In the fall of 1960, presidential candidate John F. Kennedy made one of the pivotal speeches of his campaign, challenging the many Protestants who feared that Kennedy’s Roman Catholic faith would prevent him from acting independently of his Church. With Kennedy’s victory, the issue of presidential religion seemed settled. Few could have imagined in the 21st century, “religion” would return to campaign politics with all the grace of a golem.
Once, American Christianity was akin to motherhood and apple pie. In the 2008 campaign, however, disdain crept in, with candidate Barack Obama speaking of working people who “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion.” In 2012, “God” was booed at the Democratic convention, when a party platform debate had to go to a third vote before a fleeting acknowledgement of God, removed from the platform, was restored. And now in 2015, among the Republicans, one can hardly keep up with all the religious attacks, walk-backs or affirmations. John Kasich has invoked America’s Judeo-Christian roots, and Bobby Jindal said he could only support a Muslim candidate “who will respect the Judeo-Christian heritage of America.”
No sooner did Ben Carson say he didn’t think “fear of the Lord” was important to Donald Trump, a Christian whose daughter Ivanka is an Orthodox Jew, then Carson, a Christian, said, “I would not advocate that we put a Muslim in charge of this nation.” He later insisted that he only meant Muslims whose allegiance was to radical Islam and Sharia law. On “Face The Nation,” Rand Paul said the idea of a Muslim president wasn’t so simple. “I just think it’s hard for us,” he confessed. “We were attacked by people who were Muslim.” Echoing that, Trump told reporters, “And, by the way, there is a problem with certain militants that obviously you report on every night.”
Refuting accusations that he was anti-Muslim, Trump declared with his usual exuberance that most Muslims are “fabulous.” This, after Trump declined to correct or take responsibility for a questioner in New Hampshire who called President Obama a Muslim (considered a political slur by some, though Obama — a Christian, as was his mother — often has spoken of his Muslim paternal relatives). Former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren speculated in the journal, Foreign Policy, that Obama’s “naïve” outreach to the Islamic world was perhaps rooted in Obama’s “abandonment” by his Islamic father and step-father, possibly leading him “many years later, to seek acceptance by their co-religionists.”
Asked if a Muslim could be elected president, Trump, who was one of the leaders of the so-called Birther movement, said, “I mean, some people have said it already happened, frankly,” obviously referring to Obama. “But of course you wouldn’t agree with that.”
As could be expected, liberals were repulsed by all this (as were some of the other GOP presidential hopefuls). Religious conservatives were relieved that after years of traditional religious liberties and values being pummeled on the local and federal levels, as well as their very real fear of Islam, at least there were a slew of candidates who seemed to take these issues seriously.
The Republican Jewish Coalition has yet to unite behind a candidate, though many RJC directors have declared allegiance to Marco Rubio, or Jeb Bush, or Ted Cruz, and others. And yet Trump, without any significant backing from Jewish leaders, is the leading choice (10.2 percent) of Jewish Republicans, according to a new survey by the American Jewish Committee; that 10 percent figure, of course, is dwarfed by Trump’s showing among all Republicans in national polls (CNN’s most recent poll showed him at 24 percent, down from 32 percent a month earlier).
Support for Trump appears to be percolating on the Orthodox Jewish street. “OnlySimchas,” an Orthodox site, headlined, “Orthodox Jewish CEO Ralph Herzka Not Afraid Of Backlash From Donating to Trump’s Campaign.” Herzka, of the Meridian Capital Group, donated $5,000, among “several dozen contributors who have donated slightly more than $90,000.”
Another Orthodox site, Jewish Political News, reported that “among Orthodox Jews, the chatter around Trump … has been largely positive. The comments in shul went from ‘Trump is smart’ to ‘only Trump has the guts to say what others are afraid to say out loud.’ One such vocal supporter is Larry Spiewak, a successful businessman and chairman of the Council of Jewish Organizations of Flatbush.”
A signature moment of Jewish alienation came at the 2012 Democratic convention, when a platform voice-vote led to the booing of “Jerusalem” (as the capital of Israel). After a motion that would have restored the twice-rejected pro-Jerusalem plank, the convention chair (who favored the restoration) called for a third vote, quickly announcing “the ‘ayes have it,” even though as ABC reported, it was “still hard to tell whether the ayes were audibly louder than the ‘nays.” With the banging of the gavel, “loud boos erupted across the arena,” a chilling moment for many Jews.
One Israeli action after another, from announcing a housing project in Jerusalem during Vice President Biden’s visit, to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s accepting an invitation to Congress without first informing the president, was said to “infuriate” Obama and Democrats. Forgotten was a correction printed by The New York Times (Jan. 30): Netanyahu, said the correction, “accepted after the administration had been informed of the invitation, not before.”
Seth Lipsky, editor of the online New York Sun, says of conservative Jews, “We’ll see whether there’s actually an alienation,” he tells us. “The landscape is littered with people who predicted that Jews are finally going to move over to the Republicans, only to be proved wrong. But broadly speaking, the Democrats have watched in silence as the relationship with Israel has plunged under President Obama [and former Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton to a nadir that’s pretty dramatic.”
In New York magazine, Jason Zengerle writes, “On issue after issue — from military aid to settlement policy — the GOP now offers Israel unconditional and unquestioning support. The person most responsible for this development is the multi-billionaire casino magnate and Republican mega-donor Sheldon Adelson,” who poured $100 million into the last presidential election, and likely will do so again. (Adelson came up nearly empty at the ballot box for this $100 million investment.)
However, David Bernstein, in the Washington Post, argues that the Jewish Republican shift is less about Adelson and more about “pro-Israel evangelicals and national security hawks in the Republican Party [while the] Democratic administration has engaged in open rhetorical warfare against an Israeli government led by… Netanyahu, whom Democrats tend to loathe and Republicans tend to admire.”
Ezra Friedlander, the chasidic CEO of the Friedlander Group, a public policy consulting firm, and a supporter of Kasich, says the Orthodox migration to the GOP “hasn’t happened overnight but certainly has taken off, no question about it. Young Orthodox Jews, very uncompromising about their desire for a strong U.S.-Israel relationship, view the Republican Party as more in synch with their thinking. And domestically, they’re in synch with Republicans who are supportive of business [and] who have traditional views on social issues such as the public expression and preservation of religion. All these hot-button issues have resonated in the Orthodox community, allowing Republicans to make major inroads.” The Orthodox are now almost as solidly Republican (57 percent) as the other Jewish denominations are Democrat.
In the end, Jewish-Israeli concerns are American concerns, said Andrew Wolf, publisher-editor of The Bronx Press and Riverdale Review. “Obviously, as a Jew, I am concerned with the well-being of Israel. But I am equally concerned as an American, one who learned on [9/11] that to the jihadists, we are all infidels and thus targets. When Iranians say ‘Death to America,’ I am inclined to believe them. I would find it difficult to vote Democratic [now that Democrats] supported this awful deal that will surely lead to a nuclear-armed Iran,” said Wolf.
We asked Wolf how long he’s been a Republican. “I am a Democrat,” he declared. “Always have been. But I am not a fool.”