S., a conspiracy theory which, by the way, President Trump has repeated.
But for many Jews, support for immigrant rights and for organizations like HIAS are not ways of ignoring Jewish values, but of expressing our understanding of Jewish history and persecution through our politics today. The synagogue shooter hated Jews because we overwhelmingly support immigrant rights, and we do that because we know what happens when persecuted refugees are kept out of the US.
There are so many ways of being Jewish, and we can’t dismiss the majority of American Jews, whose politics are deeply informed by our history and culture, just because we don’t necessarily strictly follow Jewish law. And I’m making that argument, after all, in a publication that is historically culturally Jewish socialist.
If you’ll notice, nowhere in making my point about the Abraham Accords or anywhere in this exchange did I say anything about the interests of the state of Israel. What I said was that Jews worldwide would be safer because of Trump. If the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Arab world makes Jews less safe, normalization makes us safer.
I’ll close this with: To me, to define what is good for Jews by looking at what a majority of ethnically Jewish Americans thinks is good for them strips the beauty and meaning of Judaism from itself, replacing it with a dark historical prism informed by “our understanding of Jewish history and persecution.” That idea makes me incredibly sad. Being a Jew is about so much more than that.
But if you define what is “good for Jews” as good for the physical safety of our Jewish brethren around the world, whether in this great country we are privileged to call home or abroad, if you define it as a leader who will stand up and make sure Jews can exercise the First Amendment without fear of reprisal, if you define it as someone who isn’t looking to disadvantage Jews because they adhere to their traditional values, then Donald Trump certainly is good for the Jews.
Eli Steinberg lives in New Jersey with his wife and five children. They are not responsible for his opinions, which he has been putting into words over the last decade, and which have been published across Jewish and general media. You can tweet the hottest of your takes at him @HaMeturgeman.
Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.