Ronald Rubin, an Orthodox professor emeritus of political science at CUNY, reached back three-quarters of a century to Leo Durocher, one of baseball’s great bare-knuckled scrappers to find a parallel to President Donald Trump. “Nice guys finish last,” snarled Durocher, and no one ever called Trump nice.
“People don’t give Trump enough credit,” Rubin said. “He knows that the world is a dangerous, provocative place. He believes in strength.”
After a seemingly endless barrage of confrontations and accusations from Trump detractors — regarding issues from Charlottesville to the U.S. Southern border to Helsinki — liberal Jews are at the “resistance” barricades, while Orthodox Jews are standing by their man.
“We Orthodox Jews march to a different tune,” Rubin continued. Politically and socially conservative, and cautious, “We understand the tragedy of history. We’ve learned the dangers of naivete. We’ve learnt the need for Jewish power, particularly with Israel.”
The Orthodox are not only standing by Trump, but it appears they are doing so in greater numbers than on Election Day.
In June, an AJC survey found that Trump had a favorability rating of 26 percent among Jews, up from the 19 percent who said they voted for candidate Trump; it stands to reason that the bump-up probably comes from the Orthodox community. “Without question, Orthodox support for Trump has picked up,” said Steven Bayme, AJC’s director of Contemporary Jewish Life and AJC’s institute on Jewish-Israeli relations and a close observer of the Orthodox community.
“The Trump administration has been there for the [Orthodox] community’s needs,” said Nathan Diament, executive director of the Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center. “It starts with his policies toward Israel,” notably the absence of pressure on the Jewish state to make concessions to the Palestinians or to curtail settlement building, “as well as appointing Nikki Haley [as ambassador] to the United Nations, where she has been a tenacious defender of Israel.” In contrast to Trump and Haley, several Orthodox conservatives pointed to the Obama administration’s refusal to veto a 2016 Security Council resolution that denigrated Israel’s access to holy sites and Jerusalem’s Old City.
Trump has gotten high marks for doing what no other president has done: moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Trump also gets credit, Diament said, for nullifying the Iran nuclear deal, for his support of religious liberty, his conservative judicial appointments and, “at least rhetorically, supporting school choice, which would be helpful to families in day schools.”
Trump isn’t perfect, of course, say some of his Orthodox supporters. Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, a former political aide to Republicans and Democrats (Mayor Ed Koch, Gov. George Pataki, and Sen. Al D’Amato), referenced the Trump administration’s family separation policy for arrested illegal immigrants, including asylum seekers, at the southern border. “Yes, the policy was not carried out with finesse, no question about it,” Wiesenfeld said. The issue lit a fire under liberal groups that cited Jewish values in their opposition; Orthodox groups such as the OU and Agudath Israel condemned the policy as well, though they did so after the OU was criticized, both inside and outside of the Orthodox community, for meeting with Attorney General Jeff Sessions as children were being separated from their parents at the border.
But, added Wiesenfeld, “what’s really detestable is when this gets compared to the Holocaust. The kids are getting proper food and medical care.… The criticism is over the top, just as the Helsinki [summit] criticism was over the top.”
Trump’s recent summit with Russia saw Trump vehemently criticized by both Republicans and Democrats for siding with Vladimir Putin against the U.S.’s own intelligence community on the matter of Russian interference in the 2016 election. But Orthodox Jews, some of whom tend to be single-issue Israel voters, saw the summit as successful, with both Russia and the United States joining in support for Israel, particularly regarding the Golan Heights and Iran. In the end, said Wiesenfeld, “Trump and Putin were on the same page when it came to keeping Iran and radical Islamists away from Israel’s border.”
Regarding America’s southern border, Rubin, the CUNY professor, said, “Every country has the right to determine its borders.” Some migrants are seeking political asylum, “but let’s be real,” he said, “no one is running away from Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia.” And, he added, despite what liberal Jews argue, not every Democratic political argument is synonymous with “Jewish values.”
When it comes to values and character issues, private lives don’t always match public policies. Just as Democratic politicians such as President Bill Clinton and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy had problematic histories with women in their private lives but supported the feminist political agenda, Trump, whose multiple marriages, affairs with porn stars, and crude language seems the antithesis of piety, nevertheless has supported the conservative religious agenda as president. Traditional Jews, feeling vulnerable as the social and sexual landscape quakes leftward, are comfortable with Trump’s contempt for political correctness and his appointment of judges with a strict sense of First Amendment religious protections.
“The Modern Orthodox clearly are the most conflicted about Trump,” Bayme, also an adjunct professor at the progressive Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, said in an email. “In the circles of ‘Open Orthodoxy,’ Trump is quite unpopular, often the target of strong criticism. He embodies the antithesis of how this sector of Modern Orthodoxy perceives itself — urbane, liberal-minded, intellectual, and pro-feminist. They approve his policies with respect to Israel but are deeply troubled by his style, rhetoric, and both his domestic and foreign policies.
“In the more conservative (and far more numerous) circles of Centrist or Modern Orthodoxy,” Bayme continued, “Trump’s rather traditional Republican policy agenda, especially his stance on Israel, evokes considerable resonance, again accompanied by ambivalence about him personally.”
There’s less ambivalence about Trump, however, when it comes to the courts. The OU’s Diament told us that although the OU has not yet announced its position on Judge Brett Kavanaugh (Trump’s pick to replace Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy), as it did when it endorsed Trump’s previous nominee, Neal Gorsuch, the sense is that religious Jews are vigilant that expanding legal rights for some people should not infringe on the rights of religious people, and that the church-state wall should not be higher than what the Founders intended.
Unlike liberal Jews who have tried to pin rising anti-Semitism to Trump, Diament praised the administration for pushing back on anti-Semitism, and for “putting its shoulder to the wheel” on religious issues protecting Jews, internationally and domestically.
Fifty percent of Jews think the economy is doing better than a year ago, according to the AJC’s June survey. Like many Orthodox Jews, Larry Spiewak has a multitude of interests. He is the chair of the Council of Jewish Organizations in Flatbush, but also a businessman who recently returned from China. Spiewak is concerned about the impact of Trump’s imposition of tariffs, but he admires the president.
“Trump had the guts to stand up to North Korea; no other president stood up to Iran like he has; no other president had the guts to move the embassy. I’m glad he picked David Friedman as ambassador [to Israel], a very qualified, great guy. And Nikki Haley is the best, absolutely the best. She can get invited to my Shabbos table anytime.”
Even if Trump is not ideal, say many Orthodox voters, where can they go in November? Democrats across the country are turning to progressive candidates such as the 14th Congressional District’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Queens, whom Orthodox Jews consider to be naive or hostile about Israel, as are others influenced by Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Wiesenfeld said Trump’s Orthodox support “will not evaporate. If anything, his support will be strengthened,” because he’s fulfilled his campaign promises. “But you will not hear people tell you that. It’s not a good idea in polite company” to say so.
Spiewak summed up his sense of the Orthodox community succinctly: “Whoever voted for Trump will vote for him again.”
Jonathan Mark is associate editor of The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.