The Role of Orthodox Jews in Republican Politics
1. Trump’s Orthodox Jewish base
President Donald Trump, already in full reelection campaign mode, will spend some time with a small, but increasingly important, constituency this week. On Tuesday, Trump will have lunch with a group of 100 Orthodox Jewish donors in New York. The planned meeting, kept under wraps until it was revealed last week by The Yeshiva World News, will be hosted by America First Action SuperPAC and was arranged, according to the report, by Louis (Lazer) Scheiner of Monsey, New York.
Orthodox Jews are Trump’s strongest—and only—reliable support base within the Jewish community. Polling shows that more than half of those identifying as Orthodox voted for Trump in 2016. The president also enjoys strong approval ratings within the Orthodox community since taking office.
This unlikely political alliance, between a segment of the population focused on family values and religious insularity and the flamboyant New York businessman-turned-politician, has many explanations:
First, just like with conservative Christian voters, Trump delivered. The Jewish Orthodox community will not forget Trump commuting the prison sentence of former kosher meat producer Sholom Rubashkin. Trump tried, though unsuccessfully, to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits tax-exempt religious intuitions from endorsing political candidates. The Trump administration also moved forward with ensuring public funding for parochial schools and in enabling LGBT discrimination in religious institutions, two issues that some in the Orthodox community found aligned with their values.
And above all, Trump tapped into the pro-Israeli right-wing sentiment among American Orthodox Jews. His decisions on the Middle East, especially the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, went a long way in cementing Orthodox support.
Add to that an open door in the White House to Orthodox leaders who in the past were marginalized, and appointing Orthodox Jews to key positions in his administration (Ambassador David Friedman, peace envoy Jason Greenblatt and, of course, son-in-law in chief Jared Kushner).
Taken together, all these factors can explain why it’s worthwhile for Trump to spend valuable face time with Orthodox backers.
Electorally, the Orthodox community, which is mostly concentrated in New York, won’t make a huge difference for Trump. But Orthodox Jews are a growing force in political funding and activism. As elections near, their role in Republican politics will only increase.
2. But Sheldon Adelson is holding back
While Orthodox Jewish donors are important, most of the Trump campaign’s big money is expected to come from megadonors willing to make seven and eight-figure contributions.
Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, perhaps the most prominent Trump megadonors, have made clear, however, that they are holding back, at least for now. As Michael Wilner reported in McClatchy, the Jewish casino mogul won’t open his checkbook until later on in the campaign. “They’re still very committed to the president and I don’t see that wavering,” said a source close to Adelson quoted in the story. “The way it is with anything, if people think someone else is going to pay all the bills, there’s not a lot of incentive to give. They want to see other people giving.”
3. If Bibi is Trump-light, is Yair the Israeli Don Jr.?
Yair Netanyahu, the son and vocal defender of Israel’s prime minister, made a rare public appearance in New York last week. Hosted by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach’s World Values Network, Yair Netanyahu provided many headlines to the delight of the Israeli press. He spent much of his time blasting Israel’s media, which, he claims, is conducting a “vicious, vile media lynch” against his father. The young Netanyahu went on to claim that had his mother married a liberal, instead of the leader of the Likud party, she would not be subjected to the media’s “blood libel,” and also argued that before his father came to power in 1996, Israel was a “Soviet-style economy, socialist primitive economy,” with no export “besides oranges or something like this.”
Much has been said and written about Benjamin Netanyahu adopting Donald Trump’s style, and even his talking points. And in his New York speech last week, Yair Netanyahu may have adopted the same style and themes, echoing perhaps not only the president but also his son Don Jr.
Just like Don Jr., Yair is a bolder, cruder version of his father. And just like his American counterpart, Yair Netanyahu has picked up on ideas promoted by right-wing media and conspiracy theorists. He argued that the media is controlled by a small group of extremists from the far left, as is academia, and that social media is the only way for people on the right to have their voices heard since mainstream media is purposely biased against them.
The small crowd gathered to hear Netanyahu Jr. loved his message (well, except for the four Code Pink hecklers) and will probably get to hear him more often in the future. Yair Netanyahu insisted he is not going into politics, but at the same time made clear that he intends to continue his activity in other ways. Given the success of his New York tour (and a previous, less publicized, visit to the U.S. during the summer), Netanyahu’s oldest son is likely to become the face of the Likud in younger conservative circles in America.
4. Rabbi Shmuley’s softball approach
Rabbi Boteach, Yair Netanyahu’s host, defender and fan, is a longtime supporter of Netanyahu, of Republican politics and more recently of Trump.
Conducting the conversation with Netanyahu Jr. on stage, a large painting of the Lubavitcher rebbe hanging behind, Boteach did everything in his power not to aggravate his young guest. He opened the evening with a five-minute plea to the audience not to ask any questions (not even the media) and attempt to solicit a pledge from all guests not to stage any protests. When such a protest did break out, he chased the hecklers out, following up with a lengthy diatribe about the dishonesty of the protesters who did not disclose in advance their intention to disrupt the event.
On stage, he presented Yair Netanyahu with softball questions, steering clear from any of the controversies the 28-year old political scion has gotten involved in, including a recently disclosed transcript of a police interrogation he underwent, in which Netanyahu Jr. referred to police officers as “Gestapo,” the Nazi secret police.
5. The Michael Bloomberg effect
Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg is getting ready to throw his hat in the ring and join the Democratic presidential race. More a spoiler for others than a viable candidate himself, Bloomberg appears to be running as a centrist, one that holds views similar to those of Joe Biden (but with more stamina and better delivery) and who possess energy closer to that of Bernie Sanders (sans going after billionaire’s wallets).
It’s way too early to tell what role Bloomberg will play in the Democratic political showdown, but if he does join, Jewish Americans will become the representatives of both bookends of the Democratic political spectrum: Bernie Sanders on the left, personifying the socialist populist wing of the party, and Michael Bloomberg on the right, standing up for the centrists.