Interview with Steven F. Windmueller
As 2022 ushers in a new political cycle, the relationship between former president Donald Trump and his supporters in the Jewish community—a minority, but a passionate and often influential one—seems set to enter a new and more complicated phase. The latest twist came in December, when interviews emerged in which the former president rained abuse on his erstwhile ally, former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Raging on the record to Israeli journalist Barak Ravid that Netanyahu had betrayed him by phoning to congratulate
President-elect Joe Biden, Trump went on to tell Ravid that it was Netanyahu, not Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas, who had been the true obstacle to Israel-Palestine peace efforts.
Now that Trump himself has opened up “daylight,” as the expression goes, between himself and Netanyahu, will pro-Israel Jews move on? Or will they stick with Trump and all that goes with him? Steven F. Windmueller, editor of the new essay collection The Impact of the Presidency of Donald Trump on American Jewry and Israel, sees hints that Jewish Republicans, in particular, may be moving toward “a Republican agenda that sees Trump as sacred leader but not necessarily as torchbearer.”
A longtime observer of Jewish communal life, Windmueller, an emeritus professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, sees Trump as a driver of changes in the Jewish community, but even more as a symptom of them. The increased polarization that marked the Trump years, he says, flows partly from Jewish institutions’ reluctance to address disagreements directly. Other worsening trends reflected in the essays—which cover Trump’s reception by liberals, conservatives, Orthodox Jews, millennials and the Jewish press—include rising antisemitism, erosion of faith in democratic institutions, a tilt toward tribal rather than universalist thinking, and “truth decay,” the insidious effects of Trump’s continual assaults on reality. “We had Trump for four years,” he says, “but the Trump effect will linger in the Jewish community for a long time.”
Will Trump’s break with Netanyahu matter?
For the evangelicals, it will be a blip. The pro-Israel energy of that community is larger and broader than personalities. But within Jewish circles, my sense is that it could be a longer-term problem for the Trump folks. It creates uneasiness. It could be difficult for him to regain their confidence and support.
Not everyone in the Jewish community feels that kind of unease. I think Mort Klein of the Zionist Organization of America would continue to argue in favor of a second Trump term. The essay he and Elizabeth A. Berney contributed to the book argues, in essence, “Look what he delivered!” Like the evangelicals, they’re used to Trump acting out.
On the other hand, an essay in the book by Matthew Brooks and Shari Hillman of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC) concludes that while some Trump policies brought “astonishment and appreciation,” other behaviors produced “deep disappointment and dismay.” They predict that, given the polarization of reactions, it will be 50 or even 100 years before we can render a “just verdict” on the Trump presidency.
Will Trump be that coalition’s candidate in 2024?
I think that crowd may be withholding their vote to see how things play out. Will other Republicans come with less baggage but carrying the core messages that interest the coalition? Many of these folks were not Trumpers from the outset; in 2016 there were Jewish Republicans supporting Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Nikki Haley. They only came around at the very end. So that group may watch from the sidelines for awhile. If Trump captures the nomination, I’d guess that in fairly significant numbers they’d return to him.
What moments were key turning points in the Trump-Jewish relationship?
Charlottesville was profoundly important in Trump’s relationship with Jews. While the question of what he said there has become polarized in itself—the Klein-Berney essay in the book pushes back hard on this—it started a conversation. And what followed, in Pittsburgh and in other incidents, in a sense traumatized the American Jewish community. The Pew study of 2020 confirms the high degree of concern American Jews have about antisemitism, levels that did not exist in the previous 2013 study.
January 6 was another reframing moment. It challenged the whole notion of democracy and the rule of law, and faith in institutions, and that really triggered Jews—Republicans as well as Democrats.
What other factors will linger from the “Trump effect”?
What interests me is the long-term political future of the very influential cohort of Republican Jews who walked away from the Republican Party because of Trump. Many of them supported Biden in 2020, others sat it out, or voted libertarian to demonstrate their disgust and anger at the American political scene. What happens next?
And the longer-term question should be put before Jewish Democrats too. What happens if the progressives grow their strength in the party and become more challenging, especially on matters of Israel and of where Jews fit in? Where will those voters go?
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