Fear and loathing in New Jersey

Fear and loathing in New Jersey

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Pastor Kevin Taylor of the Unity Fellowship Church in Newark was among the clergy members who addressed a crowd of 150 at Congregation Beth El in South Orange on Nov. 10.
Pastor Kevin Taylor of the Unity Fellowship Church in Newark was among the clergy members who addressed a crowd of 150 at Congregation Beth El in South Orange on Nov. 10.

In an election filled with harsh rhetoric from the Right and the Left, Jews on both ends of the spectrum expressed their fears about their place in President-elect Donald Trump’s America. 

The campaign instilled fear in Muslims, African-Americans, Mexicans, other immigrant groups, women, individuals with disabilities, and anyone allied with the LGBTQ communities. Jews were not among the groups he called out — many credit Trump’s daughter, Ivanka Kushner, and her husband, Jared, both Orthodox Jews, for that. But as a result of his support from so many white nationalists, as well as campaign ads that offered a strong whiff of anti-Semitism, many Jews don’t feel safe. 

This insecurity reached a fever pitch earlier in the week when it was reported that Trump had appointed Stephen Bannon, former chair of the alt-right media outlet Breitbart News, as his chief strategist. Bannon has been accused of making anti-Semitic remarks, and Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt slammed the appointment, calling it a “sad day” when someone who headed the premier website of “white nationalists and unabashed anti-Semites and racists” becomes a senior member of the administration.

In a phone conversation with NJJN, Ruth B. Mandel, director of Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute of Politics, put it this way: “As far as I can recall, there is no specific evidence of Donald Trump specifically targeting Jews as a community and attacking the Jewish community during the campaign in the way that he generalized about other communities.” However, she continued, “there is always reason for concern when a candidate creates an atmosphere around him that makes it safe to express bigotry, to stereotype groups of people, and to threaten people in particular named groups.” 

Mandel added, “As we know from the history of anti-Semitism, you don’t get too far in that kind of general atmosphere before people feel safe expressing anti-Semitic views. And we’ve seen that, not from the candidate himself, but there’s enough evidence on-line that the environment has been productive for open anti-Semitism.” She cited some of the stereotypes that have been promoted, the references to Nazis, and the use of tropes of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Some worry that the climate is similar to Germany in the 1930s. But during a discussion on the election with local teens on Nov. 9, Rabbi Steven Kushner of Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield warned against adopting that position. “I’m just as susceptible to this as anyone in the room,” he said. “There are circumstances similar between Trump and Germany in the 1930s. But be very careful to recognize that they are different. People in the press have been comparing Trump to Hitler. I think that is not responsible. They might be similar, but they are not the same.” (For more on the discussion at Ner Tamid, see “After election, teens share emotions at local synagogue.”)

In response to Trump’s unexpected victory, many groups are organizing and taking action. Congregation Beth El in South Orange, for example, donated its space, at the request of one of its members, for a Nov. 10 gathering sponsored by North Jersey Pride. The Conservative congregation’s rabbi, Jesse Olitzky, opened the evening by pointing out the singularity of this presidential campaign. 

“This election felt different,” he said. “This election was fueled by hate and fear. And we in this room — many of us because of who we are as individuals, many of us because of those who are our loved ones — are in fear and are concerned about the future and what that future will look like.” 

The evening was part interfaith healing service (songs and clergy members’ remarks to hearten the crowd), part therapy (advice from a clinical psychologist), and part activism (five organizations introduced opportunities to take action).

Over 150 members of the community attended, not all from Beth El. Participating organizations included the Anti-Defamation League, Community Coalition on Race, Planned Parenthood, Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense, and Covenant House. Participating clergy included, in addition to Olitzky, Pastor Kevin Taylor of the Unity Fellowship Church in Newark, Pastor Rick Boyer of Prospect Presbyterian Church in Maplewood, and the Rev. Sheila Clark of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Millburn.

No welcome mat 

Anecdotal evidence reflects fear on the part of Trump supporters that their neighbors in northern NJ towns that are deeply blue won’t be putting out a welcome mat for them any time soon.

One supporter of the president-elect, a resident of South Orange/Maplewood who generally identifies himself as a liberal Jew, requested anonymity for this article, saying that he went undercover shortly after mentioning to three friends last year that he found some of Trump’s ideas “refreshing.” He immediately received messages from all three ending the friendship. “I was totally shocked by that back then. But now, I’m used it,” he told NJJN. He started a private group for others in the community who support Trump but feel similarly isolated.

Contrary to those who believe that a Trump presidency is the first step toward a return to Nazi Germany-like policies, this supporter, a child of Holocaust survivors, said he believed that attitude was prevalent on the other side as well. While picking up his lulav and etrog for Sukkot, he was chatting with a local rabbi about Trump, and the rabbi acknowledged that he supported the billionaire as well. Then they heard footsteps approaching.

“Someone else is coming, probably for a lulav and etrog, and it’s, ‘Shh! Shh! Don’t talk! Don’t mention a word about Trump!’ When that person goes out, there’s a collective sigh,” he said. 

“I felt like I was hiding in Germany. I spoke with my parents. That’s how their family used to hide. This is the climate we’re in, hiding from someone we know. In this town, you can’t say it,” he said, referring to Trump support. He decided against putting a Trump sign on his lawn. “I thought the house would be vandalized.” 

A roll of the dice with no fear

Another Trump voter who also requested anonymity, this one from West Orange, said he is aware that he is in the minority among Jews — 24 percent, according to exit polls, voted for Trump, compared with 71 percent who voted for Hillary Clinton. He said he is resigned to being part of this minority, but noted that, being a part of the Orthodox community, he’s not a complete anomaly, as it’s more common to find Orthodox Jews on the right end of the spectrum.  Still, he was concerned about having his name published. 

Even though he voted for Trump, he has deep reservations about the president-elect. 

“I don’t want people to think I’m a Trump guy. I’m not. He’s a deeply flawed candidate,” he told NJJN. He worries, like many of his friends and neighbors, about Trump’s attitudes toward immigration, women, and the disabled, his crude language and his penchant for non-truths. He also worries that “no one really knows what Trump’s policies will be on anything.” 

But Israel is a big issue for him, he said, and  for him in this election, it was the only issue. Clinton’s articulated policy, “a continuation” of President Barack Obama’s, he said, was a no-go for him. “I don’t like the open hostility from Obama on the democratically elected prime minister of Israel,” he said, referring to Benjamin Netanyahu. He added that he believes the Iran nuclear deal was not in Israel’s best interest, and that the U.S. administration should not get involved in Israel’s decision to build settlements. Overall, he said, “it was policy after policy, and the Middle East is a disaster now.”

“It was a lose-lose situation for me,” he said. By contrast, he said, “I believe Donald Trump will be pro-Israel.” 

Does he worry about anti-Semitism in a climate of hate? Such fears are eased knowing that Trump’s Jewish daughter and son-in-law are in his inner circle. “How bad could it be if he has Jewish grandchildren? 

“I don’t know, but I guess I’m willing to roll the dice.” 

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