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Under Trump We’ve Become Two Americas — and Two Jewish Peoples
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Under Trump We’ve Become Two Americas — and Two Jewish Peoples

Politics is not about policy, but tribal identity.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is Editor in Chief of The NY Jewish Week.

Rabbi Yitzchak Smith, a rabbi and lawyer who gained a following by promoting the idea there that Covid-19 testing is a government ploy to hurt Orthodox Jews, addresses a rally in support of Donald Trump and religious freedom in Woodmere, Long Island, Oct. 25, 2020. (JTA Photo / Shira Hanau)
Rabbi Yitzchak Smith, a rabbi and lawyer who gained a following by promoting the idea there that Covid-19 testing is a government ploy to hurt Orthodox Jews, addresses a rally in support of Donald Trump and religious freedom in Woodmere, Long Island, Oct. 25, 2020. (JTA Photo / Shira Hanau)

Richard Brookhiser famously joked that the only difference between the Reform movement and the Democratic Party are the holidays.

It’s a joke about liberal Jews’ adherence to liberal politics, and it is regularly dragged out not just to explain the Jewish vote but also to mock liberal Jews for confusing politics with Torah and Jewish values.

The idea that this is only a Reform malady — if a malady is what it is — is put to rest by indications of growing Orthodox affinity for the Republican Party. Not just affinity — support for President Trump, apparently, has become a sign of “frum” bona fides no less than Shabbat observance or modest dress.

Consider a recent article in The Jewish Week by Hannah Dreyfus, who reported on a Modern Orthodox rabbi in Queens who feels ostracized in his community because he was voting for Biden. As if to prove his point, when the article was subsequently syndicated by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, an Orthodox website ran it under a headline that put his title “Rabbi” in quotes. (They removed the quotations marks when someone pointed it out on Twitter.)

JTA reports that Orthodox communities in New York have become unusually partisan in their support for Trump, with rabbis endorsing the Republican, and yeshivas offering prayers for his victory and sending busloads of students to campaign for him.

The activism, and enmity, cut both ways. Hannah also reported on self-described Jewish liberals who feel shunned for supporting Trump. One Long Island Trump voter said her friends declared a virtual shiva for her.

This sounds like a tragedy for Jewish unity, and it is. The gap between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox, and between liberal and conservative, has been widening for decades; the bitter political polarization within these camps feels new, and is very much a sign of our troubled, poisoned times.

That other famous quip — that Jews are like everyone else, only more so — also applies. A new paper in Science magazine notes that political polarization has been a concern for decades. There is, however, a new kind of polarization: “one focusing less on triumphs of ideas than on dominating the abhorrent supporters of the opposing party.” As lead researcher Eli J. Finkel of Northwestern University explains it, “What we have [now] is an alignment of social identities that correspond to our political identities in a way that we’ve never seen before.”

In other words, your politics are not just an ideological preference, but an expression of tribal identity. And as often happens when tribes meet – or members of a tribe try to break with its customs – things do not go well.

“You end up with a situation where you think, ‘I can’t relate to them, and they hate people like me,’” says Finkel. “So of course, you feel like … it’s reasonable to lash out at them or perhaps deny them some amount of democratic liberties if the stakes are high in terms of your political goals.”

So Jewish Trump supporters don’t understand why liberal Jews can’t show appreciation for a president who has been so friendly to Israel, has been solicitous towards religious institutions and who regularly rails against the anti-Semitic menace from the far left of the Democratic Party.

And liberal Jews can’t fathom why Orthodox Jews and other Jewish Trump supporters are willing to forgive Trump’s viciousness, his sexual improprieties, his soft spot for authoritarians and his reluctance to disavow white supremacists and anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.

In this too we are very much like everybody else. The growing Orthodox community has, like Trump’s base, been bristling under Covid-19 restrictions that impinge on what they regard as their right to congregate and worship. Liberal Jews, identifying with other American minority groups, are disproportionately concerned about civil rights, immigrant rights and women’s right to abortion — all under threat from the administration and a solidly conservative Supreme Court.

Writes Ezra Klein, whose recent book “Why We’re Polarized” sets out to explain just that: “There is nothing that makes us identify with our groups so strongly as the feeling that the power we took for granted may soon be lost or the injustices we’ve long borne may soon be rectified.”

You can’t underestimate the Trump factor, however, whether as cause or effect of this mutual abhorrence. “Only under President Trump,” writes Carlos Lozado in The Washington Post, “did polarization morph into an overt campaigning and governing strategy.” The president’s attacks on “Democrat-run” cities or states, his heated and sometimes violent us vs. them rhetoric, his consistent refusal to tack to the center or even acknowledge the legitimacy of his opposition have driven a wedge between “his” people and everyone else.

Trump’s unexpectedly strong showing on Election Day, political consultant Stu Loeser explained to Jewish Insider, indicates that “a lot of Americans hate the people who hate Trump, and hate the people Trump hates.”

Trump’s very personality is polarizing, and forces people to pick sides even before policy or ideology come into it.

For his supporters, his bluster, lies and insults are either exaggerated by the media, a welcome disregard for political correctness, or an unfortunate but forgivable distraction from what is at base a strong and effective conservative — and pro-Israel — agenda.

Trump’s very personality is polarizing, and forces people to pick sides even before policy or ideology come into it.

Trump’s critics, meanwhile, see his style and rhetoric as inseparable from his politics. They view Trump’s supporters as complicit in his degrading of public discourse, lack of empathy, disregard for the rule of law and transactional world view — none of which, they insist, is a Jewish value.

And as Gene Weingarten lamented recently in The Washington Post, “I find myself profoundly disliking and disrespecting almost half of my countrymen and women — that is, the group of Americans that support Trump. I have never felt such antipathy before, even in other sharply polarizing times, and it feels absolutely terrible.”

And those aren’t policy divides. They are deeper, more primal, more tribal, and more personal.

Can these chasms ever be bridged? I like to think that whenever Trump leaves office, either in January or four years from now, there will be a national reset. Without a Trump waving the red flag from the White House balcony, our politics might calm down. Every alert or tweet won’t feel like a four-alarm fire. We might be able to go back to arguing about policies, not “that man.”

Or not. Perhaps Trump is not a cause of our political polarization, but a symptom. In which case, our families will remain divided, our antipathies will be more pronounced, our impulse to ostracize one another will only grow stronger. We will not just be two Americas, but two Jewish peoples.

Andrew Silow-Carroll (@SilowCarroll) is the editor in chief of The Jewish Week.

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