While most of America’s Jews voted for Joe Biden this week, the overwhelming majority of its strictly Orthodox communities backed Donald Trump, continuing a recent run of support for Republican presidential candidates.
“George W Bush was popular, and in 2012 Mitt Romney won 75 percent of the vote in Borough Park, a Chasidic dominated neighbourhood, so us supporting the Republican presidential nominee is not new,” says Yossi Gestetner, 32, co-founder of the Orthodox Jewish Public Affairs Council.
“However, the intensity of support for Trump seems stronger and wider than in the past. I’m not sure how much of it is Trump. People are a lot more worked up about politics these days than a decade or two ago. They have more outlets to share it, and the social media phenomenon increases the intensity.”
Charedi life centres around New York and New Jersey, whose Democratic governors have pushed unpopular coronavirus lockdowns, restricting worship. Has this helped Trump’s cause? It’s not that simple, he says.
“Trump says take precautions but don’t upend life, the cure can be worse than the illness, so certainly some people are drawn to that, but support was strong even before that.” Why? “He did things like sign the early release of a couple of Orthodox Jewish people who were behind bars for white collar offences.”
Yaacov Schapiro, 30, a community activist and campaign organiser in Borough Park who helped run Romney’s campaign, picks up the point, saying Trump’s justice reform legislation and releasing of Orthodox prisoners has been important.
“He’s done things that have touched us all personally, such as releasing [Sholom] Rubashkin [a kosher meatpacking executive]. Thousands came out onto the street all over New York state, partying until midnight. It connected with everyone here.
“His prison reform released a lot of prisoners incarcerated for years, to give them a second chance. It benefitted quite a few Orthodox Jews, including a Satmar man, Mordechai Samet, who was released before the High Holy Days. Trump also had a lot of Jewish friends connected to his administration.”
Schapiro says Trump’s appeal bypasses that of his predecessors. “Orthodox Jews have been voting for Republican presidents for years already, but we’re seeing a unity now that we’ve never seen in the past.
“For instance, we had the ‘Jews for Trump’ rally. There was never a ‘Jews for Bush’ rally, or a ‘Jews for Romney’ rally. Hundreds and hundreds came. Also, previously, you always had some rabbis who came out for Democratic candidates. Not this time. I haven’t seen any, and I’m not just talking about Charedim – the Modern Orthodox as well.”
Gestetner says Trump’s policies – such as on tax – are also helping, as they are benefitting Orthodox Jews. “The tax laws went overwhelmingly for businesses and wealthy people but proportionately for the tax bills that the typical middle class has, it helped a lot. People saw a difference. A lot of people in the Charedi community are businessmen and they felt the difference.”
Moreover, with the judiciary, “Trump appointed traditionalists to the court” he says. “At the end of the day Orthodox Jews live life surrounded by religion. They feel more at home with a president who appoints judges with a better understanding of large families with religious lives than one who appoints liberals.”
Schapiro agrees. “We’ve never felt so comfortable. It’s many things, including Trump’s relationship with Israel, that went to a level that we’ve never seen before – the embassy, the Golan, aid to the Palestinians. He’s taken a side like no president before.”
He also thinks a changing Democratic Party has “pushed Jews towards Trump”, citing a rise of antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment. “Four years ago, you didn’t have these radical comments from the progressives like you do today.”
Gestetner says he is “not intimidated by a Biden presidency, but Trump has delivered on lots of issues close to Orthodox Jews, and then there’s the progressive wing of the Democratic Party – the ultra-liberals. What influence will they have on the Biden administration in terms of policy?” he asks. “They’ve gained a foothold.”
On Trump’s overwhelming Orthodox support, he is not surprised. Trump has “taken it to the next level”, he says. “We’re seeing things that we haven’t seen in the past. People have been spoiled – in a good way.”
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