1. How Jewish Republicans learned to love Trump
Like most Americans, members of the Jewish community also joined this past week in prayer for the health of President Trump, who has contracted COVID-19 and was battling symptoms of the viral disease.
But for Jewish Republicans, the concern may have been greater. Not only is Trump the standard-bearer of their party and their political ideology, but he also has a unique political story of struggling—and succeeding—in winning over Jewish Republicans against all odds. And by doing so, Trump paved a new road for politically conservative Jewish Americans.
Trump, and this is no secret, was not Jewish Republicans’ first choice. Nor was he their second, third or fourth.
When the 2016 GOP primaries kicked off, Jewish Republicans, true to their core beliefs in an unconditional commitment to Israel’s security, which can only be delivered by deep engagement in the Middle East (alongside their true belief in lowering taxes), sided with candidates that fit this bill. Some went for Jeb Bush, hoping for another four years of the Bush family tradition. Others, especially on the Orthodox side, liked Ted Cruz. Some opted for Marco Rubio or John Kasich, and even Chris Christie had a small Jewish following. But hardly any Jewish Republicans aligned themselves with Trump. In fact, when the Republican Jewish Coalition convened their traditional candidates’ forum in 2015, Trump was viewed as comic relief, not a serious contender. (Although his comments, which were laced with anti-Semitic stereotypes, irked some in the crowd.)
But as the field narrowed, Jewish Republicans learned to take Trump seriously, and, eventually, developed a liking to him.
True, they had little choice. As Trump swept the party, Jewish conservatives were left with the choice to either leave—as some did, becoming leaders in the “never Trump” movement—or to fall in line.
But there was more to this relationship. It was a process driven by a candidate, and later a president, eager to satisfy his voters, and by Jewish Republicans, desperately seeking ways to accept their new party leader.
First came the issue of Israel.
It may have started as a political tactic, or as an attempt to demonstrate attentiveness to his top donor, Sheldon Adelson, who made clear his interest in seeing Trump adopt a pro-Israel policy in return for his generous support.
With no previous background or leaning on the issue, Trump adopted as-is the right-wing definition of being pro-Israel. He chose David Friedman and Jason Greenblatt as his advisers and let them formulate a worldview closer to that of the Likud and of Jewish hawks than any other Republican candidate in recent decades.
In a candid moment during a recent webinar with Jewish Republicans, former Senator Norm Coleman, chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), admitted that members of the group’s board didn’t love Trump at the beginning. What started the transition, he said, was meeting Greenblatt and hearing from him about Trump’s commitment to Israel. After the meeting, he recalled, the board was convinced.
Jewish Republicans liked what they were seeing, and even more so when Trump turned words into actions, with his decisions to relocate the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, to recognize the Golan Heights as a part of Israel, and to essentially cut all aid to the Palestinians and to shut down all channels of communications with them.
The process of accepting Trump could have gone smoothly from here, except for two nagging issues, one big, the other smaller.
The big one was anti-Semitism, Jewish Americans’ biggest concern, regardless of their political affiliation.
Trump presented a troubling record: The “very fine people, on both sides” comment after Charlottesville; his belated response to the wave of bomb scares to Jewish community centers; and a variety of occasions in which he ignored, refused to condemn or tacitly acknowledged white supremacists. Add to that a bunch of insensitive off-the-cuff comments that evoked long-standing anti-Semitic canards, one about Jews and money, and the other about the loyalty of American Jews to Israel, and you get a problematic record that could drive away any Jewish supporter.
But Jewish Republicans also saw steps that Trump has taken to counter anti-Semitism and deemed them sufficient.
As president, Trump closely tied fighting anti-Semitism with battling anti-Israel sentiments. He appointed an activist special envoy on anti-Semitism who gave the office a bigger role in combating anti-Israel expressions in America and signed an executive order expanding the definition of discrimination in federally-funded education institutions to allow Jewish students to take action against anti-Semitism and anti-Israel bias.
For most Jewish Republicans, these actions by Trump counter, and even outweigh, his troubling comments.
Then there’s the smaller problem Jewish voters tend to have with Trump: Is he a mensch? Or, in other words, how do you reconcile support for the president with his unpleasant style?
On this issue, Jewish Republicans followed the path of many other Trump supporters, arguing that what matters are his actions, not his words and that once you get to meet him, he’s actually a really nice guy. “Anybody who meets the president talks about his warmth,” Coleman said during the RJC webinar, noting that the president doesn’t always show his softer side. Boris Epshteyn, a former Trump aide who now heads outreach efforts to Jewish voters, responded to Coleman in their online conversation. “He’s positive, he’s kind, he’s also determined,” he said of Trump, trying to explain the president’s aggressiveness that came across in a pronounced manner during the presidential debate.
Jewish Republicans have gone through a long process in the past four years. At the end of it, they not only learned to accept Trump, but he became, in fact, their favorite candidate.
Will it matter in the polls in November?
This time around, it will be easier for Trump to win the support of Jewish Republicans. But electorally, their impact will be marginal, although in tight swing states, such as Florida, every vote can make a difference. Epshteyn believes there is still a “silent” Jewish vote for Trump, because “people are probably not giving their true positions” when polled. If he’s right, it may mean more Jews will vote for Trump than the polls suggest. It also could mean that Jews lie to pollsters, or that they’re ashamed of their support for Trump.
2. RJC buys ads in Florida, and Trump loves it
This doesn’t mean they’re not going to try.
The RJC launched a well-funded ad campaign in southern Florida, aimed primarily at Jewish voters. One ad claims that voting for Biden will bring to power the radical left, while the other praises Trump’s actions on Israel and against anti-Semitism and features the recent peace agreements signed, under Trump’s auspices, between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.
Trump seemed to like the ads, and retweeted about the RJC’s campaign.
3. Understanding Trump’s response to white supremacists
During last week’s presidential debate (which now feels like it took place years ago), Trump refused to condemn white supremacy.
This unleashed a huge uproar which led Trump to provide a clear condemnation a day later.
Here are a few points to look at when discussing the issue:
– It is not the first time the issue comes up during Trump’s presidency, and probably not the last. He has a clear record of being ambiguous on the issue.
– Trump, his supporters will note, has spoken out against white supremacists many times. They count at least 20.
– Trump critics say that had he not been ambiguous on the issue, there would be no need for going back to these questions time and again.
– There’s a lot of whataboutism in the Trump camp’s response whenever the president is attacked for not speaking out against extremists from the right. “What about Antifa?” is one common response. Jewish Trump supporters also usually throw in the accusation that “Black Lives Matter is anti-Semitic.” While these are all questions that can be discussed, tying them to each and every response on white supremacy is exactly what makes Trump’s response seem insincere.
4. Legislating arms sales
The U.S.-brokered accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, and the tacit promise it included to sell advanced American F-35 fighters to the UAE, is leading Congress to take action in an attempt to ensure these types of arms sales don’t put Israel in danger.
A bipartisan bill introduced last week requires the president to consult with Israel before any arms deal with a Middle Eastern country is signed.
It’s really unclear how far this bill will go, but it is noteworthy that it doesn’t only require consultation with the U.S. Congress (this requirement already exists in current legislation), but also with a foreign government, Israel, in this case.
5. Legislating Hezbollah
Republicans are attempting to advance new sanctions legislation targeting Hezbollah and international financial systems that work with the Lebanon-based group. While the bill is not expected to pass in this Congress, it does serve as a message to the administration, as the U.S. looks for ways to assist financially-broke Lebanon, while trying to make sure funds don’t reach Hezbollah.