PITTSBURGH (JTA) — American Jews woke up on Wednesday to a presidential election that is extending their anxiety and to electoral maps that show a Republican Party changed by a president they repudiated with their votes.
Joe Biden and Donald Trump were still locked in a battle for the electoral vote majority early Wednesday, one that might last for days as votes are counted — and potentially litigated.
The first exit poll of Jewish voters showed their most resounding rejection of an American president in 20 years. Jewish voters favored Biden 77% to 21% in the poll of 800 Jewish voters commissioned by J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East policy group, which endorsed Biden. That was a seven-point increase for the Democrat candidate over the same poll’s 2016 finding, twice the margin of error.
Trump’s 2016 victory, the largest-ever popular vote loss for an electoral vote winner — Hillary Clinton bested Trump by 3 million votes — might once have been dismissed as an anomaly, one that would be wiped out by a major loss by Trump in 2020.
It was not an anomaly. Trump has transformed the Republican Party and America. The divide between Trump’s America and the American Jewish majority was stark, in numbers and in outlook.
The race could yet go to Biden, who is narrowly ahead in a handful of swing states that would, if the final count favors him, give him enough electoral votes to claim the presidency.
Statements early Wednesday morning from 20 liberal Jewish organizations each appealed to wait out the vote count. Each was suffused with desperation.
“The Jewish people have faced many challenges throughout history, but we have endured,” said Sheila Katz, the CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women. “Though we may need to wait a little longer this year for the final results of the election, we will be patient, we will persevere, we will endure.”
A Divided America
Whatever happens, it’s clear that half of American voters embrace a version of politics — nationalist, protectionist, restrictionist on immigration and deeply suspicious of government and global alliances — that liberal Jews have seen as alien to their understanding of what it is to be an American.
Trump won Florida, a state with one of the country’s largest Jewish populations, by about 400,000 votes, and by a larger margin than when he defeated Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016: 3.5% this year, 1.2% then. According to early results from an Associated Press exit poll, Trump won 41% of Jewish voters in Florida, while Biden received 58%.
Jews have for years voted disproportionately for Democrats, but the Republican Party they faced in the past was one they recognized as welcoming: President George W. Bush defended Muslim Americans from the blame that some sought to attach to them for the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks; Trump has said they rejoiced and sought to ban Muslim entry into the county.
Bush instituted celebrations of diversity in his White House, welcoming African American artists and launching Jewish heritage month celebrations.
Trump has fortified his support among the Orthodox and the minority of Jews who vote Republican through his embrace of the right-wing agenda of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, by cutting off the Palestinians, by brokering normalization deals with some Arab states and leaving the Iran deal.
Orthodox Jews also embrace Trump for many of the same reasons non-Orthodox Jews reject him. For example, large Orthodox groups like the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America welcome Trump’s support of their “religious liberty” agenda, which seeks to exclude religious objectors from regulations like accommodating same-sex couples and supports government funding for parochial schooling.
Trump’s deviations from American norms drove Jewish thinkers who have long sought to hide their political affinities to speak out.
Trump says a signature achievement is returning Christianity to preeminence as an American religion and boasts of restoring a phrase never abandoned, “Merry Christmas.” When he cleared protesters from a space outside the White House and posed in front of a church holding a Bible, many Jews thought of it as opportunistic and insincere.
Even his pro-Israel stance is targeted at the Evangelical Christian community as much as it is as the Jews. And Trump’s appointment of conservative judges to the courts, including the Supreme Court, fulfills a wish list of Evangelical leaders who are looking overturning Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that legalised abortion. For liberal Jewish women’s groups like NCJW, abortion rights are non-negotiable.
Trump equivocated multiple times in condemning white supremacist violence. Although at times he condemned it forcefully, he often appeared impatient when asked to, seeming to calculate the political cost. Biden centered his campaign around Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn the deadly neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017.
Riding into office on Trump’s heels was Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Georgian who will be the first member of Congress who has expressed belief in the QAnon conspiracy theory, which is rich in anti-Semitism. Asked last month to condemn the fast-spreading fiction, Trump declined. Jewish groups groaned.
Trump’s abrasive rhetoric has tracked with the rise of bigoted violence, and Jewish voters noticed. In Pittsburgh, where two years ago a gunman spurred by the same anti-migrant myths peddled by Trump killed 11 worshippers at a synagogue, critical Jewish voters said his courting of nationalist extremists was a feature of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, not a bug. Groups like the American Jewish Committee that track anti-Semitism often hesitate to name Trump, but often note that hate and intolerance have risen in the same five years that began with Trump’s candidacy.
Bigotry is part of the political landscape now, said Matthew Falcone, the vice president of Temple Rodef Shalom, the stately century-old synagogue in Squirrel Hill, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where the shooting took place.
“It’s not just the heated rhetoric,” he said Tuesday after voting for Biden. “It’s the acts of violence.
The contrasts between the Republican Party Bush led from 2001 to 2009 and the one Trump is leading is stark. Bush cultivated Latino voters, and addressed them in his attempt at Spanish, earning unprecedented support from that community. Trump swore to keep Mexicans out with a wall, and tried hardly at all to distinguish between gang members and the migrants from Latin America seeking refuge or opportunity in the United States
Bush sought to enhance American power in the world, a factor that led to the Iraq war but one appreciated by Jews who believe that American intervention ended the mass murder of European Jews. Trump is retreating from the world, and has abandoned vulnerable allies such as the Kurds.
Most of the major Jewish rabbinic and defense groups have warned about the potentially devastating effects of climate change; on Wednesday, under Trump’s direction, the United States pulled out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change mitigation.
Trump’s deviations from American norms drove Jewish thinkers who have long sought to hide their political affinities to speak out. Abe Foxman, the former Anti-Defamation League national director who for decades made an art of finding something praiseworthy in every presidential candidate, openly endorsed Biden.
Wrote Foxman: “Trump’s presidency — in spirit and in deed — has given succor to bigots, supremacists, and those seeking to divide our society. He and his administration dehumanize immigrants, demonize the most vulnerable, and undermine the civility and enlightened political culture that have allowed Jews to achieve what no Diaspora community outside Israel can claim in two millennia.”