President Donald Trump took the oath last week, but there was no joy in Mudville, at least not in the liberal Jewish precincts. But somewhere in this favored land, the sun is shining bright, men are laughing, and children were shouting; such was the optimism, the relief, in many Orthodox precincts. It was almost Purim: Trump, the king; daughter Ivanka, Esther; son-in-law Jared Kushner, Mordechai; God, hidden but his fingerprints everywhere. On the liberal side of town, there was mourning, even fasting. So many liberal Jews were protesting that one rabbi said his synagogue might be “empty this Shabbat morning.”
Mourning on the left, a holiday on the right. “Can this be Purim happening all over again? Are we witnessing a dialectic of seemingly bizarre events that cumulatively lead to the salvation of Israel and the Jewish People? It certainly seems so,” says J.J. Gross, a yeshiva-educated New York advertising man, now in Israel studying sacred books when not serving as an auxiliary policeman in Jerusalem. “The Purim saga is a progression of events that only in retrospect shows the hand of God.” Sure, Trump is no saint but “none of the heroes in the Megillah were particularly clean,” says Gross. Heroes in troubled times, those who can navigate the dark alleys of the world, “are more likely to be rogues than rabbis, driven more by instinct than intellect.”
Trump’s inner sanctum, adds Gross, reminds him of Jews from “the Brooklyn street … scrappers, brawlers”; it won’t be pretty “but it sure beats the alternative.”
Some Orthodox Jews were more cautious. Glenn Richter was a radical in the 1960s, working with civil rights groups such as SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or “Snick”) before SNCC decided to expel its white workers (mostly Jews). Richter took his street smarts to Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry as national coordinator for more than 30 years. His activist and Zionist credentials are impeccable. He voted for Hillary Clinton.
“I was in Israel the day of the election,” says Richter. “There was either crying or rejoicing, predictions of disaster or Moshiach. I said, ‘Don’t count on it,’ either way. ‘We don’t know what [Trump’s] going to do.’ We can try to direct traffic, but we’re not behind the wheel.’”
What could be trusted, the light or the shadows? Most cabinet-level appointees were strongly supportive of Israel, but Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has been connected to billionaire George Soros, who has a history of supporting leftist organizations highly critical of Israel.
Chabad-affiliated and day school-educated Kushner, sympathetic to settlements but with no political or diplomatic experience, is in charge of the peace process. And the new ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is also Orthodox and a financial supporter of the settlements who referred to J Street Jews as “kapos.” Both said they liked the idea of moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. On the other hand, Defense Secretary James Mattis warned, prior to his nomination, that settlement hardliners could turn Israel into an “apartheid” state. At his Senate hearings, Mattis said he considered Israel’s capital to be Tel Aviv, not Jerusalem.
Indeed, less 100 hours after moving into the White House, Trump punted on the controversial embassy move. Despite moving swiftly on other promises, Sean Spicer, the new press secretary, said the administration was “at the very early stages” of deciding the embassy question. If you want to send Friedman a letter, he’ll get his mail at 71 HaYarkon St., Tel Aviv. So much for that.
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, who worked in the FBI’s counterintelligence division, and on the staffs of Sen. Al D’Amato and Gov. George Pataki, told us, “We now have a miraculous opportunity [for Israel] to have unstrained relations with the United States.” He was sorry the embassy wasn’t moved, thinking it absurd for anyone to fear Arab threats to unleash violence if the embassy was moved. “What, they never made an intifada when the embassy was in Tel Aviv? Jihadists don’t need an excuse.”
Charedi Jews, such as Rabbi Avi Shafran, says the embassy issue is “not ultimately important.” The centerpiece of Jerusalem’s holiness, the Temple Mount, remains “occupied territory” all its own, occupied by Palestinians, with the U.N. Security Council and the previous president’s consent.
Orthodox Jews were optimistic but wondered among themselves, what could go wrong? “Anything,” says Richter. “Anything Israel does is a landmine. … Anyone or anything can be used against Israel — appointing David Friedman as ambassador, moving the embassy, it doesn’t matter.”
But what of Mattis’ suggestion that what settlers do could bring on apartheid? “The status quo, bad as it is, is the best we’ve got at the moment,” says Richter. The apartheid charge “is just another way to blame the victim — the Jews. I don’t see why Arabs can live in Israel but Jews can’t live in Judea and Samaria? That’s reverse apartheid.”
Although Modern Orthodox voters were more divided in their electoral support for Trump than were charedi ones, after President Obama’s abstention from the Security Council vote delegitimizing Israel’s claims to Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Western Wall, even some Orthodox Clinton voters began softening toward Trump, or at least slouching away from Obama.
On the Orthodox left, Yeshivat Chovivei Torah’s rabbinical school signed a letter to Obama, along signees the centrist Yeshiva University-oriented Riverdale Jewish Center, and several other Orthodox synagogues, stating they were “outraged” at Obama’s putting Israel’s “standing and security at risk,” by allowing a resolution that “degrades and denies the Jewish people’s basic historic rights.” There was not a complete suspension of doubt about Trump, but more of a willingness to give Trump a chance.
Wiesenfeld told us, “Is Trump perfect? No. But it couldn’t be worse than what we had. He’s doing great things and the true face of Obama was shown in the last few weeks of his term,” specifically the abstention from the Security Council resolution; John Kerry’s impassioned excoriation of settlements; and the revelation that Obama authorized $221 million to be sent to the Palestinian Authority.
This past summer, under overwhelming pressure from Ramaz students and parents, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein withdrew from giving the invocation at the Republican National Convention, but now there was no such Orthodox pressure on Rabbi Marvin Hier, Orthodox dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who gave the invocation at Trump’s inauguration. Invocations rarely resonate but when Rabbi Hier’s quoted Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon, we wept as we remember Zion. If I forget you O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill,” there was little doubt that he was speaking to one president leaving, one arriving.
After the inauguration there certainly was less hostility to Trump among the Orthodox than in other denominations. Bangitout, a highly popular website with Modern Orthodox singles posted “Top Ten Signs You Are A Yid At The Presidential Inauguration.” Among the Top Ten: “Your ‘Kushner Hebrew Academy’ sweatshirt is actually getting you chicks.” “Every other Jewish person you meet has some story that ends with ‘… is best friends with Jared.” “You’re on your third day of MAGA [Make America Great Again] partying, and you realize, this is exactly how Megilat Esther started,” referring to the king’s party-orgy at the beginning of the Purim story.
In chasidic Brooklyn there was excitement at the news that Prime Minister Netanyahu made a shiva call to the Belzer rebbe in Jerusalem. Netanyahu reportedly told the rebbe, “We had a big miracle that we’re over a difficult time in the U.S. Now a new president has been elected and we should pray that he will be good for the Jews and for Israel.” The rebbe thanked the prime minister for knowing “how to stand up to the world.”
“It’s all in the hands of Heaven,” said the rebbe.