Ten months after a divisive presidential election gave fresh evidence of a widening chasm in American Jewry, two events last week highlighted yet again the growing gap between Orthodox and liberal Jews — and between Orthodox Jews and members of other major faiths in the U.S.
First, an American Jewish Committee (AJC) poll found that while the overall Jewish community ranks among the most strident opponents of President Donald Trump, Orthodox Jews remain his most loyal supporters among faith groups. This comes at a time when support for Trump is slipping among the major religious groups, even including evangelical Christians.
Nearly eight in 10 American Jews in the AJC poll (77 percent) now disapprove of the job the president is doing, more than 20 percentage points higher than the national average, according to the latest Gallup tracking poll. That poll found 37 percent of Americans approving of Trump’s performance, with 56 percent disapproving. According to the AJC poll, 71 percent of Orthodox Jews approve of the president’s performance, while only 27 percent disapprove. (The poll of 1,000 respondents, conducted Aug.10-28, has a margin of error of 3.71 percent.)
Second, two weeks ago representatives of major Orthodox organizations took part in what has become a traditional pre-High Holy Days conference call with the president; leaders of three national non-Orthodox rabbinical groups — who together represent the vast majority of American Jews — boycotted the call, citing the president’s waffling on condemning neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va.
In Friday’s call, which lasted barely eight minutes, the president condemned those who spread anti-Semitism, expressed his love for Israel, and hoped for progress in the peace process. He took no questions. By contrast, calls and meetings with past presidents have, according to those who participated in them, included sometimes heated exchanges and usually lasted at least 45 minutes.
Political and theological disagreements between the liberal and Orthodox parts of the Jewish community predate the campaign and Trump’s election, but the two events last week point to the depth of the chasm.
“I think it’s getting worse,” said Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University. “The middle in Jewish life, as in American life, is dropping out. Civility has declined — because the president doesn’t view civility as a value.”
The AJC’s CEO, David Harris, said in an email interview, “The gap between self-identified Orthodox and non-Orthodox respondents in their responses to our questions is striking. For a number of years, we’ve been seeing Orthodox respondents lean more heavily Republican and conservative on a range of socio-political issues while, in greater numbers than other sub-groups, showing very solid support for Israel and great pride in being Jewish.
“Clearly,” Harris continued, “Jewish organizations keen on reaching the broadest possible segment of the American-Jewish community will have to take into account the wide disparity in views, all the more so as Orthodox Jews represent a rapidly rising segment of the Jewish population.”
The Orthodox support for Trump has seemingly grown since Election Day, when 39 percent of the Orthodox community voted for Trump, according to exit polls (Hillary Clinton garnered 56 percent of the Orthodox vote); 54 percent of the Orthodox respondents to the AJC poll said they voted for Trump, and nearly three out of four now approve of his job performance.
(Without offering an explanation for the discrepancy, AJC spokesman Kenneth Bandler said, “What we have with the SSRS [polling firm] survey…is solid data.”)
The high level of Orthodox support for Trump in the AJC poll is consistent with the community’s priorities, which “see Israel at the top of their agenda,” Nathan Diament, Washington director of the Orthodox Union, told NJJN. In the perception of many in the Orthodox community, “He’s much better than Hillary would have been.”
This, even as the American embassy in Israel remains in Tel Aviv, the Iran nuclear deal remains intact, the president has said that Israeli settlements in the West Bank “don’t help the [peace] process,” and anti-Semitism in the U.S. has spiked since Trump’s election. (Trump promised to move the embassy to Jerusalem early on in his presidency; he said he would “rip up” the Iran deal on Day One; and he hinted during the campaign that Israel would have carte blanche when it came to settlement expansion.)
“A lot of [the Orthodox support] is contextual,” Diament continued. “A lot of this is looking in contrast to the prior administration.”
In other words, members of the Orthodox community are prone to say when discussing Trump and his Israeli policies, “At least he’s not Obama…at least he’s not Hillary.”
In the eyes of many Orthodox Jews, Trump’s “perceived” pro-Israel sentiments contrast favorably with those of many prominent Democrats, Diament said.
He cited the “passionate” statements made by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley in defense of Israel, and Trump’s “deft” response to Palestinian violence on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem in July. The president dispatched high-level representatives to engage in behind-the-scenes negotiations to “de-escalate” the situation, instead of making public statements or “pressuring” Israel to make security concessions, Diament said.
Trump made “no calls for restraint” on Israel’s part, which would be likely in a Democratic administration, he said. “There’s no sense of this in the Trump administration.”
As Israel has become increasingly isolated diplomatically in recent decades, defense of the Jewish state has become “the primary motivating issue” for many Orthodox voters, Diament said. “That’s not to say that they’re not concerned about other issues.”
On the domestic front, other observers point to Orthodox support for the president on questions of religious liberty, the Supreme Court pick of conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch, and vouchers for families with children in parochial schools. To a large degree, said sociologist Steven M. Cohen, research professor of Jewish Social Policy at Hebrew Union College, the Orthodox community is “moved by special interests much more than by ideology.”
The growing Orthodox support for Trump comes as he seems to be losing ground among other faith groups.
In March, evangelicals supported the president two to one (63/32 percent), according to a Politico/Daily Caller poll. By August, that support had eroded, with 56 percent of evangelicals approving of the president’s job performance and 42 percent now disapproving.
The slippage among mainline Protestants and Catholics in the Politico/Daily Caller poll is even more dramatic: In March 58 percent of those two groups supported the president, with 40 percent saying his performance was lacking. By August, the numbers had flipped; 56 percent now disapprove of Trump’s performance, while 40 percent approve. An ABC/Washington poll from last month found that 48 percent of white evangelicals now view Trump’s conduct as “unpresidential.”
And several recent polls indicate a decrease for Trump outside of his most loyal base. A Marist College survey last month showed that Republican support for the president has dropped to the lowest point of the Trump administration, below 80 percent for the first time.
The AJC poll results aren’t “surprising at all,” said Logan Bayroff, director of communications for J Street, the self-described pro-Israel/pro-peace lobbying group. “Trump is uniquely unpopular among [most] American Jews. He supports policies that are offensive to American Jews.”
Two recent columns in local Jewish newspapers that serve a largely Orthodox readership reflected the president’s Orthodox support.
“The President of the United States, erratic as he is, has proven to be a great friend of Israel,” Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld wrote in the Queens Jewish Link. “He has been fighting relentlessly the anti-Israel bias in the United Nations to a degree not seen in decades, if at all.
“The left-leaning Jewish establishment, for naked political reasons, under the guise of civil rights concerns, issues a letter stating that they will have no part of the usual pre-High Holiday phone call with the White House. The Orthodox rabbinate and lay leadership thankfully do not sign on to the letter,” Schonfeld wrote in his column that appeared the day before the conference call.
In the 5 Towns Jewish Times, Dr. Joseph Frager, a physician and pro-Israel activist, cited a symbolic action by Trump — a visit to the Western Wall during a trip to Israel in May. “It was a real breath of fresh air to see a president of the United States standing in front of the Jewish people’s holy site,” Frager wrote. “This may well have been one of President Trump’s crowning achievements in his first year in office.”
Among the AJC poll’s other findings about Jews in the U.S.:
• 84 percent see anti-Semitism as a problem, an increase of 12 percent in the last year;
• Only 16 percent are in favor of moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem “immediately”;
• 55 percent are in favor of the establishment of a Palestinian state;
• Respondents are evenly split regarding approval “of the way Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is handling U.S.-Israel relations.” In 2015, the last time that question was asked in the AJC poll, a majority of respondents gave Netanyahu a favorable rating.
“There may be two immediate explanations” for a decrease in approval of Netanyahu, Harris said — “the appearance of his close relationship to President Trump, who is not popular among American Jews, and disappointment with the way Jewish religious pluralism issues have been handled by his government.”